Sounds Like Eaux Claires’ Surprise Lineup Experiment Didn’t Go So Well

Eaux Claires, the Wisconsin music and arts festival curated by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron Dessner, went down over the weekend with a curious conceit: They didn’t announce the lineup until festival-goers had arrived. Given previous Eaux Claires lineups, which channeled each curator’s expansive contacts list into a unique mix of talents, this was super intriguing. Last year’s fest, for instance, had Chance The Rapper, Paul Simon with yMusic, Wilco, Danny Brown, Perfume Genius, Feist, a John Prine covers set by Bon Iver, and a whole range of acts affiliated with Vernon and Dessner. What would this year’s gig entail?

Apparently, it was a bit like Vernon and Dessner’s new collectivist music platform PEOPLE come to life. Though maybe not as all-in on the collaborative PEOPLE spirit as the actual PEOPLE event coming up in Berlin next month, Eaux Claires 2018 reportedly relied heavily on an array of Vernon and Dessner associates divided into different configurations throughout the weekend, without much in the way of big-name headliners, eye-popping surprises, or, even advance preparation.

The Star Tribune summed it up like so:

In the end, Vernon’s goal to add an element of surprise and open fans up to new artists backfired. That’s because the lineup was surprisingly light on surprises and heavy on acts who’ve played the woodsy Wisconsin camp-out before.

It was almost entirely just a Friends of Justin™ year, with names familiar to Bon Iverites such as the National, Sharon Van Etten, Phil Cook, Moses Sumney, Low and S. Carey. And then many of those friends wound up playing three or four times in different formats over the weekend to round out the schedule.

The biggest surprise of Eaux Claires IV may have been how many times we would see Francis Starlite of Francis & The Lights in one weekend.

The Star Tribune’s Chris Riemenschneider also reported on a number of under-rehearsed performers:

Coming off a lengthy hiatus to debut what sounded like promising new songs, Van Etten was extra-rusty, with false-started songs and off-key vocals. Some of Saturday’s impromptu collaborations were also, like a drone-style jam session in the woods with the otherwise buzzworthy newcomers Julien Baker and Gordi (aka Sophie Peyton).

One more take from Riemenschneider on what sounds like an underwhelming substitute for a proper Bon Iver gig:

There wasn’t even a Bon Iver set this year, despite the fact that many members of Vernon’s live band were already there. Instead, Vernon closed out the fest’s biggest stage Saturday with something called the People Mix Tape, which found him singing Bob Dylan and Porter Wagoner songs with help from his Auto-Tune-like vocal-effect gadgets and friends such as Sumney, Phoebe Bridgers and (yep!) Francis Starlite.

Writing that Eaux Claires “over-promised and under-delivered,” Variety’s Jeff Miller continued:

Though Eaux Claires IV was full of one-off musical collaborations and unique sets, the lack of any true large-scale surprises on the lineup gave the whole gotcha element more of an air of “meh” than of “wow.” Further, those smaller acts who took risks (encouraged by the festival’s laid back vibe) sometimes did so at the expense of fans, many of whom wandered around through the tiny back-woods stages looking for something to grasp onto.

Lineup clues leading up to the fest led many fans to believe Sufjan Stevens, Patti Smith, and Arcade Fire would be on the premises, but none of them were there. An appearance by Vernon benefactor Kanye West was also rumored, but he didn’t show up either. There were also reports of a perpetually empty “Eaux Children” kids’ area and Low and Dirty Projectors sets crammed into a viewing area too small for their draw, the latter drowned out by Francis Starlite doing karaoke versions of his own “Friends” and Kanye’s poop-scooping “Lift Yourself.”

The fest wasn’t all bad. Reviewers had good things to say about Noname, Phil Cook, Moses Sumney, and the Vernon-Dessner partnership Big Red Machine. The insanely talented poet/essayist (and occasional Stereogum contributor) Hanif Abdurraqib did some readings throughout the weekend, including one in collaboration with Julien Baker. And Variety’s Miller had this to say about the National:

That said, there was one absolutely incredible highlight: The National’s broody, penultimate set, which was performed on a uniquely-designed platform in-the-round with three satellite side-stages hosting musicians jamming along on drums, guitar, percussion, and more. Though the stage was in use all weekend, The National was the only act who embraced the in-the-round setup for a truly immersive set, with singer Matt Berninger fully exploring the space and, sometimes, the audience.

Vernon has spoken about losing money on Eaux Claires in the past, so it’s possible this year’s event was an attempt to keep the budget down. He and Dessner are also very into removing themselves from a pedestal in favor of a more egalitarian approach, but it seems many of the resulting collaborations were too experimental to connect with an audience of more than 10,000 people.

Twitter and the Eaux Claires subreddit are full of disappointed assessments from fans who claim to be inclined to give Vernon and Dessner the benefit of the doubt. In a Reddit thread called “I don’t understand what Eaux Claire’s goals are with the festival,” one person summed it up like so:

It feels like they’re scaling back to make the festival profitable again but at the same time giving people (aside from diehard fans) less and less incentive to come back which just compounds the profitability problem.

It either needs to go all out again and feel like a top-tier festival or fully convert to a smaller festival where tickets are $80 – $100 and people can go in expecting it’ll be chilling with Justin Vernon and his local artist friends. I would be okay with either. Right now it’s somewhere in between and feels like it’s doing neither well.

That sounds about right: Either go the way of the National’s great Homecoming Festival, with its impressive lineup and more conventional aesthetic, or go all-in on the PEOPLE-style experimentalism like they’re doing with the Berlin event. The in-between ethos left another Redditor lamenting as follows:

I’ll start by saying that Eaux Claires has been my only music festival experience and I’ve gone each year. I’m a Wisconsin native, I love what Justin Vernon has done for the music scene in this state, and each year I’ve had an emotional connection that I’ve left with. I returned this year based on those connections, and didn’t even glance at all the lineups for other Midwest festivals while ours remained shrouded in mystery. This entire weekend, I found myself saying “it’s fine” more times than I can count, and left feeling a bit heartbroken for what may happen in the years to come.

So although this was not exactly Forest Fyre Fest, it sounds like Eaux Claires was a disappointment. The concept is great, and previous iterations have been a lot of fun, so hopefully it’s able to bounce back next year.