The third installment of Eaux Claires, music festival curated by Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner (of Bon Iver and The National, respectively), was both scaled back in some ways and expanded in others from previous iterations. More importantly, it continued to build on its reputation as one of the most unique festival experiences in the country, featuring collaborations, impromptu/unannounced performances and art installations all throughout the festival grounds.
I went to the second edition last August, mainly to see the Japanese band Cornelius, but left incredibly impressed by the whole experience and a fan of several new bands. I was planning to write about the festival last year, but then Even Furthur happened the following weekend and took my attention. I was so impressed by last year's festival, that I bought an early bird ticket when they went on sale last fall, well before the line up was announced.
When the line up for this year's festival was announced, I was very underwhelmed. Changes were being made to the festival, we were told, and it was clear from the number of performers listed that there would be fewer stages than the year before. The one artist I was actually very excited about (the Philadelphia via Baltimore rapper Spank Rock), opened for Polica at First Avenue shortly after the line up was announced so even that excitement was somewhat tempered. I considered selling my ticket and trying again next year, but I decided to stick it out and go along for the ride.
I'm very glad I made that choice!
I caught a shuttle from our hotel just before 3 PM on Friday, the first day of the festival. As we were pulling up to the festival grounds, I checked my phone and saw that the verdict had just come down in the case of the murder of Philando Castile, and Officer Jeronimo Yanez was found not guilty on all charges. I was not really surprised, but it made for a very unusual festival experience. It felt very strange to be away from my friends and family, to not be taking it to the streets back in the Twin Cities. When we got inside the festival, we walked around the grounds and ended up at a small performance stage where Minnneapolis poet and MC Guante was on stage. While I know for a fact I missed a few, he was the only artist who I heard mention Philando Castile's name all weekend while on stage. This too felt pretty strange, but then again about 99% of the crowd was white.
Upon entry, we explored the many art installations spread throughout the woods, but unlike last year's installment, there were no stages at the end of the path through the woods, where last year there had been three (including one that featured acts that easily could have played one of the festivals two main stages). Apparently neighbors who live in the area complained, and despite Vernon's best efforts (rumor has it he tried to persuade them by offering to pay for them to go on a vacation the weekend of the festival), they got their way.
It was certainly a bummer, as I really enjoyed the set up they had up in that area last year, but as the festival mentioned in its line up announcement, that meant a bigger focus on fewer bands, less conflicts between sets, and plenty of room for experimentation. This also led to some artists playing on stages that were a bit too small for them, such as Francis and The Lights packing a massive crowd into the area with a small-ish wooden stage that last year was used solely for small orchestral productions on Friday, or Jenny Lewis playing an impromptu set on a different, smaller stage on Saturday.
One of the highlights of the first day, unsurprisingly, was the John Prine invitational set. The set was billed as "Bon Iver Presents John Prine And The American Songbook", but the man himself sat on the sidelines for all but the last half hour of the 90 minute set. Instead Vernon, Dessner, and a rotating cast of other musicians/singers took the stage, with new members of the "band" taking/leaving the stage after each song. Much like the Grateful Dead invitational set at the second installment of Eaux Claires, it encapsulated the collaborative spirit of the festival by combining an incredible number of the performers involved. Highlights from the set include Spank Rock and Amanda Blank coming out to sing the duet "In Spite Of Ourselves" and Sam Amidon announcing that he forgot his harmonica, seconds before he was supposed to do a solo with said harmonica. Instead he and Vernon shouted the harmonica solo, acapella style, and it was weirdly perfect.
Unfortunately the weather had some pretty foul plans for the John Prine set, as it started to downpour, and continued raining very hard throughout pretty much the entire time John Prine was actually on stage, playing with the band. It didn't rain long, but the force with which it fell left the grounds and everyone on them completely soaked. Thankfully Sylvan Esso was up next, and their high energy set paired with one of the bigger stage productions of the weekend made it easy to dance through the wetness.
My one and only big critique of last year's festival was that there was not enough dance music, and it seemed to actually get worse in that regard this year, which made me appreciate Sylvan Esso's pulsating bass lines that much more. I know there were a few electronic acts at some of the smaller stages that I missed, but this kind of music is clearly not a focus of the festival, which I suppose is not all that shocking considering the type of music the festivals curators make with their main bands, Bon Iver and The National.
After Sylvan Esso, the night's headliner and biggest act of the festival's three year history -Chance the Rapper - took the stage. The number of people in the audience wearing Chance The Rapper hats made it pretty clear this is who most of the people in attendance came to see. His booking made perfect sense; he dropped in for a cameo at the very end of last year's festival after doing a set a half-hour away at Summer Set Festival, to perform with Francis and The Lights and Justin Vernon on one of the festival's smallest stages (both Vernon and Chance have appeared on Francis and the Lights tracks over the past year).
Chance was one of several acts I was excited to check out because I would never buy a ticket to go see just him in concert. He did not disappoint. Backed by a full band, Chance's set was original, light-hearted, and fun. The highlight was when he was joined by the Phil Collins-esque Francis Starlite from Francis and The Lights and eventually Justin Vernon to perform the Francis tracks they are featured on, complete with choreography done up special for this show. I had heard Chance was all about Christianity, and that message was on slow burn through most of the show, but it didn't really bother me until Chance asked "Who wants to go to heaven?!?!?!?" and that's when it was time for me to go to exit.
When I got back to the hotel, I read up more on Philando Castile and what was going on back in the Twin Cities, and I awoke the next morning to another gut punch: news had spread that Sonny Knight of Sonny Knight and the Lakers, had passed away at age 69, losing his months-long battle with cancer. Though I had a great time, these painful events led to a somber mood and a lot of deep thinking while listening to bands at the festival; It was certainly one of the more unusual festival experiences I've ever had.
I arrived at the festival grounds early on day two to make sure to catch Spank Rock's early afternoon set. As I mentioned above, Spank Rock was the only act on the line up that caused any excitement for me initially, so you'd be fair to call me a little biased when I say that Spank Rock was hands down the best set of the weekend. (Har Mar Superstar agrees, anyway). They encapsulated the spirit of the festival into one set more than any other set I saw all weekend, save possibly the John Prine invitational (incidentally Spank Rock and Amanda Blank provided the highlight of that set, too).
At first it was just Spank Rock and his fabulously sassy DJ, Delish on stage. Despite the early time slot, he had attendees dancing as hard as they danced all weekend as he rapped his goofy and dirty lyrics over dance club beats. Asses were shaking up and down the Chippewa River. He was eventually joined on stage by several dancers (including one, Albert Conteh, who performed in a recent Chosen By The Funk event), the Sad Saxes (a group of saxophone players who debuted with Bon Iver at the festival last year), Midnite Express (a Native American drum and dance troupe from Minneapolis, and of course, Amanda Blank.
As the Spank Rock set was ending, a notification was sent out over the handy Eaux Claires app that Jenny Lewis would be playing an unannounced set at one of the festivals smaller stages, one of the bigger surprises at a festival that had many. At first the constant stream of notifications from the app annoyed me, but it turned out to be very helpful in announcing performances at some of the smaller stages on the fly.
The schedule had several blocks that just read EXC TBD - a space for the artists in residence to collaborate and perform on their own time. I do regret not checking out more of this programming as I saw pictures of festival curators Vernon and Dessner playing on one of the smaller stages to open the festival on Friday, and of Vernon playing with Midnite Express at a TINY stage in the woods. Even though I didn't see it, and may or may not have even enjoyed the music, that is COOL. I don't know any other way to say it. If they do this again next year I will definitely be checking out more of the open ended programming, you never know who might pop up at any stage, at any time, at Eaux Claires.
After Jenny Lewis, Perfume Genius took to the main stage for a set that kept gaining and losing my attention. Despite the uneven set musically speaking, it was still a highlight of the weekend for me as just about everyone at the festival was chilling out and sitting on the expansive field in the middle of the festival grounds. It was a nice experience to look around and see 15,000 other people just sitting back and taking it all in. After the set, the festivals resident poet (of course Eaux Claires has a resident poet!) Michael Perry came out to deliver some news. Due to some bad weather in the forecast all the sets at the festivals two big stages would be moving up, and performances at all other stages were cancelled. I felt terribly for the artists who were scheduled to perform and was bummed to miss Mouse on Mars, but so it goes.
Feist was next and delivered one of the more boring sets I witnessed all weekend, but Danny Brown turned that around real quick when she was done. Brown performed at Movement in Detroit a few weeks earlier, and I decided to go check him out and really liked what I heard. Unfortunately the set ended 30 seconds later, so I was pretty excited to see him at Eaux Claires and he did not disappoint. He has this freaky, almost deranged, energy to him that I really like. He tore through his 75 minute set, but unfortunately the skies opened up for a downpour over the final half hour of his set.
Thankfully the rain stopped when his set did, but as it came down very hard and was blowing right onto the stage where Paul Simon was scheduled to play with an orchestra, yMusic, which meant 20 people on stage scrambling to get rid of the water and set up the stage for the performance, which was delayed about a half hour. Simon and yMusic played re-arranged versions of his songs, stripped down and somber. I found it very interesting, and though I clearly don't see eye-to-eye (or ear-to-ear rather) with Vernon and Dessner, I have to give them props for curating their festival to fit the kind of music they seem to really like - a kind of quiet, understated sound - and this set really exemplified that. The storm that had soaked us an hour earlier provided the perfect backdrop, as lightning lit up the gloomy sky behind the stage.
Following Simon's set, Wilco closed out the festival with a 2+ hour set, going past the amended 10:30 end time. That was the first time I had ever seen them and while I was not blown away I did enjoy them more than I thought I would, and their tree stage design was fantastic. It started sprinkling again and we took that as our cue to beat the rush to the hotel shuttles.
I was continually impressed by the resilience of the festival, to roll with the punches (which were pretty relentless) and keep going. We received one last update on the app which informed us that many of the cancelled acts from the evening would be playing at a bar in town, with free admission for those with festival wristbands. They even ran free shuttles from the campgrounds to the bar. After being soaked both days, I wasn't feeling anything other than my hotel bed once we got back, but the videos I saw from this show made me regret my choice. It seems Mouse on Mars collaborated with Spank Rock at some point - I blew it!
All in all it was another great year at this festival, even though there were very few act who are up my alley musically speaking. It's a perfectly-sized festival, the security presence is almost non-existent outside of the main entrance, and there are so few corporate ads anywhere on the grounds - I really only saw any at the bar/food areas, and even then it was very minimal.
They do things at Eaux Claires that I haven't seen done at other festivals. They clean and maintain the porta-potties (of which a friend remarked to me, "they're cleaner than MY bathroom!"). They put up a temporary bridge over a giant mud pit that formed after the first day on the path up to the hotel shuttles. A bottle of water was only $2. It's a far cry from just about every other festival I've been to, and its clear they have a great amount of respect for their attendees. The amount of collaboration that goes on is breathtaking. The only set where it kind of felt like an island, separated from all the others, was Danny Brown. Then again he is not like most of the other artists who performed.
These factors alone have earned my respect, and have made me a repeat customer. I'm sure I'll be back very soon if not next year. It's strange to me that music could not be the most important thing at a music festival, but that's exactly how I feel about Eaux Claires!