“This is a festival still finding its season,” the writer Michael Perry reflected in the opening page of the program for this year’s third annual Eaux Claires festival, which was simply titled “Troix.” Perry is the official “narrator” of Eaux Claires and the neighbor of the festival’s mastermind, Justin Vernon, and his big, booming baritone voice has become as interwoven in the experience at Foster Farms as the flailing dance moves of Francis Starlite and the sight of someone stumbling into the LED-lit woods after dark, starry-eyed.
Perry was writing about how the fluctuating timing of Eaux Claires, which has shifted from July to August to this year’s dates of June 16 and 17, meant that the attendees were experiencing spring in the Wisconsin woods for the first time after two years of partying through hot summer days. But like most things Perry writes, he was also implying something deeper: that this is a festival still figuring out exactly where it’s headed, and which may never have a definite direction.
“We are not setting a schedule, we are setting a table. We are establishing possibilities. We are wandering with intent in one shoe, chance in the other,” Perry continued. Which is exactly what makes Eaux Claires such a unique experience: there is no pressure to rush from stage to stage to see the next big-name headliner. Those showstopping moments are spaced out enough to encourage wandering through the grounds without an agenda at all; discoveries might be as subtle as happening upon a box of crickets on a woodchipped path that are being amplified by a tiny microphone and speaker, or as dramatic as finding a revered electronic duo from Berlin, Mouse on Mars, set up on a tiny wooden stage in a tiny wooden shack with the rapper Astronautalis freestyling in front of them.
Even with major artists like Paul Simon, John Prine, Feist, Chance the Rapper, and Wilco on the bill — and even with the lineup pared down to less than half the number of acts who appeared last year — Eaux Claires manages to establish a laid-back and familial feel, not unlike the Homegrown festival in Duluth (just with more tour managers and in-ear monitors). Most musicians ended up performing at least a few times over the weekend, with artists like Jeremy Ylvisaker, Amelia Meath, Phil Cook, JT Bates, and even Justin Vernon himself appearing so many times on so many different stages that they felt omnipresent. They became less like stars in the sky and more like characters appearing in a play that was unfolding all around — which would explain why the fame-averse Vernon seemed so utterly relaxed and joyful throughout the weekend, with even his hair blowing in the wind.
I’ll admit, there were many times this past weekend when I wasn’t sure if a festival was the right place to be. On Friday afternoon, just a few hours into the festival, news broke that the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile last July would be acquitted, and social media timelines overflowed with anguish and frustration. And on Saturday morning, we woke to the news that the beloved soul singer Sonny Knight had died just a few short months after being diagnosed with cancer.
What is the role of a festival in responding to the breaking news of the day? Why was the verdict and ensuing protests barely acknowledged by any of the performers on stage? What did it mean to be ensconced in the woods and half-unplugged from reality while a metro area just 90 minutes to the west was grieving so deeply that traffic was literally grinding to a halt?
I ended up walking from stage to woods to stage in a fog, contemplating these questions and so much more. It didn’t feel right to be celebrating anything with such a heavy heart, but it also felt like there might be answers in these trees, in these beats, in this rhythm. So I found myself swaying, nodding, dancing, keeping time. Getting lost in the pulse of the festival. Finding peace in the moments between the recognizable songs and the melodies, and connecting with ambient grooves and experimental urges more deeply than ever before.
First there was a 20-minute long insistent song by Poliça and s t a r g a z e, who opened Friday on the main stage by debuting their interpretation of Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood.” Part orchestral swirl, part Marijuana Deathsquads-esque terror, the music maintained a steady and ominous beat as clouds threatened to dampen us overhead. The performance was meditative and hypnotic, and ended up being the perfect introduction to the next two days: this was not going to be the kind of festival where you sing along to songs from the radio. This was a search for new sounds and ideas.
Then there was Andrew Broder, blasting alien beats into the deep woods, and Happy Apple, nestled underneath a beautiful wooden awning and floating their idiosyncratic rhythms into the still air. Mountain Man and the Staves performed back-to-back sets on a little cabin-like stage, huddled and swayed together in front of the gathered masses. And musicians from across the spectrum stood shoulder to shoulder back stage as Vernon led an all-star tribute to John Prine, with Prine himself peering over the shoulder of the sound engineer sidestage and bobbing along.
The Prine tribute proved to be especially fertile ground for surprising collaborations. In one of my favorite moments of the entire weekend, Spank Rock and Amanda Blank took the stage for an especially convincing take on “In Spite of Ourselves” that smashed through the remaining walls that might have existed around genres and expectations. The Staves approached center stage to sing one of my all-time most treasured songs, “Angel From Montgomery,” channeling Bonnie Raitt just as much as Prine, and the festival grounds shook as thunder rumbled in the distance and flashes of light danced across the sky while the Staves sang, “If dreams were lightning, and thunder desire, this old house would have burned down a long time ago.” As their harmonies reached a mountaintop, you could feel the entire audience steeling themselves for both the incoming storm and emotional impact.
And then, out of the wings, there he was: The Midwestern indie folk songwriter’s equivalent of a Jedi master, casually strapping on a guitar and smiling sweetly at the audience as rain pelted down on us overhead. The rain seemed to last for exactly the same amount of time that Prine was on stage, which made perfect sense; of course an artist of such importance could open up the skies and cause everyone from Jeff Tweedy to Jenny Lewis to the eccentric soul hero Swamp Dogg, who made an emotional plea for empathy on “Sam Stone,” to be rendered to mere superfans, melting in ecstasy in the wings as Prine sang.
The rest of the night thrummed with an adrenaline-fueled heartbeat. Pulse, pulse, pulse. Sylvan Esso entranced the entire grounds with their spectacular lights and mesmerizing basslines. Chance the Rapper kept the concrete floor in front of the main stage bouncing, lowkey pitching the crowd on Christianity but mostly celebrating the friendship he’s found in these Wisconsin woods. And Astronautalis dangled off a small stage buried in those trees, fronting an impromptu set by Mouse to Mars, delivering the most convincing pitch of all: “It’s the middle of the night. You’re in the woods. If you’re not going to let loose and dance now, then when??”
Sometimes the body moves even when the heart cannot. Sometimes the heart wins out. Astronautalis came back again early in the day on Saturday, joining s t a r g a z e for an impassioned freestyle that reflected on the loss of Philando Castile and the news of the cop’s not-guilty verdict. Perfume Genius gave a deeply heartfelt performance that connected the dots between body, soul, and mind, causing the ground to tremble as he sashayed across the stage. And Spank Rock brought the grounds into full-throttle, emptying pores and hearts with his quivering basslines. By the time the rain came down again, the cleansing circled back to the physical realm.
With sets rushed ahead of schedule to try to avoid the worst of the storm and the performances on the smaller stages called off, the crowd had been fully united by the time Paul Simon took the stage with yMusic. The sound for his performance was kept almost dangerously low, so that the audience had no choice but to hush and hold still. And while there were many moments of dark beauty, it was hard not to finally let loose and laugh as thousands of people joined to sing the “lie lie lie” refrain of his iconic song “The Boxer,” the sound of all those voices rising up and nearly drowning him out. It was a simple, pure moment, a glimpse of light despite the brooding storm clouds crowding in overhead, and it was beautiful.
Eaux Claires: Troix, Day 1
Eaux Claires: Troix, Day 2