This weekend, my favorite festival Eaux Claires returned to the forest for round four.
Since year one, Eaux Claires curators Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner have worked with musicians and artists to cultivate a completely unique festival experience, with common themes of community, improvisation, and collaboration remaining present each year. At conventional festivals, the line up usually gets announced before tickets go on sale, the schedule is released weeks or months in advance... and that's that. At Eaux Claires, it's always been about the music and the bonds created by the artistic process, with secret appearances, pop up shows, and "artists in residence" who will play multiple times with different people throughout the weekend. This year, the festival one-upped themselves with their surprises and decided not to announce the lineup until the gates opened on Friday, which is certainly not for the faint of heart, but didn't stop the diehard music fans from making the annual trip. If you didn't take the gamble and make the trip to Eau Claire, check out the highlights of EXC 2018 below.
The Lineup Wasn't Announced Until 1PM on Friday
As I just mentioned, this year Eaux Claires organizers took the level of surprise and mystery surrounding the lineup one step further and didn't announce any artists until Friday afternoon, which acted as both a highlight and a downfall of this year's fest. Despite the air of mystery, regular Eaux Claires attendees had hunches as to who some of the performers would be, solely based on past festival line ups. Especially with the "Artists in Residence" aspect of the festival, there has been a network of certain musicians who have continuously come back to collaborate, play their own sets, or guest star with other artists (i.e Francis and the Lights, Sylvan Esso, Phil Cook, and of course Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner). With those traditions already set in, there were certain "usuals" that frequent EXC goers expected, and even the festival merchandise hinted at the usual players by making shirts that read "The Fourth Annual Family Reunion" and "It's Thanksgiving in the Summer." The curators still manage to keep the festival refreshing and unique despite that sense of familiarity by always bringing in a few of the year's best new artists and creating new collaborations and super group performances among artists. For example, one of the final performances on Friday night featured Vernon and Dessner's project Bid Red Machine playing in the round on the Flambeaux stage with a variety of guests like Julien Baker, Gordi, Chastity Brown, Bryce Dessner, and more joining them. So sure, you may have seen Big Red Machine at Eaux Claires the previous year, but you didn't experience it in the same way. All in all, the surprise lineup lead to many highlights throughout the weekend because it allowed for music fans to go with the flow and follow the music. There may have been a larger amount of criticism for the lack of new names or big names, but the fest certainly stayed true to its values of one-off unique experiences, regardless of the fear of backlash.
Francis Played Two Very Different Sets
This year, the festival also stepped up the art installation game by incorporating a few installations that actually had performances too. Early on Friday afternoon, Francis Starlite played The Jannette; which was essentially a triangular house with mirrors and a piano set in the middle of the woods. Fans of the singer songwriter, dancer, and frequent collaborator of Justin Vernon crowded around the small makeshift stage to experience a rare, stripped back performance of his songs. Later on, more fans got the chance to experience Francis in full capacity, along with some friends during the time slot on the schedule that was simply titled "Friends." (Again, there's that element of surprise...) Most people were savvy enough to figure out who would be playing during that time slot and again crowded around the round Flambeaux stage, where Francis climbed, crowd surfed, and danced with the audience to his own hits like "See Her Out" and "May I Have This Dance," as well as Kanye's song "Lift Yourself." While some of the second performance featured Francis performing solo again, he was joined by Justin Vernon and S. Carey for a few, including "Just For Us" and "Friends."
Julien Baker Was Joined by Hanif Abdurraqib
Singer songwriter Julien Baker played on just about every stage throughout the weekend, making guest appearances with the likes of The National and Big Red Machine, but her main performance on the Lake Eaux Lune stage acted as a stand out moment of all of Friday's performances. Baker began her set standing on the stage by herself, mesmerizing the large audience with her delicate guitar strumming and heartfelt narratives, before being joined by a violinist. Later, Baker was also joined by poet Hanif Abdurraqib, who read his poetry over the sounds of Baker's strums. Introducing Abdurraqib, Julien said, "This is a special festival with a special protocol, so I'm gonna bring out my friend Hanif." Once again, Eaux Claires presented a completely unique collaboration of artists-- not just musicians, but creators of completely different mediums and genres were able to produce something special.
Hand Habits Played a House Show at at Festival
Similar to the installation that Francis performed at earlier in the day, musician Meagan Duffy's brainchild Hand Habits performed later that evening at another art installation deemed the Music Box Village. The installation looked like a cross between a house and a playground structure, allowing for festival goers to walk through it when a show wasn't happening, but it also acted as a completely unique stage. "It's cool to play a house show at a festival," Duffy remarked about the installation, perfectly describing the rare set up. The Music Box Village hosted other artists like Phil Cook, Gordi, and Julien Baker throughout the weekend, providing the perfect little nook to watch bands in a relaxed and stripped down setting. This space still allowed for fans to have a good vantage point, unlike some of the smaller stages in the woods, which often got too cramped to allow most fans to enjoy the performances.
Phil Cook Said It's Okay to Talk to Strangers
Eaux Claires regular Phil Cook's Friday evening set easily tied with The National's show for my favorite show of the weekend. Growing up in Chippewa Falls, Cook has been a part of the Eaux Claires process since its beginning due to his ties to the community, but this year he had a brand new album called People Are My Drug to perform to the EXC family. Cook's band for this performance, which happened to also be the band he made his latest record with, included Chastity Brown and Amelia Meath from Sylvan Esso, among others. "Everyone that was on the record is playing this show. This is the only time this is gonna happen," he told the audience. Cook also gifted the crowd with an inspiring speech, calling attention to the support of his tight-knit community, but also encouraging everyone in the audience to share their stories and absorb the stories of others. "Talk to strangers," he said, mentioning that his dad's record collection gave him access to the outside world via stories in the songs he heard, but he has gained so much from talking to strangers. In addition to his new music and motivational speech, Cook also had Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso come onstage to perform their song "PARAD(w/m)E" in honor of his son's birthday, and the set closed with an infectious, mood-boosting cover of "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher."
Francis Led a Dance Lesson....Again
Last year, early arrivers of the festival got a notification shortly after the gates opened that Francis Starlite would be teaching dance in 30 minutes, and those with the festival app or those that wandered by were treated with a last minute surprise that acted as a highlight of the entire weekend. The impromptu dance lesson was so successful that this year it was actually penciled in on the schedule that rolled out on Friday afternoon, and the Saturday dance lessons ended up drawing more people for a 2PM time slot than most early performers at major festivals. This time around, Francis amped up his dance lessons, jumping into the crowd a few times to dance with the groups of people hoarded around the stage, as well as cartwheeling and doing the splits in front of the crowd. The dance class set the tone for day two and left everyone walking away from the stage exuding positive energy.
Phoebe Bridgers Started a Cult
Saturday marked Phoebe Bridgers first time at Eaux Claires, but she certainly made the most of her time by playing her own set before singing as a guest with The National and the People Mixtape performance. During her own early evening set at the Flambeaux stage, Bridgers attracted a large audience at the round stage, all eager to hear her witty and honest lyrical tales. Despite the serious and sometimes somber tone of her narratives, Bridgers and her band lightened up the mood with funny banter between songs. For example, Bridgers invited her friend and singer songwriter Christian Lee Hutson up and joked that they were going to start a cult together-- "a fun, woods cult" she said. "Not a kill yourself cult. A die-of-natural causes cult," Hutson added. The beautiful harmonies between Bridgers and Hutson were certainly mesmerizing enough to make me want to join their cult, and I'm sure most of the crowd agree, since everyone walked away from the show raving about how incredible it had been. The pair kept the lighthearted jokes going when Bridgers gave the spotlight to Hutson to sing a song he had written after playing in her band for only a week.
Moses Sumney Got the Crowd to Assist With a New Song
Moses Sumney returned for his second Eaux Claires, having performed back in 2016. With his incredible vocal range and captivating live show, it's no wonder Sumney got asked to return again, and he came back with some new music to share with fans. For one of his new songs, he sang out a low note and asked everyone to sing it back to him and keep it going like they were "trying to make the stage fall down." The audience obliged and Sumney and his band built up the rest of the song's beat as the crowd held out the note. Sumney mentioned that during his live show, he doesn't use any backing tracks or prerecorded sound thanks to help of his band, and little moments like a festival crowd holding out a note add to the organic and unique nature of live music and the community surrounding it. Sumney's entire set felt inclusive and stayed true to the core values of Eaux Claires festival.
Noname Taught The Crowd to Rap
Chicago rapper and poet Noname made her first appearance at Eaux Claires, drawing a massive crowd to the House of Vans stage, where she also encouraged crowd participation. She and her band kept the mood light and relaxed, laughing and having fun throughout the set, which kept the crowd smiling and entertained during the sunny afternoon set. Noname would preface most of her songs with a backstory about the lyrics, and sometimes the introduction included instructions on how to rap the hooks and choruses with her. The crowd eagerly echoed the words back to Noname, giving her a warm introduction to the festival.
Pussy Riot Educated the Crowd
Moscow collective Pussy Riot kept the crowd intrigued for the duration of their evening set at the Lake Eaux Lune stage, beginning their show with an informational video containing several political facts, which often had the crowd cheering in reaction. When the group members eventually took the stage, they wore matching lime green ski masks to promote a united front. Their songs also contained powerful political messages which reiterated what they had communicated in their introduction video and acted as a call to action for all of those watching their performance. Their set definitely stood out as different from anything else that weekend, which kept the festival goers on their toes and acted as an inspiration for people to use their voices and platforms.
The National Incorporated Satellite Stages and a Lot of Guests
Co-curator of Eaux Claires Aaron Dessner and his bandmates filled the final spot of the Flambeaux stage for the weekend, utilizing it to the fullest to put on a magical, one-of-a-kind performance. By the time the group hit the stage, the sun had already set, so a simple, yet stunning lighting show illuminated the stage for this performance under the stars. The National's 90 minute set that night stood out for more reasons than the breathtaking architecture of the stage; In classic Eaux Claires fashion, the band invited several of the artists in residence and other performers to join them and they premiered a couple of new songs. While Phoebe Bridgers, Chastity Brown, Sharon Van Etten, and Gordi all joined The National on the main stage to lend their vocals to certain songs, their guest list also included Julien Baker, who performed from a makeshift satellite stage off to the side. An identical pop up stage situated on the other side of the Flambeaux hosted varying percussionists throughout the show, but Baker's shining moment included her on the other side performing her song "Appointments," which immediately transitioned into The National's "Fake Empire." The final vocal assistance during this set came from none other than the crowd themselves during "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," which was performed unplugged and with the entire crowd singing together. The National's shows are usually amazing in any setting, but there was something extraordinary about witnessing them perform with so many other talented musicians on a customized stage under a clear, star-speckled sky.
After The National's show, most fans stuck around for People mixtape on the main stage, which acted as one more giant collaboration between Justin Vernon and other performers on the lineup, as well as a dance group and Iron Boy. The festival may not have ended on the same note as it did two years ago, when Francis and the Lights debuted a new album in full before being joined by Vernon and Chance the Rapper, or last year when Paul Simon and Wilco closed out the weekend, but if nothing else, the final performances of 2018 showcased the Eaux Claires traditions that have been built up over the past few years.