The journey to Eau Claire (pronounced “Oh Clare”), Wisconsin for the inaugural Eaux Claires (EXC) indiefolk mammoth of a festival started like a freak folk dream that never really stopped. From the time we pulled into the two hour wait line outside the muddy camping grounds Thursday night – during which antsy campers skipped up and down the aisles of cars and coolly flaunted their half-shaven haircuts on cig breaks – the party kept rolling with no signs of slowing down.
Lines of hipster drones sweated outside the gates from 10 a.m. Friday morning until they could break through to music mecca curated by the one and only Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver. (Our staff photog Jeremy cleverly nicknamed the festival #BonnarooIver.) Make no mistake about it; everything on these grounds felt handpicked by JV from the focus on Midwestern artists – every artist on the bill had a personal connection to Vernon, even those of non-Midwestern descent – to the oddly terrifying family zone – more on that tomorrow.
Just past the threshold of the gates, festival goers were greeted by an original HOTTEA yarn art installation beckoning them from above (for those of you who don’t know, HOTTEA is the pseudonym of Twin Cities street artist Eric Rieger), setting a celestial tone for the wooded festival grounds ahead.
On opposing sides of a large (read: VERY LARGE) field stood the Line Eaux Lune stage (main stage) and the Flambeaux stage (slightly less main stage), with absolutely no shade between. First on the EXC bill was Hiss Golden Messenger, whose rollicking folk rock immediately brought the Flambeaux stage to life. The crowd responded readily, dancing and clapping along to nearly every song in the duo’s short but tight set, which included tunes from 2014’s Lateness of Dancers as well as some older favorites. The No BS! Brass Band joined MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch onstage for “Blue Country Mystic,” making for a fun variation the blues-drenched fan favorite. Soon after the set, listeners dispersed to enjoy the various corners of the grounds (like these strange noise machines overlooking the Chippewa River) and scattered to find upcoming performances.
I really wanted to catch Field Report’s set in The Dells at St. Croix (a stage set apart via an uphill wooded path), having missed them multiple times over the last three years, but to no avail. By the time I figured out where the path to The Dells started, the set was more than halfway over so I staked out a spot to watch The Lone Bellow on the Line Eaux Lune stage instead. I’m pretty happy with my decision.
Leaving no moment to waste, The Lone Bellow tore onstage with unrivaled enthusiasm, bringing the crowd to its feet. The charming Brooklyn alt-country trio had two extra members performing on tour, rounding out a fuller sound. Frontman Zach Williams riled up the audience during “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home,” wildly running through the photo pit and into the crowd only to sprint backstage to make it onstage for the next song. One of the most fun performances I watched all weekend, without a doubt.
The blazing heat spared no cheeks or shoulders unscathed, farmers tans and sunburns left in its wake. The heat advisory plaguing the East Coast all weekend was in effect in Wisconsin as well, and a few cases of heat stroke and dehydration were reported through the day. #ProTip, festival-goers: drink water, drink more water, and then…drink more water. Seriously.
I finally trekked up to The Dells to catch part of Liturgy’s set. However, I became pretty bored watching the Brooklyn four-piece standing still in front of a psychedelic static pattern in front of a screen and decided to ditch the set after two or three songs. Don’t get me wrong; “The Ark Work,” the band’s 2015 release, is a pretty good soundtrack for spacing out on a relaxing afternoon, but their live performance game could use some amping up.
I wandered around the installations in The Dells for a little bit; in addition to all the stages at EXC, there were three igloo-like domes spaced out across the hills in The Dells. Seeing an igloo with a big image of headphones attached (and completely neglecting to read the description of each Dells igloo in my field journal), I became really excited thinking I was finally entering a real Silent Disco. Sadly, it was just a Sennheiser-endorsed film screening that wasn’t showing for another two hours, so I walked outta there slightly disappointed.
The igloo closest to the stage was filled with one wall of television sets, all displaying different static patterns. On the other side of the room, a crowd of boys huddled over a switchboard, pressing different buttons and watching the static on the TVs change. I didn’t get it and moved along.
The third igloo was by far the most interesting – and maybe the weirdest – part of The Dells (scratch that; definitely the weirdest). Outside the igloo stood a sign resembling a church sign that read “Eternity Awaits” with a phone number listed below. Walking in, a wooden confessional was set up on a platform on one side of the igloo, with strange signs of the rapper Astronautalis dressed like a preacher behind catchy phrases such as “Google Maps won’t show you the way to Heaven” and “Y.O.L.F. – You Only Live Forever,” etc. Two rows of hay bales lined the floor, several kids (read: early twenty-somethings to late fifty-somethings) in bro tanks and flower crowns perched on each one. In the opposite corner, a “hipster angel” of sorts sat behind a card table holding a stack of books seemingly written by the teacher himself, Astronautalis, as well as a number wheel like you might see at a deli counter. The hip angel explained to me, “In case you need tickets to the kingdom of Heaven, I have them right here for free.” Scared yet? She continued.
“When the minister returns, he’ll call the numbers pulled from the number wheel so that we too may confess our sins and go forward.” I decided to come back and confess later; check out tomorrow’s Day Two recap to find out what that was like.
Meanwhile on the Line Eaux Lune stage, The Staves were warming up their mellifluous vocal chords for a stunning set. It only took six measures and the first verse of “Blood I Bled” for the Staveley-Taylor sisters (Jessica, Camilla and Emily), an acoustic folk trio from England, to captivate the audience. The sisters’ vocal control and startling harmonies were arresting; even in the Wisconsin inferno happening on the field, I’d bet most listeners had chills for the majority of the trio’s forty-five minute set continued. The clarity in their voices was so striking, and on songs like “Black & White,” “Make It Holy” and “Teeth White,” one might find themselves strangely aware of how flawless The Staves’ harmonies are. The band’s been releasing EPs since 2011, but the synchronicity in their set is a well-oiled machine that sounds like it took decades to perfect. Color me impressed.
The next set I checked out was Doomtree, a seven-piece Minneapolis indie hip hop group. The group’s quirky style and all-or-nothing approach to performing was fun to watch; all the members bounced around stage, creating a positive, energy-driven dynamic, but it was obvious that while the crowd might have been entertained, not too many were very familiar with the group’s music (myself included). The tracks “Final Boss” and “Bangarang” stood out as particularly cool tracks – I’d keep an ear out for this group; looks like they’re featured on the bills of a few top festivals for the rest of the summer. Their 2015 album All Hands is a pretty fun listen, as well.
Spoon is one of my favorite bands to catch live, and this time was no different. Britt Daniel’s energy level is just leaps and bounds beyond artists half his age, and you can feel the band genuinely having fun with each other in each track. While much of the set came from last year’s excellent They Want My Soul, it was a pretty solid mix of new songs and old favorites like “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” “Me And The Bean” and “The Way We Get By.” My only complaint was the lack of energy the audience was feeding back to the band, but that could have partially been due to the distance between the stage and me. It was a pretty fun hour-long dance party, if I do say so myself.
Winding things down on the opposite side of the field, romantic sad boy Tallest Man on Earth aka Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson graced the Flambaux stage with his sweet crooning and plucky love songs. I’m not as familiar with his full catalogue of music but it sounded beautiful, and many listeners sang along to more popular songs like “The Gardener” and “The Wild Hunt,” as well as a lot of songs from this year’s “Dark Bird Is Home.” The subdued set was a great soundtrack to the sun’s slow descent.
The National took to the Line Eaux Lune stage shortly after 9 p.m. Frontman Matt Berninger and sets of Dessners (Bryce and Aaron) and Devendorfs (Scott and Bryan) barreled onstage with gusto…maybe a bit too much, actually. Starting off with “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” the tempo seemed to have caught Berninger off guard and the band had to start over, missing the first few lyrics of the song. I don’t think anyone really minded though – I definitely didn’t – as the rest of the performance took off without a hitch.
It was so refreshing and awesome watch The National own their deserved spot as a festival headliner and just freaking rule the night as they continued to play a straight hit parade from start to finish. While many songs from the set were from Trouble Will Find Me (2013), The National dug pretty far into their discography to unearth tracks like “Abel” and “About Today” as well as the necessary wailers like “Squalor Victoria” (try not to scream along to that one) and “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”
Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, one of the leading inspirations behind The National’s project to make the six-hour recording of “Sorrow,” hopped along onstage with some quirky dance moves during “Sorrow,” much to the crowd’s entertainment and amusement/slight annoyance from Berninger, who basically scolded Kjartansson for acting like that during “a very, very sad song.” The National also paid tribute to The Grateful Dead with a great rendition of “Peggy-O,” which was fun to hear.
Oh, and the rumors are totally true. Sufjan Stevens and Justin Vernon DID accompany The National onstage at different points to spice things up; both musicians joined on “Slow Show” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” It was awesome.
This was only Day One of EXC – make sure to check out tomorrow’s recap to read about what goes into the full EXC experience.
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