Why do we go to music festivals? Why do we agree to slog through the mud and stand for hours and hours in the blazing sun? Why do we agree to get sweaty and press our sticky bodies against each other and stand in line for water and stand in line for beer and stand in line for $8 cheese curds again and again?
There comes a point at every festival, regardless of location and size, where we turn inward, soles aching and back muscles screaming, and ask ourselves: Is this all worth it? And at a lot of festivals, it can feel like you’re barely breaking even. But at the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival this weekend, I couldn’t believe just how many times I found myself shaking my head in disbelief, goosebumps rising on my sweat-soaked arms and mouth literally hanging open in awe as one soul-shaking moment after another unfolded on the ground’s multiple stages.
It’s these moments that we live for: the moments when the pain melts away; when you forget about how many times you’ve had to sprint up that psychedelic hill in the woods to get to the Dells stage because what you’re hearing now, what’s coming together on stage and washing over the crowd is lifting you up, lifting you all up, and reminding you that there is nothing else like the joy of connecting with this many other humans through music.
Like when Charles Bradley trotted out in a black turtleneck and navy polyester suit, 90-degree weather be damned, and sang so sweetly and passionately that the whole audience raised their arms like they were going down a soul roller coaster.
Or when Melt-Banana’s Yasuko Onuki lifted her midi controller up into the air for the first time and swung it down into her first throttling snare-and-synth punk beat, instantly sending the pit into a crowd-surfing frenzy.
Or when Poliça—whose frontwoman, Channy Leaneagh, wore a handmade shirt that begged for justice for Sandra Bland over her bulging, pregnant belly—debuted a couple of incredible, dance-influenced new songs and climaxed with a bone-chilling and explosive version of “Amongster,” the best I’d ever heard them do it.
Or when the Blind Boys of Alabama started their set with a glorious version of “A Change is Gonna Come” and then proceeded to invite half the Eau Claire music scene up on stage to join them, including Phil Cook, JT Bates, Mike Lewis, Reggie Pace, and Justin Vernon himself.
Or speaking of JT Bates, when the drummer set up camp in one of the geodomes and played a 45-minute set of improvised playing set to prerecorded ambient rhythms and moans, reminding everyone what it looks like when a true master of his craft is given the space and time to cut loose and play with his toys.
Or when Corbin, the boy wonder previously known as Spooky Black, played his first solo show ever backed by his pal Psymun on guitar plus a bassist and drummer, pacing the stage like an awkward teenager but then commanding the crowd with his big, booming voice, a voice he hasn’t quite figured out what to do with yet but is mesmerizing regardless. Though the band tried to downplay their abilities they managed to pull off a convincing cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” (no easy feat), and they ended their set with a punk-leaning joke of a song about hot dogs and hamburgers that managed to wiggle its way into my subconscious and stay there all weekend.
Or when Haley Bonar’s mournful voice filled the grounds early in the day on Saturday and coated us like a salve, or when Alan Sparhawk showed up again and again to drone in the geodome and perform new songs with Low and rock out with Retribution Gospel Choir, or when Spoon brought Har Mar out on stage, or when Marijuana Deathsquads shook everyone to the core late Friday night and entranced us with an epic video display by Visionquest.
Or the Indigo Girls, of course, the clearest sign of Justin Vernon’s curation and a blissful f***-you to all the cooler-than-though indie festival lineups that would never deign to book an act so out of fashion and out of their promo cycle, but who instantly won over the crowd with their clarion harmonies and who sent us back to those tender years in the mid-‘90s when we actually got to hear women singing about their deepest and darkest feelings on mainstream radio.
And then there was Bon Iver. The headliner of a festival that proclaimed that no one was really the headliner, and the guest of honor that everyone came to see, even if that guest of honor wouldn’t admit that out loud. By the time Bon Iver performed on Saturday night Justin Vernon had already appeared on stage a handful of times, sitting in here and there with the National, Blind Boys of Alabama, Aero Flynn, and Sufjan Stevens, but the crowd never screamed as loudly as they did when he finally walked out on stage to play his first Bon Iver song, “Heavenly Father.” Backed by his original Bon Iver bandmates Mike Noyce and Sean Carey, plus sister singers the Staves, Mike Lewis, and an additional guitarist and second drummer, that opening song and the second number, “Lump Sum,” were positively hair-raising. The Staves wove together angelic harmonies that perfectly built on and complimented Vernon’s own high falsetto, and the effect of the four of them singing together is indescribable—suffice it to say, I’d pay a whole lot of money to hear Vernon and the Staves sing all of Bon Iver’s debut album together.
In the spirit of collaboration, Bon Iver kept the special guests coming throughout the set, including the orchestral septet yMusic, Josh Scott of Aero Flynn, Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National, and the No BS Brass Band. At times, the effect of all these musicians on stage and all the flashing lights was downright hypnotic; at others, Vernon stripped it all away to get back to just his guitar and his voice, like at the beginning of “Wolves (Acts 1 and 2),” which had all 22,000 fans holding their breath in quiet reverie.
“I feel like everyone here understands what I learned this weekend,” Vernon told the crowd, uniting us. “I don’t know what that is yet, but I think we all learned something.”
After “Wolves,” which ended in a full-crowd sing along to the words “What might have been lost,” Vernon spoke again: “It’s good to be humbled by things, and it’s good to be inspired by things. So we’ll see what happens next.”
With that, he debuted a pair of brand-new songs. The first, with a chorus of “I heard about it,” built on the lush arrangements of the Bon Iver record with a few additional electronic flourishes. The second, which climaxed with a stanza of the most literal Bon Iver lyrics to date, “Don’t want to leave you / I cannot leave you alone / I’ll never leave you alone,” added more synth and electronic wizardry and hinted at Bon Iver’s new direction.
And with that encore performance of “Skinny Love,” backed by the Staves and Mike Noyce, it was more than enough to keep us lifted up, to make the trudge back toward the shuttle buses worth it, to make the achy knees and sticky skin worth it, and to send us home feeling full and hopeful and alive.
Bon Iver set list: Heavenly Father (with the Staves) / Lump Sum (with the Staves) / Towers (with yMusic) / Calgary / Flume / Blindsided (with Josh Scott) / Brackett, WI (with Colin Stetson) / Babys / Holocene / Perth / For Emma / The Wolves (Act I and II) / New Song #1 / New Song #2 (with the Staves) / Skinny Love (with the Staves)
Video of the entire Bon Iver Eaux Claires set
Day 1: Friday, July 17
Day 2: Saturday, July 18