Eaux Claires is a festival designed around discovery and new experiences. The event — which was held this past weekend for a second time in its namesake of Eau Claire, WI — is organized by Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron Dessner, artists who value the enticing and potentially magical promise of the unknown. Stages are tucked away in the woods, made so that you stumble along performances, drawn in by the faint hint of music — Murder Ballades around a circle of Adirondack chairs, S. Carey in a clearing (“You will have to seek him out,” the fest brochure teases), haunting organ pieces playing in between each set. Bon Iver debuted an entirely new album there, 22, A Million; Francis & the Lights followed suit. A surprise appearance from Chance The Rapper closed out the fest; an expansive Day Of The Dead performance was advertised as one of the focal points.
Suffice to say it’s a weird festival mix, but that seems entirely on purpose: “From the earliest days we decided we would not stick strictly to the hits,” their mission statement reads. “We expect some discomfort, some flops. Some Wha…? But we also expect that split-second everlasting image, that ever-bursting moment.” Eaux Claires, in its idyllic woods setting, is constructed around those memorable moments — most successful and all, at the very least, interesting. Here are a few of my favorites, presented in chronological order, below.
The Staves & yMusic
The Staves were a constant presence throughout the weekend — they appeared on stage alongside Bon Iver and Jenny Lewis — and it’s readily apparent why they were such an in-demand commodity. The English trio — whose sophomore album, If I Was, was recorded with Vernon — has an arresting quality, and they were at their best during their own set on Friday afternoon. It was a collaboration with classical ensemble yMusic, a pairing that grew out of a one-off performance in the headphones-only tent at last year’s inaugural Eaux Claires. All of the pieces for the show had been written within the past 10 days, and that spark of the fresh and new embodied the festival’s celebration of creation. The trio’s smooth melodies set against yMusic’s discordant strings resulted in just the right amount of friction for an early afternoon show.
In the year since the release of his masterful debut album, Summertime ’06, Vince Staples has become a festival mainstay, and it’s easy to see why: The rapper brings an infectious energy to the stage and, even though it rained through most of his set, he didn’t let the bad weather get in the way of putting on a great show. As one of the only hip-hop acts on the bill — something the always-cogent and self-effacing Staples made note of during his set — he provided an important alternative to the rootsy folk that inhabited most of the rest of the weekend.
Somewhat disappointingly considering both were in the area, James Blake didn’t bring out Justin Vernon to perform their The Colour In Anything collaboration “I Need A Forest Fire” (Vernon was probably too busy setting up for his Bon Iver set, which started immediately after Blake’s ended), but the English electro-soul musician did pay appropriate tribute to the festival organizer. Before launching into his Autotune-heavy self-titled track “Lindisfarne,” Blake credited Vernon as the primary inspiration behind the early cut. As he closed his set on another debut highlight, “Measurements,” it was clear how much the two artists have pulled from each other throughout the years.
While I’m not entirely sold on the new Bon Iver material — someone’s been listening to a lot of Garden Of Delete! — the debut of 22, A Million was undoubtedly the most anticipated moment of the fest, and with good reason. It’s been five years and a ton of outside collaborations (including with Kanye West, whose influence makes itself known in Vernon’s new music) since the last release from the group responsible for two of the best albums of the past decade, and whether good or bad, it was bound to at least be interesting.
Personally, the verdict is still out on how the new music will translate on record, but the audience definitely seemed receptive to Bon Iver’s updated take on glitchy electro-folk. More exciting for me, however, were the four rearranged older tracks that closed out the set: The updated versions of “Beth/Rest” (with Bruce Hornsby!) and “Minnesota, WI,” plus an invigorating rendition of “Creature Fear,” were more in line with the Bonnie Bear I know and love. Building a festival set out of primarily new material is a gamble, and I wish that Vernon had been more successful in his risk. Either way, the elaborate production was certainly a performance to remember.
It’s not often that you get to see a living legend perform, but Mavis Staples certainly fits the bill. The jovial singer opened the second day’s proceedings with a set that was half music, half banter, and all fun. “I’ve been trying to pronounce the name [of the fest],” she joked. “Eclair… Eclair with whipped cream inside. That’s exactly what I see: A bunch of beautiful, sweet eclairs,” she gestured towards the audience. Her performance was filled with that kind of gracious goodwill — from when she brought out Lucius to perform (“My little sisters,” she introduced them, drawing attention to their faintly similar hairstyles) to closing out her set with Bruce Hornsby, doing their erstwhile collaboration “Celestial Railroad.” “We’ve been takin y’all there for 66 years,” she said at one point, and I wish it were possible for her to keep doing it for another 66 years more.
The Eaux Claires grounds are split into two parts, which can be described simply was “up the big hill” and “down the big hill.” Shabazz Palaces set on Saturday took place at the stage that was up the big hill, and it felt appropriate to make such a hike for the dissociative rap project’s insular but propulsive set. Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire were understated but powerful stage presences; Butler switched between sunglasses on and sunglasses off, alternately deciding to connect with the audience directly and close himself off in thought. Split between some promising new material and old standbys, the artful hip-hop collective was as thought-provoking and alluring as ever.
“Hello, we are the Melvins from Hollywood, Califoooornia,” drummer Dale Crover announced midway through their set, as if anyone that was packed into their festival tent didn’t know who the Pacific Northwestern sludge-rock gods were. They started off with a 10-minute instrumental dirge to build tension and anticipation before letting loose on a half-hour worth of their idiosyncratic snarls. Their unbridled enthusiasm proved contagious to a sleepy day-two audience, and they ended on their distorted cover of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” which felt like an apt and all-too-fun note to go out on.
For the most part, all of the sets at Eaux Claires ran like clockwork, so it was a little alarming when Erykah Badu didn’t take the stage for 40 minutes past her scheduled start time. Her band came out 10 minutes before her to do some reconnaissance, and the keyboard player kept promising that Badu was on her way. When she finally started, she took the stage like she owned it, however, and any annoyance at having to wait around melted away. Badu is a gracious performer, and she exudes a warmth that only stars and legends have. She’s majestic and understated, unbelievably talented and supremely earnest. She began her set with some labored breathing into the mic as mood-setting before launching into a freeform run of songs that wrapped up before she was even scheduled to end. Despite the truncated set time, Badu’s felt like the most satisfying that I saw at the entire festival. “I ain’t got fans, I got family,” she said before her last song, and everyone in the audience was surely both.
Midway through “Wishes,” it occurred to me that Beach House may be the best, most reliable festival rock band we have right now. You’d think that the opposite would be true — that their celestial dream-pop would be best suited for intimate showcases — but it turns out that their songs grow to inhabit whatever size room they happen to be in, and throughout the years they’ve perfected the art of the cathartic festival breakdown. Instead of performing on one of the big stages, they relegated themselves to a much smaller one than their large fanbase necessitated, which made their performance feel absolutely massive because of the crowd flowing out of their tiny tent. I’ve seen them twice this year — once at Coachella, and again this weekend — and each time they’ve been consummate professionals and completely pitch-perfect throughout: the fractured breakdown of “Sparks” and the muted gauziness of “She’s So Lovely” are particular highlights, but each song bleeds into the other with ease. The band was quiet throughout the set, but Victoria Legrand ended on a cheeky note: “Peace on earth, goodwill to men … and women,” she said, eliciting cheers from the audience.