“Those balloons are kind of pissing me off.”
Midway through a tribute set to the great singer-songwriter John Prine, Justin Vernon glowered from the stage with the (presumably feigned) irascibility of a middle-school vice principal as crowd members began lazily batting the small pink targets of his ire above their heads: “Kids, it's not really a balloon show.”
Vernon got that right. Vernon -- and the two-day Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival that he's spurred into being -- got most things right this past weekend.
That began with establishing a sense of place. To reach the festival grounds, you wind down through the woods along a dusty (soon to be muddy) path, through cottonwood fluff as dense as winter flurries, to the grassy bowl of a secluded field that's encircled with trees. Even the low-looming clouds, which had festivalgoers checking weather apps they were unlikely to consistently access unless they'd sprung for the paid onsite wi-fi service, not only added visual drama, but gave the impression of containing us within an atmospheric dome, just as the eventual storms (one each day) created a drenched camaraderie.
Now in its third year, Eaux Claires is partly a summer camp for established indie(ish) musicians, who bop between stages and interact with one another in unique configurations that often involve Vernon himself. This year's installment was decidedly Wilco-centric, with members of the band performing in multiple permutations before closing the event as a unit, and it displayed a smart, varied taste in hip-hop, with the aspirational Chance the Rapper triumphantly closing night one and the dirty-minded Danny Brown spewing x-rated brilliance on day two. But though Eaux Claires celebrates musicians as collaborative peers, at its center this year were celebrations of two honored elders: John Prine and Paul Simon.
Vernon served as ringleader for the Prine tribute on Friday, starting with a solo acoustic turn on “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” then calling out one “good friend” (his words) after another to join him. Phil Cook rocking the hell out of “Please Don't Bury Me” was a highlight, and lewd Baltimore rapper Spank Rock uncorking a pitch perfect Prine impression while Amanda Blank came just as close to Iris DeMent's part on “In Spite of Ourselves” was a big surprise. But the surprises were to get bigger: Midway through Jeff Tweedy's take on “Sam Stone,” the great soul eccentric Swamp Dogg, resplendent in a canary yellow suit, emerged to take over the song, which he'd recorded nearly a decade before Vernon was born, contributing an impassioned sermon against our neglect of veterans.
All this was an extended prelude to the appearance of Prine himself, who came out in dark suit and bolo tie, glowing with benign seniority, just as a thunderclap announced the weekend's first downpour. Even someone who had come to the festival largely to see Prine, someone who didn't bring rain gear to Eau Claire, someone who found the local Shopko all sold out of ponchos, someone who was forced to run for cover shortly after Prine began “Storm Windows” and caught only the closing strains of “Lake Marie” -- well, let me just say that even this (purely hypothetical) person wasn't disappointed in the Prine tribute.
Paul Simon's set, the following afternoon, wasn't interrupted by rain, though it was delayed. Where Prine was wistful, Simon was autumnal. His onetime chirp now darkened and more frail, Simon sang some of his most familiar Simon & Garfunkel material, beginning with “America” and closing with “The Sound of Silence,” as sentimental throngs swayed drunkenly, arms slung across one another's shoulders. Simon seemed to be paying tribute to his younger self, or maybe saying goodbye to it, and the intricate string and woodwind arrangements, performed by the yMusic ensemble, didn't so much reimagine these oldies as dress them to be sent off to sea in burning Viking burial ships.
Prine and Simon are songwriters before they are musicians, which distinguished them somewhat from the festival's spirit. Experimental sets dominated the smaller stages, often meandering and shapeless but satisfying in those moments where musical minds met, and an intriguing peek behind the creative scenes throughout. A typical Eaux Claires moment: Vernon and co-organizer Aaron Dessner of the National jamming as Big Red Machine, while across the field a pick-up group of upper Midwestern improvisers, including JT Bates and Michael Lewis, supported the precise pop of last-minute addition Jenny Lewis.
In fitting with the festival's mood, the art installations were playful but not twee. The great Andy DuCett, who cleverly tweaks artifacts of suburban Americana, contributed the “Mom Booth,” a simulated log cabin, stocked with board games and fake Campbell's soup cans, where actual mothers offered advice and comfort, as well bug spray and tampons. In the deepest part of the woods, the art got weirder and sometimes creepier: At one installation, unseen individuals, encased in lavender comforters, jerked around with disturbing spasms that gave claustrophobes itches and haunted the dreams of campers.
A festival like this was built for wandering and sampling, so you might encounter Happy Apple under a shady gazebo wending a Latin rhythm over some out-there sax, or the Staves in a clearing harmonizing on Paul Simon tunes, or Andrew Broder on the DJ stage, deep in the woods, dedicating a grinding electronic set to Philando Castile.
The Yanez verdict came down early on the first day of the festival, though sporadic internet access meant the news filtered through the crowd by old-fashioned word of mouth. Early on day two, Minneapolis alt-rapper Astronautalis broached the subject ("I woke up this morning thinking about Philando") and over at Escape, a tiny house where you gathered at a kitchen table to hear author readings, slam poet Guante injected a bit of reality with his work “Police Make the Best Poets.” But mostly the latest news of rank injustice from Minnesota only heightened the festival's sense of seclusion. While protesters occupied the streets of St. Paul, here we were, a not exclusively but still considerably white throng, gathered for a much different reason, where a thunderstorm or a stray frisbee were the greatest threats to our comfort. Sometimes the metaphors just write themselves.
Still, Saturday's programming meant you couldn't ignore race entirely. The two main stages, set up on opposite ends of the field, displayed ping-ponging sensibilities throughout day two. Oblivious seven-year-olds bounced around obliviously to brash electrobeats as Spank Rock chanted, “I just want to make you cum,” and not long after, across the way, Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius offered a far different performance of gender, effusive and queer, in an open white blouse that fell from shapely shoulders as he writhed. After Feist, in a hot pink dress that cut through the gray day, premiered her first new album in six years, Pleasure, with increased guitar clang and attitude and unspooling extended verses, Danny Brown's weapons-grade bass blasts and shrill motormouth did battle with the weekend's second storm.
Fearing worse was yet to come, the event organizers accelerated the schedule, cancelling sets on the smaller stages. But the storms held off long enough for Wilco to close the event with what, after two days of mix-and-match combos and instrumental experimentation, seemed a strange occurrence: a traightforward set of songs from a band's regular lineup – no special guests, no curveballs. Even Chance the Rapper, the first night's closer, who performed an exuberant set very similar to what he offered at the Xcel last month, had brought out Francis (from Francis and the Lights) and Justin Vernon for an elaborately choreographed dance number.
But Wilco's members had been scattered throughout the event. Jeff Tweedy had performed with his son Spencer (as Tweedy) with Vernon, Phil Cook, and others joining on “California Stars.” There had been guitarist Nels Cline's duo with his wife Yuka Honda (of Cibo Matto) as Cup, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone as the Autumn Defense, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen in Quindar, and drummer Glenn Kotche with Bon Iver's S. Carey. To hear Wilco gathered back together as a unit offered a fitting sense that the temporary state of play Eaux Claires had allowed us to indulge had ended. Everything was back to normal -- but normal was just slightly different than it had been two days before.