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Our writer Amileah Sutliff is an Eau Claire native, who has seen her hometown become an unlikely indie rock epicenter thanks to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. We had her write about what it was like to see the second year of Vernon’s festival, Eaux Claires.
Once, I was gushing about my hometown to someone I’d just met, and they asked “Why does everyone from Eau Claire have such a huge boner for Eau Claire?” It was a valid question that I didn’t know how to answer, the way you can’t recognize your own scent because it always surrounds you. That moment made me step back and cynically wonder what was so great about where I grew up in the first place. But after attending the second Eaux Claires festival this past Friday and Saturday, it’s clear to me that Eau Claire natives’ affection goes beyond looking at our home and its creative outputs with rose-colored glasses.
Local author Michael Perry nailed it when he welcomed Bon Iver to the stage Friday night, praising, “Thank you for blooming up as wonderful as we thought you would.” The fondness for this community is rooted in a culture of support for the people working to see ideas and art bloom in the place they were planted. Justin Vernon saw that and wanted to share it. At its core, the festival is a celebration of that culture and a movement to spread it beyond the lines of our city. Even if woodsy, falsetto-bellowing indie folk isn’t your cup of tea, most can agree that art of any genre requires trust and belief. A place (physical or otherwise) that promises the support to experiment is what fuels growth, risk, newness and, just maybe, awe. Among the 50+ acts of Eaux Claires, there was variation in nearly every way possible, but the freely-given belief in whatever each artist was doing remained a constant.
The vastness of Eaux Claires hit me last year as I walked past the line of cars driving into the campground and saw license plates from nearly all 50 states. Our town of under 70,000 had something to bring all of these people to the banks of the Chippewa River. After the initial hype explosion of the inaugural Eaux Claires, everyone seemed to be craning their necks to see if and how the festival would sustain itself. But in its second year, a fervor of momentum was everywhere.
The community atmosphere that contributed to the success of the first festival was abundant across stages; it was more rare to see a set that didn’t bring a guest artist on stage than it was to see one that did. Collaboration often crossed genres and seethed out of performers like sweat from audiences’ pores. The most notable collaborations included the carefully planned Day of the Dead Greatful Dead tribute, the Staves popping up almost everywhere to vocally bolster songs, and Justin Vernon and Chance the Rapper joining Francis & the Lights to close out the festival with “Friends.”
Uniquely wild moments of sheer talent were key to this year’s success as well. Bon Iver played their first album in five years to a warmth of excitement. The Staves and yMusic provided almost a full hour of goosebump-inducing chords under a hot sun. Sam Amidon brought the house down while his drummer and guitarist Shahzad Ismaily simultaneously managed to slay and munch on a bag of popcorn. Moses Sumney seemed to exceed every human and vocal limitation and crossed the line into being a deity. Sloslylove created entire worlds of auditory dreams. Jenny Lewis created a chilling eruption when she brought out Lucius and the Staves for some seriously thick voice parts. Both Vince Staples and James Blake seemed to summon a baptism of rain with each bass drop, soaking the crowd both literally and figuratively. Despite her lateness resulting in an extremely short set, Erykah Badu made sure every moment was supremely worth it, living up to her absolute goddess status. Determined to get my money’s worth (accomplished after roughly two sets), I packed my two days, and I can honestly say each artist laid it all out, even it it was only for a moment.
Much of the magic of Eaux Claires, of course, was situated beyond its sonic creations in its carefully curated installations. Attendees could find themselves gathered inside the geometric architecture of Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels as they soaked up the ambient noise of VNESSWOLFCHILD. Many could be seen following the coordinates sent via the Eaux Claires app through the woods to dig up Gregory Euclide’s buried dioramas. A strange organ postured itself within a complex sculpture, churning out haunting baroque music that floated across the grounds. Wooded paths gave way to nature-inspired pieces that nestled themselves within the landscape, such as strings of leaves with phrases stamped on them like “Go ahead and get lost in the loam or in the tangle of the stars” and “Dip your cupped hands and drink for a long time.”
The two days were full of illustrious moments, big and small, but my apex of understanding came humbly just a few hours into the fest. Walking through the woods from the audible glitter that was Prinze George’s set, on my way to get emotionally pulverized by My Brightest Diamond, I distantly heard S.Carey’s “In the Stream.” I followed a path towards the sound, and, sure enough, there was Sean Carey and his band perched on a hand-built, wooden stage that resembled a treehouse. They played intimately to a gradually growing group of about 30 people, crooning “I was folded by ferns/You could return the earth/All to her.” Even in the moment, it almost seemed funny how cliché “Eau Claire” this all seemed. But that never made it any less genuine, any less magnificent. The nature and landscape of the area is a prominent theme in the work of many artists from here, and hearing their swelling ode to the terrain on which we stood was moving. As a natural pairing to S.Carey’s set, they welcomed poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers to the stage to read her poetic lines of spiritual devotion, anchored in themes of beauty amidst the earth and struggle. Her work was richly visceral and hopeful, appropriately backed by raw jazz improvisation from the band.
A phenomenon I witnessed during this set reminded me of one of the most stirring aspects of seeing this fest unfold as a Eau Claire native. As are many of Eaux Claires’ most special moments, the set was humble in nature. People walked through the woods, caught wind of magic and their eyes dilated with awe. Something small gained traction. This resembled what it looked like to watch our town culturally gain relevance over the past decade. Watching people become infected by the same little, vital air you’ve been breathing is wild. Sharing influence is reviving.
The pinnacle of both Eau Claire and Eaux Claires rang in a line found in the opening paragraphs of the program booklet, wishing upon the reader that the experience would “send you home with a big noise in your head and a tiny seed in your pocket.” No matter what moments attendees found resonance within in the past two days, I hope it led them to a seed that they can take with them, grow and share.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.