Justin Vernon has helped craft the Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival into a sublime confluence of the musical influences and natural surroundings that have shaped the sound of Bon Iver.
From the artfully embellished grounds to the expertly curated bands that filled the stages, along with the benevolent spirit of collaboration that coursed through the entire weekend, Eaux Claires is Bon Iver’s ethos writ large, for the entire world to see and hear.
It also serves as an annual love letter to the city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, itself, as a way for Vernon and his longtime creative cohorts -- many of whom help him organize, run, and perform at the festival -- to thank the city for always being a special place to come home to.
For Friday and Saturday's second iteration of Eaux Claires, Vernon offered up a truly special gift to fans making the trek to Chippewa Valley: the premiere of his long-awaited new album, 22, A Million, played from start to finish. While that unique performance got the majority of the headlines from the indie-rock world, there were indelible moments to be found everywhere you turned during the two-day festival at Foster Farms.
Friday, August 12
What Worked Best
Vernon’s bold decision to premiere his new album at the festival encouraged other artists to share their own new material during their sets, adding a thrilling vitality to the performances and the fresh new songs themselves.
Richard Reed Parry’s (Arcade Fire) set was filled with textured, expansive new tunes (where he was joined by the festival’s co-curator, the National’s Aaron Dessner); yMusic and the Staves shared delicate, gorgeous new pieces that were written within the last two weeks; and Lisa Hannigan offered up her lovely, just-released At Swim material, assisted by the album’s producer Aaron Dessner (who was quite busy all weekend long).
Sharing brand-new, unheard material in front of an audience is a daunting endeavor, but Vernon and all the other performers placed a lot of trust in the fans assembled at Eaux Claires. It's precisely the type of environment that would nurture their intimate musical communion.
And that bond was entirely justified. Each new song that took flight during the festival made the experience that much more distinctive and memorable, while bringing fans one step closer to the creative process that brought that music to life.
What Could Only Happen at Eaux Claires
Music festivals try desperately to cater to fans of all tastes, but each summer it seems the same series of bands take the top billing of festivals from coast to coast.
While Eaux Claires lacks some of the big names and massive draws of its counterparts, the refined lineup it assembled allowed for music lovers of any genre to see plenty of acts they adore in a gorgeous, forest-lined setting. At the same time, even the most avid music fans were introduced to unfamiliar artists worthy of discovery.
The slow-burning guitar-fueled jams of Phosphorescent (who threw in an uplifting cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” amid a Muchacho-heavy set) complemented the hushed elegance of yMusic and the Staves that immediately followed.
That gave way to Vince Staples setting the afternoon off with his brazen raps and towering beats drawn from Summertime ’06. Everyone then cooled things down a bit as Bruce Hornsby ran through The Way It Is (an album that led to him winning the Best New Artist Grammy in 1987) in its entirety, complete with a fitting version of “Mandolin Rain” while the clouds opened up.
The thunderous dark metal of Deafheaven went down right next to Sarah Neufeld’s performance at The Banks, a small, domed live setting where performers play behind a cubed scrim while the audience don headphones, allowing for a more immersive listening experience.
The stylistic polarity of all these performances may seem awkward and abrasive on paper. But in a live setting they all seemed interconnected, with threads of musicality linking the familiar sounds from the past to the fitful, ever-changing present.
If the main acts weren’t your thing, there were nature-inspired works of art along the pathway leading through the woods, as well as inspired work found all over the festival grounds. Readings took place in a literary lighthouse installation; chamber music from Bryce Dessner, Steve Reich, and Bonnie “Prince” Billy were brought to life with Eighth Blackbird; S. Carey played intimate pop-up shows; and the ghostly baroque pipe organ installation serenaded the grounds between sets on the big stages.
What Everyone Came to See
Bon Iver’s set was clearly the biggest draw of the festival, but the performances immediately before -- U.K. electro wizard James Blake -- and after -- Cornelius’ first U.S. show in eight years, playing Fantasma front-to-back -- all added to the singular quality featured at the end of Day One.
Blake played in the heaviest of the early-evening rain. It only added to the mood and atmospherics of his music, as the towering beats of the trio and Blake’s plaintive falsetto drenched the crowd along with the rejuvenating summer rainfall. Cornelius’ rare Stateside appearance ended the evening with a sonic jolt, as the Japanese legend brought the experimental electronic classics from 1997’s Fantasma to vibrant life along with his live quartet.
Of course, this night was always going to belong to Justin Vernon. And following an affectionate benediction by writer Michael Perry, the stage was all Vernon’s, as he sat behind a keyboard and eased his way into 22, A Million’s spare opening track, “22 (OVER S∞∞N).” “Where you gonna look for confirmation,” Vernon poses in the track’s opening lines, but all he needed to do to find approval for his glorious new songs was look out at the vast crowd assembled on Foster Farms listening in stunned silence. We were all witnessing A Moment here.
The 10 electro-tinged, horn-heavy new songs rushed by quickly, with Vernon only pausing to address the crowd following “29 #Strafford APTS” to say, “So that’s the end of Side A.” The adventurous new material pulsed with a bold urgency, as if the songs were just waiting to be unleashed to a live audience. They arrived fully formed, tightly wound, and well rehearsed, injected with the self-assurance of an artist who knows he is sharing his very best work with his fans and his friends.
As soon as Vernon and the band -- which swelled to well over 10 members whenever the Sad Sax of Shit horn section joined in -- started a song, track names were sent out to attendees via push notifications from the Eaux Claires app.
This was a decidedly modern way to introduce your fanbase to your new music, and it was one that perfectly suited the relentlessly futuristic sound and bold direction of the new music. There are plenty of sonic imprints from experimental Twin Cities crew Marijuana Deathsquads in Vernon’s new songs, with some Mingus and Springsteen mixed in for good measure. He is clearly an artist who has moved well beyond the aching, mostly acoustic, minimalist songs of his early days.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone who’s in this fucking place,” Vernon said affectionately, his voice cracking with emotion following the tender crush of the album’s stunning penultimate track, “____45_____.” Sharing the new album appeared to unburden Vernon a bit.
And during the four-song encore, featuring reworkings of past material (“I made a short album, so we’ve got to play some old stuff” Vernon joked), the band showed that their fresh new direction was also going to influence how they process Justin’s earlier work. The entire Bon Iver discography was given new twists by contributions from the Staves (“Beach Baby”) and Bruce Hornsby (“Beth/Rest”), while “Minnesota, WI” had an extended Kid A-like intro and “Creature Fear’ exploded in a Mogwai-esque guitar squall coda.
“It might be over soon,” Vernon warns on “22 (OVER S∞∞N).” And indeed, this monumental performance finished well before anyone was ready for it to end. But the poignant weight of Vernon’s new songs lingered in the air of the Chippewa Valley long after we left the festival grounds.
Saturday, August 13
What Worked Best
The collaborative spirit that permeated the entire festival was on full display on Day Two, as Mavis Staples brought some soulful R&B to the sun-drenched Wisconsin afternoon. She got help from Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, who added backing vocals on covers of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” and the Band’s “The Weight.”
Jenny Lewis’ shimmering Americana pop was also given the guest treatment, as the ubiquitous Staves joined her on “Rise Up With Fists!!,” before the ladies from Lucius joined them all for stirring versions of “The Voyager” and “Acid Tongue.”
These one-of-a-kind collaborations not only added another creative layer to the songs themselves, but also reinforced the sense of community that extended from the stage to the audience, as well as toward the good-natured folks working at the festival.
The collaborations didn’t end there, either, as Megafaun’s Phil Cook and the Guitarheels were joined by their friend Justin Vernon for a cover of Paul Pena’s “Gonna Move” (along with Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath) and the gospel standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Hornsby even joined Cook, adding some piano to covers of George Jones and the Allman Brothers.
What Could Only Happen At Eaux Claires
In addition to the singular collaborations, only Eaux Claires would tempt festivalgoers who are lukewarm on the Grateful Dead with a performance by sludge-metal stalwarts Melvins happening at the same time as the big Day of the Dead tribute. Those who needed a sonic kick that Dead covers couldn’t provide trudged up the forest path to see King Buzzo and the band bring some grungy potency to the early afternoon.
Twin Cities soul man Har Mar Superstar drew one of the biggest crowds of the day. His set started a soulful party that culminated with a glorious, affectionate tribute to Prince during a cover of “When You Were Mine.” That same stage also hosted a massive crowd for Francis and the Lights, who premiered his hotly anticipated new album, Farewell, Starlite!, as the festival drew to a close.
The big stage and spotlight overwhelmed the young performer at first, though his set eventually found a spark, as well as guests Vernon and Chance the Rapper, who both joined him for Francis' "Friends" and Chance's “Summer Friends.” It was yet another unique, memorable moment that brought the fest to a stylish close.
What Everyone Came To See
The Day of the Dead performance was a definite creative centerpiece of the festival. It’s the current charity album project of Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and the guest stars on that record reflected many of the music bookings at Eaux Claires itself (this was the only planned live rendition of these songs the Dessner brothers and Co. have planned).
It was nice to see stars from Day One stick around for the festivities, as Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck sang “Sugaree” (with Jenny Lewis) and “Standing on the Moon." Richard Reed Parry chimed in on “Brokedown Palace” (joined by Little Scream, Lisa Hannigan, and Sam Amidon) while Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Will Oldham delivered three numbers -- “Bird Song,” “If I Had the World To Give,” and “Rubin and Cherise.”
“This is like band camp for adults,” joked Aaron Dessner, as he continued to announce special guests to the stage, joining the core band of Aaron, Bryce, and their National bandmates Scott and Bryan Devendorf, along with Josh Kaufman and Walter Martin.
Jenny Lewis and Moses Sumney did “Cassidy,” Lucius sang “Uncle John’s Band,” Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson and the Staves tackled “Shakedown Street. Vernon himself joined in the fun for an expansive and emotional version of “Black Muddy River” with Hornsby and Cook.
The National's frontman, Matt Berninger, made his first appearance of the weekend to lead Day of the Dead through a haunting version of “Morning Dew,” before the set closed with a big singalong on “Ripple.” Hopefully, seeing these indie stars affectionate reworkings of these classics give fans an added appreciation of the music of the Grateful Dead, while this set certainly brought back fond memories for longtime Deadheads.
But there was still so much more to come on this Saturday at Eaux Claires, as the ever-present Lucius delivered a rousing main set of their own (complete with a guest appearance by My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova).
Erykah Badu’s rare Upper Midwest appearance was plagued by technical issues that delayed the start of the set, followed by a prolonged 15-minute jam session by her backup band (including an unfortunate drum solo before the star of the show even set foot on stage).
By the time Badu arrived, she was 40 minutes late, and the show was slow to find momentum. Once the self-proclaimed “Rasta style flower child” shook off her Basquiat-adorned leather jacket and loosened up a bit, her smoldering vocals and dynamic stage presence saved the show.
Other than the Vince Staples/Deafheaven conflict from day one, the only other sets that clashed during the well-paced festival was Beach House and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, who both played at the same time late on Saturday night.
Beach House won out, and their bewitching set proved to be one of the highlights of the fest. Their intoxicating, ethereal sound has taken on a fierce edge as of late, with vocalist Victoria Legrand throwing off her hooded cape to headbang on “Wishes,” while “Elegy to the Void” erupted in a squall of guitar feedback and flashing strobe lights, ending the set with a flourish. On a day that was focused on the Dead, Beach House’s sonic sorcery brought the festival to a beguiling close.
Critic’s Bias: As much as I loved Bon Iver’s special performance, James Blake and Beach House put on my favorite sets of the weekend. Shabazz Palaces and yMusic’s set in The Banks (playing compositions by Sufjan Stevens and Son Lux) also deserve special mention, even though I didn’t work their sets into my review. They were both phenomenal.
I missed Eaux Claires last year due to a family commitment, and after hearing all the rave reviews of the festival from my friends I couldn’t wait to attend for myself and see if it lived up to the hype. And it did. This was the best music festival experience that I have ever had. Thank you, Eaux Claires. As long as you keep putting on a festival, I’ll keep coming.