“This is a festival based on improvisation and collaboration,” weekend narrator Michael Perry said to the Eaux Claires crowd this Saturday, before headliners Paul Simon with yMusic and Wilco capped the two-day festival with epic performances despite apocalyptic weather permeating the sky. From impromptu pop-up stages along the grounds to weather-driven rescheduling, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner’s “anti-musical festival” festival stayed true to billing.
Friday headliner Sylvan Esso energized crowds with their signature electro-pop dance tracks, while Bon Iver covered songs by legendary country musician, John Prine, in a set that was heavy on collaboration (including Jenny Lewis, Spank Rock, Mountain Man, Phil Cook, and Prine himself). The entire weekend saw this narrative of collaboration and artistic reciprocity unfold along the banks of the Chippewa River.
Held in Vernon’s hometown, Eaux Claires has quickly garnered respect for eschewing corporate sponsorship and mega-festival homogenization for mostly Midwestern-grown music, art, and food. Year three saw Vernon and Dessner play with house money, betting that after the headliners, the core base would still be enthusiastic for a compact lineup, reconfigured festival grounds, and a weekend that would not include a single Bon Iver song.
“Well, you better not fuck it up,” Vernon sang during the weekend’s opening set, a seemingly self-directed warning and reminder about the impermanence of these two days.
Blink and You Might Miss SomethingCurators encouraged everyone to wander the wooded grounds on a causal obstacle course complete with monkey bars, booby-traps of twine obstructing paths, and mulch paths that dead-ended at swampy algae bogs. Those lucky enough to explore at the right times happened upon “secret” sets such as Paris-based This is the Kit who played a stripped-down acoustic set featuring—who else—Dessner on guitar.
The collaborative interplay between music and art was none more evident than in several artists translating the musical energy into paintings, namely Brooklyn-based Justin Orvis Steimer, who created swirls of acrylic as light as water color on three free-standing triangular columns. “I only paint when the music is playing,” Steimer said while Vernon and Dessner led their second edition of People Mixtape, a mishmash of festival artists hashing out ambient electronic soundscapes.
Musicians branched out all weekend, and none more so than Wilco whose six members put in work on five separate projects. Drummer Glenn Kotche debuted with Bon Iver drummer and local singer-songwriter S. Carey for an intimate, albeit short, three-song set near the riverfront. The inventive guitarist Nels Cline teamed with his wife Yuka Honda to build walls of sound out of swelling guitar effects in the woods. The highlight though, was father-son duo of Jeff and Spencer Tweedy, a Father’s Day–inspired set of straightforward rock.
Paul Simon Delivers an Epic Performance
Speaking of Dad Rock, there was plenty to go around, from the bluesy Happy Apple on early Friday to Wilco’s lightning rod festival closer. The true gift of the entire weekend was Paul Simon’s first and likely one-time-only set of songs with chamber yMusic, who have teamed up with past Eaux Claires acts, such as Son Lux and Bryce Dessner.
Simon was delayed due to weather, but made the wait worthwhile with a dozen rearranged classics. Opener “America” swirled into dramatic climax, while “The Graduate” hit “Mrs. Robinson” was delivered in a darker, bass-heavy rendition that made the song virtually indistinguishable until the chorus. With the darkness fully descending and impending thunderstorms brewing overhead, Simon’s closer, “The Sound of Silence” left appropriate chills reverberating throughout the bone-soaked crowd.
It would not be a Eaux Claires festival without the weather playing a significant role. From tornado sirens during the inaugural year to the thunderous skies that loomed throughout Wilco’s set, Mother Nature has imposed itself into the festival experience each year. Shortened sets and the small stage cancellations became an unfortunate reality on Saturday, but by then all that was left were die-hard festivalgoers who could not be turned away even as the sky lit up like an Edison bulb.
Chance Doesn’t Live Up to Hype
Weather aside, the downer of the weekend might have been Friday headliner, Chance The Rapper. In fairness, almost no one could follow up Sylvan Esso’s energized dance electro-pop fusion, but Chance seemed lost in his own head in the attempt. On stage, he was prone to stalling between songs, talking in tangents to the crowd that had already endured a thunderous downpour and three overly indulgent hype songs.
Chalk it up to nerves, but his set lacked rhythm and unraveled haphazardly, culminating in a head-scratching performance of Top-40 hit “I’m the One,” which featured a background video of Justin Bieber, dancing around a mansion and surrounded by models, doing his best Eminem impersonation. While it may have been an innocuous moment at more mainstream festivals, it stood out like a sore thumb at a festival like Eaux Claires.
There were other instances throughout the weekend when the audience and musicians were out of sync. Just hours earlier, Vernon had chided a cohort of Boho kids during his John Prine set. “This isn’t really a balloon kind of show,” he said. “Honestly, it’s starting to piss me off.” Call it a lesson in Eaux Claires etiquette: this is a festival that asks its audience to fully engage in the music and art.
Eaux Claires’ modus operandi is one of perpetual change, and odds are Vernon and Co. will find a way to fuse everyone together next year. Still, in an ever-stale music festival scene, the experience at Eaux Claires is as refreshing as summer rain.