Down The Rabbit Hole: Eaux Claires Festival 2016
This article was previously posted on Rabbit Hole Magazine on August 15, 2016
Curated by Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner, Eaux Claires festival returned to Eau Claire, Wisconsin (Vernon’s hometown) for its second year of music, art, and entertainment after a successful inaugural year. With acts like Bon Iver, James Blake, Erykah Badu, and Jenny Lewis among countless other great artists, there’s no question that Eaux Claires nailed down an excellent line up, but this new festival stands out among the expanding festival market for more reasons than just the music. I took the trip up to northwestern Wisconsin and took note of the entire Eaux Claires experience, from accommodation, the crowd, the layout, the food and drinks, and the extras...
Most festivals only offer you camping or nearby hotels as available accommodation. Not Eaux Claires! Here, you also have the option of staying in the dorm rooms at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for a cheaper rate than the local hotels, and the dorms include free use of the festival shuttle all weekend. The dorms are no-frills with twin beds and communal bathrooms, but for the price, convenience, and community vibes, it’s well worth it. If you’re looking for something slightly more comfortable and convenient than camping without breaking the bank, the dorms are the way to go.
Getting There and Getting In
One of the biggest headaches about festival going is getting to the site and getting through security. Sometimes the lines to get into the grounds are so long that you miss an act you were hoping to see, but not at Eaux Claires! The first great part of my experience was walking right out of Towers Hall (one of the dorm buildings) and getting onto one of the shuttle buses waiting out front. The bus took off within a minute or so of boarding it, and the ride to the grounds was about 10 minutes. The walk from where the bus drops you to the actual entrance takes a few minutes, but it’s a beautifully scenic route through the woods, so no complaints here. The festival had plenty of staff on hand to direct people to will call, as well as ample security check in lines that I breezed through. The lines may have gotten longer later in the afternoon, but I was into the actual festival within 20 minutes of leaving the dorms. Since the festival is new, the size of the crowd might expand in the future, but as of now Eaux Claires has my vote as the most stress-free arrival. At one point on the second day, I decided to stop back at the dorms to drop off merchandise that’d I purchased and I was able to make it there and back within 45 minutes… a feat that’d be impossible at most other festivals.
The grounds of Eaux Claires are plenty spread out, but not overwhelming or exhausting. There are two bigger stages in the main part of the festival, which holds plenty of restrooms, food and drink options, merchandise, as well as a Chippewa (VIP) hub. At the edge of the main circle, there’s a path up a hill that leads to three smaller stages and art installations, as well as food options, bathrooms, and water refill stations. The main stages, Lake Eaux Lune and Flambeaux, both had easy visibility and great sound quality. These stages are such a short distance apart that the set times alternated between the stages, and the short distance was great for when two of your favorite acts played back to back sets between those stages (like when James Blake played the Flambeaux stage right before Bon Iver hit the Lake Eaux Lune stage). The Chippewa VIP hub featured tents with tables and chairs, an open section of lawn chairs, a bar, more bathrooms, and it’s located directly across from the Flambeaux stage. On top of that, the surrounding woods make for a beautiful view in between bands and music, and there’s actually paths into the woods that lead to different art installations.
Not only was Eaux Claires not overly congested and crowded, but the people in the crowd were just generally pleasant. Throughout the festival, I chatted with fellow festival go-ers and amazingly didn’t experience pushy people during the headlining sets (which almost always happens at festivals). In general, the crowd seemed to be a bit older and mature so that probably factored in. The only issue I ran into with overcrowding was leaving the site after Bon Iver’s set on Friday night and on Saturday when the festival wrapped. It took longer to get out to the shuttles than it had taken to walk into the festival because of the number of people leaving, but the buses were waiting for passengers as soon as we got out.
Food and Drinks
Right near the main entrance, there were several food stands and carts, which served a wide variety of cuisines, with options ranging from cheese curds and dumplings to BBQ and burritos. The hill area of stages and art installations also offered a select number of food options, like a food truck that served Kabobs and Omelettes (appropriately named Kabomelete). My favorite of the food stands not only served ice cream with optional edible glitter (free of charge), they had creative names for different ice cream concoctions, like the “Skinny Love” and “Car Mar Superstar” creations. Curd Girl also stood out as a crowd favorite with their delicious hand battered cheese curds. There were also plenty of bars located by each stage for reasonable pricing and short lines.
The Chippewa VIP option included complimentary soft drinks, water, wine and beer, as well as two catered meals on both days. The dinner both nights included smoked goat, which festival goers could witness roasting throughout the afternoon. The lines for the catered food tended to be long both nights, but they moved quickly.
The Extras: Art Installations and More
If you want to make sure you don’t miss a thing at the next Eaux Claires, download the app! Throughout the day, the app updated when different artists were appearing at the lightHouse Lit installation, as well as when different poets would be reading at a small stage in the woods (a favorite hidden treasure of mine). Down another path in the woods, there was a wooden structure with music playing out of the center.
On Friday, I ran into what I overheard described as the Guit-orchestra (Guitar Orchestra)....a group of musicians with acoustic guitars walking around and playing music among the crowd. The festival packed in even more music with the organ set up in the middle of the two main stages, where musicians played between sets. The hill section also featured a set a giant chimes that festival goers could play, which was another way music and art totally engulfed the festival attendees. My favorite feature of the festival, however, was The Banks tent, where each visitor was was given wireless headphones before entering. Some of the sound frequencies were sent through the headphones directly, but you could also hear the music without the headphones, so it was like an optional silent disco. Screens also covered the stage at The Banks, with different images and lights flickering throughout each performance, which added another dimension to the experience.
Day 1 featured so many great musicians on the line up, but the three sets that stood out were Phosphorescent, James Blake, and of course Bon Iver.
Phosphorescent sounded excellent during their mid afternoon set, but their stand out moment was when they performed a cover of “This Land Is Your Land.” Frontman Matthew Houck enlisted in the help of the crowd to finish up the song by jumping down from the stage and passing around the microphone. Everyone in the crowd seemed to really enjoy the moment and the singalong intensified the friendly festival vibes.
James Blake consistently pushes the limits and explores new sounds with his recorded music, but he and his band manage to recreate the magic during his live performance. His mixed set of newer songs from The Colour in Anything and his older hits enchanted the entire crowd as he played during a rainy sunset.
Speaking on new music, Bon Iver’s set kicked off with the new album 22, A Million, played live from front to back. As each new song graced our ears for the first time, the Eaux Claires app updated with the new song titles. At first listen, it’s clear that Justin Vernon pushed the envelope and ventured into a new musical terrain, but his signature vocals left the Bon Iver stamp. Once the last track “10. 00000 Million” concluded, Justin Vernon and his band left the stage before coming back to perform older Bon Iver tracks. Justin invited sister trio The Staves onstage to sing backing vocals for “Beach Baby,” which added a special touch to the already goosebump-inducing tune.
Day 2 of Eaux Claires festival centered around a common theme of community and togetherness. In the early afternoon, Mavis Staples invited Luscious onstage to sing with her, and Jenny Lewis followed suit when she also brought out Lucius and The Staves for a couple of her songs. Lucius reciprocated the love and invited Jenny Lewis and her band members out for their set.
The Day of the Dead evening slot included appearances from Jenny Lewis, Justin Vernon, Matt Berninger, and Moses Sumney, to name a few. In addition to artists on the lineup making surprise appearances, the festival also featured a group of dancers who made appearances throughout the weekend. The dancers spiced up Har Mar Superstar’s super energetic set at The Kills stage in the evening.
While there were countless collaborations and intermingling of performers throughout the entire festival, nothing could top Francis’s performance to close out Saturday night. After premiering his new album, Farewell, Starlite!, Francis left the stage without bringing out Justin Vernon to perform their viral tune “Friends.” I’m not going to lie...I was nervous when Francis walked off the stage. After James Blake and Justin didn’t perform “I Need Forest Fire” on Friday, I thought there was a slight chance that Francis was actually done and that the festival had wrapped. After about 10 minutes, which felt like hours, the lights at The Kills stage dimmed again and Francis appeared, at first welcoming Chance The Rapper to the stage shortly after midnight, to perform “Summer Friends.” Justin Vernon soon followed and what happened next was magical. Justin and Francis sang “Friends” and then the trio (Francis, Justin, and Chance) closed out the performance with synchronized dance moves. Photos and videos of the performance just don’t do the performance justice, and I wish there was a way to bottle up the feelings and excitement that possessed the crowd during this performance so that I could revisit the magical moment.
I could ramble endlessly about the excellent performances, the outrageous level of talent, and the cleverness of the small touches and art installations that made Eaux Claires so magnificent, but you can’t really understand magic until you experience it in person. To get the true experience, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for an Eaux Claires 2017 announcement*. I know I’ll definitely be returning!
Words and non-credited photos by Rachel Zyzda
*The 2017 lineup is now announced, and you can check it out here. The fest will take place June 16+17, 2017.