Eaux Claires Festival a Celebration of Art, Nature and Friendship


Justin Vernon, Sufjan Stevens and their Midwest friends shine at inaugural festival.


When Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner announced their plans for a music and art festival, they were quite clear in what they wanted. Something different; a festival with unique feel—an event bringing people together in the woods to watch art happen. Purposely set July 17 and 18 (the same weekend as Pitchfork), Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival promised to, according to Vernon, “infiltrate the idea of a festival with new ideas.”

Friendships were forged as campers sweated in the same 90-degree sun.
Friendships were forged as campers sweated in the same 90-degree sun.

New ideas arise from inspiration, and Vernon invited his artist friends from the upper Midwest, along with 22,000 supporters, to the woodlands where For Emma, Forever Ago was famously written and the legend was born. Festivalgoers walked down a half-mile wooded path to a small clearing in the arms of the Chippewa River. It was a return to nature; “a benediction,” as festival emcee Michael Perry put it. All weekend, every artist reiterated Eaux Claires was about music and nature.

People weren’t here to take selfies—I felt awkward every time I checked my phone. And there was little need for technology. Every person received a yellow field journal with event times, artist bios and a map of the grounds. We weren’t bombarded with corporate advertising. Everything was local (we drank Summit Brewing beers instead of Miller Lite). No spinning a wheel for a drawstring bag, no credit card signups. Instead of a cacophony of logos and competing brands, everything fit under creative director Michael Brown’s unified aesthetic of simple and clean black and white. Nature filled in the rest.

The sun set both nights over the Chippewa River, casting a wave of orange gold over the grounds and into the forest canopy. Friday night began with The Tallest Man on Earth and ended with Dessner’s The National, with Sufjan Stevens and Vernon joining for songs.

Eaux Claires was a very come-as-you-are gathering.
Eaux Claires was a very come-as-you-are gathering.

It was Vernon’s festival but Sufjan stole the show with a set that encapsulated everything the two-day festival had to offer, playing his ukulele as much as his synthesizer, while combining film and lighting to share vignettes about his life and childhood. The set began with a foggy wall of synth and feedback, which had fans waiting in anticipation: How would he balance his darkest, most personal album, Carrie & Lowell, with the swaying summer crowd? He did it by being honest, diving right into the acoustic opener “Death With Dignity”, and then admitting he was very nervous and doesn’t play festivals because he is “agoraphobic and terrified of contracting lyme disease or an STD or whatever.”

It was a statement of courage rather than a begging for sympathy, and every lyric landed with the heavy feeling he was getting something off his chest. The crowd even cheered him back to life after he forgot the lyrics to “Casimir Pulaski Day”, then sang the outro with him: “Da da da, da da da da”. And, in a special way, the whole weekend could be summarized in that moment of acceptance, celebration and friendship.

There was no Miller Lite to be found at Eaux Claires.
There was no Miller Lite to be found at Eaux Claires.

“If you don’t have friendship, you don’t have anything,” Vernon told the crowd at the beginning of his set to close the festival. Friendships were forged as campers sweated in the same 90-degree sun, braved 2 a.m. tornado sirens, rain and lightening, and shared coffee the next morning as Vernon sound checked for Bon Iver. It was a very come-as-you-are gathering – no need for festival cosplay: a mixture of man buns and jean cut-offs, farmer’s tans, sundresses and t-shirts. Of young and of old. No screaming, no getting tanked, no bumping and shoving. No matter who you were, you were there for music.

The Lake Eaux Lane stage and Flambeaux stage took turns filling the grounds with sound. No one needed to push their way through the middle of sets to get a spot for the next act. After Sufjan Stevens finished playing, everyone simply turned around to hear Bon Iver on the Lake Eaux Lune stage. Vernon thanked everyone for “making the right choice,” but thanks go out to every artist and the beautiful city of Eau Claires for making the choice so easy.

by Kevin Sterne

kevin-headshotKevin Sterne is a writer, blogger and journalist with a passion for music, art and new ideas. He’s currently earning an MA in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University. For more of his work, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.


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