Where art meets music for a weekend in Wisconsin
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We pull up to an open field a few miles southwest of downtown Eau Claire. There’s nothing immediately noteworthy about the place—just an empty lot overgrown with tall grass and golden rod. Without a GPS we surely would have passed it.
And yet it was here, on this plateau overlooking the Chippewa River Valley, that tens of thousands of people congregated last July. One by one, they debarked from an endless line of yellow school buses, all eager to take part in Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s first ever Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival.
At the southwestern corner of the field stands the weathered “Main Entrance” sign, the same one that last summer beckoned the crowds through and pointed them to a dirt path leading down the edge of the bluff.
Today, this corner is where we meet the man whom Vernon called the “most important person to this entire festival”—Eaux Claires creative director Michael Brown.
Brown has a wiry red beard, a brush of brown hair, and is sporting a faded blue and yellow flannel over a sturdy frame. He’s just returned from producing shows for Bon Iver at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Each sip he takes from a metal Eaux Claires-branded coffee mug helps fend off the last dregs of jet lag.
The demands of the road are nothing new for Brown, who has toured extensively with Grizzly Bear, Wilco, The National, and Bon Iver. A self-described theater kid, Brown grew up in Nashville. As an adult, he moved to New York City and fell into the fashion world, landing a job designing window displays for Ralph Lauren stores around the world. A few years into that job, Brown rediscovered his love of music while lighting and staging concerts at big corporate events. At one of those concerts, he met the members of Grizzly Bear, who took Brown on tour and started him down his career path in music production.
At a 2010 Grizzly Bear show in London, Brown caught the attention of Justin Vernon, the frontman of Bon Iver, who was in attendance. Vernon was impressed with Brown’s work. “Justin came up to me and was like, ‘Man, the lights were amazing man. Someday we’re going to work together,’” Brown recalls. Thinking it was just one of those things people say, he didn’t put much stock into it. Five years later, Brown and Vernon now work non-stop together, including on the Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival.
“Justin has always wanted to do something to truly give back to the community here—outside of just being an ambassador of Eau Claire,” Brown says. “He’s really wanted to organize something.” That longtime mission finally came to life for a weekend last July with Eaux Claires.
For some festivalgoers, it was the musical performances at Eaux Claires that surpassed all expectations. For others, it was the collaborative spirit of artists of all types coming together with a singular purpose that transcended the very concept of an outdoor music festival: it wasn’t just a collection of bands playing songs, it was a confluence of music and art.
That was exactly what Vernon, Dessner, and Brown envisioned when they gathered at Vernon’s house in 2014 to flesh out the idea for a new kind of festival. “I came out to a brain trust, think-tank situation where everybody was getting together at Justin’s house,” Brown remembers. “They started talking about what they wanted the festival to be, and it was clear that Justin and Aaron and the other producers didn’t just want to do another music festival. They wanted to do something that was striving to push more boundaries.”
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