Since its beginnings four summer ago, Eaux Claries has had an unconventional approach to the traditional music festival, and this year was no exception. Festival organizers Aaron Dessner (the National) and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) have sought to make it clear that their fest “wasn’t your average festival” since its inception, but this year, no one — except for people trying to crack it on Reddit — knew the lineup until they walked through the gates on Friday. While it wasn’t a complete miss — the bold move to shake-up the lineup structure was exciting in and of itself — the risk of that lineup gambit presented itself with, at best, some logistical issues and, at worst, general disappointment. At the end of the day though, the exceptional talent of some performers, the detail-oriented “family reunion” nature of the weekend, and the collaborative spirit of the event created something worth it, despite its downsides.
Friday brought with it the best live music moment I’ve seen all year. Julien Baker performances never get any less emotional than the last time, but this one takes the cake. In March, The New York Times Magazine published “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going,” and breathtaking critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib wrote about Baker’s song “Claws in Your Back.” “If we are to believe that faith is a choice and love is a choice and somewhere in between is the rigor of staying alive when you don’t have the will to, then Baker is one of the best nontraditional gospel singers of her generation,” he wrote. When Baker performed the song on Friday, she brought Abdurraqib on stage to read a poem cycle from “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This.” On Instagram later, Abdurraqib said they made the decision to perform together the night before and “it wasn't particularly rehearsed.” I know it’s my job to put words to this type of thing, but there really are no words to encapsulate what it was like to watch this happen. It was gorgeous, something I’m sure the audience will remember for years to come, and the perfect example of the organic, irreplicable moments this festival has the ability to create.
On Friday, I also had the pleasure of seeing the best overall live set I’ve seen this year: serpentwithfeet. I’m not sure I can think of a more magnetic performer. Bearing a pom pom, he boasted truly unbelievable vocals and theatricality that eased in between hilarious one moment and crushing the next. When he topped off his set by bringing Moses Sumney on stage — a union of two of the best and most unique vocalists making music right now — we were putty in his hands.
Through all the magic, the cracks in the fest’s foundation began to show. Part of the pleasure of going to a festival is delving into the discography of acts beforehand that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen, and the secret lineup made it impossible to figure out what new acts were worth seeing, and required attendees to rely on just stumbling into something they might find interesting. Even worse, the fest didn’t provide a physical copy of the set times, and poor service in the middle of the woods made it difficult at times to figure out what the hell was going on or when. These two factors combined gave me a constant sinking feeling that I was missing something special just within walking distance — not something you want in a festival with ticket prices that high. Then there was the stripped-down Dirty Projectors set on a tiny stage in the middle of the woods.
While it was a great set, it was a part of the weekend’s recurring logistical oversights that prioritized aesthetic over function. The space simply couldn’t accommodate an act that large. Finally, while Big Red Machine and PEOPLE — Justin Vernon side projects — were cool and beautiful at times, it often felt like the organizers were holding a jam sesh with their pals in place of booking a headliner.
Saturday highlights included two acts that are always flooring no matter how many times you’ve seen them: Noname and Moses Sumney. Noname even brought along some of the new material she’s been elusively tweeting about. Phoebe Bridgers had the aura of an angel ghost and rocked a chilling set at the heat of the day. Russian protest punk rockers Pussy Riot played a jaw-dropping, gripping and radically political set that spoke explosively and powerfully to the current moment. And the PEOPLE mixtape, just like the fest itself, while somewhat underwhelming at points, felt like a collaboration celebration and ode to the impact of togetherness that ultimately still came out on top.