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Review: Eaux Claires III

Returning for a third year to the idyllic forests of Wisconsin, Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s Eaux Claires “anti-music-festival festival” once again inspired plenty of collaboration and inventiveness, even despite some less-than-ideal weather conditions.


Heading into the festival, fans knew to expect much different than the year prior; in order to create less overlap and ensure that fans who wanted to see it all were able to do just that. With a great emphasis placed on the festival’s daily schedule, you could go from the spazzed-out rapping of Danny Brown to the legendary Paul Simon performing atop the lush orchestration of yMusic without skipping a beat — and therein lies much of the beauty of Eaux Claires.


The whole “anti-music-festival festival” thing isn’t just a ploy to give the festival more hipster cred, either; in an April 2017 interview with Billboard, co-curator Aaron Dessner (of the Cincinnati-created and currently Brooklyn-based band The National) said, “It’s about rethinking what’s possible when you get all these artists together.” Time and time again, Eaux Claires has eschewed much of its mega-festival potential — two indie rock legends curating a “by the artists, for the artists” festival has as much of a draw (if not more) than many of its current descending-font-size-on-the-poster counterparts. Still, it’s a delicate balance; too much of any one unique aspect — of which Eaux Claires boasts in abundance — and the carefully-crafted ecosystem can begin to crumble.


But it is this attention to detail that led droves of attendees to the banks of the Chippewa River for the third year in a row despite the gloomy weather forecast. Interactive art installations were once again installed all throughout the forest; one personal favorite was the innovative and fully-interactive water drip system created by The Pickup Music Project out of Boston, where anyone could stand at the helm, utilize a fully-functional beatgrid on an iPad, and make unique beats created by the sound of falling water on common household items (brass pots, watering cans, plastic cups, crumpled tin, rain gutters). The forest was also home to the incredible Oxbeaux stage, where attendees would hike the well-manicured and well-lit trails to enter a small clearing, where a tiny A-frame structure (that could fit maybe three musicians) that was nestled away in the middle of a sea of trees. This stage was the perfect backdrop for the acoustic stylings of The Autumn Defense (the folksy side project of Wilco members John Stirrat and Pat Sansone) and the Appalachian folk-rock sound of Mountain Man.

by Trevor Paxton

Image provided courtesy of Eaux Claires via

One of the most impressive aspects of the Eaux Claires festival is that its highs are as high as nearly any festival across the country. Bon Iver presented the legendary music of John Prine, whose music Vernon went on to explain had a very strong influence on him growing up around his Eau Claire home. Aided by an impressive list of guest musicians (including Mountain Man, Jenny Lewis, Phil Cook, Sam Amidon, Aaron Dessner, Spank Rock, The Staves, and Jeff Tweedy to name a few) before being joined on stage by the 70-year-old Prine, it was truly a joy to witness the perfectionism of Justin Vernon be cast aside to literally just jam alongside some of his closest friends. There was no voice modulation, no light show, no minutes-long interludes of feedback; there was just pure musicianship expressed while honoring one of country-folk’s most influential artists.


Other highlights of the festival included fantastic sets from Jeff Tweedy (who performed some of his solo repertoire as Tweedy on Friday before his festival-headlining slot with Wilco), a near-perfect and completely euphoric set from Chance the Rapper, an incredible performance from Feist on her only U.S. tour date for this entire year, and the beautifully reimagined renditions of the timeless music of two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Paul Simon. Simon began his set with a dramatic and epic version of “America,” which helped spark the rain-soaked crowd’s energy. He also performed a slowed-down, bluesy version of “Mrs. Robinson,” and the hushed emotion of set closer “The Sound of Silence” was especially memorable.


Francis and the Lights also put on a spirited show to a large crowd at The Creek stage (which quite literally backs up to the Chippewa River), but his late-night (and Chance the Rapper-featuring) set at last year’s festival still serves as his best performance at the festival. Perfume Genius (the moniker of singer Mike Hadreas) also put on a wonderfully devoted performance (with gorgeous performances of 2012’s “Dark Parts” and song of the year candidate “Die 4 You” from this year’s excellent No Shape), but much of his slower music was lost on the crowd. At one point, he even justified to the mostly-seated audience, “We’re going to do a couple more downers and then we’ll bring it back up.”


Led by yet another year of memorable performances and a finely-tuned eye for detail, it’s clear that Vernon and company are going to have to work extremely hard to keep up the “anti-music-festival festival” vibe they’ve worked so hard to maintain. But one thing’s for sure: We’ll be returning to the river next year to witness it all again.

A crowd gathers to watch The Autumn Defense at the Oxbeaux Stage at the Eaux Claires Festival, held on June 12 and 13 in Eau Claire, Wis. (Photo by Trevor Paxton)

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