For me, returning to the banks of the Chippewa feels like I’ve returned home. While I am a New Yorker to the core, there’s something about the Midwest that keeps me coming back time and time again. The lush greenery of the space, the crisp clean air, the people that kindly smile my way for absolutely no reason at all, and yes, the music… Eaux Claires became my favorite music festival in its inaugural year, and has managed to win my heart again this year for many of the same reasons, and a few new ones as well.
Day 1 of the festival hung heavy with the promise of hearing all new music from Bon Iver, Justin Vernon’s well-storied and lauded project that propelled his name outside the confines of the small town of Eau Claire. Pockets of people spread throughout the lush grounds of Foster Farms buzzed about the new direction of the music, as well as speculation if the album would be available for purchase. While the guessing games were fun, I was more compelled to live in the moment, and enjoy every inch of the space and the bands scheduled to perform that day.
So Percussion started things off on the Lake Eaux Lune stage, and while the smaller Flambeaux stage was being prepared, I wandered around and took a look at the massive amount of merch available for sale. Throngs of people decked out in their best Eaux Claires gear from last year were already looking to replenish their wardrobe with the new and artfully designed pieces. The layout of the space was also redesigned as well, with a relocated Chippewa area, which was a welcomed respite during the heat of the day and proved to be only place to get your hands on a Chef-designed menu of sandwiches, wraps, salads and massive amounts of barbecued meats.
Off in the woods there were various trails lit by differing shades of neon lights that led to works of art, or a special wooden stage; more on that later. A bit further up the hill lead to a large meadow. Gone were the white domes from last year, replaced by 3 stages – The Kills, The Dells, and The Banks. Watching Andrew Fitzpatrick’s electronic music offerings inside The Banks, with ample amounts of air conditioning, was the perfect way to ease into a day full of fantastic music. Same as last year, the attention to every single detail was staggering. They took every opportunity to revamp and improve, and it did not go unnoticed.
At 2:45pm, Lisa Hannigan began her set with help from Aaron Dessner a short time later off on The Kills stage. Amping up the crowd by ripping her “artist” wristband off in order to play her guitar properly, her lighthearted set was punctuated with beautiful vocals that carried out on the wind to the sea of people watching from beneath a cleverly placed shade umbrella.
Back inside The Banks, the unlikely combination of Rosenau/Sanborn was just getting their set started. Chris Rosenau, strumming happily away on his guitar while Nick Sanborn punched out electronic beats on his synth/pad/whoknowswhatelse, accompanied by visuals projected onto their shrouded cube stage, the sounds they were making made a pleasing combination of relaxing, intriguing, and moving music that I absolutely didn’t want to end.
Back down the hill, The Staves also formed a new alliance with local orchestral band, yMusic. Reworking both of their songs, along with a few new ones, their collaboration while incredibly beautiful, might not have been the best fit for the mainstage so early in the day. The harmonies and delicate violin and flutes would probably have been suited for a smaller, more intimate stage up the hill.
A welcomed change of pace was none other than Vince Staples on the Flambeaux stage. Vince’s performance was the first time I saw the crowd response go higher than polite clapping, and would signal the start of the rain for the next few hours. Maybe the poor weather finally loosened the crowd up, but this set was a definite crowd pleaser, with fans rapping along word for word, and cheering when Vince played cut after cut, each one more intense than the next.
Back up at The Kills, LNZNDRF with help from both Aaron and Bryce Dessner also proceeded to put on one of the most energetic sets I managed to catch that day. Donning blue and white outfits, and tons of energy from lead vocalist Ben Lanz, I grew the biggest smile when they led into my favorite song, “Beneath The Black Sea.”
With the rain coming down full-force, James Blake made his way onto the Flambeaux stage and played a large selection of songs from his latest, The Colour In Anything, as well as older cuts from his previous releases. Blake’s voice was in top shape, and his unique vocals helped everyone forget about how soggy their shoes were and, for lack of a better term, soak in the moment. Those wanting to hear his collaborative effort with Justin Vernon, “I Need A Forest Fire,” were sadly disappointed as the crowd favorite never found its way into the setlist.
As the skies cleared up, making way for a brightly lit moon, Michael Perry, festival narrator and author, and all around wordsmith addressed the crowd, similarly to last year. Recounting how he pondered over Justin’s frustrations and apprehensions about his new album, we were left to judge for ourselves as he bellowed out the album’s title, 22, A Million.
The songs rolled over the crowd like a tidal wave. Again, those expecting the same bleeding heart folk tunes of the past were left disappointed. Replacing delicate guitar strums was a healthy dose of autotune, strategically placed basslines, and samples. While I’ve witnessed Vernon try on other genres on other projects, this was the first time he’d release it under his Bon Iver moniker, and it just felt right. Amongst the thousands of strangers he invited to his hometown, the same place where he still frequents the local bars and seemingly remains as humble as ever, this is the place where he decided to unleash the next phase of Bon Iver. I’d imagine, with Justin knowing how much the past Bon Iver projects mean to people, completely changing the sound of the most prominent band that dons his name has to be quite daunting. But, if you think about it, the same can be said about this very festival. Starting a new festival in such a small town, with the intention of having it be about art, collaboration, and the spirit of truly enjoying and appreciating music is a huge leap of faith. Just as this festival is flourishing it its second year, Bon Iver will continue to flourish in whatever new form it takes. From what I heard, Justin has nothing to worry about.
So the first day had come to an end, and I wished I could have seen a lot more of the bands Day 1 had to offer. Overall, the vibe of the festival was just as I remembered it – pleasant, and welcoming. Stay tuned for my recap of Day 2… jam-packed with a ton of collaborative performances and a stunning performance to close out the night.
Article: Lesley Keller