By Jeremy Gragert, for the Chippewa Valley Post
“Eaux Claires brings talent you’ve never heard of but will love,” wrote Teresa O’Halloran of Eau Claire in her Facebook review of the music festival. “The ones you know will be doing something you didn’t expect.”
That five-star review sums up a common thread of reactions by both hardcore music-lovers coming to the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival from around the country, and those who are so local that they could walk to the festival just outside the Eau Claire city limits.
Home page photo (by Jeremy Gragert): Justin Vernon, left, on the Lake Eaux Lune mainstage Friday night, with an ever-evolving group around him.
The festival, held for the third year in a row on the same grounds but with a smaller footprint this year, took place last Friday and Saturday (June 16 and 17). With its huge variety of music and the trusted curatorial hand of festival founder and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon, Eaux Claires is attracting a consistent crowd of people who like the odds of being exposed to new music they will enjoy even if they have never heard the names of the bands before.
That approach isn’t for everyone, of course. One comment overheard from a passerby on the grounds, directed at an absent friend, succinctly described the festival’s value as a place to experience new music:
“Seriously? Have you ever tried something new?”
Aaron Salmon of Eau Claire, who has attended every year of Eaux Claires since it began in 2015, was accompanied this year by his wife and two young sons.
“. . . it frees me up to explore. . . “
“It was actually kind of exciting to not have bands that I am incredibly excited to see, because it frees me up to explore a little bit more,” Salmon said.
“I was less familiar with the bands this year than the last two years, but that might have something do with having a 6-month-old,” he added.
In past years, Salmon was able to set aside time to do his research and listen to the lineup of bands prior to the festival. But he said he wasn’t worried about the absence of that prep-work this year, referring to the festival as an “efficient” way to be exposed to new music.
Salmon was excited to see Wilco and, of course, the festival had no shortage of star power considering the offerings of Paul Simon, Chance the Rapper, and Feist. Some acts at the first Eaux Claires were admittedly unknown to most fest-goers that year, like Sylvan Esso. After missing last year, that group was back last weekend with a suddenly loyal and overjoyed festie following.
“I was introduced to Sylvan Esso two years ago and I was blown away. I love them. If I could find another group like that, that would be awesome,” said Robin Brauner of Eau Claire, who hasn’t missed an Eaux Claires.
The “No Expectations” Concept
Brauner said she likes the concept of “no expectations,” where she can come into the festival knowing some of the people in the groups she likes, but also commonly see them play with another band or form a smaller “offshoot” group just for this festival. Some of them have names she has never heard of, but she is often pleased when she finds a musician among them whom she knows from another band.
Brauner was hanging out in the middle of the woods to the east of the main stage festival grounds, a woods filled with interactive art and smaller music venues, including a DJ area elevated into the trees.
She was drawn to the forest when she heard Native American drumming, though by the time she arrived it was gone. That enabled her to discover everything else going on in the woods.
“I love the art installations this year,” she said. “They make the festival more experiential.”
Overlap with the Twin Cities
Andrea Swensson of Minneapolis is a journalist and host of “The Local Show” on “The Current,” a weekly Minnesota Public Radio program that explores Minnesota’s local music scene both past and present. At her third Eaux Claires as well, she said Eau Claire is considered local for her Minnesota audience because there is so much overlap in the music scene between the Twin Cities and Eau Claire.
She said Eau Claire has influenced the Twin Cities music scene in profound ways through homegrown musicians who have moved there, especially Justin Vernon, who now lives part time in Minneapolis in addition to keeping a home base in Eau Claire.
While an expert of the Twin Cities music scene, Swensson admitted that she still hadn’t heard of about a third of the bands on the 2017 festival’s bill. This results from so many “side projects” where, for example, a musician like Amelia Meath from Sylvan Esso had played in several bands before the end of the first afternoon.
“You get the sense that all of the musicians know and respect each other, and we are in on it,” Swensson said. “People are going to come even though Bon Iver isn’t headlining.”
Indeed, that band was not even playing at the festival this year, although Vernon himself played several times.
“It almost doesn’t even matter who is actually on the bill,” Swensson said.
She noted that she has been following Vernon’s career for 10 years, and can pick up on all of his influences and the connections he has made in Minnesota and around the country. She said only Duluth is comparable to Eau Claire in regard to a city’s musicians influencing the Twin Cities’ scene.
Other Twin Cities journalists go so far as to say Eau Claire is the number one outside influence on the music scene in Minneapolis.
“It is a unique experience. . . “
Vanessa Shuck of Minneapolis attended the festival last year for the first time, and came again this year to see Sylvan Esso, Mountain Man, and the wide “spectrum” of art at the festival. She has gone to small festivals before, but only Eaux Claires among larger festivals.
“It is a unique experience to come and see the collaborations that happen here,” Shuck said.
Last year she discovered Francis & the Lights, and on Friday night he played and danced with Chance the Rapper after doing his own set earlier that evening on the opposite main stage.
A first-time attendee of Eaux Claires was attracted in part by Paul Simon, who played with yMusic. Dennis Olson of Eau Claire, at age 69, is from the same generation as Simon. Olson listened to part of the festival last year from the Chippewa River State Trail across the river, heard The Staves, and has been listening to them for the past year as a result.
“The last thing I want to do is listen to tribute bands,” Olson said. “I’m always looking for new music.”
Sitting in the grass with his wife a comfortable distance from Perfume Genius on the Lake Eaux Lune mainstage, Olson reminisced about music festivals that they have attended over the decades, and the long list of musicians that they have seen: Janis Joplin, John Denver, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, to name a few.
A memory along similarly nostalgic lines came to Olson when he recalled having seen Vernon sing at a live performance at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Eau Claire in the mid-1990s, back when Vernon led the band Mount Vernon.
Jeremy Gragert lives in Eau Claire and has attended all three Eaux Claires festivals.