Recapping Eaux Claires 2015

Eric Christenson, photos by Lee Butterworth, Luong Huynh

Bon Iver closing the fest on Saturday night, July 18.
Bon Iver closing the fest on Saturday night, July 18.

Eaux Claires is the coolest festival in the country and it’s ten minutes from my house. 

The sights and sounds were unlike anything this area has seen before, with 22,000 attending the music and arts fest at the festival grounds, just southwest of Eau Claire. Yeah, there were bands. They were playing on stages. That’s usually where other music festivals stop trying.

But Eaux Claires boomed with creative, experimental energy all brewed in the brains of its curators Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Aaron Dessner of The National, and creative director Michael Brown. We witnessed a festival chock full of art, music and savvy blending of the two, all with a pinch of collaboration and endless contributions from Chippewa Valley-ans of all kinds.

Entering Eaux Claires under art from HOTTEA.
Entering Eaux Claires under art from HOTTEA.

The local Eau Claire magic many of us feel on a regular basis was on full display at the festival with gorgeous muggy weather all weekend, a warm inviting atmosphere, a full sky of stars at night, and a ruckus of a thunderstorm overnight between days.

The collaborative nature of the festival shares creative DNA with Vernon’s whole career. We saw it happen. The bleak, solo vibes of the debut record that made him famous gave way for 10 years of making songs with old friends like Ryan Olsen and the Cook brothers and new ones like Aaron Dessner and Kanye West (Oh, and despite some fans’ signs and wishful thinking, Yeezy was not present at the festival this year).

A rare festival appearance from Sufjan Stevens on Saturday evening (July 18).
A rare festival appearance from Sufjan Stevens on Saturday evening (July 18).

So naturally, Vernon utilized every possible spare second he had to hop on stage with his friends, from shredding guitar with the Blind Boys of Alabama to yelping fluttering auto-tune with his old buddy Josh Scott’s band Aero Flynn. He joined The National during their Friday night headlining set, he crooned with The Staves, and he received personal thanks on stage from many of the acts he helped bring here. He was having a blast in his hometown.

Countless acts with or without Eau Claire ties proclaimed their love for this place and the spirit behind the Eaux Claires festival.

During his wildly impressive set, Sufjan Stevens remarked how his time in Eau Claire while finishing his newest critically-acclaimed and heart-crushing album, Carrie & Lowell was spiritually healing and how the landscape of our area had showed him true nature. He doesn’t normally play festivals, but for Eaux Claires, he happily made the exception calling it “a picture of abundance.

The No BS! Brass Band – one of multiple acts interacting with the crowds.
The No BS! Brass Band – one of multiple acts interacting with the crowds.

And then there’s Bon Iver’s climactic festival-closing set, an emotional array of the band’s best – and their first live performance since 2012. The 90-minute show saw on-stage collaborations with a good chunk of the full festival lineup with shiver-inducing harmonies from The Staves, a few verses by Josh Scott, orchestral flourishes by yMusic, triumphant horn blasts by the No BS! Brass Band, earthy sax tones by Colin Stetson, and more.

Finally after a powerful set, Vernon and co. launched into two brand new songs (somewhat quelling the buzz that Bon Iver is finished) before Justin Vernon sat center stage with an acoustic guitar and played “Skinny Love,” with the entire crowd singing along – all the words. It couldn’t help but feel as though everything, for just a moment, had come full circle here in Eau Claire.

And maybe it will time and time again for years and years to come. But there’s something magical about being there for the beginning.

The final night's 22,000 listeners.
The final night's 22,000 listeners.

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