Eaux Claires 2016 Recap: Unapologetically Bold

Eric Christenson, photos by Lee Butterworth, Luong Huynh

Native Eau Clairians Phil Cook and Justin Vernon on stage at Eaux Claires 2016.
Native Eau Clairians Phil Cook and Justin Vernon on stage at Eaux Claires 2016.

With a handful of stages pumping out tunes from a stunning expanse of genres, interactive art installations scattered in every nook and cranny of the grounds, secret stages, collaborative performances, noise, circuitry, and experimentation – the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival went bold this year, and never looked back.

There’s the big stuff you’ve probably heard about already: Justin Vernon and the Bon Iver crew debuting the band’s unreleased new album 22, A Million live for the first time, the waves of musicians hopping in and out of the massive Day Of The Dead performance anchored by members of The National, and the debut of a forthcoming Francis and the Lights record called Farewell, Starlite! marked with a walk-off surprise cameo by Chance The Rapper and Vernon to close out the fest.

The two-day experience was just as good for those huge moments of togetherness as it was for quiet time alone. Like one moment you’d be enduring a steady rain shower among thousands while watching James Blake’s melancholy electronic wizardry shake the audience with tremendous bass tones; then the next, you’d be wandering off the beaten path discovering a leaf hanging from a nearby branch stamped with a small, starry-eyed inscription like “everything else can wait but not this." You’d head up the hill and see some of Deafheaven’s unhinged metal or Shabazz Palaces’ experimental hip hop, before accidentally stumbling on an intricate diorama by artist Gregory Euclide underground, only visible via porthole. Stuff like that.  

The
The "Baroque" organ/sculpture art installation.

There was almost too much to do in two days, which is a blessing, I suppose. There’s so much to take in from every angle that sitting and waiting to get a good spot for an act you really want to see feels like you’re wasting time and missing out on a hundred other things transpiring elsewhere on the grounds.

Art was everywhere if you knew where to look for it, and that only added to the strength of the musical performances.  

Moses Sumney had my favorite performance of the weekend, catching uproarious applause after making his afternoon crowd swoon with otherworldly falsettos and his old school soul stylings. Beach House were incredible in their perfectly infectious late night set. They were back lit the whole time, looking like swaying shadows, which definitely enhanced their witchy pop songs and stirring moments of guitar-driven chaos. Erykah Badu started almost 40 minutes late, and her set had to be cut short, but never have I seen an antsy and annoyed crowd flip moods so quickly. Such is the power of Badu. She used her time to absolutely slay her handful of tunes, and stir the souls of everyone in the bowl with her one-of-kind vocal trapeze and commanding stage presence.

There was almost too much to do in two days, which is a blessing, I suppose. There’s so much to take in from every angle that sitting and waiting to get a good spot for an act you really want to see feels like you’re wasting time and missing out on a hundred other things transpiring elsewhere on the grounds. But part of any festival experience is accepting your limitations and planning ahead.

"The Kills" – one of three stages on the upper field.

Beyond the Music and the Art

We’re finding out that a particularly cool facet of the Eaux Claires festival is the massive wave of reaction from fans, travelers, media, writers, photographers, and everyday people from around the world, making their remarks about Eau Claire – our city and our people. Thousands of people who have never been here before are suddenly upon us, discovering places we see everyday for the first time. It kinda makes you laugh a little, and maybe remember what made this place special to you in the first place.

“These people love where they’re from, and they want you to love it, too,” wrote Pitchfork after the fest. “They make a pretty convincing case.”

Many outlets praised the idyllic setting of the festival smack dab in the middle of a luxuriant Wisconsin summer. The woods and water are as much a part of this festival as anything, and I think that’s a magical thing you don’t usually get at bigger, urban festivals.  

"Secret" woodland performance space.

“The Eaux Claires venue is tucked away in a few secluded fields near the banks of the Eau Claire River, and it’s easy to believe that it exists in its own pastoral world of echoing amps and endless cheese curds,” wrote Consequence of Sound in a recent recap.  

It really couldn’t happen anywhere but here, and fest organizers made sure that visitors would leave with a piece of Eau Claire to take with them. Tangibly, maybe festgoers grabbed a keepsake notebook, some merch from Ambient Inks’ invariably busy merch tent, or something from The Local Store. But maybe they took in some intangibles too, like our community spirit, the friendliness of the people out here, or the fact that Justin Vernon was wearing a Sled Napkin t-shirt on stage.  

No doubt about it, Eau Claire is everywhere you look at Eaux Claires.  

That being said, no two attendees' festival experience is the exact same. Eaux Claires is proving to be an awesome thing out of which you can, more easily than ever, carve your own individual experience. With all its premieres, surprises, collaborations, rainfall and sunshine, Eaux Claires Deux is in the books. That’s it for this year’s festival season on those grounds. In the coming months, the grass and the dirt will get buried by snow and ice, but only for a while, until the summer sun comes back next year to melt it all away again.

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