The rumors are true: Eaux Claires is like no other music festival. The two-day event this past weekend drew music-lovers (myself included) by the thousands to the small city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where we congregated along the scenic Chippewa River in the backwoods of town, safely wrapped up in our own enchanted world of nature, friends and soul-affirming art.
Despite the festival being only three years old, it already had a lofty reputation to live up to. Co-hosts Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner (of The National) curated a strong, diverse lineup — from the legendary Paul Simon to rapper Danny Brown — to attract all sorts of festival-goers, though the Eaux Claires name alone was enough to secure a significant number of attendees. “I knew I was gonna come before I saw the lineup,” I overheard one guy say to his friend early on during the first day. This was the case for countless others, too, who had either heard whispers about Eaux Claires’ wonders or experienced the magic firsthand these past few years.
As with any young festival, Eaux Claires is still experimenting with structure. Its attendees are devoted enough to roll with the changes, though; in fact, the festival’s unpredictability is one of its most alluring characteristics. Both artists and stages were reduced in numbers this year to allow for more collaborations and surprise performances; among these were surprise sets from English folk-rock trio The Staves and indie singer/songwriter Jenny Lewis.
My time at the festival began with alternative-folk group This Is The Kit’s performance at the Flambeaux stage, one of the two large stages on the grounds’ main clearing. Coming all the way from England, their long-standing history with Dessner secured their place in Eaux Claires’ networked performers (Dessner produced their third studio album and will appear on their fourth, Moonshine Freeze). Their 2:45 p.m. timeslot put them right in the midst of what could have been an afternoon lull, but Kate Sables’ siren-esque vocals and politically-charged commentary fired the crowd up.
Next, I moved on to watch Mexican musician Julieta Venegas perform at the main Lake Eaux Lune stage. Her set was an unexpected gem — one of the weekend’s finest treasures. Her songs, all in Spanish, had attendees across the grounds swaying to the music and watching her jovial display in fascination. Despite our language barriers, Venegas’ beautiful music connected us all. She acknowledged this herself towards the end of her set , and warm vibes of community and togetherness were almost tangible in the air.
The moment Venegas’ set ended, Tweedy were ready to go across the clearing. The father-son rock band, fronted by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, emanated positivity, all smiles and laughter as they shared hits including “Summer Noon” and “Love Like A Wire.” Their set peaked when they brought Justin Vernon and friends on stage to cover “Friendship” by Pops Staples. “We got friendship, the kind that lasts a lifetime” they sang collectively. “Through all the hardship, you sure know you’re a friend of mine.”
Later that night, following stellar sets from R&B act Francis and the Lights and the playful husband-wife duo Cup (not to mention a torrential downpour), indie pop dyad Sylvan Esso wowed at the Flambeaux. Vocalist Amelia Meath’s energy was unparalleled; I have no idea how she sang so angelically while dancing with such vigor. She did eventually compose herself to make the crowd a proposition: “Do you guys wanna make one large, magnificent howl together?” she asked. We knew this was her introduction to “Wolf,” and so we did just that, tilting our rain-soaked faces toward the moon and throwing our collective voices to the wind. “One magnificent pack of wolves,” she responded, beaming down at us.
Day two held just as much charm as Friday, with even more festival-goers present to appreciate it. Glam rock artist Perfume Genius threw down at Lake Eaux Lune, commanding attention with his very presence. In his fire outfit, a layered, heeled get-up that no description could do justice, Mike Hadreas was the picture (and sound) of glorious confidence. Feist’s set afterwards was the subdued counterpart to Perfume Genius’ fantastic shebang. The pop singer commenced the day’s newly altered schedule, accelerated due to severe weather warnings. Her ballad-heavy set neared dullness as she played through her entire new album, but her last song, 2008 banger “I Feel It All,” was the perfect pick-me-up.
Over at the tiny Oxbeaux stage, indie-folk trio Mountain Man treated us to a rare performance: their first in five years. Tucked into the stage’s wooden structure, the girls reminded me of beautiful nymphs, come to Eaux Claires straight from some fairytale. Then they began singing, and it was clear we were actually with them in their magic realm. Their voices intertwined sweetly during their opening tune, “River,” pulling us into the song’s story of soft, summer dew in the heat of June (it wasn’t so hard to put ourselves in that scenario, as it happens.)
The festival’s true high point was Paul Simon — shocker (and though I say that last bit with sarcasm, I was genuinely shook watching his performance). Backed by New York chamber ensemble yMusic, Simon’s already captivating songs were downright riveting. He pulled off slower tunes like “That’s Where I Belong” and “Questions For The Angels” without losing anyone’s attention. Dark, looming clouds constantly threatened to turn the night to turmoil, but held off, as if even the elements were aware of the magic happening and didn’t want to break the spell. The set ended all too soon with a particularly heart-wrenching rendition of “The Sound of Silence.” And as much as I’d been looking forward to Wilco capping off the festival with their iconic rock tunes, I found myself wishing Simon could headline the night instead. When I think back on the weekend, it’s his songs that will ring loudest in my memories.
Rain, poor cell reception and porta potties included, Eaux Claires 2017 has serious potential to be my best concert experience of the year. In the future I’ll likely be among those who buy my ticket before the lineup is even announced — I can’t wait for more surprises, and I know I won’t be disappointed.