Twice a year since early 2018 Eau Claire’s Oxbow Hotel has been re-imagining what an evening of music with friends and family can look like. The music industry is seeing new niche festivals pop up every other day, but the “Lock-Inn” stands out as a refreshing and intimate experiment in what a live concert can look and feel and even taste like.
(I checked out last week’s Lock-Inn, before the Upper Midwest entered an entirely new form of “lock-in” as we keep social distance to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This post describes my experience, an experience that hopefully will be available again soon once it’s safe to gather in groups.)
Attendees of the Lock-Inn are welcomed into a wholly immersive overnight experience in the Justin Vernon universe. It draws elements from the ever-evolving Eaux Claires festival — keeping the performer lineup under wraps and encouraging the flowing cast of characters on stage to marinate within each other’s sets. One guitarist leaves, another vocalist is beckoned off their stool at the bar, a bass is swapped for a saxophone. Someone’s finger is bleeding, and lyrics of the next song chosen just seconds ago are being read off of a laptop. Between songs Vernon is doing his best restaurant server impression for attendees, inquiring about the “first bites” of an appetizer kicking off the night’s dinner that accompanies the show.
For fans in search of the cut-and-dry stadium tour format with cues and coordinated lights and set lists laid in stone, this ain’t it. For fans expecting a night loyal only to the Vernon discography, it would also be better to look to a more traditional concert. Not to say that wanting these things in a show is a bad thing, but rather, this just isn’t where you’ll find it. For those open to more of a whimsical Maypole-type evening with culinary and musical collaborations swirling around the Lakely dining room, take a seat. Yes, right here. They’ve got a name tag already set out for you.
This season’s iteration of the Lock-Inn included an overnight stay at the Oxbow Hotel, a six-course meal provided by the Lakely, and an evening featuring “rare performances by Justin Vernon, Sean Carey, and others.” Rare indeed! At one point Vernon remarked to the audience that one of the rules the performers gave themselves was that they don’t know which songs they’re going to play, to a certain degree. The setlist was beautifully flexible; high-spirited players with their guards down swiftly negotiated which track to throw into the recipe next as the show stretched into the night. It felt loose and comfortable, as if they were a local bar band in the exurbs of Wisconsin doing ’70s folk and country covers and not a band that have accrued 12 Grammy nominations and two wins over the years. It was Justin Vernon as you’ve likely never seen him.
As the band played on, the evening’s meal elegantly unfolded before us. Ingredients sourced from across Wisconsin were plated delicately, channeling fresh and hearty Midwestern comforts without invoking any food comas. The beef and veal broth of the French onion soup was perfectly tangy and heavily soothing, an optimal followup to the John Prine and Emmylou Harris covers coming from the stage. Bites of walleye and duck coated the palate thick with cabin-in-the-deep-woods energy.
Throughout the night there this writer counted eight players who came and went from the stage. A few were given casual introductions, and others were recognizable from Eau Claire area gigs — including Michael Lewis, Jeremy Ylvisaker, and Ben Lester. The band eventually filed out to make room for Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, Flock of Dimes, and as of last fall, Bon Iver. Seemingly influenced by the warm intimacy of the evening, Wasner informed the room, “I’m going to play a bunch of songs I’ve never played in front of anybody because this seems like the place to do it.” A few of the tracks played were so new that the titles hadn’t been solidified yet.
The band rejoined Wasner for a Judee Sill cover and a few other tracks, and then Vernon was left to play solo for a stint. Everyone meandered back up for a final set including songs by Johnny Cash, Donny Hathaway, and Bon Iver. After a heartfelt rendition of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Vernon expressed his gratitude for the possibilities the evening had allowed, “I like to act like I’m Bob Dylan in the ’95/’96 era. Thank you for letting me do that.” A DJ set from Eau Claire’s “Good & Sturdy” vintage clothing store owner Jon Shemick closed out the night. Patrons eventually filed away to their rooms, each outfitted with a record player ready to take for a spin should anyone want to utilize the hotel’s vinyl library to continue their own private listening experiences.
Building an environment of authentic hospitality like the Oxbow takes dedication; no detail can be skimmed over. Vernon and Carey have proved to their fans time and time again with every project they touch that they are taking great consideration in their work, which is why the “Lock-Inn” feels like you’re being welcomed into an intimate space for unadulterated creative expression. Their album art, each room’s locally woven linens, the stage design — even the soothing aromatic elements of the hand soap give the impression that they’ve been carefully considered. In a time when algorithms are taking up more and more space in the decision making of the creative sphere, the “Lock-Inn” is a refreshing to trip back to the days of hand-selected experiences.