Hey Justin! - Photo: Graham Tolbert
I have a hard time living in the moment. I get antsy, distracted, and worried, mostly letting my mind rummage through all of the stuff I failed to do today and the never ending Wunderlist that torments me on my phone. Sometimes, it doesn't stop. So while standing in the middle of a field with nothing more to do than swig big gulps out of a can of local beer and take in a live performance for an entire weekend might sound like the apex of summer, it's an experience I often have a hard time dealing with. Even more complicated is the fact that I am someone who lives their life, both professionally and recreationally, through the filter of music. Letting go and watching a great band should be easy.
And in some ways, music festivals do make it a bit easier to do, if only for all the other intense stimuli coming at you at all moments of the day. If you're a fan, there are A LOT of moving parts. A schedule of events must be tamed and conquered, there are miles upon miles of navigating to do between stages, there are bathroom lines, and water lines, and food lines, and lines to get in and out of the festival, lines to get on buses, lines for merch...basically, lines everywhere you turn. That's because of the crush of people, obviously. Top that off with the always enjoyable 90 degree sweat rays that seems to beam down on every North American music festival, and it's an intense, overwhelming feeling. Suddenly standing at a safe distance in an open field sipping beer and trying to focus on music seems like the perfect reprieve from all the other chaos a music festival throws at you.
And yet something peculiar happened this past weekend when I ventured to Eau Claires, Wisconsin for Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner's (The National) inaugural Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival
. Everything was manageable, everything was intimate and personal; everything was easy to enjoy and take wonder in. I could breathe...I could shut off for a couple of days and just enjoy the incredible environment I was in.
Eaux Claires is a unique stop on the North American summer festival calendar. The grounds are not immense. There is a wide open field, surrounded by trees, flanked on either side by two main stages (Lake Eaux Lune and Flambeaux) where sets bounce back and forth from. Getting from one to the other took approximately 5 minutes (building in 2 minutes for a Leinenkugel stop, of course).
There was a third stage that, while slightly harder to track down, was well worth the 10 minute hike through a windy, wooded path that lead the way. Once there, The Dells Stage featured some of the more eclectic sets of the weekend...shout out to Aero Flynn, Lizzo, and Sylvan Esso. There were also a variety of light fixtures towering over the field, and 3 unique Orbs housing a variety of audio-visual treats within them. In one, a tent revival preacher washed festival-goers sins away via public confessional. OK, maybe not a treat per say, but certainly interesting. Another held a small stage where artists performed behind projection screens while their music was piped into headphones provided to the audience. In the third, a wall of colorful monitors flanked one side, while a DJ cranked out interesting and eclectic sounds on the other.
Once the sun started to sink behind a grove of trees, the festival truly came alive. The golden hour was stunning and beautiful and breathtaking, and as darkness inched its way over the festival, the woods surrounding the festival began to light up in a blue hue. Lights in the distance would replicate craggy old cabins with their windows aglow. Projections danced on the aforementioned orbs. Even the sleepy, yet picturesque Chippewa River, which ran alongside the festival, seemed to run darker, murkier, and more mysterious.
Dessa, of Doomtree
None of these magic touches were lost on the artists we had the chance to talk to over the course of the weekend. "I had several conversations about the design--not the logistics or the facilities--the actual aesthetic," Dessa, of the oh-so-mighty, Minneapolis hip hop collective Doomtree told us. "Even backstage, every trailer was decorated with a piece of local art, and a clever, crafty centerpiece (we had a sun-bleached set of antlers bound together with a blue kerchief.) The light was beautiful. The HOTTEA yarn installation was beautiful--and managed to survive an electrical storm. They really designed the living hell out of the space and the effect was magical."
Monica Martin, singer of the intricate, indie-pop outfit PHOX had a more emotional take on things, admitting, "I cried a bunch yesterday". That's because there's never really been something like this in PHOX's home state of Wisconsin. Though they joked about being at the kids table of the festival, they were treated with the utmost respect. Their set at The Dells stage had all the energy and hoopla of a homecoming, and they screened a short film they produced for the festival on two different occasions.
Hanging w/ PHOX
PHOX were not the only local artists feeling the power of the festival. Chris Porterfield, of the band Field Report, also expounded on the meaning of the area. He moved to Eau Claire for college, met his wife, got a dog, played in important bands that set the blueprint for Field Report, made friends, and generally fell in love with the landscape. "I did a lot of my becoming a human being here. So it's really special to come back and show this area to a bunch of people who have never been here before."
On stage, bands seemed blown away by the kind of sonic atmosphere usually only granted to headliners. Josh Scott, of the the shimmery, electro-tinged folk rock band Aero Flynn freaked out over what he heard pouring out of the monitors and on to the crowd at the smaller Dells Stage. "The amount of care that went into the P.A. for all three stages was insane. I knew it was gonna bang, but that bang evolved into crystal clear cathedral shivering. Colin Stetson was on just before us and I lost my shit. I'd seen his aura before but he just cleared forests...Massive...Immersive...Enslaved."
Field Report's Chris Porterfield
When it comes to handing out credit for creating such an expansive, immersive experience, there were a lot of names dropped during sets. Michael Brown, the festival's creative director and Aaron Dessner, who helped curate talent for the festival, were among them. But one man stood above everyone else.
Eaux Claires was truly Justin Vernon's festival. He made numerous appearances on stage with other artists (Aero Flynn, The National), not to mention the whole weekend felt like one big run up in anticipation to his first set with Bon Iver in 3 years. "Justin was graceful, funny, and present," Dessa told us. "It's really, really easy to become a crazy person when you've got a venture as large as festival on your shoulders. He shucked oysters at the catering tent, drove golf carts, watched the music, and seemed to really enjoy himself as a showgoer and an organizer. Classy."
Bon Iver's Justin Vernon - Photo: Graham Tolbert
In the end Justin is probably the biggest reason Eaux Claires was not Coachella or Bonnaroo. "It's always exciting to have an artist personally curate and vouch for a particular bill," Dessa explained. "It provides a glimpse into his or her taste, which is often stranger and broader than one might imagine." "It feels good to be part of a thing that happens a little bit more in somebody's brain than on somebody's spreadsheet," Porterfield added.
And I suppose that's just it. As the mega festivals regurgitate the same line up, the same experience...essentially the same music festival in every party of the country...more and more smaller festivals will counter with their own regional and artistic take on a summer music festival. For Eaux Claires, artists and festival-goers seemed to leave Wisconsin in a feeling of awe. "Yeah, this is messed up, I honestly can't wrap my head around it yet," Martin told us. "I'll be 60 by the time I finally figure out what happened here" (probably while gazing at her newly inked, Eaux Claires tattoo that were apparently available to all artists backstage). So will we Monica, so will we.
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