Yesterday was the first day of the inaugural Eaux Claires festival, a small occasion in rural Wisconsin dreamt up and brought to life by Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron Dessner. There are a lot of great bands and impressive performances to choose from so far at the festival, but there’s still this sense that all roads, eventually, lead to the two big acts whose personnel helped shepherd this thing into existence. Tonight, that will be Bon Iver. Last night, it was the National.
After touring 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me relentlessly through last year, the National have been a little quieter this year. But the version that came out last night is the one we got to know on that last tour — the one that had graduated to festival headlining slots and the occasional arena gig. It’s a radically different experience than when you used to be able to see them in small- and mid-sized clubs, where their music would theoretically be better-suited, but they’ve been cultivating a meticulously calibrated swell in their music for years, and all of it seemed to burst out at once if you caught them on one of these bigger stages in recent years. The set at Eaux Claires was similar to the recent tour: the highlights from Trouble Will Find Me and High Violet, the heavy-hitters from Boxer and Alligator. If you, like me, have seen the National somewhere around fifteen times, it’s not the most surprising set. The one curveball was a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Peggy-O,” which the National had National-ified in their typically gorgeous slow-burn way, with Matt Berninger in particular finding the richest corners of his voice for the tribute. Otherwise, though, it was a crowd-pleaser set for a newer and/or more casual National fan — which, given the amount of people in the audience who seemed to be seeing the National for the first time, went over quite well. For more veteran observers, there is an overwhelming sense of texture and detail in their live show that impresses and reveals more each time you see them. (Eaux Claires seems to have a much better soundsystem than many festivals, and its clarity really accentuated the finer points in the band’s arrangements.)
This is a National show, so even if you’ve heard some of these songs live over a dozen times and know what tricks occur live vs. in their studio counterparts, you also know the National are going to deliver. “Squalor Victoria” built to that intense outro that doesn’t exist on Boxer, and this outro is a good single reason to see the National live, period. “This Is The Last Time,” one of the best songs on Trouble Will Find Me, felt like it had all these new twists I couldn’t quite place — maybe piano notes higher up in the mix during the bulk of the song, or a more lush and muscular reading of its melancholic refrain than I’d heard them do in the past. Whatever it was, it was one of the best moments of the whole show. The way Bryce Dessner “plays” “I Need My Girl” never ceases to be moving live — he has one guitar hanging on him as normal, then wields another, slamming the head down onto the stage periodically to create reverberating, abstract waves of distortion in the backdrop, like summer storms encroaching on the delicate beauty of the song. “Apartment Story,” maybe the song that tells you everything you need to know about the National, showed up, which was great because “Apartment Story” was not a given at every show in recent years, and it might just be their finest song.
Eaux Claires has the feeling of a family affair. A lot of the bill is comprised of artists that have worked with Vernon or Dessner in some capacity, and this has led to a lot of collaborations and guest spots already. The National went all-out in this regard. Sufjan Stevens sang backup for the trio of “Afraid Of Everyone,” “Squalor Victoria,” and “I Need My Girl,” and then returned at the end of the set for “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” Vernon soloed through “Slow Show” and “Terrible Love” — but, most strikingly, he added his voice to the “29 Years” refrain of “Slow Show,” creating a ghostly call-and-response to Berninger that was one of the set’s most chill-inducing moments. Regnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist with whom the National the collaborated for their MOMA PS1 performance where they played “Sorrow” for six hours, is in town to collaborate on another art project for Eaux Claires. He came on for, of course, “Sorrow,” and Berninger even gave him a verse, which he approached with dramatic zeal, belting it out and throwing his arms up with each phrase.
Collectively, the guest spots gave the show a curious quality: you’re watching absolute pros headline a festival and kill it, but you’re also seeing them bring all their friends onstage and joke around. The thing about the National is that everyone stereotypes them as a bunch of serious sad-sacks, missing the dark humor of the lyrics; onstage, Berninger has been a jocular presence for years. When Kjartansson finished his verse and spent the rest of “Sorrow” skipping around the stage waving a colorful scarf, Berninger started straight-up talking over the band: “This is a fucking sad song, what are you doing!? Do not make us play this again, Regnar.” When Vernon came onstage, the always-dapper Berninger — the sole member of the National who still brought the shirt and vest look in the oppressive Wisconsin summer heat — became mock-angry with him for his fashion choices: “No shorts, man, what the fuck.” It was like he was chastising the dude who set the whole thing up for violating their dress code policy onstage. The whole experience, as much of Eaux Claires so far, felt like they invited thousands of people to come hang at their chill get-together in the woods. And it worked.
Check out photos from the show in the gallery above, and watch a few clips of the Sufjan Stevens and Justin Vernon collabs below.