By now you’ve most likely heard about the controversy surrounding the decision to keep the lineup a secret for the 4th iteration of the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, but if you paid close enough attention, there were plenty of clues leaked beforehand to essentially spell out every single act that was playing. In addition to audio clips posted on the Eaux Claires site comprised of previous attendee audio clips mashed up with song snippets that signaled an artist on the lineup, Justin Vernon himself fielded questions informally via Twitter about acts that would possibly play the fest this year. Many were convinced that these artists “couldn’t possibly be it,” however. Arcade Fire, Father John Misty, Manchester Orchestra and Chance The Rapper were all rumored as a hidden act to be revealed at the start of the festival.
As the rumor mill continued to churn, Eau Claire rolled out its second year of pre-fest festivities known as Oxbeaux II and Prex Claires, taking place at a stage right outside the Oxbow Hotel, as well as spread throughout various venues in the downtown area, respectively. At Oxbeaux II, Orchid Eaton, started the evening off right, with a rousing set that drew patrons from the confines of the patio right up to the edge of the stage to get in on the action. Chastity Brown, a name that we would all become familiar with as she would play several times throughout the weekend, delivered a powerful set laden with honesty and vulnerability. S. Carey, along with his full band did not disappoint, launching into selections from his undeniably gorgeous 2018 release, Hundred Acres, which also happens to be my favorite record this year. Finally, headlining act Hiss Golden Messenger revved up the intensity and energy to the max, charging through their set, pausing only to address the crowd in between songs with light banter.
Prex Claires had already been well under way, with the bulk of the festivities beginning around 7pm. I was lucky enough to catch an interesting collaboration between NYT Best Selling author, and festival wordsmith, Michael Perry, hip-hop aficionado Astronautalis, and guitar maven Mary Cutrufello, with a gorgeous performance of poetry & spoken word accompanied by Cutrufello’s guitar stylings at the State Theatre. At just 30 minutes, everyone in the crowd lingered around the stage, hoping for more, but that sadly never came. Realizing this, a group of people, myself included, filed out of the old movie theater and made our way a few blocks over to The Metro to check out one of the two late night dance parties happening. Naeem, fka Spank Rock, was indeed rocking the crowd with bass heavy beats that had everyone from the ground floor to the balcony moving. In NYC scenes like this are commonplace, but I have to say I never expected to see such a lively view at 1:15am on a Thursday in a small town like Eau Claire. As I made my way back to my hotel to catch a few hours of sleep, I reflected on the day. Strolling around catching folks tubing down the river, the tell-tale copper bumps of the Pablo Center (open this fall btw!), sitting in Phoenix Park taking in some music before Oxbeaux II started, I was happy to be in this small town amongst friends both new and old. In NYC, I’ve become accustomed to being an introvert most of the time, never making eye contact or barely saying hello to passersby. But in Eau Claire, people were surprisingly easy to talk to and endlessly friendly. Whether it was running into Field Report frontman Chris Porterfield downtown and chatting with him before he walked to his hotel, or talking to anyone sitting next to me, asking them where they were from and what they loved about Eau Claire, it was very nice to open up and make genuine conversation with the people around me.
After a much needed caffeine pick me up, I arrived at the Eaux Claires grounds at Foster Farms at around 1pm. Long lines full of attendees still in the dark about the lineup stretched from the entrance out into the street. Chirps and dings were heard as the Eaux Claires app pushed out their first few notifications – and the lineup was finally revealed. Not surprisingly, every artist teased in the audio clips were present, but still no big names. Here is where things get really interesting. There were many people who were visibly disappointed – some so much so they returned to their campground in disgust. Some were determined to “make the best of it” and explored the grounds and stages to see what the festival had to offer this time. Finally, there were the unfazed group, which I was a part of.
From its inception, Vernon and Dessner announced the intention of the festival was to be different than the status quo. A stark departure from the normal “big name, flashy headline” festivals that have over-saturated the market today. In previous years, from Year 1’s lineup stacked heavy with Vernon/Dessner collaborators, inspirations and friends, to Year 2’s inclusion of bigger names like Chance The Rapper, Erykah Badu, Beach House, Bruce Hornsby, to Year 3’s seemingly scaled back lineup that focused on collaboration over marked sets, this year’s focus on experience over visible impact made sense to me as a next step. From the beginning, a huge positive of Eaux Claires has always been the audience’s willingness to seek out new artists and make the festival into something of their own. Venturing deep into the woods to find an acoustic set from The Staves or Mountain Man or Jenny Lewis, or peering into a blazing hot confessional booth to find “Preacher Astronautalis” to confess your sins. The decision this year to push that envelope and give over even more of that trust to the audience was a bold move that not everyone appreciated but was just another step that Eaux Claires needed to take to truly define what it will be moving forward.
Throughout the weekend, the spirit of collaboration reigned supreme. On a brand new circular stage replacing the old Flambeaux, Big Red Machine, a collaboration between Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner formed years ago played through their entire project in its entirety and was incredibly moving to say the least. Vernon’s statement to the crowd of “I hope everybody feels safe,” to one of the songs mantras, “You are who you are” resonated so deeply with me, I was brought to tears more times than I’d care to admit. Phil Cook’s collaboration with Native American singer group, Iron Boy, in and around a house made up of playable instruments was a collaboration I would have never in a million years dreamed up, but it worked out so well I was completely dumfounded. S. Carey tapping out gorgeous melodies on a modified piano named the “Janette” while writer Hanif Adurraqib recited his work, all in the middle of a small clearing in the middle of the woods left me completely speechless and reeling from its beauty, and an impossibly intimate performance in-the-round from The National with a cast of special guests including Gordi, Julien Baker, Mouse on Mars, Phoebe Bridgers, Chastity Brown, Mike Lewis, JT Bates & so many others that made this the best show from The National I’ve seen to date.
Traditional performances also had their own impact like a truly heartwarming and endearing performance from serpentwithfeet that I did not want to end, a hilarious performance from Swamp Dogg who quite literally did not want to get offstage, Noname, who delivered a honest, yet playful set that managed to get people to dance with wild abandon, yet at the same time warned the white people in the crowd not to rap along with the N-word, a dance party in the woods hidden behind a secret door and a deer hunting blind, Francis and The Lights’ dance class made a second appearance this year and was absolutely infectious and energizing, and two of the most mind-blowing closing sets I’ve seen at a festival to date – Marijuana Deathsquads on Day 1 and Ho99o9 on Day 2. Those two sets were like the rewards you get at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jack (yes, I’m that old.) The entire thing was good, but those were two sets that you should have significant FOMO about missing. The sheer beauty as Ryan Olson directs multiple drummers with, all the while the organized chaos of Isaac Gale wailing into the mic, Trever Hagen producing otherworldly sounds from prepared trumpet, Velvet Negroni adding layers onto the music, and even Channy Leneagh from Polica was on tap to add her ethereal vocals into the mix. On paper it sounds like a mess but in reality is was musical bliss. At MDS shows I usually close my eyes and let the music carry me wherever it wants. This set was no different. H09909 however was one to keep your eyes open for. You’ll need all of your senses to truly experience a punk show of this magnitude. After a weekend of beautiful, emotional music in serene spaces, this H09909 set might seem out of place on paper, but in reality, it was the release we all needed before heading back to a reality of working our day jobs and sitting in grey cubicles nowhere near a window. It was the time to release any form of stress or worry you may have been harboring up to that point.
Despite all of that, reviews have been mixed, with most taking the stance that this year’s festival was essentially the crowd paying the artists to watch them practice. I thought about that stance for a long time and ultimately, I couldn’t see the negative side. How many times have you or a friend “wished you could be a fly on the wall during that studio session,” or “wished you could hear the unreleased songs in the vault.” In my eyes, this year’s Eaux Claires was a live version of those two things, with the added bonus of traditional performances. The crowd was able to see the creative process firsthand; something that many, myself included, would dream of seeing otherwise. Where else would you see Julien Baker and Gordi improvise a song on the spot, or Justin Vernon finally singing “89,” one of the most requested songs that did not make it onto 22, A Million. He has already said that he is in it for the long haul with Eaux Claires, but my only suggestion is to ask the question if it should even be called a festival at all. For something so freeform as this year was, I find the word “festival” a bit too definite and rigid for what I imagine the future of Eaux Claires to be. This year was the line drawn in the sand. Not everyone will continue along on the journey, and that is okay because there are tons of different experiences out there for everyone to enjoy. I am excited and very interested in seeing what Eaux Claires will become in the next few years. Again, I think back to the mantra in that Big Red Machine song, “you are who you are.” Everything changes with time, and this is what Eaux Claires has become presently and unapologetically. To be invited along the process of conceptualizing and then realizing music is what I assume is hugely vulnerable and incredibly brave, and is a risk that I feel is worth them taking. This year may be mixed, but I’m confident that Eaux Claires will find its audience and the outcome will be especially rewarding.
*This post is sponsored by Travel Wisconsin.
Article: Lesley Keller