GLEAUXING REVIEWS? What People Are Saying About Eaux Claires II (updated)

Tom Giffey

Photo: J. Scott Kunkel
Photo: J. Scott Kunkel

The stages and speaker stacks have been packed away, the last Kind bars and Brewing Projekt beers have been consumed, the little orange journals have been tucked into hand-crafted memory boxes, and we’re easing our inevitable post-Eaux Claires cooldown by reliving some of the best moments of the second annual festival – as seen through the eyes of music journalists and bloggers near and far. Here’s a cross-section of what people are saying about the sophomore incarnation of the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, which brought an estimated 20,000 fans to Eau Claire on August 12-13.


The Bon Iver Debut

Photo: David Szymanski
Justin Vernon. Photo: David Szymanski

Inevitably, much of the coverage focused on the release of the much-anticipated new album from Bon Iver, the main musical project of festival founder and curator Justin Vernon. The Friday night crowd heard 22, A Million live for the first time on Friday night, with Vernon and his huge team of collaborators playing the new disc from beginning to end (with an encore of older favorites).

Ana Gaca of Spin described 22, A Million as...

“... a lovely, weird, unpredictable record, combining Vernon’s characteristic multilayered songwriting with an ever-grander embrace of electronics and an occasional blast of noise.”

“As odd as it can be to hear lyrics about creeks and reeds through a thicket of Auto-Tune,” she continued, “22, A Million sounded crisp: Eaux Claires’ organizers clearly prioritize audio quality, and perhaps it’s only to be expected that Bon Iver’s music should sound better near a forest beside a river in northwestern Wisconsin.”

"The adventurous new material pulsed with a bold urgency, as if the songs were just waiting to be unleashed to a live audience. They arrived fully formed, tightly wound, and well rehearsed, injected with the self-assurance of an artist who knows he is sharing his very best work with his fans and his friends.” – Erik Thompson, City Pages

Erik Thompson of City Pages opined that “the adventurous new material pulsed with a bold urgency, as if the songs were just waiting to be unleashed to a live audience. They arrived fully formed, tightly wound, and well rehearsed, injected with the self-assurance of an artist who knows he is sharing his very best work with his fans and his friends.”

The album release was big enough news for music website Pitchfork to live blog the Bon Iver set, offering a minute-by-minute account of the new tunes. (Sample song description: “Opens with plinky Casio rhythm and strumming intro. It’s spacious and gorgeous. There’s another big build with a drunken brass section behind Vernon. The song is built around a simple but effective riff.”) The Pitchfork writers cited a grab bag of musical influences on the album ranging from Bruce Hornsby and James Blake (Vernon collaborators who played their own sets Friday) to Radiohead and Kanye West.

Meanwhile, much digital ink was expended highlighting Vernon’s gutsy decision to debut so much unheard material in front of a massive crowd. Leonie Cooper of British music mag NME blogged that Bon Iver “has casually just revolutionised the way people premiere albums.” She continues ...

“Vernon’s most experimental work to date – ambitiously described as ‘poly-fi’ by his collaborators – it’s a world away from his woodman-sy 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, but still houses that unmistakable falsetto which will make your soul soar and your eyes damp,” she wrote. “Computer bleeps clash with guitar twangs, skittering drum machines and misty melodies for something very lush indeed.”


The Eclectic Eaux Claires Lineup

Photo: Luong Huynh
Photo: Luong Huynh

Bon Iver may be a hometown (not to mention worldwide) favorite, but the band’s performance was just one of dozens to enjoy over the weekend. By most accounts, Eaux Claires Part Deux went off without a hitch.

After Day One, Cecilia Johnson of Minnesota Public Radio’s The Curent wrote ...

“The lines have been short, the water has been plentiful, and the music has been incredible.” That plentiful water included a steady rain on Friday, but festgoers were largely undeterred by the inclement weather. They also seemed to revel in the eclectic nature of the fest, which eschewed narrow genres and embraced a broad spectrum of music, as well as literature and art.

I heard the pop fervor of Prinze George, the screams of Indonesian metal band Senyawa, and the spoken-word fire of Joe Horton (Mixed Blood Majority), which was cloistered in the tiny lighthouse,” Johnson write. “I witnessed the bash of Crescent Moon & Andrew Broder, plus the roar of punk band Tenement, plus the tranquility of the Staves and yMusic’s almost entirely new 40-minute set (thanks to yMusic’s classical nature, the Staves can now call their songs ‘pieces’ — which they say makes them feel ‘very proper’).”

"Between the near-perfect 80-degree weather on Saturday, the moderately short concession lines and all the festival’s extra gimmicks and artsy touches, most of Eaux Claires’ 20,000 attendees worked their smile muscles as hard as they did their calves." – Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune

In the Star Tribune, Chris Riemenschneider’s festival wrap-up carried “Year Two twice as fun” as a subtitle: “Between the near-perfect 80-degree weather on Saturday, the moderately short concession lines and all the festival’s extra gimmicks and artsy touches, most of Eaux Claires’ 20,000 attendees worked their smile muscles as hard as they did their calves. The latter were tested going up and down the hill and through the woods to get to all of the event’s seven stages.” Riemenschneider continued ...

“Many of the musicians appeared to be having as merry a time as the crowd. Year Two offered even more of the artistic mix-and-match and push-and-pull that Vernon pushed for in Eaux Claires’ inaugural year.”

For example, after his thunderous set Friday night, Vernon spent Saturday jamming with former Eau Clairite Phil Cook, popping onto stage with the Grateful Dead tribute set Day of the Dead, and even showing off synchronized dance moves at Francis and the Lights’ festival-ending set. As festival co-curator Aaron Dessner of The National told the crowd during the Day of the Dead performance, “This is like band camp for adults.”

 And those who attended realized Eaux Claires wasn’t all about music; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Piet Levy called it an arty escape:

“Along the wooded trail connecting the two sections of the grounds, a geodesic dome was hidden among the trees, a little padded nook inviting people to lie down and listen to an ambient synthesizer loop. Not too far away, leaves were tethered to strings, dangling in the air, stamped with phrases like ‘Be sure not to add to the heartache.’ And inside a mobile hotel room, I sat with four other people, listening to a pained, intimate reading by Kao Kalia Yang, from her new memoir, The Song Poet, about her father. … Exploring these experiences, Eaux Claires ceased being a festival. It became a retreat.”


Standing Apart

Erykah Badu Photo: Luong Huynh
Erykah Badu. Photo: Luong Huynh

Writers also noted the profusion of female musical talent at the festival. Abigail Becker of The Capital Times pointed to a lineup that included Saturday night headliner Erykah Badu, Jenny Lewis, Victoria Legrand of Beach House, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, and The Staves, whose vocal harmonies seemed nearly ubiquitous.

One of the weekend’s few hiccups was the unusually late start of Badu’s performance. “Counting the time that her band jammed onstage to cover for her, Erykah Badu went on stage about 40 minutes late,” The Current’s Johnson wrote. “Even so, she gave one of the best performances of the whole festival, using immaculate control and a fair dose of attitude to spin songs such as ‘Out My Mind, Just In Time’ and ‘Tyrone’ into shiny funk/jazz/neo-soul webs.”

A great writeup from Paul Thompson for Pitchfork offers up a ton of commentary on Eau Claire in general, speaking of Eaux Claires as an extension of the people who live here and our general mentality ...

"On paper, it’s a fairly strange place to debut the follow-up to a Grammy-winning album some five years in the making, as Bon Iver did Friday night. But once you’ve spent a little time in Eau Claire, you understand; they’re happy to share what they’ve got with the world, but not until they’ve passed it amongst themselves first. These people love where they’re from, and they want you to love it, too. They make a pretty convincing case."

Blogging for Vinyl Me, Please, Eau Claire native Amileah Sutliff explained that there’s more than “rose-colored glasses” behind this community pride:

Local author Michael Perry nailed it when he welcomed Bon Iver to the stage Friday night, praising, “Thank you for blooming up as wonderful as we thought you would.” The fondness for this community is rooted in a culture of support for the people working to see ideas and art bloom in the place they were planted. Justin Vernon saw that and wanted to share it. At its core, the festival is a celebration of that culture and a movement to spread it beyond the lines of our city. Even if woodsy, falsetto-bellowing indie folk isn’t your cup of tea, most can agree that art of any genre requires trust and belief. A place (physical or otherwise) that promises the support to experiment is what fuels growth, risk, newness and, just maybe, awe. Among the 50+ acts of Eaux Claires, there was variation in nearly every way possible, but the freely-given belief in whatever each artist was doing remained a constant.

Finally, the City Pages’ Erik Thompson summed up the vibe of the festival perfectly in the lead of his Monday morning blog post:

“Justin Vernon has helped craft the Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival into a sublime confluence of the musical influences and natural surroundings that have shaped the sound of Bon Iver.

From the artfully embellished grounds to the expertly curated bands that filled the stages, along with the benevolent spirit of collaboration that coursed through the entire weekend, Eaux Claires is Bon Iver’s ethos writ large, for the entire world to see and hear.” 

We’ll only add that we hope we’ll be hearing this for many summers to come.

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