Eaux Claires 2017: In the Woods and in the Rain

Eric Christenson, photos by Lee Butterworth, Luong Huynh

Friday after the rain.
Eaux Claires, Friday, after the rain.

When you’re in Wisconsin, the weather in June can be miraculous or tumultuous depending on the hour. You’re out there, the sunshine’s beating down, the humidity swells, the air gets thick, and before you know it the sky turns into one giant menacing cloud and thundering rain gushes down on you within a matter of minutes. You can’t predict when it’s going to happen, you can only adapt once it does.

It happened off and on throughout Troix, the third installment of the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, but the tricky weather was never enough suppress the creative energy, the artistic drive, and the Wisconsin-y good vibes that permeate year after year. Optimistically speaking, it actually added a cool wrinkle to some of the weekend’s best performances.

John Prine set.
John Prine set with Bon Iver and friends.

Like John Prine walking onto the stage at the same time as a huge thunderclap – that’s pretty dang cool. Or the booming 808s throughout Danny Brown's powerful set that made the raindrops vibrate as they fell – that’s pretty cool too. Or hearing Paul Simon and yMusic do a neo-classical version of “The Sound Of Silence” while lightning flickered in the sky above – that was almost too good.

Of course it wasn’t all gloom and doom; there was plenty of sunshine to go around. Sylvan Esso was better than ever for their fantastic Friday night set, where the North Carolina duo pumped out spastically infectious pop beats to a rain-soaked crowd who tried their hardest to dance themselves dry. Then across the field, Chance The Rapper took over for his absolutely crushing blockbuster set mostly comprised of cuts from last year’s universally-lauded mixtape Coloring Book. He is the best. Chance is a uniquely magnetic performer, and it felt otherworldly and lucky to see him in Eau Claire. The nearly 90-minute show was complete with smoke blasts, a killer light show, and at one point, the entire music video for “I’m The One,” Chance’s superstar collab with DJ Khaled, Justin Bieber, Quavo, and Lil Wayne.

Saturday kicked off strong as Philadelphia rappers Spank Rock and Amanda Blank brought insurmountable energy to their incredible afternoon set, pushing the Flambeaux stage sound system to its limit with a bunch of club-ready bangers that would make your grandparents blush. Immediately after, Jenny Lewis showed up and did a surprise set of breezy country tunes a couple steps away at the wooded Sparreaux stage, backed up by JT Bates and Mike Lewis. Perfume Genius wowed with their catalog of emotionally resonant songs that could be pin-drop hushed at one moment and completely bombastic in another. I saw the most tears at either Perfume Genius or Paul Simon. You can't help it sometimes.

Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso

Across both days, Troix embraced the woods – ticks and all – in a way the fest never has before. On one end, the treehouse vibes of the Oxbeaux stage saw some impressive acts like stunning three-part folk harmonies from Mountain Man in their first performances in five years and later, a surprise set by The Staves who did a spin on Simon & Garfunkel's “The Only Living Boy In New York” (a personal fave) with their signature sisterly harmonies. Another end of the woods was transformed into an art gallery with wooded installations where you could rearrange different words printed on white feathers refrigerator-magnet-style, you could check out controlled water drops falling on different stuff in intricate rhythms, or relax in an entire living room set up with couches and a TV that's playing Super Bowl I.

The Oxbeaux stage.
The Oxbeaux stage.

As has become the norm at Eaux Claires, there were musical collaborations happening everywhere all the time on every stage. Each day saw a PEOPLE Mixtape set anchored by festival co-curators Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon where tons of musicians on the lineup came together for extended jams. Elsewhere, Astronautalis showed up to freestyle with the inventive percussion of s-t-a-r-g-a-z-e. The John Prine tribute set had Phil Cook, Jenny Lewis, Spank Rock, Amanda Blank, Chris Porterfield of Field Report, Mountain Man, Jeff Tweedy, The Staves, and soul legend Swamp Dogg all show up to sing Prine’s classics before Prine even hit the stage himself. Vernon, as is customary, appeared all over the place, singing Wilco and Billy Bragg’s “California Stars” along with Tweedy and gleefully joining in the choreography with Chance The Rapper and Francis And The Lights as they sang “Friends” during Chance’s set.

Chance The Rapper.
Chance The Rapper.

Heavy storms encroached on Saturday evening pushing main stage acts earlier and abandoning the side stages, but like I said, you can only adapt once it happens, so acts like Velvet Negroni and Phil Cook did their thing back in town out of the mud at The Lismore Hotel. Meanwhile back at the grounds, Wilco – whose members all had busy weekends performing with their side projects – closed out Eaux Claires by relishing in the stormy darkness and even playing a little long despite the foreboding lightning. Jeff Tweedy was almost gleeful before "Via Chicago" when he said, "We're usually playing outside when it's sunny, and this song really bums people out, but this is (expletive) perfect." It truly was.

Eaux Claires has evolved somewhat drastically year to year over the last three summers. With re-evaluated grounds, new ways to unlock different spaces, new collaborations, new visions, and new spots to take it all in, you’ve got to go out there ready to wander and be surprised. The whole shebang has this choose-your-own-adventure vibe to it where anything can happen – you forge your own path immersed in art of all kinds, you come out muddy, sweaty, exhausted, and damned if you’re not ready for more.

Press and hold the up/down arrows to scroll.