There are, obviously, a lot of festivals these days. You have the establishment, your Bonnaroos and Lollapaloozas and Coachellas, the most massive and famous of the buffet-table approach to live music. Then you have your smaller, more idiosyncratic ones. Bonnaroo or Coachella have a certain character and ethos, a certain vibe attached to the places where they occur, but it’s also easy to have various summer festival lineups blur together in your head. Every now and then, there’s something else, something like Eaux Claires — aggressively local and personal, the vision of a few individuals executed as clearly as possible rather than a business interest designed to be as big as possible.
It has been four years since the last Bon Iver record, and three years since the last Bon Iver concert. Vernon bringing his project back to life to headline the new festival he spearheaded would’ve been an event anyway, but especially given his recent comments, it was even more of an event, because it was easy to have the lingering question in the back of your head: is this also the last Bon Iver show?
But even as all things led towards Bon Iver’s climactic festival-closing set, there were a lot of riches at Eaux Claires. Compared to the sprawl of most festivals, Eaux Claires was refreshingly small, navigable, and intimate. The two main stages sit facing each other across a not-huge field. Then there’s a path through the woods — I’ve been to a lot of festivals in a lot of places, but I can’t recall ever taking a walk through the woods on-site during one — that leads up to a higher plateau occupied by another stage and a series of small white dome tents. Over the course of the festival, various things happened in these tiny spaces: Retribution Gospel Choir had a set in one, Scott and Bryan Devendorf of the National performed in their improvisational/experimental side project Lanzendorf in another, without being officially announced on the schedule. There was also performance art and art installations. In another one of the domes, there was a mock-confessional set up with boards bearing slogans like “Google Maps Won’t Tell You How To Get To Heaven!” and “YOLF You Only Live Forever.”
While Eaux Claires had its fair share of curiosities if you knew where to look, that’s not to say there was anything overlooked when it came to the music. Multiple artists shouted out Michael Brown, the festival’s creative director, for the lights and stage setups he’d crafted for everyone. (And, it’s true, a lot of these artists probably had a lot more live production behind them than they usually might, making the whole festival congeal together into a really impressive, fluid experience even if you were going from seeing Sturgill Simpson to, say, Liturgy.) The sound was also impeccable compared to larger festivals, where bands might have to blare out to reach across a larger space, or to compete with noise from nearby stages.
It was also one of the more laidback festival experiences out there. The kind where Justin Vernon might be dashing between stages to pop in for a song with this or that artist, but between that you could find him running through the grounds to the next one, not in some caravan backstage. The kind where you might catch the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner — the former of whom co-curated the festival with Vernon — hanging in the back of the crowd during Poliça’s afternoon set on Saturday. The chillness stemmed from the kind of music Vernon favored in crafting Eaux Claires. At any other festival, the bulk of these artists would be calm reprieves, not the stuff to get you amped up on your weekend out at some shows. You still had reliable festival standbys like the always-welcome, always-amazing Spoon, or you had the infectious beats of Poliça to keep you going in the sweltering afternoon heat. But what was really special about Eaux Claires was that it was the kind of festival where the heartrending, gorgeous folk of the Staves — which landed them on our list of the best albums of 2015 so far — could find a home on the mainstage, with the kind of sonic clarity and attention that their music deserves, rather than have their impact threatened by loud beats or riffs bleeding over from somewhere else. It was the kind of festival that could get Sufjan Stevens to play a set, which, well, wouldn’t work in most places. Not just because his most recent album is inherently unsuited to this kind of setting (though he does rearrange a lot of them into fuller, often more electronic-infused versions live), but because as the man himself said: he does not play festivals. “I’m always afraid I’m going to get Lyme disease or an STD,” he joked about festivals. But he liked the vibe of Eaux Claires. “It’s like a 48 hour episode of My Little Pony.”
Stevens, like many of the others at Eaux Claires, had a very specific reason to be there: Justin Vernon. He told a story of a difficult period in his life, when he was struggling to complete Carrie & Lowell, when Vernon invited him out to Wisconsin for a breather. The Staves recorded If I Was here in Vernon’s studio. There were artists who had been birthed from the same Wisconsin scene, old associates of Vernon’s alongside his larger indie-world family like the National. Vernon was everywhere during the festival, and pretty much every artist had something to say about something gracious or welcoming Vernon had done for them — whether as a friend or a collaborator.
Which is to say: as amazing as it was to see the National on Friday night, you could feel the hometown pride swelling for Vernon and this event he’d brought to where he came from. The return of Bon Iver is a moment, and it didn’t occur at Radio City Music Hall or whatever — it happened here, where Bon Iver began in a cabin. To someone seeing Bon Iver for the first time, the show was stunning. Vernon spent much of the set posted behind keyboards, sometimes with a guitar, headphones on. He offered up fleshed out, pulsing renditions of previously sparse songs; he brought out deep cuts alongside “Calgary” and “Holocene” and “Skinny Love” and “Flume.” Friends came onstage throughout. Bryce and Aaron Dessner replicated their intertwined guitarwork for Bon Iver’s soundscapes. Colin Stetson did Colin Stetson things with his saxophone. The Staves provided ethereal, soul-crushingly beautiful backup vocals for many songs. Including, well, two new Bon Iver songs. Vernon’s been walking around saying he doesn’t know what’s up with Bon Iver for the future. But he seemed overwhelmed — “humbled” is the word he favored repeatedly — by the experience of seeing Eaux Claires come to fruition, and then at home as Bon Iver closing it all down. The new songs were great — both had heavier electronic elements to them than he’s toyed with in the past, the first rolling along a simple synth oscillation that persisted throughout the song, the second anchored by a big, throbbing beat and synth pattern. It’s promising stuff. Hopefully it’s not the last we hear of them.
Throughout his set, Vernon thanked his family and friends and Michael Brown and everyone he knows in town. He seemed to be fighting back tears at one point. As the intricate Bon Iver set reached its conclusion, and Vernon simply took a seat in the middle of the stage with an acoustic guitar, and sang “Skinny Love” without the intense vocal layering or processing that’s present on some of his other material. And there he was again — just a dude with an acoustic guitar in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In that moment, it was hard to imagine what this whole experience must have been like for the man. To go from writing songs for himself in a cabin nearby, to winning a Grammy and collaborating with Kanye West, to dreaming up a festival at home and actually seeing it come to fruition. He seemed to be trying to process it, in real-time, through much of his set. And then, finally towards the end, as he looked out at a festival he’d built, and at a crowd of 22,000 people who came to hear him sing songs about places only miles away from where we stood, he said: “This is the one time I think I know what I want to say.”
Check out photos of the festival in the gallery above and watch Bon Iver performing two new songs with the Staves and yMusic below.