About an hour and a half away from the Twin Cities, nestled along the banks of the Chippewa River, is Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The shockingly mundane town with a population of about 68,000 people is, to Minnesotans, usually nothing more than a potential stopping point while traveling to the East. However, during one weekend for the past four years, the town has been the home to one of the most unusual and impressive music festivals the United States has to offer.
Eaux Claires, also known as the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, is an annual two-day festival that takes place in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The festival was founded in 2015 by Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver in order to shine a spotlight on the region and to provide an outlet for musicians of all genres to gather and perform in a space both designed and populated by artists of other mediums.
For the most part, the first three years of the festival were an absolute hit. With headliners such as Chance the Rapper, Paul Simon, Erykah Badu, Vince Staples, Sturgill Simpson, and of course The National & Bon Iver, Justin and Aaron did a great job of mixing high profile acts with lesser known ones, making for a weekend full of familiarity and exploration. Their “Artists in Residency” addition, which features certain artists staying for the entire weekend and popping up during other artists performances for one-of-a-kind collaborations, has also been a crowd favorite over the years. However, the decision was made to do things a little differently in 2018…
Earlier this year, it was announced that no announcement was going to be made regarding the lineup for this year’s iteration of Eaux Claires. Attendees would have nothing more than a (admittedly) solid track record of lineups and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) to aid their decision making in purchasing tickets. Rumors swirled, and a Spotify playlist was being updated almost daily to include songs from many of the “confirmed/virtual locks” that had been teased in podcasts and cryptic messages on social media.
The final lineup was not known until 1:00 PM on Friday afternoon when the gates opened and the Eaux Claires app was updated. Once that happened, many people continued to be glued to their phones, but this time they were searching for more.
With a lineup that surprisingly lacked surprises, and instead was filled with many mid-tier performers and acts that had played Eaux Claires before (a few of which had played multiple times) many people felt disappointed and “duped.”
It was hard not to see the obvious discontent people felt for this lineup on social media, however, when I arrived on the grounds at around 3:00 PM on Friday, the general feeling I got from people was hope. People were hopeful that Justin & Aaron had a few tricks left up their sleeve. There were always a few surprises at Eaux Claires I, II, and III, so the feeling was “this couldn’t possibly be all of it!” And, of course, names like Father John Misty, Patti Smith, Arcade Fire, and Sufjan Stevens couldn’t have been hinted at for no reason…. right?
As the weekend wore on, however, hope started to fade. It became more and more clear to everyone in attendance that this was, in fact, the lineup that we are being offered, and it was time to either enjoy it for what it was and make the best out of a bad situation, or go home feeling completely disappointed. I opted for the former, which was obviously a little bit easier for me because I didn’t spend $200+ on my ticket for the weekend, but nevertheless, I decided to have fun!
Immediately upon entering the gates, we had the opportunity to see Wye Oak put on an incredible performance at Eaux Claires’ most impressive stage, Flambeaux, which was a large, circular stage erected almost in the center of the grounds. After watching the majority of their set, capped off with a stunning performance of Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” we made our way into the forest, stopping along the way to check out Music Box Village, a two-story interactive treehouse/fort where artists set up shop and make music out of nothing but the pieces built into the structure.
Walking into the forest was the real indicator that this festival was unlike anything else I have had the pleasure of experiencing before. With intimate stages set up both along the path and a little deeper, as well as “pop-up” art installations, it seemed like there was something amazing and new around every turn. What piqued my interests was stumbling upon a very large piece of plywood painted with a beautiful winterscape, which featured a small cut-out door and a man guarding it. After approaching, we were informed that the small door would be opening at 5:00 pm sharp, and to return at that time to find out what lay ahead.
Unfortunately, we quickly forgot about returning to the door, but as the day went on we were able to catch a couple more amazing performances. From serpentwithfeet on the House of IV stage, to the Dirty Projectors in the woods at the Oxbeaux stage, as well as one of the overwhelming crowd favorites from the weekend, Friends, consisting of Justin Vernon, Francis and the Lights, and Sean Carey, on the Flambeax stage, it turned out to be a fun and inspirational day of music.
The final performance we saw was Gordi & Julien Baker performing on the Music Box Village, each taking turns looping different sounds into one giant beautiful performance. After that, we called it a night and decided to start fresh for what hoped to be a very eventful second day.
The second day of Eaux Claires was jam-packed with performances that we were very interested in seeing. Arriving just in time to catch Kevin Morby perform on the Lake Eaux Lune, Eaux Claires largest stage, the day got off to a fast start. As soon as he wrapped up, we were off to Flambeaux, getting there just in time to catch the opening notes of Phoebe Bridgers inspired set.
After that, we wandered back into the woods in an attempt to finally discover what was behind that tiny door. What we were greeted with was a completely un-announced “stage” called The Hunting Blind; a rave-esqe performance space no bigger than my own apartment, featuring some DJ performances from Twin Cities favorites such as Sophia Eris, DJ Fundo, Sims, ASTRONAUTALIS, DJ babyghost, and DJ Rowsheen.
After exiting the forest for the final time, the rest of the night was sort of a blur. There was so much going on at any given time, it became sort of a sensory overload situation. Finally, we decided to set up camp right in the middle of Lake Eaux Lune & Flambeaux, the two largest stages, and just enjoy the rest of our night.
This ended up being one of the best decisions we could have made, because it allowed us to see arguably the best two performances of the entire weekend. First up was Pussy Riot on Lake Eaux Lune, who put on a truly unforgettable and politically-charged performance. Then again, anytime you can catch a performance that leads to a “Fuck Donald Trump!” chant with thousands of like-minded (intelligent) comrades, it’s going to be a moment you remember.
After Pussy Riot’s raucous set, it was time for the final performance of the weekend on Eaux Claires Flambeaux stage. The National, and the attendees of Eaux Claires, are certainly no strangers to each other, but somehow their hour and a half long performance felt new. Featuring guest performances from the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Chastity Brown, Julien Baker, Gordi, and many, many more, there was something within their performance that anyone in attendance could enjoy.
At one point during the performance, I laid down in the grass with my hands behind my head, staring up into the night sky, which featured quite a few more stars than you can typically see in the Twin Cities, and spent about five minutes just basking in the sights and sounds. It was an experience I don’t typically get from music festivals, and that made the entire weekend worth it for me.
After The National wrapped up, it was time for the final “big” performance of the weekend, and ultimately, the last chance Justin & Aaron had to roll out a mystery performer that would suddenly change everyone’s collective feelings about the weekend. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and it proved to just be the same performers we had already seen, sometimes two or three times already over the weekend, jamming with each other to an un-practiced song.
After about a half hour, we decided to pack up and begin our trek back to the car. We were not disappointed and agreed that even though there wasn’t a marquee surprise performance it was still an enjoyable experience and one we would remember in a positive light. That can’t be said for everyone, though, as people voiced some fairly strong opinions about the event on social media as the festival came to a close.
Many questions remain on whether or not Eaux Claires will even happen next year, but one thing everyone agreed on was that a lineup announcement will be mandatory. It was obvious to everyone that this experiment did not work, and will surely end up a determining factor in the future of this festival.