Photos by Erin Kincheloe
If you've sought out crowd reactions to the inaugural Eaux Claires music festival that went down last weekend outside Eau Claire, Wisconsin, you've probably found good things. Twitter loved it, Instagram loved it, and the media response was overwhelmingly positive. Justin Vernon's first shot at a fest and 22,000 people gather in a small town in Wisconsin in bracing heat to lap it up. How did he and The National's Aaron Dessner pull it off?
Let's begin with access to the fest: only by yellow school bus or foot, unless you parked on a friendly neighbor's lawn or found one of the three taxis in Eau Claire. You might have stayed in a hotel, but more likely a campsite or even a University of Eau Claire dorm—the Towers, if you're lucky. Walking through the front gate under HOTTEA's suspended yarn installation, you're handed a yellow field notebook inspired by the kind onto which Justin Vernon prefers to jot. Each artist carries a brief description and assigned a glyph designed by Vernon (his fingerprints are all over this thing). If the feeling of a sense of larger community hadn't hit you yet, there was more: a tiny village of vendors selling locally-made cribbage boards and pottery (and yeah, flower crowns), groups of people gathering at random points to pull crowds into sing-a-longs.
It wasn't so much contrived (though I'm probably making it sound so) as intentional. This is what happens when musicians who've been invited to a thousand music fests get to be in charge of their own: they get to impress upon the humility and community they wish was more pervasive. Less money, more music. Better sound quality, too.
They also get to pick acts that reflect their sense of musical curiosity. There were plenty of old friends on the scene—like Vernon protégés S. Carey and Aero Flynn—but lots of new artists to learn and old artists to pay homage to. I bet Corbin never expected to share a bill with the Indigo Girls, but there you have it.
And this, of course, led to the best part of this festival, that thing only industry insiders usually witness: live, unexpected collaboration. Vernon and Sufjan Stevens jumping onstage to play with The National, Indigo Girls' Amy Ray joining Phil Cook for a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover, Phil Cook in turn backing Hiss Golden Messenger, The Blind Boys of Alabama treating The Lone Bellow's set to their back up harmonies. And half the lineup (the Staves, NO BS! Brass Band, yMusic, Colin Stetson) joining Bon Iver over their set was damn transcendent.
Bon Iver's set was a triumph of a return, ending with two new songs, one of which clearly inspired by the tremors in American society over this past year and dovetailed neatly with the purpose of this big Wisconsin gathering in the first place. "The question I keep asking myself lately is, is there anything more powerful or greater than us?" he asked the crowd as he introduced the song. "I don't think there is."