This weekend, over 20,000 music fans from around the world will descend on Eau Claire, Wisconsin, for the Justin Vernon-curated Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival. Attendees from all 50 states and 14 different countries have purchased tickets to take part in this inaugural event, which will feature collaborative sets by over 40 different artists and conclude with a rare performance by Vernon’s own Bon Iver.
To get a better sense of what to expect at this weekend’s festivities, the Current’s staff took a road trip out to Eau Claire to walk the grounds and get some insider info from event producers Mike Snow and Brian Appel of Crash Line Productions and the festival’s aesthetic director, Michael Brown. (These photos were taken on Monday, so they show just the very beginnings of what’s being created for the festival.)
How to Get There
Because of its remote rural location and its proximity to a busy county highway, the festival’s organizers and the county sheriff are insisting that no one should plan on walking or biking from their parking lot or campground to the festival site. To accommodate the tens of thousands of fans that are expected to travel to Eaux Claires, the festival has commissioned a whopping 162 shuttles to bus fans into the grounds—24 shuttles for fans staying in the campground, 24 for those staying in hotels, and 114 to pass between the dorms and other designated parking lots. The number of shuttles will increase to 190 at the end of each night to help get everyone back to their desired locations.
Parking passes are still available here, in addition to last-minute camping access passes. Locals should plan on using the Chippewa Valley Technical College parking lot, which will also have a shuttle.
What to Bring
The biggest challenge for the weekend will be preparing for whatever weather might happen on Friday and Saturday. Pack plenty of sunscreen, bug spray, a hat, sunglasses, and an empty bottle for water, and make sure to wear comfortable, mud-resistant shoes. The two main stages are directly across from each other on a large open field, but the more remote St. Coix Village and Dells stage are a nine-minute hike up a wooded hill. Be prepared for lots of walking.
What to Leave at Home
Cars entering the campgrounds will be searched for pets, weapons, drugs, and kegs (bringing smaller quantities of alcohol into the campground for your own consumption is ok), and people entering the festival grounds are advised to leave their chairs and umbrellas behind. More dos and don’ts on the festival’s info page.
(Below: custom lighting is being installed throughout the festival grounds to illuminate the music, the art, and the trees.)
What to Expect
Even though we visited the site several days in advance of the event, it was already clear that Eaux Claires is going to be unlike any other large-scale, outdoor indie rock festivals we’ve seen in the region. From an aesthetic standpoint, it might be most comparable to the now-defunct Rothbury Festival in Rothbury, Michigan, if only because the lights and art installations that are planned for the forest surrounding the grounds rival their Electric Forest.
You can expect a complete lack of corporate logos and sponsorship banners. In their place, the festival’s visionary (coolest job title ever?), Michael Brown, has created stark black-and-white signs and color-coordinated light shows that will help guide fans around the grounds, and artists like Hot Tea, Antic Studio, and Ragnar Kjartansson will have installations at the festival. And speaking of installations, be sure to check out the trio of geodomes in the wooded St. Croix Village for pop-up shows, a confession booth hosted by Astronautalis, and late-night adventures. “It gets more experimental and risky up on the hill,” Brown told us with a twinkle in his eye.
A defining characteristic of this festival is that Justin Vernon and his cohorts wanted to create a level playing field for all the attendees and artists. “Justin says no matter how much money you have, you will get treated the same,” one staff person said during our tour of the grounds. To subvert the usual festival heirarchy, there will be no VIP platforms or special viewing areas and the bands will be performing in order of sound, energy, and vibe rather than in order of size or notoriety. Case in point: Spoon is scheduled to go on at 6 p.m. on Friday despite the fact that they could easily headline an event of this size, and the National will warm up for the lesser-known Francis and the Lights, who wanted to place in the prime-time 11 p.m. slot on the main stage in order to introduce him to a sea of unsuspecting new fans.
Other Protips from the Producers
Download the Eaux Claires app and turn on push notifications. There will be pop-up performances throughout the festival, and the quickest way to learn about these unique happenings will be through the app.
Be on the lookout for pop-up performances at the campground on Thursday night. Although the festival doesn’t officially begin until Friday, musicians are already planning a few surprises for the people who will be setting up camp the night before. You need a camp access pass to get into the campground Thursday night, and you can expect pop-up musical treats starting
around 5 p.m. UPDATE: Music is now scheduled to start at 5 p.m. in the campground and will include performances by Phil Cook & the Guitarheels, Mike Perry & the Long Beds, Gramma’s Boyfriend, and after-hours guest DJs.
Get there early for a 12:30 performance by Ragnar Kjartansson on both Friday and Saturday, which will be the world premiere of his new collaboration with Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National.
And be open to your surroundings at all times, lest you miss any of the unique one-off performances that might pass by you in the crowd. The No BS Brass Band and Sam Amidon will both be snaking through the audience doing parade-style performances (Amidon, we were told, will be rounding up musicians from backstage to form little impromptu choirs), and Vernon wrote personal letters to each artist on the bill asking them to step outside their comfort zone and find places in the woods or field to perform a song or two for passers-by. You never know who might be singing to you around the bend.
The Current at Eaux Claires
Look for our “haus” (below) right at the center of the festival grounds—we’ll have signs and a tent. Stop by to visit with our staff and to pick up mini bottles of sunblock (while supplies last) as well as other Current swag. Jade will be broadcasting live from the festival grounds from 2:00-6:00 p.m. on Friday, and you can listen to The Current for updates and surprises all weekend long.
Below: Eric Rieger (a.k.a. HOTTEA) places guide wires for his installation at the festival entrance.
Below: The Current’s engineer Michael DeMark prepares to run a live broadcast from our “haus” on the festival grounds.