Throughout Eaux Claires Troix, multiple performers called the festival a “musical experiment.” Others touted it as a way to celebrate friendship, while yet others talked about the festival’s golden reputation. And, as Eaux Claires’ co-founder and Eau Claire native, no one stood taller across the weekend than Justin Vernon. Looking around the campground, it was impossible to go a few seconds without spotting someone either wearing something Bon Iver-related or tattooed with iconography. For that reason, it seemed obvious that the band’s set would be the most anticipated of the weekend. But in true Eaux Claires fashion, the set was labeled “Bon Iver Presents John Prine & The American Songbook,” Vernon and a constantly rotating all-star troupe performing sweet, soaring, respectful covers of the legend’s material. Sam Amidon’s impeccable banjo playing was only outdone by his shouted harmonica impression, having left the actual thing backstage. The trio of Mountain Man vocalists’ rolling harmonies on “That’s the Way the World Goes Round” proved to be a highlight, as did Jenny Lewis’s take on “Christmas in Heaven”. The set featured everyone from The National’s Aaron Dessner to rapper Spank Rock, all smooshed into the Prine mold. After an hour or so of amiable collaboration and beautiful songs, Vernon welcomed his hero to the stage — and then the thunder, lightning, and rain came hard, Prine himself performing only a couple of songs.
The set proved emblematic of the entire festival: full of friendship, family, passionate performance, and surprises, beauty that not even storms could completely drown out, no matter how torrential. That collaborative spirit certainly made the already small festival feel that much more tight knit, the campgrounds full of new friends and shared meals. The woods surrounding the festival were also littered with fascinating art experiences, lending an even more magical feeling to the proceedings. There was a drum kit composed of glass jars, pieces of rain gutter, and other assorted odds and ends, played by water droplets launched by a tablet computer sequencer. There was a terrarium of crickets with a microphone pointed into it, the surrounding speakers playing back the insects’ soothing calls. There were also roving groups of artists tying everything together, from the traditional dancing and percussion of Native American performers Midnite Express to the incredibly less traditional group of artists who donned pinkish sleeping bags and wriggled around, calling themselves Worms.
Now three years into its existence, Eaux Claires has established itself as a leader through creating an incredible, fulfilling artistic experience for the performers, which of course naturally leads to an equally powerful experience for attendees. The mix of big-name headliners (Paul Simon, Chance the Rapper, Wilco), unique collaborations (the Vernon-Aaron Dessner project Big Red Machine, and the many Wilco offshoots), and local heroes (Collections of Colonies of Bees, S. Carey, and, of course, Vernon himself) made for a small but very cohesive experience. At just two days, Eaux Claires packs a whole lot into its brief moment, and leaves attendees wanting more. And with the glut of festivals stretching longer and longer, that’s quite the compliment. That said, it was still a real challenge to pick out the best highlights, but here are the top 10.
–Lior Phillips and Adam Kivel
Click through to read about our Top 10 sets of the weekend and check out our exclusive photo gallery.
10. Big Red Machine
Collaboration and surprises were the name of the game at Eaux Claires, and one of the showstoppers in both regards was Big Red Machine. The collaboration between Aaron Dessner and the festival honcho himself, Justin Vernon, jammed out during one of Eaux Claires’ People Mixtape sets, and performed new songs on a pre-announced set on day two. “This is stuff that we’re working on,” Vernon offered, putting their craftwork on intimate, straightforward display. At one highlight, Dessner and Vernon’s guitars intersected like two butterflies flitting around each other in intricate circles, while the Bon Iver frontman pushed his voice through a screen of glitchy modulation. While Vernon made appearances at many other sets, this was the one where he felt immediately there. His own set celebrating John Prine and the American Songbook worked like a mixtape, he added vocals harmonies during Tweedy, tried on his old rock getup for The Shouting Matches, and he danced for Chance, but Big Red Machine captured the present and offered a glimpse of what may come in the future. –Adam Kivel
09. Francis and the Lights
Say what you will about Francis Starlite, but the dude knows how to put on a show. The Francis and the Lights mastermind set up shop on the Creek stage with production duo Inc. No World, and owned every inch of the wooden platform. The stage was buttressed by two ramps leading to crow’s nest platforms, and if anyone was going to make use of the unique space, it was going to be Francis. Like a fusion of a reincarnated Prince and a hyperactive kid given the mic at his bar mitzvah and not letting go for dear life, he jittered his way around the stage. His limbs swung like a marionette under the guidance of a master puppeteer dealing with kinked strings: lots of unexpected twitches and hitches, but they somehow all came together. When he did sit down at the keys, Starlite used those same jumpy mechanics vocally, hitting unexpected places and making them work. Songs like “See Her Out” and “Friends” had their own unexpected quirks, but the most unexpected of all was his full rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Maybe he saw a scout from the Milwaukee Brewers and felt like auditioning for the next homestand. –Adam Kivel
“Eaux Claires, your reputation has preceded you,” Leslie Feist smiled, after performing a smoky rendition of the title track from her latest. That was a straightforward enough start for a musician touring on the back of a new record, but what followed was anything but. “We want to do something special for you and these incredible clouds,” she smiled, leading her band into a front-to-back performance of Pleasure, as smoldering and grand as the recording. The peak of the set was the ecstatic “Any Party”, the intimacy of the song somehow palpable even across the vast, damp field. Meanwhile, the limber “Baby Be Simple” led to quite a bit of swaying. The Eaux Claires crowd clearly enjoyed the new album, showing ample appreciation, but nothing, of course, could earn the level of love of classics “My Moon My Man” and “I Feel It All” at the end of the set. “I do, I feel it all,” she beamed. Feist seemed truly refreshed, and the feeling was contagious. –Lior Phillips
07. Julieta Venegas
Singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas and her band made their way up to Eau Claires from Mexico, but unfortunately, their instruments didn’t. “We got stopped in customs,” she began, which was quickly and swiftly met by a powerful chorus of boos. Though they certainly were given a tough task, Venegas and her compatriots certainly faced down the challenge. Even playing an unfamiliar accordion much larger than her own, Venegas’ passionate, inventive songwriting and intense stagecraft didn’t show an ounce of unease. Highlight “Limon y Sal” (the title track of her 2006 studio album) twirled and soared in the midday sun, the small outfit managing a whole lot of beauty. In a festival somewhat lacking in diversity, it was refreshing to hear Venegas’ Spanish-sung songs. Though now seven albums into a powerful career, Venegas has yet to receive the attention in the US that this set proved she deserves and can receive. –Adam Kivel
06. Jenny Lewis and Guests
Before the second day of Eaux Claires, there was a slot set aside on day two at the tiny Sparreaux stage for Trevor Hagen Mixtape Vol. 1. The longtime friend and former bandmate of Justin Vernon’s may not exactly be a household name, but considering the collaborative nature of the title and fest, it seemed worth checking out. Consulting the festival app Saturday morning, though, it was as if a section of my phone screen had turned into a giant, flashing neon light: “Jenny Lewis with Guests.” The change appeared to be so impromptu that not everyone on the festival staff knew it was even happening. I high-tailed it to the shaded stage, but it seemed I wasn’t alone in excitement — the crowd rivaled that of the main stages. As Lewis began her set, I was lured further and further by her euphoric voice, snaking through the pack. Before I knew it, I was inches from Lewis’ face as she serenaded a pregnant woman at the front of the crowd. Only at Eaux Claires would a singer of Lewis’ stature find herself at a stage as intimate and small as Sparreaux, and she made the most of it. New songs about being a party clown and wasted youth were absolutely beguiling. When Lewis made a one-song appearance at the Bon Iver set, it seemed like she’d be sure to pop up again, but a full set like this felt like an unexpected blessing. –Lior Phillips