With the sun shining brightly on day two of Eaux Claires, I made my way to the grounds early in the day to catch the first set up the hill at The Kills. Tuskha was already in full swing by the time I dragged my sweaty remains to a spot in front of the stage, and looking over to my left, I saw Justin Vernon bobbing along happily to the tunes amidst the crowd of about 100 equally sweaty folks. Tuskha, formed out of a need for Phil to venture into other genres outside what he was used to with Bowerbirds, had one of the best early sets in the day. For those who missed it, the songs sounded just as good, if not better than they do on the record, and Phil’s dance moves simply should not be missed.
Back down at Flambeaux, none other than Minneapolis based rockers Alpha Consumer was already ripping into their set of high-energy tunes. While Mike Lewis was sadly confined to a chair due to a leg injury, that didn’t stop him from squeezing every inch of life out of his guitar that he could muster. Lead singer Jeremy Ylvisaker and JT Bates on drums rounded out the trios sound, beckoning curious crowdgoers closer and closer to the barrier with each note they played.
By the time Mavis Staples hit on Lake Eaux Lune, I had already thought this day couldn’t possibly get any better. Referring to the audience as “sweet eclairs” as a play on this lovely town’s name, Mavis proved exactly why she is constantly referred to as a living legend. Owning every inch of the stage, under the heat of the relentless midday sun, she radiated a beam of sunshine on her own, effortlessly tackling “Celestial Railroad” with none other than Bruce Hornsby, and earning lavish applause from the audience with each note.
Across the way at Flambeaux, and familiar rainbow colored backdrop was already in place. The one and only Jenny Lewis was beginning her set of alternative country music. While she easily got the crowd moving under her direction, with the addition of The Staves to help out on harmonies, this collaborative performance was seemingly a match made in heaven. One of the many perfect collaborations of the day.
On the mainstage, just the mention of Phil Cook’s name will send people into comments like “Oh! He’s fantastic!” or “That guy is talented, and so much fun!” His Southland Revue still promised the same upbeat homage to southern blues and gospel-influenced music, but this time, he brought along a few friends. The first was Sister Lena Mae Perry of The Branchettes, who was so vibrant and lovely, her enthusiasm brought the biggest smile to my face. Brad Cook, Justin Vernon, Bruce Hornsby, Amelia Meath all wound up taking the stage to lend their talents to one hell of a performance.
And so the day rolled on, with one amazing performance right after another. Up next, Unknown Mortal Orchestra proceeded to unleash their funky, psychedelic-tinged alternative soul/funk music onto the audience with so much precision everyone around me seemed a bit bewildered and bowled over. Before the festival, discussions about the lineup proved that most people were wholly unfamiliar with their music. Having seen UMO rip the stage on more that one occasion, I knew exactly what they were in for, and they certainly did not disappoint. Their newest effort , “First World Problems” managed to earn as many fans as crowd favorites “Multi-Love” and “Ffuny Ffrends” did.
After their set, I had about 15 minutes to spare which gave me a chance to sneak away into the woods to finally catch S. Carey performing at his Oxbeaux stage. Nestled in the woods away from the main path, Carey and his band played beautiful acoustic arrangements of his music, with selections like “In The Dirt,” and “In The Stream” the setting was the absolute best place I could imagine to absorb these songs as well as the nature around us. Sitting around crossed legged on the soft mulch strewn across the ground, we watched silently as they performed, stopping briefly in between songs for applause, or to bring various poets or other collaborators up to the stage. Truly one of the highlights of the entire festival.
Having to pry myself away from the gorgeousness of S. Carey as his lush sounds, I made my way back to the Lake stage for the heavily advertised singular performance of “Day of the Dead,” Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s Grateful Dead tribute project. With another rotating cast of characters from Matt Berninger of The National, Justin Vernon, Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis, Will Oldham, Bruce Hornsby, and Moses Sumney, the collaboration was actually far more successful that I imagined it would be. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that the plethora of mega talent available remained within arms reach, and helped keep the songs flowing and good vibes radiating through the evening.
With minutes to spare, I grabbed a bite to eat and headed over to catch Lucius. Lucius has been on my radar for ages – back when I saw them perform a completely acoustic set in someone’s living room. I knew they were talented then, and they have proved their worth time and time again on increasingly larger stages. Flambeaux was the right fit for them at Eaux Claires, winning the coveted sunset slot that The Tallest Man on Earth inhabited last year. Something about this time of the day with the golden rays bathing everything in shimmering light, helped elevate Lucius’ performance to new heights. With flawless harmonies, whimsical matching outfits and effortless delivery, their set was one of the most talked about all weekend, in conjunction with their numerous collaborations with various artists throughout the weekend.
Stopping for a few minutes to charge my phone, the organ sounds of the Baroque installation floated far across the Eaux Claires grounds. The periodic nature of this installation was a welcomed cleanser in between sets. Aside from the musical aspect, the construction of a life sized organ in the middle of the grounds out of what looked like chicken wire was an absolute spectacle and one of the most impressive pieces of art I had come across.
With 15% in battery life left, I sprinted quickly across the stage expecting to be late for Erykah Badu’s set, only to find she would take the stage nearly 40 minutes late. Unsure if it was for legitimate reasons or just earned diva status, none of that mattered once she opened her mouth and began to sing and perform for the masses. Uttering her famous like “keep in mind, I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit,” Ms. Badu weaved in an out of her catalogue reminding us about calling “Tyrone,” and how we’d see her “Next Lifetime.” Yes, she was armed with a bag full of tricks and a huge helping of sass and I loved every second of it, lateness be damned.
Making my way up the hill for the final time, I walked slowly to take in the gorgeousness of the woods and neon lights tucked away in the greenery. By the time I made to The Dells for Beach House, there were hundreds of fans neatly packed inside the tent, bursting at the seams for their performance to begin. With dim lighting of blue and green and shrouded in cloaks, Beach House’s set of dreamy pop their songs seemed to morph the sounding space into one so intimate that most people closed their eyes and mouthed the words in between deafening cheers.
But those cheers paled in comparison to the fest’s closing set from Francis and the Lights. In stark contrast to Francis’ set from last year at Flambeaux which had a few technical issues and minor glitches, this year’s set at the far more intimate Kills stage had the audience camped out and overflowing out onto the vast expanse of grass up the rise. The buzz around the festival that Chance The Rapper was scheduled to make an appearance as well, having seen those two collaborate in the past musically. Francis’ main set, peppered with his glorious, wild, untamed dance moves that I cannot get enough of, some surprises from his forthcoming record, Farewell, Starlite!, plus, the supremely catchy, and often times bass heavy electronic tunes. The sea of hands in the air never wavered, but they did flail around a bit more frantically, many clutching cell phones for dear life when Chance did actually appear onstage alongside none other than Justin Vernon. Launching into the viral hit, “Friends,” each lyric was shouted word for word from the crowd, with Chance inserting his rap from “Summer Friends” neatly, and joining in on the trio’s endearing choreography that sent the crowd into hysterics. As the men hugged, and Vernon playfully kissed Francis, the spirit of their friendship echoed the entire spirit of the festival in those last few moments.
The second year of Eaux Claires proved to be just as successful as the first, with even more to see and do. From the numerous collaborations, to the new Bon Iver record, to the sheer amount of artwork, to everything down to the shuttles running like a well-oiled machine, Eaux Claires is primed to make everyone’s top 5 list of best festivals in the country. With the help of friends, family, and a staggering amount of talent from numerous artists, Vernon and Dessner have managed to cultivate a “safe-space” for collaboration and experimentation without pretense and a wide array of ears ready to listen. This is the mark of what a great music festival should be. Now the more difficult part will be – how will they continue innovating without crossing the line of doing way too much? I’m sure there are heads pressed together thinking about “Eaux Claires Troix” at this very moment. I’ll see you all back at the river next year.
Article: Lesley Keller