(A Review of the Third Annual Eaux Claires Music Festival)
Eaux Claires, an annual music festival now in its third year, took place last weekend and brought a ton of amazing music to the city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin (population upwards of 65,000) and to the many who traveled in from all across the country (and abroad) to see the impressive lineup.
There were over 50 music and arts offerings at this year’s two-day festival, which featured some highly-anticipated musical performances from among others) Francis and the Lights, Chance the Rapper and Wilco, and included a premier collaboration from Paul Simon and the NYC-based chamber ensemble, yMusic.
Held “up in the woods”, Eaux Claires is located on Foster Farms, a family-owned patch of land that’s positioned along the banks of the Chippewa River. The city has recently become more well-known to the greater music community for hailing the acclaimed, grammy award-winning band Bon Iver, of which Justin Vernon is the frontman (and also an Eaux Claires Co-Curator).
The festival, Co-Curated also by The National’s Aaron Dessner, has itself become known for its unique mix of indie/rock and hip hop musical performances, combined with art installations in a great location that offers intimate, woodsy backdrops with its music. This year’s festival was no exception and offered its most diverse lineup yet in a setting that, despite the crowds, felt intimate and unique.
Chance the Rapper made note of the festival’s uniqueness, too, stating during his performance on Friday night that Eaux Claires is “not like any other festival”.
I’d have to agree. Of all the festivals I’ve been to, Eaux Claires is the most humble, refreshing and inclusive festival I’ve experienced. It’s a festival clearly meant for music fans who set out not only to enjoy, but to understand the meaning of music and the power of collaboration.
Year three of Eaux Claires made this collaborative approach towards performance a main theme of the festival, featuring “Artists-In-Residents”, a series of both announced and unannounced pop-up performances in which performers from the shows line up would perform with one another.
As noted on the 2017 Eaux Claires website: “In year three of Eaux Claires, we’re reconfiguring the grounds and reducing the amount of stages…. We’re doing this because it provides the ability to devote more attention to one-of-a-kind projects that make this festival unique. We’re refocusing in order to do even more to merge audience and artist. We’re reconfiguring to give individual performers the ability to interact throughout the duration and breadth of the festival.”
Read on for a full recap of the 2017 Eaux Claires music festival.
Day one of the 2017 Triox festival kicked off at noon, with performances from Music for the Long Emergency (a Polica and s-t-a-r-g-a-z-e collaboration), Happy Apple, Julieta Venegas, Tweedy, Mountain Man and more.
What seemed to be the most anticipated performance of the afternoon, Mountain Man, took place in one of the festival’s smaller bandshells in the woods, Oxbeaux. It was to be the first time the three female vocalists had performed together as Mountain Man for five years. The crowd filled and expanded the space, taking seats as they could and standing among the trees.
Other afternoon standouts were both Julieta Venegas (performing at Lake Eaux Lune) and Tweedy (performing at Flambeaux), who brought great energy to the crowds from the festival’s two main stages, one after the other. Venegas, a cutting-edge latin alternative artist, showcased her multi-instrument mastery and infectious vocals, while the father/son duo Tweedy gave the crowd reason to soak up the sun and not take things too seriously.
The Staves also put on an intimate performance in the woods at the Oxbeaux. The harmonizing sisters proved their worth, earning the shout-out, “we don’t deserve you” from an enthusiastic crowd member. Francis and the Lights (Francis Farewell Starlite), known for his catchy pop tunes, impressive dance moves and showmanship, delivered both to a large crowd at The Creek at 6:30 p.m.
There’s something magical about the sunset at the end of a warm, festival day. With it comes some cooler air and a communal regrouping. By the time the sun had set, most attendees had taken the time to wander the festival grounds, visit the booths and even grab some food. Attendees begin to gather together at the festival’s main stages for the most anticipated performances of the day.
Friday evening’s lineup began with a curated set by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) of John Prine songs with the man himself. Many of the festival’s performers joined for covers of Prine’s top songs, and Prine hopped on stage at the end to join in.
Then, Sylvan Esso, an electric dance-pop duo, put on the most energetic set of the festival. S. Carey and Glen Kotche followed, opening their set with a dramatic drum battle. Carey (of Bon Iver) added his vocals and piano melodies to Kotche (of Wilco) on percussion in a way that in many moments felt adventurous and unplanned, in free-form instrumentation. Dissonant notes were welcomed as a part of the beauty of the experimentation.
Finally, Chance the Rapper took the stage at 10:15, performing to an engaged crowd of what felt like the highest attended performance of the festival.
After arrival on day two, I gathered with a crowd already formed at The Creek, my favorite stage at the festival, with its wooden elements and rainbow colored backdrop. Justin Vernon was set to join the stage as a part of Big Red Machine, along with Aaron Dessner (co-Founder of the Eaux Claires Festival and member of The National) and special guests from Mouse on Mars and s-t-a-r-g-a-z-e. It seems rare to see Justin perform in anything other than a breezy, white button down and flat-brimmed baseball cap and this day was no exception.
The Big Red Machine performance was not short on experimentation. In watching, I was brought back to the performance by S. Carey and Glen Kotche the night before, but while Vernon similarly experimented with his musical comrades for the Big Red Machine set, it seemed more coordinated and strategic. With hands up and cheers after each ballad, we recognized Justin’s raw talent in the only way we knew how.
While Jenny Lewis and Mountain Man performed out in the woods, I opted for what felt like a theatrical performance from Perfume Genius (aka Mike Hadreas) at Lake Eaux Lune. Known for his raw, vulnerable ballads and artistic expression, Perfume Genius came on stage in unique fashion with an equally unique vocal range and a performance that dropped jaws and stopped attendees in their tracks.
Impending storms led to an announcement by festival organizers that the schedule would be moved up. Back-to-back performances were set for the remainder of the night and the shows at the bandshells in the woods were canceled “until further notice”. (We’d soon find out many of the performers would perform instead at the Lismore Hotel in Downtown Eau Claire after Wilco’s set).
Feist was up next at Flambeaux. It was a strongly-anticipated, and well-attended performance. The Canadian singer-songwriter donned a vintage pink dress and sunglasses to take the crowd through a full tour of her new album, “Pleasure” (her first time doing so live), explaining the songs and their place on the album as she went along and jamming on her guitar like a true rockstar. A favorite: “Young Up”.
After Feist came Danny Brown, an aggressively non-conformist rapper from Detroit who came off raw and uncensored, and seemed energized by the stage and surroundings.
Midway through Brown’s set came the clouds, and then, the downpour. Attendees ran to their campsites, or took shelter where they could: under art fixtures, food tents, in festival vans and in The Local Store. The festival’s crew members rushed to clear the stage of the rainwater, test the systems and get all set up.
Those brave enough to face the cold rain began gathering for the most anticipated show of the festival; the legendary Paul Simon would soon take the stage for a premiere performance with yMusic, to deliver a catalog of songs that combined some of Simon’s hits with yMusic’s classical arrangements.
With a bit of a delay, Simon came on at about 8:15 and the crowd was better off because of it. It was a performance that evoked both nostalgia and at times tears from audience members. At the end of the performance, Simon and yMusic bowed to shouts and cheers that lasted minutes.
Wilco wrapped up the festival with a brilliant, hour-plus long set. With moody tunes and lots of energy, the band brought the festival to a close and sent the crowd home wishing to do the festival all over again.
Eaux Claires is a festival that gives musicians the power and asks for music without an agenda. Through not only the musical performances, but also the artistic immersions and installations, the festival gives attendees the sense of what can come from pushing musical boundaries.
During their set, Wilco’s frontman Jeff Tweedy asked the audience to “keep showing up for each other”, and I believe we’ll all do just that. Rain or shine, we’ll keep showing up for Eaux Claires – and for each other.
Jenna Marie is an independent music marketing and promotions consultant for new and up-and-coming musicians in Minnesota with over 6 years of marketing experience and music industry insight. Thoughts written here are her own. Need tips on building your brand or help with promoting your music? Contact Jenna Marie at email@example.com.