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Eaux Claires 2015 Festival Review: From Worst to Best

Plus, an interview with co-curator Aaron Dessner of The National

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    It’s hard to know what to expect from a brand new music festival, but when the curators happen to be two of the biggest names in indie rock—Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner—chances are it’s going to be an experience. Those who ventured to Eau Claire, Wisconsin this past weekend found a festival off the beaten path in both the phrase’s literal and figurative meaning. Located away from the city proper, Eaux Claires Festival took place along the banks of Chippewa River, which provided a unique space for creativity in all forms.

    Although the festival boasted a strong indie rock presence, it wasn’t constrained by a genre-only approach. Instead, the festival became a celebration for collaboration across musical acts. The lineup featured musicians whom Vernon and Dessner creatively worked with in the past, but also extended to include performances from artists who Vernon especially admired. As a result, most shows involved guest appearances from other performers at the festival, which inevitably led to some “wow” factor level. Songs became something new with the addition of, say, a new harmony here or the punctuation of a brass band there.

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    The result was a music fan’s approach to a festival, and that excitement about music, about creativity, about collaboration infused the crowd with a community feel despite the 22,000 plus attendees. By the end of the fest, when nearly everyone was a guest on Bon Iver’s stage, the artists felt more like friends having seen them perform, heard their stories, and shared in the heat with one another. There was potential for the musical-friend-fest to turn self-congratulatory, but it didn’t, rather than feeling like an outsider, visitors were treated like guests at the table of a very exclusive dinner party.

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    Not just a music festival, though, the event boasted performance artists like Ragnar Kjartansson and Grandma Sparrow, along with art installations by Eric Rieger, whose piece decorating the festival’s entrance was specifically commissioned for the festival. Seemingly spontaneous performances and activities occurred throughout each day. No BS! Brass Band showed up often in the breaks between bands, popping up throughout the festival grounds. The Eaux Claires App was actually effective in communicating surprise performances to ensure no one attending the fest felt left out.

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    One of the more magical happenings was lead by Sam Amidon, folk musician turned choir director parade leader for the weekend. Moments like singing in a choir with Amidon or seeing Charles Bradley’s saxophone player dancing to Poliça, and running into artists enjoying themselves at shows fueled the spirit of experience.

    Since this is Eaux Claires Festival’s first year, there were inevitably hiccups, which arose mostly when it came to procuring food or merchandise. Lines for these things were often incredibly long—some 30 or 40 people deep—and there didn’t seem to be enough vendors to handle the massive crowds, especially on Saturday. The most dire of logistical madness, however, followed the conclusion of Bon Iver when thousands of people left the festival at once. It took over an hour to shuffle up the path to the majority of the shuttles. While most accepted the situation, the overall consensus likened the crowd to cattle being herded.

    Festival Grounds Crowd_Amanda Roscoe Mayo_2

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    As was reiterated repeatedly by almost every musical act performing at Eaux Claires, this festival was for the music. It wasn’t a scene, even Sufjan Stevens boasted that he never plays festivals, because he “is agoraphobic and terrified of contracting lyme disease or an STD or whatever.” But more to the point he doesn’t play them because the appreciation isn’t there. The consensus was that Eaux Claires was a special place for musicians and their fans, for art to breathe and be enjoyed. So we took on the impossible task of ranking these acts for you from worst to best, but as you’ll quickly see, there weren’t any truly bad performances.

    –Amanda Roscoe Mayo and Amanda Wicks
    Contributing Writers

    Liturgy

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Self-described as “transcendental black metal,” Brooklyn-based Liturgy began their set on Friday with ethereal, almost monk-like incantation building into the head-banging wall of sound for which Liturgy is known. They looked relatively unphased, just thrashing the day away. Frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix seemed unsure what to do, however, mostly looking upward, throwing in the occasional head-bang for good measure. Eaux Claires boasted that a genre focus was not on the minds of curators Vernon and Dessner, but the lack of crowd for Liturgy may be an indicator that black metal, even the tamest kind, might not find its audience in Eau Claire. –Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Sturgill Simpson

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    Photo by Amanda Wicks

    Playing a mix of his bluegrass and traditional country songs, Sturgill Simpson led a foot-stomping good time. His energy felt low-key for a festival set, and while he had a sizable audience, they were less attentive to his music than other performances that day. There were clearly a few fans front and center having a great time, but the rest of the crowd treated Simpson’s performance more like background music. Up against the festival’s other energetic—and surprising—performances, his didn’t compare well. –Amanda Wicks

    Spoon

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    Photo by Amanda Wicks

    After a sustained build-up lasting over one minute, Spoon burst onstage to “Rent I Pay” and a raucous crowd. One of the bigger acts—and sounds—to launch Friday night’s mid-tier shows, the Austin rockers did their set justice with loud numbers and lots of antics between band mates. At one point, a Danny DeVito lookalike Har Mar Superstar even ran onstage and danced with lead singer Britt Daniel. The band brought the energy, leaping around the stage and somehow amplifying their already big rock sound. It was a solid performance as far as American rock bands go, but it lacked the collaboration that took other shows to the next level that weekend. –Amanda Wicks

    The National

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    With guests like Sufjan Stevens, Josh Kauffman, and Justin Vernon taking the stage throughout The National’s performance, the biggest act to play on Friday easily could have been the talked about performance. While the brothers Dessner and Devendorf brought their A-game, lead singer Matt Berninger was off. After launching into 30-seconds of their opening song, “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, Berninger stopped cold and asked to start over again because things hadn’t gone perfectly. These antics informed much of what followed. Fans put up with it, but the crowd dissipated after it was clear he was going to keep interrupting the music with misgivings about his performance. Some audience members didn’t mind, though. Amanda Mayo saw one couple get engaged during the band’s performance of “I Need My Girl”, a song Stevens lent backing vocals to with ease. –Amanda Wicks

    Phil Cook

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    Photo by Amanda Wicks

    After a late Friday night, things picked back up again early Saturday afternoon. Phil Cook, a former DeYarmond Edison member, and his band the Guitar Heels got things going with the first music set of the day. It was a relaxed jam, perfect for arriving festivalgoers. Previewing many of the new songs off his upcoming solo album, Cook invited Indigo Girl Amy Ray to sing with him onstage. Ray was still in the crowd and had to run up onstage, which drew laughs from the crowd and Cook, who especially got a kick out of the moment. The two covered the classic Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “Lodi”. As the set went on, the crowd grew bigger and Cook kicked things up a notch with the last two songs, which took on a heavier blues feel. All in all, it was an enjoyable start to the day. –Amanda Wicks

    Allan Kingdom

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    Photo by Amanda Wicks

    The Canadian-rapper-turned-Minnesota-resident hit the stage late after a longer than average setup, but quickly made up for the delay with his energy. Whirling around with a frenetic energy, Allan Kingdom was clearly excited to be there and his fans more than returned that excitement. Backed only by his DJ, Kingdom had the run of the stage and used every bit of it. He got the crowd bouncing with tracks “Evergreens” and “Already”. The most endearing part may have been his friends, who stood in the photo pit, mouthing the words to every line and wearing the biggest grins as they watched their friend wow the crowd. –Amanda Wicks

    Indigo Girls

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Competing against the youthful draw Sylvan Esso, Indigo Girls claimed the main stage on Saturday evening to perform Swamp Ophelia in its entirety at the request of Justin Vernon. This was one of the many easily recognizable moments that registered as “special” to festivalgoers, especially the demographic present for Indigo Girls. It is rare to see a band play an album from start to finish and notably coming from such an important group. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers do have a new one coming out this year, and perhaps that is what made them look at ease on stage after years of being away from live performances. Overall, they enjoyed themselves, taking in the crowd, exchanging smiles, knowing looks, and having a great time. –Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Hiss Golden Messenger

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    Photo by Amanda Wicks

    Hiss Golden Messenger arrived on stage early on for a set that quickly gathered the arriving crowds. There wasn’t anything flashy about the performance. M.C. Taylor and his backing band, which included Phil Cook on keys and guitar and Brad Cook on bass, produced Americana jam after Americana jam. Glad to be the first one to get things going, Taylor called Eaux Claires “a breath of fresh air.” In the collaborative spirit of the festival, he was joined on vocals by Amelia Meath (of Sylvan Esso) and later by the NO BS! Brass Band. The brass upped the already dynamic performance, and provided a great end to the set and a stellar start to the festival. –Amanda Wicks

    Field Report

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    To their credit, Field Report ignited a palpable energy at the smaller Dells Stage early Friday afternoon despite the day’s deadly heat. This shaded stage offered the most intimate productions of the three major stages, which Chris Porterfield used to his advantage, delivering a rich and vulnerable performance. The lyrics to Field Report songs often lead to very visceral visual descriptions, but the musical arrangement is what conveys the emotive points. The sound was as full as the field of listeners gathered before the stage. Largely the set consisted of tracks from the band’s newest record Marigolden, which worked well for a hot day as it is more energetic, but the quiet moments were shared by an earnest audience. –Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Lizzo

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Backed by a live drummer and a DJ, Lizzo exploded on stage with two dancers. Melissa Jefferson gave an inspired performance while being a complete badass. She had a good time and demanded those watching to do so as well, not that any persuasion was needed. Completely killing it on “Easy Easy”–pun intended–Lizzo worked the stage with the same ease as her rap. –Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Ragnar Kjartansson’s Forever Love

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Bryce and Aaron Dessner (The National) Gyða and Kristín Anna Valtysdottir (Múm) were invited by Ragnar Kjartansson, an Icelandic performance and video artist, to stage a performance piece specifically written for Eaux Claires. Forever Love opened the festival both days. True to Kjartansson’s practice, these songs focused on the emotive crescendo patterns found in most of his work but were based on poetry about place. He quoted Sylvia Plath, Bas Jan Ader, E.E. Cummings, and others as inspiration. The Dessner twins donned vaudeville attire and guitars while the ladies wore long-sleeved, Victorian-esque dresses, repeatedly singing line after line about love and trees to an audience seated in white beach chairs. The stage itself could have walked out of a children’s fairytale book You know, the nice kind, not the Brother’s Grimm. The performance was enchanting and meditative and kind of incredible to witness. –Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Colin Stetson

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    Photo by Amanda Wicks

    Colin Stetson’s work may be most familiar for Arcade Fire or Bon Iver fans, but the talented saxophonist proved on Saturday that he didn’t need a backing band to draw his own crowd. Using breath to accentuate his voice and his instruments (tenor and alto sax), Stetson created hypnotic, pulsating music that struck a crowd hungry to hear something different. At times, because he throws every ounce of himself into his music, Stetson’s craft looked painful, but the result was something far different than seen elsewhere during the festival. Amidst a weekend of high-energy performances, coming from both music and artists, Stetson’s had a flare of experimentation that worked within the event’s creative spirit. –Amanda Wicks

    Aero Flynn

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    Photo by Amanda Wicks

    The anticipated project from former Amateur Love founder Josh Scott drew a hefty crowd, including festival co-founder Aaron Dessner and Field Report’s Chris Porterfield. Justin Vernon arrived before the set to deal with an equipment issue, drawing excited calls from the crowd. After jumping right into the set, Scott paused to engage the audience. “We’re homegrown,” he said. And with that, they were back breathing life into many of the songs off their self-titled album released earlier this year. With a luminescent slide guitar and a backing band that includes, in part, Bon Iver’s Mike Noyce, Aero Flynn found a welcoming audience hungry to hear what he’s been working on and eager to help celebrate it with him. –Amanda Wicks

    Tallest Man on Earth

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    While most artists at Eaux Claires waxed and waned with humility and gratitude, Kristian Matsson, aka Tallest Man on Earth, demanded the recognition of the crowd on Friday evening. Rather than drinking in the enormous audience assembled in front of him, a golden, sun-lit Matsson raced around the stage. His folksy tunes permeated the humidity with the majority of the set coming from the newest release Dark Bird is Now Home. Aside from his rock-star stage persona, Matsson joined the ranks of dynamite performances with piercing horns, quick-yet-comforting guitar chords, and a lively fiddle. –Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Charles Bradley

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Charles Bradley may have been performing during the hottest time of the day, but that didn’t wilt his personality. In fact, after stepping out for the first three songs in a dashing three-piece suit, the singer stepped off-stage for two songs before returning in a glittery purple vest. With his trademark scream-howl, Bradley played a mix of songs from 2011’s No Time for Dreaming and 2013’s Victim of Love, as well as his single “Ain’t It a Sin”. His band went for a different tempo, taking that driven original and slowing it down to a lament with a strong backbeat. He had the crowd swaying in no time. –Amanda Wicks

    Sylvan Esso

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    Photo by Amanda Wicks

    At Eaux Claires, the phrase a “packed house” actually translates as “to the treeline,” which described the Dells Stage Saturday evening. This is where the hippest festival attendees crowded to get a glimpse of Sylvan Esso closing out the smallest stage. Audience members didn’t seem to mind the lack of a view, singing and dancing with Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn. Their production was an excited one–including Meath breaking out into a very sultry solo dance during “Dress”. Adding to the sentiments expressed by a long list of artists, she told the crowd, “We’ve done a lot of these and this is the first one that is actually about a celebration of music.” –Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Poliça

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    A pregnant Channy Leaneagh arrived on stage wearing a tank top with the phrase “Why Sandra Bland?” scrawled across the mid-section. It wasn’t addressed during the set, but the statement was a sobering one from Minneapolis-based Poliça. Sandra Bland is the name of the Chicago Area woman found dead in her jail cell in Texas after being arrested for what most are calling a bogus traffic violation. Despite the reminder that the world existed outside the gates of Eaux Claires, Leanneagh’s vocals seemed larger than life as she mesmerized her fans. She noted how special it was to play the fest and used the opportunity to say they’d be taking a little break to “have a baby,” but looked forward to playing shows again. This was welcome news to the crowd who never stopped dancing despite the risk of heat stroke. –Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    The Staves

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    British sister trio The Staves recorded their 2015 album If I Was at Justin Vernon’s Eau Claire studio, which set the stage for a return to his inaugural music festival. Where their music seems quiet—if beautiful—on that album, it grew expansively onstage thanks to their effort to reach the massive crowd. “I don’t think we should play anywhere but in Eau Claire,” Emily Staveley-Taylor told the crowd, clearly awestruck at their positive response. Given the energy of the other performances, The Staves were a quieter set by comparison, but songs like “Steady” saw new life with the festival’s bigger sound production. –Amanda Wicks

    Doomtree

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Seven piece hip-hop outfit Doomtree piled onto the Flambeaux stage from Minneapolis, unrivaled by any other act on Friday. The energy was electric and as palpable as the collective sweating of the crowd, which turned up to level 10 once Doomtree unleashed the P.O.S-led, “Get Down”. Each member rotated through the stage seamlessly, rapping his or her part or hyping where necessary. Their performance was as tight as the crew itself and they did not let their fans down. –Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    PHOX

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    Photo by Amanda Wicks

    Playing the Dells stage, which seemed designated for regional talent, Wisconsin natives PHOX had a crowd ready and waiting to welcome them. Lead singer Monica Martin was clearly taken aback by the love, and kept pausing in between songs to take everything in. When the band played “Noble Heart”, which contains a hefty guitar solo towards the end, guitarist Jason Krunnfusz stopped the song and asked to do it over because he felt he hadn’t done it justice. It was all in the spirit of good fun, aiming to reach the bar set by the rest of the performances at the festival, and when he came back with a louder, dirtier sound, the crowd went wild. –Amanda Wicks

    The Lone Bellow

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    Photo by Amanda Wicks

    Playing early afternoon on Friday, Brooklyn country darlings The Lone Below shuffled on stage to a crowd of rabid fans. Launching their set with several songs from their latest album, Then Came the Morning, the band closed with a stunning—truly memorable—a cappella rendition of “Watch Over Us”. The kicker? The Blind Boys of Alabama joined the trio on stage to lend their voices, and the result was soaring harmonies that carried across the field with a physical energy that turned many a head. Their collaboration quickly became one of the most talked about of the entire festival. –Amanda Wicks

    S. Carey

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    If Eaux Claires were a film, S. Carey would have written the score. On Saturday, alongside the University of Wisconsin’s Eau Claire Jazz ensemble, he delivered one of the festival’s most memorable performances. I fell in love so many times this weekend, but S. Carey made me fall the hardest. Being consumed by his performance during the hottest part of the day on Saturday was an exercise in endurance, but every crescendo felt somehow timed to the sweet relief of a cool breeze. To quote the field guide given out to visitors, which included notes on each musical act by Vernon, “This is a large quiet.”–Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Sufjan Stevens

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    Photo by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Any fan of Sufjan Stevens knows he doesn’t like to play festivals. Perhaps it’s because trucking a small orchestra across the country in the heat of the summer is too much logistical noise to handle? No, it’s just because Stevens hates them. As aforementioned, the singer told the crowd, “I don’t usually play these things, I don’t really like crowds and I’m terrified I’ll get lyme disease or an STD or whatever.” Jokes aside or maybe not, he likened Eaux Claires to a “48 hour episode of My Little Pony,” which frankly only Stevens could say dripping with sarcasm but mean it.

    Admittedly, the crowd was divided for his set, with the majority in front of the stage, but a good size group watched from the main stage Saturday night as they claimed their spots for Bon Iver. It was the first and only time at the festival that it was clear where alliances landed among the visitors. Stevens gave chilling performances from his recent release Carrie & Lowell, a record about his mother, who left him when he was young and was unable to reconcile before her death. The arrangements were bright and emotional yet Stevens’ moving performance was peppered with smiles and knowing looks out onto the crowd.

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    What do you know that we don’t, Stevens?–Amanda Roscoe Mayo

    Bon Iver

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    Everyone came to Eaux Claire for Bon Iver. Twenty-two thousand people gathered around the stage Saturday evening for the final performance of the weekend. Pockets of the crowd erupted into collective sing-alongs to pass the time until author Michael Perry graced the stage to read his concluding poem. A poem about benediction and place, where people had all come to be “cradled by the river” in the near distance. Bon Iver echoed Perry’s sentiments by opening with “Heavenly Father”, The Staves provided hymnal harmonies for the following track “Lump Sum”, and the 22,000 people stood collectively in awe as they were bathed in the light of Bon Iver once more. Just as Vernon intended, special guests rotated in and out throughout the hour, always introduced by the singer-songwriter.

    While the audience fell witness to something incredible having yMusic, No BS! Brass Band, The Staves, Colin Stetson, Josh Scott, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and S. Carey sharing the stage, the truly sacred moments arrived during “Holocene” and “Wolves”, both times when Bon Iver was just Bon Iver and Justin Vernon was just Justin Vernon.

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    OTHERSELECTS_BONIVER_EAUXCLAIRES-12In between each song, as special guests shuffled on and off stage, Vernon struggled to find the words. He was full of humility and thanks and spoke more about the meanings of these songs than he ever has at a live performance. He shared a quick story about the origins of “Blindsided”–how he broke into the “RCU building in downtown Eau Claire” with his old buddy Josh Scott to his right. This was Vernon’s home field, he was comfortable on that stage tucked into the trees, and he wanted to share that. Finally, before the façade of an encore break, Vernon found the words, and through tears he said…

    “I just think that if you don’t have friendship, you don’t have anything, and I know that might sound like a Hallmark card or something, but I keep asking myself lately, ‘Is there anything greater than us? Is there anything more powerful or greater than us?” And I don’t think there is, I think it is just us and I think what we give each other and how we believe in each other, that’s how we can become greater. I saw that happening in full effect this weekend and I’m so humbled and happy to share with my friends from us to you, thank you very very much.”

    With that, Bon Iver was resurrected and played two new untitled songs and concluded with Vernon alone on a stool strumming his favorite beat-up guitar to “Skinny Love”. Those 22,000 people stood their ground hoping for more but all that was left to do was go back into the world and spread the good word about Eaux Claires with Vernon’s parting words, “THIS IS BON IVER,” ringing in our ears. –Amanda Roscoe Mayo

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    Photography by Graham Tolbert

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