A festival curated by two indie-rock dudes is bound to be a niche event. The inaugural edition of Eaux Claires featured a handful of oddball choices filling out the lineup (Melt-Banana? Not that we’re complaining!), but cofounders Justin Vernon (Bon Iver, Volcano Choir) and Aaron Dessner (The National) put together a two-day musical roster to please mainly their own fans. The result was in many ways the antithesis of the modern-day festival: laid-back atmosphere, excellent sound quality across all stages, and an actual feeling of community.
Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza both started out with a singular community-minded vision, and over the years, along with most of their various equivalents around the country, they’ve broadened their musical spectrum and booked bigger and bigger stars in a successful bid to draw bigger crowds, losing all sense of identity in the process. But while the big fests have all diversified homogeneously, the second edition of Eaux Claires boasted a significantly wider and weirder range of musical styles than the first, from the über-accessible to the impenetrable, but without forgetting its core audience.
Imagine that Vernon is your favorite rock star. What better possible gift could he give to his fans than to debut the forthcoming new Bon Iver album live at his own festival? For fans of The National, there was the one-off performance of Day Of The Dead, the Dessner-led Grateful Dead tribute featuring a slew of artists who contributed to the epic five-hour album of the same name that came out earlier this year. Of course, most of these contributors got their own sets at the festival as well, and hopped onstage with each other throughout the weekend. In keeping with Vernon’s navigation of his own career, his mission with this festival seems to be to delight as well as challenge his audience. Once again, he has pulled it off.
The focus on the Wisconsin and Midwestern music scene remained strong this year, and the festival kicked off shortly after noon on Friday with Appleton/Milwaukee buzz band Tenement. The trio ballooned into a six-piece for this performance, and the additional percussion, horns and keys amounted to a fuller sound with no urgency lost. A sizable crowd made the early trek up to The Dells, the central tented stage on the upper plateau of the Foster Farms festival grounds, and Tenement cranked out a ton of energy, setting a standard for raw noise that would be a common thread throughout the weekend.
The exultant, experimental pop of My Brightest Diamond lit up the Flambeaux main stage next. Mastermind Shara Nova concentrated on her more energetic rock side as opposed to her chamber-pop leanings. Her stage presence might come off as pretentious if her music weren’t so good; perhaps she’s shot right past pretension into a genuineness most of us will never know—a fully self-created attitude? Her quirky energy was infectious, and her set was edgier than expected, although her subdued homage to her son, “I Have Never Loved Someone The Way I Love You,” was the emotional knockout.
Minneapolis duo Kill The Vultures were the first entry in the expanded hip-hop presence at this year’s festival. Producer Anatomy tapped out most if not all of the beats by hand and was impressively spot-on, rhythmically. The Twin Cities rap style is unmistakably there in the vocals of Crescent Moon; it’s got to be tough trying to break out of the shadow of Rhymesayers, but Moon definitely has the passion and knows how to get a crowd jumping and chanting. By contrast, Vince Staples took to the Flambeaux stage a short time later with the relaxed confidence of an already-risen star. His set was perhaps the unveiling of the full power of Eaux Claires’ sound system: the bass resonated with a clarity and earth-shaking volume you will rarely if ever experience at another outdoor festival. Staples cruised through highlights from his excellent 2015 album Summertime ’06 and seemed to genuinely enjoy himself while occasionally poking fun at the circumstances; a rural Wisconsin folkie festival had to be just about the last place Staples ever expected to be playing, but even as the rain began to fall, the crowd seemed completely sold.
Like last year, there was an enclosed dome tent on the upper level of the grounds (The Banks), featuring performances inside a translucent cube transmitted through headphones. One major improvement: air conditioning! The tent was also bigger this year, so all who wished were able to attend the afternoon set by Chris Rosenau and Nick Sanborn, a typically blissed-out tapestry of watercolor guitar patterns and ambient effects. We kept expecting the shifting sounds to morph into Rosenau’s unforgettable cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” but no dice. The headphone signal was noticeably static-y this year, but it was hardly a distraction except during the quietest moments. Later in the evening, the igloo would become a crowded rain shelter for experimental violinist Sarah Neufeld‘s set, one of the highlights of the festival. Her intense mathematical compositions were sometimes reminiscent of John Zorn, and at times, particularly during the guest appearance of saxophonist Colin Stetson, evoked a tonality that is generally only found in black metal. Stetson’s dark, avant-garde influence on the Eaux Claires community could hardly be overstated; he was featured prominently throughout the weekend and elevated practically everything he touched.
The most unexpected act of the weekend had to be Indonesian neotribal duo Senyawa, who took The Dells by storm and proceeded to blow the mind of anyone who wasn’t quickly frightened away. Their sound is primarily metal in essence, though it’s made only with homemade stringed instruments and the voice of Rully Shabara, who proved to be one of the most versatile and viscerally dynamic singers imaginable. There were shockingly tender, melodic interludes, but for the most part the set was a punishing barrage of driving rhythms and noise and primal vocalizations that had no analogue in the Western world. It was incredible.
Following another celebration of bass via James Blake‘s set (featuring a live band!), it was time for Bon Iver. The album, 22, A Million, will be out physically September 30, and assuming this live debut is an accurate representation of the record, the operative word is ambitious. The songs, most of whose titles are indecipherable combinations of numbers, symbols and words, ranged from mellow folk to ear-splitting noise. Vernon didn’t shy away from the vocoder, although through various filters and effects, his voice, though still unmistakable, ranged into more aggressive territory than fans are probably used to. The performance wasn’t what you’d call smooth—some of the sonic explosions were so intrusive that they seemed unintentional, but perhaps the point was to be as jarring as possible. Maybe it’s been smoothed out in the studio, but given the plethora of musicians onstage, the set was tight and well-rehearsed, and Vernon threw himself into the performance much more vigorously than last year’s set. It was inspiring to see him so enthused. This is a piece of work that can’t be digested in one take. Credit Vernon with defying expectations; he has given critics and fans something to puzzle over, as well as the most inventive unveiling strategy possible in the modern music industry.
For the nightcap, Japanese eclectic pop artist Cornelius brought a full band to play his 1997 classic Fantasma in its entirety, and we immediately began to question whether we could refer to Bon Iver’s performance as “tight” after all. It was as if this band had been playing this exact set every night for years, even though Cornelius hasn’t really toured since 2008 and this particular limited tour just started a week ago. While his music has since tended more towards electronic, this performance of Fantasma was another reminder of how little indie rock has changed over the past two decades. This proggy, punky blast of hyper guitar crunch could come out today and sound equally fresh.
With perfect weather forecast for the rest of the weekend, we expected massive crowds for day two, but the grounds never seemed overrun, nor were there ever exceptionally long lines for any vendors or porta-potties. Fest organizers wisely changed very little in terms of logistics; getting in and out was a breeze, and the streamlined shuttle services were evidently plentiful enough to accommodate everyone who needed them. Attendees were allowed to bring in snacks, although few could resist the variety of quality meals available throughout the grounds (hats off in particular to Potter’s Pasties). Eaux Claires was quite the self-sustaining village for two days.
Our day began with the newest project helmed by the aforementioned Colin Stetson: EX EYE, a beastly metal force encompassing shades of doom, black, and pure noise, with Stetson’s distinctive saxophone stylings tying it all together in a quasi-jazzy package bordering on indescribable. No one but Stetson coaxes these sorts of sounds from a sax, and metal seemed a very natural fit, particularly in the wake of his latest album, Sorrow—A Reimagining Of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony. No other set from the weekend impressed us more.
A few yards away, Jon Mueller staged his final performance of his 2015 piece A Magnetic Center. Seated behind a single vertical tom, which he pounded with various implements during the set, Mueller created what has become his trademark of late, a din of looped vocal gibberish that pulsed and wove through waves of intensity, sometimes in synch with the rhythm of the drum, sometimes obscuring it. A trio of women performed a slow, deliberate phased dance routine, with long portions of utter stillness. It was a typically open-ended piece, left entirely to the observer to draw meaning from it.
Mueller was one of several Milwaukee artists who took part in roaming musical exhibitions; we’d encountered him on Friday evening in a group of people quietly vocalizing in a circle in the middle of the path between the two stage areas. Sam Amidon had also led a “guitarchestra” parading around the grounds, which featured Mark Waldoch and Shawn Stephany (Altos, Hello Death). Between pop-up performances and art installations in various places throughout the fest, the intent was to draw us all into observation at any given moment, forcing us to be present even while getting from point A to point B. Art was everywhere, to be taken in at all times—a metaphor that can of course extend to encompass as much of life as one cares to imagine.
Saturday’s highlights were mostly concentrated in The Dells. Seattle experimental rap duo Shabazz Palaces put on possibly the most overtly psychedelic show of the weekend, crafting mind-bending soundscapes with their voices and hands, as Palaceer Lazaro and Tendai “Baba” Maraire shared vocal and instrumental duties. The recent reactivation of Fog is a blessing to the Minneapolis scene; the trio led by singer/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Broder performed mostly material from the brand new For Good, an equally beautiful and confusing album that got even more dynamic and strange in the live setting. A late afternoon set by the Melvins featured the stripped-down trio version of the band, which allowed for the epic opening rendition of oldie “Eye Flys” before the expected barrage of new material, covers, and old songs played too fast. (Editorializing aside, it was a great set.)
Meanwhile, “downstairs” on the main stage, Day Of The Dead unfolded. We arrived in time to catch the last half hour or so and, following the requisite finale of “Ripple,” we were largely unmoved. This heretofore blasphemous merging of hippie and hipster culture was surely a dream come true for some segment of The National’s fanbase, and the performers were clearly having a blast, but as a tribute to the spirit of The Dead, we’re not sure how effective it was. Wisely, there was no real attempt at jamming; perhaps the point was to illustrate The Dead’s lasting impact on what we now call Americana, which is undeniable. But something was lost in the attempt to connect that legacy with these musicians. Or maybe we missed too much of the set to feel the excitement.
It was a rare dull moment, and the only other one came during what was ostensibly the first 40 minutes of Erykah Badu‘s set. Her band is certainly competent, but not enough of a powerhouse to hold anyone’s interest for a half hour while we waited to find out if she would ever emerge. She did indeed, and her abbreviated performance was pretty great. She’s such an engaging personality that it was impossible to maintain any bad feelings about her tardiness, and she had the masses up and grooving for, well, a half hour or so.
Rounding out the night up at The Dells was Beach House, whose set was about what you’d expect if you’ve ever listened to their albums. A lot of fans were likely just biding their time in anticipation of the final set, Francis And The Lights, who was scheduled to pull a Bon Iver and debut his own new album, Farewell Starlight. Plus, given Francis’ prominent work on Chance The Rapper‘s new album, rumors were rampant that the Chicago MC would make an appearance. Sure enough, Eaux Claires part deux ended with Francis, Chance, and Vernon performing the recent single, “Friends,” to a rapturous if exhausted crowd.
“We hope you will question what you hear, then question why you’ve never heard it before,” said the Eaux Claires program booklet. “There is only one thing we believe in for solid: You. The audience.” Vernon and Dessner took a big risk in pushing the boundaries further into weirdness this year, and it amounted to a virtual dream lineup for music omnivores—unparalleled, really. We can only hope their faith is rewarded, and that this thing gets even weirder in 2017.