The National, Spoon, the Tallest Man on Earth, and others brought down the house on the first day of the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival at Foster Farms, but that’s not why it was surprising that everything was still standing on Saturday morning.
The same storm that flattened buildings and downed power lines across the Twin Cities late Friday night had made the 90-mile journey to Eau Claire by about 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning, its accompanying downpour and too-close-for-comfort lightning strikes sending the campgrounds into a frenzy. The ground shaking and sky lit up, security staff warned festival-goers to evacuate their tents and seek shelter in the wooded Whispering Pines and Whispering Fields camping areas. Tornadoes were reported within five miles of the festival, while a fallen tree blocked cars from advancing on a nearby road.
About eight hours after everything had died down, you would’ve assumed Eaux Claires attendees had just enjoyed a perfect summer night in the wilderness. Save for a few muddy patches and excluding the areas surrounding the porta-potties and water fill-up stations, the grass was dry and the ground hard as the festival awaited the can’t-miss set of the weekend: Bon Iver’s live return after a nearly three-year hiatus.
There was still a full day of music to enjoy before Justin Vernon could close out his inaugural festival, though. Eau Claire musicians and Vernon collaborators Phil Cook (DeYarmond Edison, Gayngs) and S. Carey (Bon Iver) kicked off the two main stages for the day, while later on, two artists from considerably further locales — Louisianan indie-poppers Givers and Japanese noise-rockers Melt-Banana — displayed the national and international reach of the first-year festival.
Up on the hill in St. Coix Village, the National side project Lanzendorf played a surprise show for about 25 people in the tiny Channel geodome around 4 p.m. Featuring National bassist/drummer brother duo Scott and Bryan Devendorf and touring trombonist Ben Lanz, the five-piece played a single half-hour-long song that could’ve entranced the crowd for another 30 minutes.
Perhaps the most surprising inclusion on the Eaux Claires lineup were the Indigo Girls, those Lilith Fair torchbearers of “Closer to Fine” fame. It was later revealed this was simply Vernon living out a true rock 'n' roll fantasy — having your favorite band play your favorite album as your opening act. The duo’s 1994 platinum album, Swamp Ophelia, is Vernon’s go-to desert-island disc and was played in full on the Lake Eaux Lune stage Saturday evening.
Amy Ray and Emily Saeliers’ vocal harmonies sounded just as pristine on the stage as they do on record, especially on “Least Complicated” and “The Wood Song.” In keeping with the the exclusive nature of the festival, the front-to-back performance of Swamp Ophelia was a one-off for the band. Oh, the strings you can pull when you’re Justin Vernon.
For most, one of the biggest conflicts at Eaux Claires weren't between two bands playing at the same time on different stages. Rather, the most difficult of decisions involved seeing a rare festival set by indie-folk hero Sufjan Stevens on the Flambeaux stage or securing a decent view for Bon Iver’s headline show at Lake Eaux Lune almost immediately afterward.
Stevens completed his 13-song set with a little help from his friends, bringing the National’s Bryce Dessner to the stage for three songs and Dessner’s bandmate Bryan Devendorf up for two tunes, including the first airing of “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” since 2012. Elsewhere, the seven selections from Stevens’ acclaimed 2015 release Carrie & Lowell went over especially well with the packed crowd.
The special thing about Bon Iver’s set wasn’t just that this was the Vernon-led group’s first show since November 2012. Adding to the intrigue was a recent Grantland interview that suggested this could be the only Bon Iver sighting for the foreseeable future.
Although the 33-year-old Vernon seemed unsure about his future as Bon Iver in that piece, it didn’t stop him from premiering two new songs near the end of the set, neither of which he offered names for. This gig also saw the live premiere of another new-ish Bon Iver tune — “Heavenly Father,” which appeared on the soundtrack for 2014 Zach Braff film Wish I Was Here and kicked off Saturday night’s proceedings.
Tracks from Bon Iver’s two studio albums — 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago and 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver - dominated the setlist, with the For Emma tracks given a beefier live sound than the versions that appear on that mostly acoustic LP. Vernon stayed true to the quieter recorded arrangement for his “Skinny Love” finale, although the crowd quickly turned that fan favorite into a giant singalong.
The 90-minute set was packed with guests, including the Dessner brothers trading guitar licks on “Babys” (the lone cut played from 2009’s Blood Bank EP), the Staves offering otherwordly backup vocals on “Lump Sum,” “Skinny Love” and several others, and the No BS! Brass Band giving “Perth” all of its appropriate bombast. Considering his friendship and knack for collaborating with Vernon, the rumors of Kanye West making an appearance at his buddy’s festival were understandable, but unfortunately, didn’t come to fruition.
How many shows has Kanye played in the past three years, though? This was all about Bon Iver briefly emerging from that mythical cabin in the woods and then disappearing for no-one-knows-how-long.
“It’s been kind of weird to be me this weekend,” a talkative Vernon told the audience about halfway though the final set of the weekend. “Sometimes it feels like a dream.”
It’s safe to say that Eaux Claires felt like a dream for everyone in attendance, too. One that no one wanted to wake up from come Sunday morning.
Critic’s Bias: Put me in a small enclosure while two members of the National play music and it’s incredibly unlikely that I won’t love the sounds they’re making. It’s still sinking in how special that Bon Iver set was, although I really wish he would’ve played “RE: Stacks” or “Beth/Rest.”
Overheard in the Crowd: “Where’s Kanye?” about a dozen times during Bon Iver.