Eaux Claires Day 2: More mud, more sweat, a lot more tears

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Photo by Jeremy Zimmerman | jeremy-zim.com
Photo by Jeremy Zimmerman | jeremy-zim.com

The Eaux Claires festival in Eau Claire, WI continued (read about Day 1 here) July 18 with a much slower start, a combination of Friday’s intense heat and thundershowers through the night having broken some of the pressure.

Leaving no time to waste, staff photog Jeremy and I headed over to the dome marked “Eternity Awaits” that I described yesterday. Once inside the dome, recorded “confessions” and “Alleluias” played as a soundtrack for the experiment as the hay bales started to fill with those anxious to confess. These recorded confessions included everything from a woman sharing she was really a cat to friends admitting they deceived each other; really weird mix of stuff. I pulled the number “12” from the ticket wheel and patiently waited. Astronautalis came out from the confessional between hearing confessions in full priestly regalia, guzzling a Miller Lite and sizing up every sinner in the room with his own appearance-based evaluation – never mind what each person was actually going to confess.

Finally, my ticket was called and I approached the confessional, totally unsure of what to do once I got up there. But, just like in my Catholic upbringing, I entered one side of the confessional and Astronautalis entered the other. The walls of the small box were filled with photobooth-like mugs of others; a kneeler and a screen were also present in on the wall facing Astronautalis.

Photo by Jeremy Zimmerman | jeremy-zim.com
Photo by Jeremy Zimmerman | jeremy-zim.com

“You know the drill, take a knee,” Astronautalis said comfortably as he sipped his beer. “How long has it been since your last Confession?”

Holy shit, this WAS just like real confession. Except for, you know, the beer and the grillz(™)  on  the minister’s teeth.

As we went through the motions of a very informal confession, Astronautalis shared that as long as I make amends with everyone and try to do the right thing, I’m golden forever. Who knew salvation was that easy?

Something I neglected to confess was that, while Astronautalis’ experiment was pretty funny and an interesting aspect of the festival, I was missing Elliot Moss kill it just a few hundred yards away on The Dells’ stage. I didn’t see any of this set, but you should check out the 21-year-old’s hypnotic synthy debut “Highspeeds.” I regret missing this performance.

We raced down to the Flambeaux stage to catch S. Carey (or Sean Carey), an Eau Claire native and former drummer and supporting vocalist for Bon Iver. His nature-focused set was enhanced with the help of the UW-Eau Claire jazz ensemble (adding at least another 15-20 people onstage), making Carey’s songs take on an even more film-like quality than they already have. The crowd ate up anything Carey cared to share, including favorites like “In The Dirt” and “Alpenglow.” The “Creaking” performance stood out as something special, as I’ve often overlooked the song while listening to the Range of Light album, but hearing the song live with so many collaborators brought different parts of the track to life.

Soon after, Haley Bonar had some listeners under her spell with her alternative singer-songwriter style. The St. Paul singer’s ambient songs gained some power as her strong, saccharine vocals drove the heartfelt lyrics home. I recognized “Last War,” but most of the other songs were relatively new to me. Bonar did share that she’s starting work on a new album next month, which she teased with the new track “Loving Face.”

GIVERS, a fun indie pop project from Lafayette, Louisiana, were up next on the Line Eaux Stage. The group launched into their performance with full throttle, playing mostly new material from their second album, which singer Tiff Lamson told us to expect sometime in early November. Radio favorites “Up Up Up” and “Saw You First” from 2011’s In Light were played, but far from the most impressive. Lamson really let loose and howled on electrifying songs like “Sure Thing” and “Record High,” and the chemistry surged between the rest of the band as they goofed around onstage. For a band I didn’t know much about before EXC, I’m looking forward to the release of the currently untitled album.

Pregnancy didn’t hold back Polica frontwoman Channy Leaneagh as she charged the way for the psychedelic-alt rock project through a super dance-y, energy-packed set. Leaneagh drove attention to her growing belly, in fact, by wearing a bright red tank with the words “Why Sandra Bland?” scribbled across the front, a nod to the death of Texas prisoner Sandra Bland earlier this month. Polica’s feminist lyrics and synthy space beats had the crowd on their feet through much of the performance, playing hits like “Chain My Name,” “Dark Star” (duh), and “I Need $.” A new album is expected for spring 2016.

It was hard to pull myself away from Polica’s set, but I was nervous watching the throngs of people trek from their performance to Sylvan Esso’s set in The Dells; getting up there was something of a traffic jam for a few minutes as a mass migration moved towards their stage. It might as well have been a rave; the crowd started pulsing as soon as Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn stepped onstage. Opening with “Would I,” the duo’s catchy brand of weird dance music captivated the audience. Sanborn thanked the crowd for “making us look cool,” explaining that his grandmother was in the crowd and it was her first time seeing them play (awww), and cited the festival as a “real celebration of music…the first” that Sylvan Esso’s had the opportunity to play. It was a fun performance but I didn’t stay very long since the crowd was so tight and Sufjan Stevens’ set was about to begin.

Stevens played on the Flambeaux stage for an impressive hourlong set, pulling out showstopping tracks from this year’s “Carrie & Lowell,” including a really wild rendering of “Fourth of July.” Deeper hits like “Vesuvius” also got some time in the spotlight, and Stevens expressed that his fear of festivals seemed to be coming to an end, calling the experience’s vibes like “a 48 hour episode of ‘My Little Pony.’” The light and colors used for the show created a really awesome aspect to the performance, and the production crew imitated the cathedral window effect Stevens uses on tour. The set closed with a zany version of “Chicago,” ending in a five minute straight-up jamfest as the musicians gave it all for a few minutes longer. I honestly think they would have continued playing until Bon Iver’s set started if they’d been allowed to (and I would have been totally OK with that).

The festival was on the brink of completion as 22,000 people gathered in front of the Line Eaux Lune stage for Bon Iver’s final gift of the weekend. A cool navy and orange holographic pattern appeared on the jumbo-tron, and the lights gravitated towards Justin Vernon, singing “Heavenly Father” from his perch on the keyboards. The Staves, who Vernon welcomed as his “new family,” backed him up from the other side of the stage, and of course, S. Carey joined on drums. Vernon just cruised through favorites like “Lump Sum,” “Holocene,” “Blindsided” (during which he was joined by Josh Scott of Aero Flynn, whose performance was earlier in the day), and all 22,000 remained silent, save for applause (or, if we’re being real, tears) between each song. The lights onstage flushed the scene into different waves of color, my favorite being a deep indigo during “Flume.”

Then it was time for about ten additional brass musicians (and a floodgate of emotions) to join the party, as Vernon broke into “For Emma.”

Colin Stetson and Bryce Dessner also joined for different tracks through the evening, and it was incredibly beautiful to watch Vernon follow through on the ideals of collaboration that the festival promoted.

In fact, having a moment, Vernon stopped playing music to share his thoughts with the crowd.

“If you don’t have friendship, you don’t have anything,” he said. “Is there anything greater than us? I don’t think so… I saw it happening in full effect this weekend, and I am so humbled.”

Instead of retreating backstage before the encore, as orthodox musicians often do, Vernon remained with the crowd and revealed two new songs, one having a bit of a space-y vibe, both introducing – dare I say it – more commercial appeal? They were great, but in the vein of “Heavenly Father,” Vernon’s new music sounds a little less experimental than it used to; or, maybe, mainstream music is becoming more experimental? I’m not sure, but I’m excited about what’s ahead for Bon Iver.

And, predictably – but beautifully even still – Bon Iver and The Staves closed the festival with an acoustic rendering of “Skinny Love.” I’m not sure if it was the music, exhaustion, or the heat at that point, but I cried.  My ears – but not my emotions – are so ready for the return of Bon Iver.

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