After the previous night’s campground festivities, I was a bit slow to wake up, if you call 10am slow that is. After months of waiting I was so eager to finally get to the gates and see what this festival had to offer.
As the temperature hovered near 90, hoards of fans that were waiting in line for over an hour were finally let through the gates, and were immediately awed by local artist Hottea’s installation of multi-colored strings of yarn hanging from what looked like chicken wire that seemed to sway in the breeze and change color from different angles.
Once inside I made my way to the merch line, which was already quite long and full of people brimming with excitement to get their hands on some of Ambient Ink’s best work. Colorful posters for Tallest Man on Earth, Bon Iver, The National, and The Staves, to name only a few were printed in limited quantities and were flying off the shelves. T-shirts, hoodies, beer koozies and even record player slipmats emblazoned with the festival logo were also going quickly. As I looked around the ground, the corporate branding was minimal to non-existent. In its place, the Eaux Claires logo in all it’s no frills, black and white glory was a steadfast reminder that this festival was all art and music, without any of the bullshit.
Walking past the Flambeaux stage, I was just in time for Hiss Golden Messenger’s performance. Having seen him play weeks ago in NYC, his performance brought tons of fans to the rail to get up close and personal with his brand of American folk music. His unique voice was the perfect start to a long day of music with integrity and backbone.
Venturing off to the side there was a small opening into the woods that led to a 9 minute hike up a hill and opened to another sprawling lush area that housed what I called “the more experimental” stage, The Dells, as well as 3 geodesic domes. Racing to the stage, I was greeted by Field Report. I’ve also seen them on more that one occasion and they never disappoint, which Chris Porterfield’s imaginative vocals and the band’s super tight instrumentation.
Stopping into all 3 of the domes was an out of body experience in more ways that one. Due to the incessant heat, it was sweltering inside each one but that didn’t stop revelers from visiting a red and white robe clad Astronautalis inside a full confessional. In the weeks leading up to the festival, Astronautalis and Eaux Claires took to their Instagram accounts to urge everyone call and confess their sins. These same confessions were played inside the dome, with Astronautalis giving feedback, and inviting people to take a number from the table to wait in line to get their souls saved on the spot. Every now and then he’d emerge from his little booth to preach to everyone a bit and was one of my favorite things inside the domes.
The second dome housed a wall of monitors, the one in the middle stamped with the Eaux Claires logo, and the surrounding ones bathed in different colors of varying distortion and disarray. The sounds pumped out of the speakers were controlled by a console on the table that anyone could come up and play with at any time. Throughout the festival, there were impromptu performances in this dome, including a collaboration between Chris Rosenau on acoustic guitar, and Nick Sanborn cranking out electronic beats by way of a sampler and his laptop.
The final dome was purely a performance space, with a small stage enclosed within a cube of translucent fabric that had various images projected onto it while bands played inside. People were also given headphones to enhance their experience. I managed to catch Grandma Sparrow inside this area before the day was done.
A short walk back down the hill, I stopped by the Volume One store inside a small alcove full of other vendors offering handmade goods and locally made trinkets that I found refreshing. Tons of shirts, hats, cups, candles, soaps, and books, all from local artists that were all well made and fairly priced. Handmade flower crowns were also for sale in case you were wondering.
On the Lake Eaux Lune stage, The Staves were winning the midwestern crowd over with flawless harmonies that seemed to float out over the entire audience and make us all forget about the heat for a while. Having spent a fair amount of time at Justin Vernon’s April Base home studio recording their latest album, they were no strangers to the area, easily at home on the stage.
Hip-hop group Doomtree stormed the Flambeaux stage and delivered a blistering set. Dessa, Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S., Lazerbeak, Paper Tiger, and Sims commanded every inch of the stage and had one of the raucous crowds on Friday.
Back at The Dells, Justin’s father, Gil Vernon, heartily introduced the Grammy award winning Blind Boys of Alabama to a healthy round of applause and an audience bursting at the seams to hear them sing the first note. Jimmy Carter spent a few minutes warming up the crowd and had everyone eating out of the palm of his hand and bowled over by his charismatic personality and stage presence.
At Lake Eaux Lune, Spoon wowed the crowd, with energetic antics from lead singer Britt Daniel. We were even treated to a dancing Har Mar Superstar, who emerged from side stage in a t-shirt that said “wake up, jerk off, cry” and a bright red fanny pack. Always a good time.
For those who weren’t trying to secure a front row spot at the Lake Eaux Lune for The National, just across the way, The Tallest Man on Earth took the stage in front of the setting sun and a sea of people eager to hear whatever he had to offer. Taking time to thank the crowd for showing up, and his friend and festival founder Justin Vernon for urging him to continue pursuing music, his set was probably the highlight of my Friday evening. What Kristian Matsson lacks in height, he makes up by darting across every inch of the stage, and throwing down some of the best songwriting and guitar playing since Dylan.
After a short and fittingly poetic intro from Michael Perry, “the river right behind you, the music…right in front of you,” The National appeared seemingly out of nowhere from the fog onstage. Matt leaned into his mic stand and proceeded to forget some of the lyrics to the very first song, prompting a do-over that redeemed the band in full. The flub didn’t mar the nearly 2-hour performance, with special guests Justin Vernon and Sufjan Stevens joining in on vocals for a few songs. Crowd favorites “Sorrow,” “About Today”, “Peggy-O,” “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” all found their way into the setlist, coupled with a jawdropping, stunning visual display behind them for the entire show. Even No BS Brass Band found their way onstage to lend their talents to a few songs, culminating in a powerful and fitting end as Matt threw his mic down to the floor for the umpteenth time.
After The National, I swung by Flambeaux to see Francis and The Lights dance his ass off. The crowd he amassed wasn’t substantial enough for this man’s talent, but he was definitely the surprise performance of the day for me. Some sound issues aside which weren’t his fault, I welcome the chance to see him again.
While waves of fans made their way home or back to camp, I headed up to the Dells to catch Marijuana Deathsquads begin their midnight set. Walking through the forest up the hill, the tall branches and boughs were illuminated by hues of purple, pink, blue and violet lights. Off in the distance through winding pathways, there were other things to explore but I passed on that adventure due to my aforementioned aversion to ticks and Lyme disease. Finally back at the stage, shrouded mostly in darkness, Isaac Gale’s distorted vocals over pulsating, electronic beats, while Ryan Olson tapped on his laptop, aiding in those electronic flourishes.
Despite trekking up and down that monster of a hill all day in 90 temps, it was well worth it. The overall vibe of the festival was pleasant and positive, with people overlooking small issues of long food lines and often times not enough signs to point people in the right direction. The festival’s creative director, Michael Brown, put every inch of effort into every minute detail and it showed. This is a music lover’s festival, plain and simple. The quality of each artist and band that took the stage was unsurpassed, with no “filler” acts to be seen on the lineup, and this was just Day 1. For me, The Tallest Man on Earth, Field Report and The National were worth the price of my entire festival ticket. It was easily apparent to me, this was a festival with heart, artistic integrity, and fortitude; to forge such a well organized festival, which to most seems like the “middle of nowhere,” putting Eau Claire, Wisconsin on the map as a true destination for quality music and performance. It was refreshing to see people truly enjoying the music, not passed out in the grass for doing too much of whatever drugs to even enjoy the first set of the day. I felt like this first Eaux Claires could be the start of something great; dare I say it… “pure.” Stay tuned for my thoughts and photos of Day 2 of Eaux Claires.
Article: Lesley Keller