Music Events

Eaux Claires IV: Recapped

Eric Christenson, photos by Branden Nall, Luong Huynh |

The Flambeaux stage. (Image: Branden Nall)
The Flambeaux stage. (Image: Branden Nall)

“Fly or fall on feeling.” That was at the core of Eaux Claires’ no-lineup philosophy for 2018. Feeling. And there’s a lot of feelings out there at the moment. 

Seemed like a lot of fest-goers were really quick to shout out their distaste with the lineup – which didn’t feature a so-called “big name,” but did feature a lot of really, really good ones. The lineup argument is obviously a matter of perspective (mostly). And I also think we’re all tired of hearing about it, and you’ve probably already got your mind made up about it anyway, so I don’t need to wax about it here. Instead I’d rather be honest and say I don’t really care. I had a good time.

IV certainly felt loose in a way it hasn’t before. No-lineup thing aside, there were some logistical oil slicks out there like long bathroom/beer lines, long food lines, schedule flips, and whatnot … garden variety music festival stuff that could’ve been tightened up quite a bit. I still had a good time.

It’s pretty simple really. The music was great, the mosquitos were terrible, they had beer for sale, the weather was as perfect as it’s ever gonna be. It’s a good music festival and I had a good time. Dreaming up something bigger and getting angry when it’s not that just seems like a waste of time to me. But you do you.

I walked in Friday afternoon, and while everyone was riffing their flaming hot lineup takes, I was listening to the sweet sounds of Wye Oak, who pounded out a terrifically dreamy early set. Following that up on the Lake Eaux Lune stage with Julien Baker’s heart-wrenching songs was a cathartic kind of chill – and we got to see Baker’s powers pop up for different performances no less than half a dozen times throughout the weekend, which was a true blessing in and of itself. Julien Baker gets the MVP.

Julien Baker (Image: Luong Huynh)
Julien Baker (Image: Luong Huynh)

Serpentwithfeet was a stunner on Friday, swirling his one-of-a-kind voice up to otherworldly levels for big anthems about the complexities of queer love at the House of IV – the Vans stage that had some absolute knock-outs all weekend. Later on, Serengeti had a super fun set, and after midnight, Marijuana Deathsquads did their thing 'til close night one, seemingly scraping every sound in the universe together and letting it blast at full capacity.

The Flambeaux stage was transformed into a stage in the round for IV, and while it had few drawbacks, it was home to some pretty cool stuff. Big Red Machine – a new project from Eaux Claires co-curators Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner – performed there Friday night under a stunning, sky-high light show. Earlier, the brothers Dessner scored a killer performance by TU Dance on satellite platforms surrounding Flambeaux out in the crowd. And at one point, Francis Starlite sang a few songs karaoke-style. And he straight up just played Kanye West’s “Lift Yourself” – a capital-G Good song, by the way – with all the “whoopty scoopty poops” and none of the actual Ye. Ah well, there’s always next year … 

The woods were pretty fantastic this year if you knew where to look. There were hushed concerts at a solo pedal-affected piano, the wooded Oxbeaux stage, a giant house structure where everything you touched was an instrument, and a Player Fence. Artists like Gordi, S. Carey, and Baker made good use of the experimental stages by daylight, and by night they came alive with electricity. The Oxbeaux stage was draped in screens – one of them with some Super Smash Bros. being played live – for Psymun’s cool late night set where the Twin Cities producer’s reverb-drenched hip hop beats were paired with vocal contributions from Corbin, Dua, Spank Rock, and Velvet Negroni. Down the wooded path and behind a mural at a stage called The Hunting Blind, super secret raves happened both nights. Because, I’m sorry, you can’t always shake your booty to The National, ya know?

The National with Phoebe Bridgers (Image: Brendan Nall)
The National with Phoebe Bridgers (Image: Branden Nall)

Saturday heightened the music, and was stacked with most of the best stuff. Kevin Morby and Phoebe Bridgers had awesome afternoon sets, which were followed up with a breathtaking Moses Sumney performance at Lake Eaux Lune. Watching Sumney kill with his slot two years ago at Eaux Claires before anybody knew who he was, then seeing him return this year to blow the doors off the main stage with a master class in what a gifted vocalist is capable of – it felt amazing.

I loved getting to see Noname bring the bounce with soulful beats and boundless raps; it was fun as all get out and she is fantastic. And later at the stage in the round, I really loved Sharon Van Etten’s minimal performance. Where her records are typically layered productions with a bunch of instruments, she kept it synthy and bass-heavy and let her voice and gut-wrenching words do to the heavy lifting. For a rare set after a long hiatus, I am definitely here for it.

Pussy Riot (Image: Luong Huynh)
Pussy Riot (Image: Luong Huynh)

And we need to talk about Pussy Riot. The buzzy Russian feminist protest artists brought irrepressible energy to their rare American performance. With spastic visuals full of fiery slogans and lyrics laced with anti-corruption, anti-sexism, and anti-hate messages along with thick, heavy dance beats – it’s a performance that you could never dream of seeing in Eau Claire, and we’re lucky for it. I feel lucky, at least. Crowds were sleepy on the whole, but during Pussy Riot, it seemed to come alive like no other. For sure, one of the most truly unique performances this festival has ever had.

So I feel good about IV, and you can feel whatever you feel about it. Let me just say, before you puke your guts out, consider how lucky we are that every summer, this kinda thing can happen here in the Chippewa Valley. Consider the breadth of artists that came here for Eaux Claires and came a couple days earlier for Prex Claires. Think about five years ago before all this stuff started happening. 

And now breathe. 

And now let us know what you think.

(Image: Brendan Nall)
Flambeaux (Image: Branden Nall)