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Eaux Claires IV: More like a family reunion than a showcase for superstars

Sharon Van Etten performing on the fantastical Flambeaux stage.

Sharon Van Etten performing on the fantastical Flambeaux stage. Darin Kamnetz

The phrase “Thanksgiving in the summer” figured prominently into the merchandising at western Wisconsin’s Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival this weekend.

But for those in attendance, it was really more like Christmas in July. Whether Santa checked off every item on your list or left you with a lump of coal depended on your musical preferences, though.

For the fourth iteration of the boutique festival located about 90 miles west of the Twin Cities, organizers Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of the National went with an unprecedentedly bold approach for an event that lost money in its second and third years: The lineup and schedule for two full days of music weren’t released until gates opened Friday afternoon. This meant that festivalgoers were going in both blind and significantly lighter in the wallet, as the final tier of face-value general admission passes cost $199 plus fees and campsites went for $165, not to mention all of the additional expenses inherent to attending a multi-day festival.

The 2017 version of Eaux Claires boasted heavy-hitters like Paul Simon, Chance the Rapper, and Wilco, so it was only natural that months of lineup speculation based on tweets by Vernon himself and hints hidden in official podcasts and Instagram posts would lead to predictions outdoing reality. Heavily rumored acts like Patti Smith, Sufjan Stevens, and an encore by Chance were nowhere to be found on either the official lineup or the list of “artists in residence.”

However, the lineup that was finally pushed to Eaux Claires’ smartphone app at 1 p.m. Friday offered a strong mix of repeat acts from previous years—the National, Francis & the Lights, Low, Vernon and Dessner’s Big Red Machine collaboration—and newcomers to the festival like headline-making Russian punks Pussy Riot, indie favorites Dirty Projectors, and up-and-coming singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker.

Rare guest appearances and collaborations have become two of Eaux Claires’ main calling cards over the past four years. For instance, whether or not the Eaux Claires faithful were familiar with the music of 24-year-old Bridgers and 22-year-old Baker (the artists behind two of 2017’s best albums in Stranger in the Alps and Turn Out the Lights, respectively) on Friday morning, they could pick out the voices of each from a lineup by Saturday night.

In addition to Baker’s day-one turn on the Lake Eaux Lune main stage and Bridgers’ show the next day on the in-the-round Flambeaux, both popped up for surprise guest turns elsewhere throughout the festival. Most notably, the former emerged on a satellite stage in the middle of the Flambeaux crowd to accompany the National on “Fake Empire,” and the latter gave a gorgeous rendition of Tom Petty’s “It’ll All Work Out” during the Vernon-led “PEOPLE Mix Tape” set that closed the main stage Saturday.

That revolving-door headlining spot was born of another Vernon-Dessner joint, the brand-new PEOPLE music platform and its accompanying Berlin festival scheduled for next month. Artists such as S. Carey, Spank Rock, and Francis & the Lights all figured heavily into the set, which featured a cover of the Band’s “I Shall Be Released” and an airing of the Bon Iver rarity “89.”

Other PEOPLE-affiliated artists peppered the festival’s peripheries with unique performances on unique stages, such as when Baker and Australian folktronica artist Gordi used everything from the stairs to the walls of a temporary shelter known as Music Box Village to conjure sounds, or when Dessner’s twin brother and fellow National guitarist Bryce debuted an original piece that simultaneously triggered melodies from the 120 aluminum chimes surrounding him at the Player-Fence Deux stage in the middle of the woods.

Meanwhile, the tiny Oxbeaux stage featured acoustic appearances by Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth and Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, and the Jannette and Trees stages played host to intimate sets by Icelandic singer Kristin Anna Valtysdottir, the Dessners’ bluegrass-y Red Bird Hollow project, and Poliça’s Channy Leaneagh, Chris Bierden, and Drew Christopherson,

The Dessner twins’ show with the National was anything but intimate, attracting perhaps the biggest crowd of the weekend, but it was no less special. The Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati critical darlings, fresh off a Grammy win for last year’s Sleep Well Beast, treated Eaux Claires to the world debuts of two new songs, “Quiet Light” and “So Far So Fast,” in addition to Sleep Well standouts like “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Carin at the Liquor Store” (featuring stunning harmonies by Minneapolis singer Chastity Brown) and fan favorites such as “About Today” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.”

Christmas, Thanksgiving, whatever. It was wonderful to have the Vernon-Dessner clan and all of their relatives back together again.

See our complete photo gallery of the two-day event here.