Local Current Blog

Preview: Eaux Claires 2017 will triple down on collaboration, surprises

Eaux Claires 2016. Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR.

How to plan for a music festival that delights in the spontaneous? Therein lies the question for those headed to Eaux Claires Troix this weekend. Since debuting in 2015, the Wisconsin festival has been all about surprises, so thorough scheduling might seem silly. But you will need logistics to get there. And for the artists you don’t want to miss, make sure you check out the set times. On top of the scheduled performances, your best bet is to explore.

The Current broadcasts live from Eaux Claires from 2-6 p.m. on Friday, June 16 and again on Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. Listen here.

Scene report

The grounds of Foster Farm seem to slip into a pocket of some other universe during Eaux Claires. Phones are still present, with charging stations available and the festival app worth a download. But somehow, their importance falls away. People you pass wear festival merch and carry vinyl records; world-class musicians stroll around or pass on golf carts; the grass and Chippewa River whisper of vast spaces outside cities. It’s all very chill.

That doesn’t mean the vibe hasn’t been carefully engineered. Creative team Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Aaron Dessner (The National), Michael Brown, and Michael Perry held an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit this past spring, and their answers gave fans a peek into just how much thought goes into Eaux Claires. From curating and booking the line-up to bringing in vendors (Dogwood Coffee from the Twin Cities, Brewing Projekt beer from Eau Claire, and many more) to setting ground rules (one hot debate has pitted blankets vs. no blankets; the current rules disallow them), every set of choices has been given careful thought.

And the rest is up to the path you take. Since its debut, the Wisconsin festival has made surprise and/or intimate performances one of its calling cards. If festival creator Justin Vernon had his way, he says, there’d be no set times at all (see: the Funkhaus residency he and 80-something other artists held in Germany last year). As it is, the organizers have kept some performances off the master schedule. They’ve also made a point to promote intimate, wacky ideas (last year, notable writers read work to handfuls of people inside a tiny house).

The other key component of Eaux Claires, as you’ll probably have read by now, is collaboration. Last year, Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of Lucius crashed gospel/soul legend Mavis Staples’s set and covered Talking Heads with her, and English trio the Staves performed new music with chamber group yMusic. This year, yMusic is back, performing with Paul Simon (Simon & Garfunkel); Bon Iver will join singer/songwriter John Prine in performing ‘The American Songbook.’ Those are just the major projects we know about.

How it’s changed

Those used to trekking up the hill a few times a day may be relieved to know that most of the music is scheduled for Lake Eaux Lune and Flambeaux, the main stages of years prior. Noise complaints and logistics led to a downsize of hilltop activities; instead of the Kills and the Dells stages, art installations and activities TBA will take place on the riverside plateau. It’s unclear where exactly the artists in residence (among them Jenny Lewis, Bryce Dessner of the National, and the Staves) will post up.

The festival sports a more low-key line-up than ever before. Aside from Chance the Rapper and Danny Brown, few of the acts could identify as contemporary chart-toppers. More than a few indie darlings are slotted to play, though: Feist, Perfume Genius, and EXC vets Sylvan Esso will all support new albums. And the absence of copious star power is no knock on promise or quality. Just because you haven’t heard of Music for The Long Emergency doesn’t mean the Polica/s-t-a-r-g-a-z-e collaboration won’t blow your mind.

So here’s how you can prepare. Check out the website for general info, lodging information, and a parking/transportation guide. Download the festival app, which comes fully equipped with a schedule, countdown clock, and Eau Claire weather updates (Google expects Saturday rain). Check out band bios if you’re so inclined. But beyond all that, do what the organizers would have you do: Show up, explore, and see what happens.

Recaps from years past

The Eaux Claires Festival brings all the feelings to the Chippewa Valley (Andrea Swensson, 7/20/15)

Justin Vernon unveils new album and a new side to Bon Iver at Eaux Claires festival (Andrea Swensson, 8/13/16)

Variety wins the first day of Eaux Claires (Cecilia Johnson, 8/13/16)

Eaux Claires’s second day spotlights musical legends (Cecilia Johnson, 8/14/16)