After an eventful night full of otherworldly lightning and torrential rains, the sunrise brought a pristine blue sky without a single cloud in sight and a forest full of campers ready and eager for the Day 2 lineup at Eaux Claires. Following a 30 minute workout with Jeff Rogers at the campground, I arrived at the festival around 2pm to the ethereal voice of S. Carey wafting in on the wind, his set with the UWEC Jazz Ensemble was one of the most talked about during the day.
Up at The Dells stage, the tent was already overflowing with people waiting to see Colin Stetson take the stage to perform his unique set. Watching him use his circular breathing techniques to sustain notes and using the keys of his sax as percussion is always a welcomed spectacle. Colin also debuted a few new songs that were just as impressive as the rest.
Carving out a niche under the tent to escape the heat, I stayed for Aero Flynn’s set. Front man Josh Scott’s band was one of the most anticipated, having hailed from Eau Claire, he was clearly one of the hometown favorites. The Aero Flynn record has easily maintained its spot as my favorite album of 2015 so far, and they certainly did not disappoint, as Josh Scott yelled out “Fuck art, let’s dance” to the crowd at the beginning of “Tree.” The song reached it’s crescendo as Scott sang “I got what you want” repeatedly, a gust of wind seemed to aid in the frenzy of the song, and transformed the crowd from spectators to revelers with fists pumping high into the air. Justin Vernon even ventured out on stage to sing with the band at one point, earning a ton of applause.
Next up was Japanese noise rock band Melt-Banana, who I was admittedly the most curious about. Their set was pure mayhem as Yasuko Oniki waved her midi controller about, punching in drum patterns as guitarist Ichirou Agata wailed on guitar. I did not expect the response that followed, but an all out mosh pit broke out in the crowd, with a few crowd surfers making their way to the front and being pulled over the barricade. A pair of women also somehow snuck into the photo pit and security let them stay there for the majority of the show. Looking around, it seemed people were either blissfully surprised by their set or completely put off, which delighted me to no end.
Slowing things down a bit later were Wisconsin band PHOX. With a beautiful and lush backdrop of the greenest woods that rivaled my campground, singer Monica Martin’s voice carried over the sound system just as pristine and gorgeous as it appears on their record. The band provided a fullness and richness to their sound that was absolutely perfect for helping us forget about the heat of the day, and to float away in the perfect daydream.
Taking a short break to walk around for a bit, I noticed a man sitting alone on the top of a hill. Below him a meadow of green stretched out quite a long way, and it made me smile to see everyone take full advantage of the beautiful natural scenery. I also decided to take a moment to check back in on Astronautalis inside his designated dome, where I found a man sprawled across one of the hay bales, listening to all of the confessions being amplified over the speakers, laughing hysterically at each word. Everywhere I turned it seemed people were finding various ways to enjoy themselves.
Walking back to The Dells, the crowd had grown to an enormous size, stretching back to the food tents and the tree lines. Sylvan Esso was the huge draw taking the stage, and I had to fight my way through a sea of people to get a good spot for the action. Having seen them a number of times in New York, I knew the combination of Amelia Meath’s powerhouse vocals and contortionist dance moves coupled with Nick Sanborn’s electronic beats and propensity to be the most amazing hype man would without a doubt be one of the festival favorites. I wasn’t wrong. Limbs were waved in the air each time Nick would stand at the edge of the stage and yell at the crowd. Amelia gyrated her way across the stage in cutoff shorts and the most amazing platform shoes that I would have surely broken my ankle in long ago. As a duo, they are completely in sync during their performance, and didn’t even lose the intensity of the crowd when they worked a few new songs into their set. If they have an opportunity to play the festival next year, I’m sure they will appear on the larger stage.
After sweating my body weight out dancing along, I decided to head back down to the Flambeaux stage to check out Sufjan Stevens. Having announced he doesn’t play festivals, I was excited for this to be my first opportunity to see him perform. Starting out with a tender, acoustic number was a genius move, as everyone settled in and took great appreciation in the art he displayed before us. His set was full of varying instrumentation, from synths, to guitar, and even to a recorder. His performance was filled with interesting textures and heartfelt, provocative lyrics and was the perfect choice of performer as the sun finally dipped below the horizon.
Finally at Lake Eaux Lune stage, the air was crackling with anticipation for Bon Iver’s set to begin. Crowds had begun to form hours before the band’s first performance in 3 years was set to begin. From where I stood in the middle of the crowd, even the air felt heavier with expectation. Glancing to my left, I saw a crescent moon take shape, and overhead stars shone brilliantly against the backdrop of the dark Wisconsin night sky. It was a moment of pure magic. Festival narrator Michael Perry took the stage again for what would be his last appearance of the night and left us with these words:
It’s good to have music near a river. There’s this idea of baptism. Of absolution. No matter what you believe. Better yet, it’s good to have music near a place where two rivers come together. A confluence. For what are we but a confluence—a confluence that lives and breathes, a confluence of dream and song, a confluence of 22,000 beating hearts.
And so here we are, cradled by a river in a sanctuary of sound.
On bended knee, seeking…benediction.
And there it was. In just a few short sentences, this wonderful man summed up the entirety of what we all felt at that moment, what we had been feeling for the entire festival. I shed an unapologetic tear.
Justin Vernon’s voice rang out from a pitch-black stage on “Heavenly Father,” and a chorus of harmonies filled the air around us. It was The Staves. Bon Iver had evolved into something bigger since the last time I had heard them and it was sublime. Each song played morphed into something more amazing since the last time I heard it. Guests came out to contribute fast and furiously. Josh Scott singing on “Blindsided, ” yMusic added instrumentation on “Baby’s,” as well as Colin Stetson on “Brackett, WI, ” and No BS! Brass Band on “For Emma.” This wasn’t the Bon Iver setlist I’d heard so many times before. These were the deeper cuts that usually get played for crowds that appreciate it. When Justin paused the final time to introduce the second of two new songs that night, he wound up getting slightly choked up, wiping tears away just as unapologetically as I had during the start of the show. “This is the one time that I think I know what to say. This is maybe all I can know, or sum up, is that there’s a lot of things that happen in the world that are hard to understand or for us to connect with; there’s a lot of question marks about what’s going on, what we’re supposed to be doing, how we’re supposed to act in this lifetime, but I just think that if you don’t have friendship, you don’t have anything…”
And in those few endearing moments, I realized what he said was absolutely true. He had this idea so long ago to build this festival, and his friends – artists, musicians, writers, directors – all stood by him and helped him see his vision through to fruition. “If you build it, they will come” is what I immediately thought of when this festival was first announced, and for so many people to buy into the idea of this festival, and trust in Justin, Michael and Aaron’s judgment and artistic integrity without even seeing a lineup or blueprint of what was to come was nothing short of an enormous accomplishment. The atmosphere of this festival is something that I think could have only been prosperous in Eau Claire, solely because of the roots and deep connection that Justin has to this land and its people. I’ve said before that Eaux Claires is a festival with heart. Its heart just got 22,000 times bigger. Let’s see how much bigger it will grow next year.
Article: Lesley Keller