There were so many reasons to love the Eaux Claires Music Festival: the weather, the location, the open fields filled with smiling people. It was a music festival created by musicians, the lineup was great, the cost was low, the overall setup was smart, the sound was crisp, the visual effects were tremendous and loads of love was reciprocated between artists to festival goers all weekend. It was well planned for the most part, well attended (22,000+) and greatly enjoyed by all. It’s cliché to say, but Eaux Claires was about the people and the music. No salesy BS, no corporate agenda—the closest thing to corporate at the festival was Eau Claire based catering company, KP Katering Enterprises. The two-day music festival was an intimate event, a really big party and a beautiful gathering.
While on stage, Sufjan Stevens described the vibe of Eaux Claires as a “48 hour episode of My Little Pony.” I’m not an MLP fan, but I respect his thoughts. I’d say overall it was more like a family reunion—a family of musicians and friends. There was auntie Lizzo, uncle Sturgill, the brothers in The National and the singing Stave sisters; the wild bunch in Doomtree, the reserved hyper talented Tallest Man on Earth, drunk uncle Matt Berninger and the patriarch Justin Vernon. There were hugs, laughter and collaboration. Eaux Claires was the type of get together that would’ve made a grandmother proud of her humble, talented and grateful offspring.
I could write about the overall experience for the next week but I’ll keep it simple and break it down to some of the top line stuff. Then next year, when Eaux Claires 2.0 happens, you can soak it all for yourself. Here are some of the top line items: headliners, fun others/collaborations.
By headliner, I mean a band that usually plays to large audience and can do so independently. The first band I saw that has such clout was Spoon and they played the big stage (Lake Eaux Lune) on Friday at 6:45 PM. Dating all the way back to when “Everything Hits at Once” was a staple on mixed tapes, everybody knew that Britt Daniel was a cool cat. And he still is. The set was fun and it was typical Spoon rock and roll. They played hits like “The Way We Get By,” “Do You,” “Don’t You Evah,” and a less expected track off of Girls Can Tell, “Take a Walk.” They were the only prototypical rock band at Eaux Claires—I wouldn’t mind seeing more Spoon-like bands next year.
The next headliner I saw on Friday night was The Tallest Man on Earth. However, I watched from afar while reserving a spot to see The National play on a neighboring stage. That was a mistake. I was right there, so close to what proved to be the better option. But I opted for something less satisfying. I liken it to the time I was in North Yellowstone Park and while getting dinner at a restaurant I ordered nachos instead of the elk burger. Who orders nachos when you’re right next to the elk farm? My buddy, Simon Balto, was near the Tallest Man stage and because he’s a singer/songwriter/music guy I figured he would have a good take on the show. He said, “I knew he (Tallest Man) was doing a full band deal, but was not prepared for how impeccable, lush and on-point it was.” Even at a bit of a distance, I was impressed. I was near the elk farm. I ate the nachos.
So, about The National: their albums have been anthems; their songs have kept me afloat during storms in my life. One time, no joke, I listened to “Pink Rabbits” on a bus ride, on repeat, from Chicago to Indianapolis. Five hours of piano, percussion, floating guitar and sadness. I was not in a good place when I got to Indy but I couldn’t stop listening. Overall, Matt Berninger writes great lyrics and they’re a talented group—one that I really like. But I didn’t love their set at Eaux Claires. It was a bit sloppy and the songs blended together into one long, sad tune. Simon talked to a young man from Delaware (Go Blue Hens!) who had his socks knocked off. He took it all to heart as “performance art.” Simon disagreed and I agree with Simon—and most other people I talked with shared a similar “meh” about The National on Friday night. God bless the Dessner brothers and all they did to make this festival happen but other than “Mr. November,” an OK version of “Apartment Story,” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the whole thing was underwhelming. It wasn’t awful. Just not great.
The headliners Saturday were Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver. Sufjan went on stage at 8:30 PM and opened the set with “Death With Dignity.” After the song concluded, he wiped away a few tears, took off his red shades and carried on with songs off his latest album, Carrie & Lowell. It was mostly heartbreaking. I cried. Sufjan cried. Everyone was in tears. The over/under on Songs About Death was “all of them” and I still took the over. But he does them so well. During his 13 song set he played piano, synthesizer, multiple guitars, a banjo, a guitar-like-object, a recorder (yes, a recorder), and a glockenspiel. And then there’s his voice. I saw him a few years ago while he was spreading Christmas cheer around the country and he sounded great but I forgot how perfect his voice is. Though most of the songs were sad, it was also fun. He let the crowd know he’s been weary of playing festivals in the past due to a fear of contracting “lymes disease or an STD.” He also, at one point during “Chicago,” playfully asked the crowd if they (we) were ready to see him rock out on the synthesizer. Everyone was on board and he said, “My entire career has led to this point. I call it, dad jazz.” The No BS! Brass Band collaborated with damn near everyone at Eaux Claires but their contribution to “Chicago” and “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” was pretty special. It was an emotional performance. Afterward, I felt like stapling posters around the festival: MISSING. Bits and pieces of person’s entire heart and soul. If found, please return to Sufjan Stevens.
Justin Vernon and Bon Iver closed the festival. It was 10 PM and there were about 22,000 people gathered, hearts beating, glow sticks glowing, waiting and anticipating this performance. Some people thought Kanye West might show up; others were expecting a lot of new material. Kanye did not show up but there were a few new songs played. And they were good—more full sounding than what fans have come to love off For Emma, Forever Ago and the second album, Bon Iver. A bearded Vernon took the stage looking like Mike Love. He wore a black baseball cap, headphones over the top, a button up shirt and light colored pants. The stage was full of talent, instruments, two drum kits, a trio of backing vocals (The Staves), and a slough of well done guest appearances: Josh Scott from Aero Flynn played and sang a verse from “Blindsided.” The Staves added backing vox and beauty to “Heavenly Father,” “Lump Sum” and “Skinny Love” and Colin Stetson played sax on “Brackett, WI.” The Dessners joined for a few tracks, the No BS! Brass Band helped make “For Emma” excellent. The whole Eaux Claires experience was spot on and Vernon’s finale didn’t disappoint.
Some of the “fun others” would have to be Lizzo, Stugill Simpson, Field Report, Phox, Polica and Charles Bradley. I heard Hiss Golden Messenger was great and wished I would’ve been able to see them. I was also told that Colin Stetson was amazing and that I suck for not seeing him. The Staves were incredible with Vernon and I wish I had seen them perform on Friday as well. What can I say. I’m just a guy. Maybe in 2045 when we can multiply our consciences I’ll be able to be present at everything, everywhere but until then I can only see so many things. As far as the collaborations, here’s a quick, incomplete list: Sufjan and Justin Vernon played with The National. No BS! And Amelia Meath (Sylvan Esso) played with Hiss Golden Messenger. Bryce Dessner, Bryan Devendorf and No BS! played with Sufjan. Justin Vernon and Phil Cook played with Blind Boys of Alabama and Blind Boys sang with Lone Bellow. yMusic played with Tallest Man and Bon Iver. Cool? Yes, it was cool.
The Eaux Claires Music Festival reminded me of a familiar scene in the movie, Field of Dreams. You know the one. It’s the scene where Terence Mann tells Ray Kinsella that if he builds it, people will come. Can you hear James Earl Jones’ voice right now? He said, “People will come, Ray… And memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces…. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.” With ample and talented assistance, Justin Vernon built it, people came, and for many it was a field of dreams. The moments were great, the memories are thick and I’ll see you all next summer in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.