The inaugural Eaux Claires Music Festival in Wisconsin this past weekend was one of my favorite music festivals I have ever been to. I went because of the absolutely ridiculous lineup, hand-curated by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner (The National), and was floored by the community spirit, constant collaboration of musicians I love, and air of joy that permeated the festival.
Entering under a rainbow of gossamer delight by “Minneapolis yarnbomber” HOTTEA:
The first set of the festival for me was the freewheeling warmth and elasticity of Hiss Golden Messenger, whose redolent album Lateness of Dancers (out on Merge Records) I’ve been listening to a lot all this spring and summer.
I was dancing too hard to get any good photo or video, but they were tremendously good live, all their songs taking on new color and sounding somehow even better than on the album– especially when they were joined by the No BS! Brass Band, who delightfully showed up on stage and in the crowd at all the most wonderful times during the festival.
It also made me so happy to see Justin Vernon standing sidestage for most of their set, singing along and thumping on his chest; that’s one of the best feelings to see something you’ve booked and worked to make happen finally set off rolling:
After traversing the lush green forest path between stage areas (happily), I arrived to hear a completely reworked version of “I Am Not Waiting Anymore,” a deep deep favorite of mine. Even re-envisioned as a faster, more rollicking alt-countrified tune, it still gets deep in my gut every time–the word structure, the evocation. The songs they played off Marigolden, the new record, were also incredible in the live setting. Chris writes songs that are so real and honest, in the lyrical content, in the potency of delivery. They’re unflinching, and I like that.
Okay, so — new to me, because I’ve been slow on the uptake lately: Sylvan Esso holy shit completely blew my hair back (not literally because it was ten thousand degrees + humid and my hair was a giant damp frizzball of drippy sweat, even moreso dancing under the tent for their set).
Amelia Meath of Mountain Man (and also one of the busier guest performers of the festival, singing also with Hiss Golden Messenger and Phil Cook) and Nick Sanborn of Megafaun make rich, haunting, shimmery confections of eminently danceable music together. AND AMELIA MOVES LIKE THIS, while wearing (not pictured) 4-inch platform shoes and singing like a complete badass:
I fell in love. I bought the full album immediately and am praying for enough hot summer lazy days left to listen to it on nonstop repeat.
(also check out the super cool Song Exploder podcast about the roots and guts and words of this song, which made me like them even more)
Friday night’s set from The National was what I was looking forward to the most from this weekend. I hadn’t seen them since that atom bomb of a performance at Red Rocks in 2013, and was feeling just about recovered enough to let them rip it all back open.
They delivered a set that was even more tightly furious and darkly melodic than I’d seen in a while from them. Matt seemed especially electrified, as he paced and screamed (and they performed both “Abel” and “Mr. November”?!), and then leapt into a crowd that I feared might actually consume him during “Terrible Love” (I confess to a hearty clasping of his arm when the eddy of the sweaty crowd shoved him into my orbit).
Also, because of the massive group of friends assembled as co-performers on the bill of the weekend, the set contained some pretty incredible guests.
YOU GUYS JUSTIN VERNON SANG ON “SLOW SHOW”:
(even though Matt had to publicly chastise him for wearing shorts; this is a classy band, man!)
AND, as a kicker, there was a closing singalong to “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” with both Sufjan Stevens and Justin Vernon.
After severe weather sirens going off at 2:30am in the UW-Eau Claire dorms that this California girl had zero idea how to deal with (google!), after surviving and not being washed away, Saturday morning crested crisp and full of the promise of another whole day of wonderful performances. The sound of Phil Cook wafting through the air made me stop my foraging for food and book it across the field immediately to begin dancing with a troupe of barely-clad college dudes (“vodka for breakfast, guys, amirite??” – my friend Michelle) for a wildly fun set that left me looking up all the music I could find from this talented gent. He also played with Hiss Golden Messenger, and is also in Megafaun. It’s all a big circle of goodness, and I definitely intend to troll around in his catalog.
The performance of this song at the festival was a beast:
After having the honor of LNZNDRF (“Lanzendorf”) playing at my college in the spring with a special chapel rehearsal that I am working to bring you a glimpse of, I was really excited to see this experimental band play again. With core members Ben Lanz (The National, Sufjan Stevens, Beirut) and the Devendorf brothers (Scott and Bryan, from The National), they were joined this weekend by Josh Kaufman (a musician who plays with Yellowbirds and Josh Ritter) and trumpeter Kyle Resnick of The National.
Together they created this otherworldy miasma of sounds that played off each other to build and dissipate under the little tent space where they played their surprise show. Watching their intuitive knowledge of each other as musicians is a joy, as they weave each performance together freshly – with no traditional setlist of songs, just a scaffolding of new sound creations, insistent and expansive.
PHOX premiered a spirited and imaginative short film at the fest, ostensibly about their mad dash to get to the festival in time in a zigzag across Wisconsin, punctuated by genies and dastardly lumberjacks, but really maybe about Monica’s quest to find her voice and learning to not look inside a bottle (ahem). After a midnight screening on the lawn Friday, they repeated the showing immediately before their Saturday late afternoon set.
Perhaps augmented by the film but also just by the fact that this band is fucking magical (and I’ve crowed it since the first time I heard their dulcet earworm creations), they received one of the warmest and loudest home-state welcomes from the crowd of any band I saw all weekend. I was hoping they’d play “No Lion,” the cover from the chapel session we recorded, but instead and even better, the culmination of their spirited set was a new a capella creation that was jawdropping. My heart swells for these kids. Everything about them just keeps getting better.
Two other memorable punctuations of the weekend included a crowd singalong with Vermont songwriter Sam Amidon conducting us enthusiastically in traditional melodies (listen) complete with sheet music, and Field Report’s Chris Porterfield joining in as he walked by:
…and a whimsical “Forever Love” matinee show with original compositions by Bryce and Aaron Dessner on a special woodland stage with elaborate set. This festival was crafted to be punctuated by little moments of delight and surprise. It made it feel so much fresher and more intimate, more honest (?) than a lot of other large festivals I’ve gone to. Even though it had 22,000 attendees, it felt closer in spirit to something like the Doe Bay Fest / Timber Music Fests of the Pacific Northwest that I’ve had the joy of being a part of. I think that’s really saying something about Justin and Aaron’s design for this happening.
As introduction, there was an exceedingly genuine, heart-swelling speech given before Bon Iver’s set by festival narrator Michael Perry (a music writer from Eau Claire, and man who Justin later said was one of the most important friendships of his life). He said:
“If you hold yourselves still and silent now, you can feel that river, runnin’ behind you, running through the night, running through all time.
It’s good to have music near a river. There’s this idea of baptism, of absolution, no matter what you believe.
Better yet, it’s good to have music at a place where two rivers come together–a confluence. For what are we but a confluence? A confluence that lives and breathes, a confluence of dream and song, a confluence of 22,000 beating hearts.
And so here we are, cradled by a river in a sanctuary of song: craving consecration, exaltation. On bended knee, seeking benediction.”
With that, Justin launched seamlessly into the first live performance of his song “Heavenly Father,” and closing vespers, so to speak, began. And it felt like benediction indeed.
I kept thinking all weekend that I was glad to be in a crowd where there were blatant hearts on actual sleeves everywhere. I saw so many Justin Vernon words permanently inscribed in flesh. More than just a gathering of the converted, a festival of the fanboys and fangirls, I was surprised that I was pretty deeply moved at (for instance) the lanky, athletic-looking dude standing behind me in the breakfast line with “and i told you to be patient and i told you to be fine and i told you to be balanced and i told you to be kind” in a block of text over his heart. We’ve heard that line a thousand times so as for it to become rote, but it wasn’t rote when it was written — it was true and that is truth, and it struck me as such. I found myself remembering the deep beauty in wholehearted loving, in full-faced believing.
As we sang along to the same words I sang back in 2009 in an afternoon set under San Francisco cypress trees, I thought about what might have been lost, what’s changed and what hasn’t. This weekend was one of fragmenting for me back into little pieces, so that I could examine and regrow some of the connective tissues and remember why it is we see and participate in live music, why we believe. In between the two new songs that Justin closed the Bon Iver set with, he tried to put into words what the festival and the weekend meant to him, as he visibly batted at tears in his eyes with a flick of his fingers. “I think what we give each other and what we can believe in each other, I think that’s how we can become …greater.” I love him for still shoving his heart out there, for still standing there bald-facedly being true and unflinching, believing in himself and music and us, all around him.
The first thing I loved about Justin Vernon the first time I heard him and saw him live was a purity, and this festival seemed to capture that pure spirit–that urgent reaching for a real connection. I can think of very few better things to strive for in this life and in the songs we sing and the music we embrace.
To quote my wonderful friend and accomplice at the fest, Michelle, I am going to be hungeauxver for weeks, I think. And I couldn’t be more deeply happy.