A return to the banks of the Chippewa River is so much more than returning to a music and arts festival where you had a good time. For everyone in attendance the previous two years, Eaux Claires is so much more. For me, it’s a return home. Having purchased tickets to each year before even knowing the lineup, I already knew how I’d go into this festival – open minded and ready for anything. Everyone involved in this year’s festival urged us to look past what was printed on paper, think beyond your own expectations and leave forever changed. That is exactly what happened again this year at Eaux Claires TROIX.
This year was a bit of a departure from previous year’s set schedules and overstuffed lineup. With only 26 artists scheduled by name and a roster of Artists-In-Residence, a virtual cornucopia of artists available and free to roam the festival and hop on and collaborate in real time, and play popup sets of their own, the festival was the equivalent of free-form jazz. With such a liquid lineup ahead of me, my first feeling was panic. “What if I missed out on something epic.” In reality, sure I did miss a number of collaborations, but at this particular festival, everything you see, do, and participate in will be special in its own way.
Having Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner open the entire festival with a 12:15pm set of improvised tunes dubbed “People Mixtape Vol 1” at the colorful Creek stage was the first smear of icing on the cake. The second, was without a doubt, Francis Farewell Starlite literally teaching eager EXC crowd-goers the steps to “Friends” and “May I Have This Dance” on a small wood frame stage dubbed Decorum before running through each routine with one of the biggest, most brilliant smiles I’ve seen in a long while and Polica and s t a r g a z e’s project “Music For The Long Emergency” was unveiled at Lake Eaux Lune. The freedom and room for the artists to decide exactly what they want to present to the crowd, with the knowledge that everyone is up for anything has to feel priceless.
The joyous, infectious feeling of “anything can happen” continued on. Into the woods, there were various art installations: a remote controlled conglomeration of water droplets that were programmable to make beats, crickets tucked into a small box and amplified throughout the canopy, large tree trunks and nubs of wood that was akin to “Nature’s Jenga,” circular and rectangular doorways that looked like they led to Narnia, the most beautiful, phosphorescent blanket of algae on top of a pond I’d even seen, feathers marked with words like refrigeration magnets stuck to a wire fence, and 2 stages: the beloved Oxbeaux stage from last year, and the new Banks stage, a cube configuration with LED’s along each panel, often times displaying digital versions of the woods, the subtle irony hitting my pleasure center. The childlike wonder I held in my heart and mind as I discovered each piece of art, both minute and elaborate, was something I hadn’t felt in quite some time. I always said that one of the most special things about Eaux Claires was the connection to nature and everything that was nestled in the woods this year helped foster that feeling tenfold.
Feeling happy and equally effervescent I strolled on over to Flambeaux to watch This Is The Kit, the musical moniker of Kate Stables. I sampled her music on Spotify in the days before the fest and knew there was nothing that would keep me from checking out her set. She did not disappoint.
Another new stage this year, Sparreaux, was the location where Happy Apple threw down during their avant-garde jazz set. If you thought you knew what jazz is, was or could be, think again. Pushing musical boundaries would be a supreme understatement, not to mention Michael Lewis is the closest thing we’ll get to perfection on sax.
Strolling around the grounds was, again, a feast for the eyes. I stopped in awe when I heard the telltale drums of Midnight Express, comprised of members of the Ojibwe Nation, inviting everyone to join in on their impromptu pow-wow. People waited on line for personalized poems crafted for them inside a tiny house. Artist murals were being painted in real time, while people lazed away in hammocks listening to Michael Perry recite lines from Population: 485. His resounding baritone, and the words “Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun.” tumbling from his lips instantly reminded me that his voice was the first we all heard when the first signs of Eaux Claires were released to the world. Not gonna lie, it got me a little choked up. Others took their best Instagram worthy photos in front of the Eaux Claires sign that I love every single year, and there were the steadfast lining the gate that separated the blades of grass from the ambling Chippewa River. Neaux Violence, in partnership with the 2 A Billion campaign, was also present on the grounds to hand out condoms, pins, and spread awareness of gender inequality, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. Last but not least, MOMS BOOTH. Perhaps the most pure, and endearing thing I’ve seen this year, a booth run by actual mothers was on hand to give out milk & cookies, band-aids, sunscreen, hugs and advice if you needed it. They even set up an area out of view for nursing mothers to have some privacy instead of having them use the port-a-potties. For that reason alone, this needs to be a constant every year of Eaux Claires.
It was difficult to pry myself away from the calming nature of everything surrounding me. Even typing this now, it seems surreal to think of anything at a festival as calming, but it is. Calming, centering, and rejuvenating are the words that instantly come to mind, but when Julieta Venegas showed up onstage with her band, admittedly a bit frazzled as a bunch of their instruments got stuck in customs, she was a welcomed jolt of energy.
Those still enjoying the wonders in the woods were treated to a set from Broder at the Banks, and Mountain Man at Oxbeaux. The small scale of these stages made them harder to access if you didn’t get there early, but the feeling of closing my eyes and listening to both these artists while the trees swayed overheard was priceless.
Tweedy manned the big stage inviting a number of guests onstage including Justin Vernon, Phil Cook and John Stirratt from Wilco for a rousing, good time across the board. Francis and The Lights made his second appearance of the day at the Creeks stage, eking out some somber tunes on keys, before diving into his current catalogue, which culminated in him inviting the director of his videos, Jake Schreier, and a bunch of fans, both young and old, onstage to dance with him.
Winding down from such a fun set, I stopped to take in Bon Iver’s John Prine tribute set on the Lake Eaux Lune stage. An all star guest list of talent rotated in throughout the set: Jenny Lewis, Chris Porterfield (of Field Report), Kate Staples, Sam Amidon, The Staves, Jeff Tweedy, Mountain Man… even Mike Perry navigated away from his festival narrator duties to sing along with Bon Iver on “Big Ol’ Goofy World,” with an ever-fitting intro about how he and Justin both were introduced to Prine’s music. Three of my favorite moments however were less serious in nature: Justin scolding the kids in the audience to stop playing with the balloons that were floating through the crowd because they were “pissing him off,” Justin and Sam screaming like banshees through what should have been a harmonica solo but wasn’t because the harmonica was forgotten, and Spank Rock joining Amanda Blank for their take on “In Spite of Ourselves” and absolutely nailing it. Despite the looming clouds and subsequent thunderstorm that unleashed the exact moment Prine actually came onstage to play, this set was quite pleasant to witness, and I was grateful I was able to catch it.
With the rain coming down in torrents, I took refuge underneath the Flambeaux stage while everyone eagerly waited for Sylvan Esso. With their set time delayed to take care of the stage, the appearance of someone clearing water from the stage, lovingly named Squeegee Guy by the crowd, oddly kept everyone in good spirits all while getting soaked through. The wait proved worth it as the most gorgeous sunset emerged from those dark clouds, and Sylvan Esso played one of their best sets to date. Amelia’s dancing and singing was infectious – people abandoned their ponchos and took off dancing in any open spaces they could find, squishy grass and mud under foot. While my favorite song on their new album is “Just Dancing” I found that the low-key “Slackjaw” made the biggest impression on me this time. Perhaps it was the combination of the catharsis of the rain, the dancing, the sunset, just being at this wonderful festival that did it, but again, I got a little teary eyed by the time it was over.
Finally the headliner. Chance The Rapper is without a doubt 2017’s success story for independent artists, and he was closing out Night 1 of Eaux Claires festival. Having seen Chance perform a few weeks prior, and last year, with him just hopping onstage randomly to dance with Francis and Justin to close out Eaux Claires Deux, I was eager to see how the Midwest greeted Chance. Let me tell you right now, fans at Eaux Claires are here FOR THE MUSIC. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to see a sea of people, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, rapping along word for word with Chance, and he was an unbelievably dynamic performer. With complete control of the crowd, he got them to raise their arms at the drop of a dime, and he got everyone jumping when prompted. Smoke and confetti floated out across the stage, and all of that happened before Francis Starlite emerged from side stage for “May I Have This Dance,” and “Summer Friends,” and then Justin Vernon for “Friends,” and of course, the dance.
Heading back to the campground after an overwhelming (in the best way) Day 1 of Eaux Claires TROIX, my bus mates excitedly sang Chance songs, and yelled out “ooohoohs” as Chance did during his performance. Sitting back at camp, looking at the pockets of firelight, I realized there was no other place I’d rather be, and I still had an entire day left to experience more.
Article: Lesley Keller