Eaux Claires 2017
It’s difficult to walk into either a new or an old restaurant today and not be served food described as organic, artisan, farm-to-table, heirloom or house made. We all get it. You’ve made something special with foraged ingredients that are unadulterated. That is the way people want to eat today because it seems more pure and authentic rather than processed and plebian. Most music festivals cannot make that same claim about the way their music comes together as a medley (even if they serve food that fits that description-I’ve eaten plenty of grass fed meats at festivals). Eaux Claires, the curated festival of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner certainly put out a spread like no other. Just like they have the past two years, Eaux Claires provided an intimate musical, intellectual, and community experience like no other festival in a most serene setting along the banks of the Chippewa River in Eau Claire, WI.
The theme of Eaux Claires is clearly community. The artists, both musical and visual are almost uniformly accessible to any fan, not just in terms of medium, but also in terms of proximity. Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn could be found exploring in the woods near the Oxbeaux “hut” stage and Aaron Dessner was often seen walking across the grounds, seemingly trying to catch a part of fellow musician’s set in-between one of his own appearances. No security guards in tow. No golf carts. No entourage. No velvet ropes or slipping the maître de a Benjamin to get in.
The music at this year’s festival was definitely genre bending. Day one ranged from Chance the Rapper’s powerful and uplifting headline performance on the Lake Eaux Lune stage that included many standout tracks from his 2016 release _Coloring Book_, to Justin Vernon’s collaborative effort to honor John Prine’s work in a performance called The American Songbook. While the larger main stages provided the major draw for most, it was the smaller side stages that drew me in like an all you can eat buffet. The Oxbeaux stage, with its Scandinavia style hut tucked into lush foliage, provided the most intimate and riveting performances of the day, with two sets from the Wilco side project The Autumn Defense, fronted by John Stirratt and Pat Sansone. This was a tasty appetizer for another course from Wilco, this time Tweedy, the project of Jeff Tweedy and his drumming son Spencer. Their set included much of the music from Sukierae, the album named after Jeff’s wife and Spencer’s mom Susan. The set highlight was an appearance from Phil Cook (who must have been cloned because he was EVERYWHERE this weekend) and Justin Vernon for a cover of Wilco’s California Stars. In 20+ Wilco/Tweedy/Jeff Tweedy shows, I’ve never seen Jeff so happy and engaging.
Day two proved to be every bit the smorgasbord as day one. Wisconsin bred Collections of Colonies of Bees kicked off the day with a stellar set of experimental meanderings that they wrote specifically for the Eaux Claires festival. Lush droning guitar looped from Chris Roseneau and haunting (and looped) vocals from Marielle Allschwang were a perfect start. Back to the woods for a standout set from the UK’s This is the Kit.
They couldn’t believe the crowd that assembled, saying, “I don’t even know how you guys know who we are.” The huge crowd indeed will remember who they are going forward. Beautiful harmonies and layered guitar work with a special appearance from Aaron Dessner. What followed was a whirlwind trip to the buffet.
Eaux Claires is always about pop ups, like those special restaurant nights with guest chefs. What came next was a hustle between Big Red Machine, fronted by curators/chefs Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon, Jenny Lewis playing to 5000 people in the woods, Field Report with an impromptu set overlooking the river, and Mountain Man, Amelia Meath’s acapella group from NC. Big Red Machine and Field Report were an amuse bouche for Mountain Man. Their 30+ minute set was tear invoking. Not a peep could be heard from massive crowd scattered in and around the trees.
The day wrapped up with Perfume Genius and Danny Brown from afar followed by Feist, who played music from upcoming album for the first time. The skies let loose leading up to Paul Simon’s performance. Reservation cancelled, unfortunately for this patron. Wilco would have to wait until Sunday.
In its third year, Eaux Claires has continually streamlined their menu, doing away with items that cluttered dining options while also adding favorites. The executive chefs Dessner and Vernon have put together a seven-course tasting menu that is innovative and filling. Most of all, it tastes so good. I’m making my reservations early for next year’s pastiche.