A few months ago, I bought two 3-day passes to Pitchfork 2015, knowing that I’d had a pretty good time last year and that, if worst came to worst, I could unload them on any number of eager late buyers.
As the date got closer, I asked all of my friends if they’d be interested in going. Everyone said no; some were apathetic, some said they wouldn’t be caught dead there. My girlfriend said she just didn’t want to request a weekend off of work.
All these polite declinations from my friends made me realize the extent of my own apathy towards attending Pitchfork. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had several enjoyable years going to the festival. But the thought of once more donning my Ray Bans and puzzling over bands I’d never heard of began to seem more and more exhausting.
I put my tickets up for sale. A few days afterwards, an article caught my eye. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver was organizing a festival in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin to be called Eaux Claires Fest (spelled differently perhaps for Google reasons). I glanced at the line-up, which besides Bon Iver included Sufjan Stevens, The National, and The Tallest Man On Earth, and a plan began to form. I rushed home from work that night and pitched it to my girlfriend: screw Pitchfork, let’s go to Eau Claire, camp, and hear a brand-new festival.
“It will be an adventure,” I said. She agreed.
So, this past weekend, we set out in a rental car with a tent to see what Eaux Claires Festival had to offer.
After checking in to our campsite, we made it on to the festival grounds just in time to catch a set from epic-slow heroes Low. I couldn’t believe how much sound their three members made, and I especially appreciated Mimi Parker’s minimal yet pounding drums. It was an incredible set.
Our plan next was to check out Spoon, but we decided on a whim to stay at the same stage and see some of The Blind Boys of Alabama. And here, the first instance of a weekend-long pattern occurred: we took a chance and were wholeheartedly rewarded. The energy and undeniably radiant joy of the Blind Boys’ set blew me away, and I couldn’t help but recognize that a similar moment would have been much harder to come by at Pitchfork, where joy is often kept in check in lieu of maintaining a calm cool.
We ended up staying for the Blind Boys’ entire set, and we were further rewarded when Justin Vernon himself, who produced the Blind Boys’ 2013 album, I’ll Find A Way, came out to join the group on guitar for a song. The crowd went nuts. Clearly, we were among Bon Iver fans (I emphatically count myself among their numbers – but more on that later).
As we headed through the woods to return to the main stage area, colored lights began to switch on, casting a gentle glow to the surrounding trees. With the closing notes of Spoon’s “Don’t You Evah” drifting through the leaves, I realized that there might be no better place to hear a song you love than walking through the woods at twilight.
Night fell. I saw an earnest, full-band set from Swedish guitar-folk hero The Tallest Man On Earth, while my girlfriend jogged over to catch a set from the newcomer Corbin (who also performs occasionally as Spooky Black), a 17 year-old R&B wunderkind from St. Paul with a bit of “an Eminem vibe” (her words).
We reunited for a 90-minute set by The National, who delivered an arena-ready set to a field full of people (I’d guess at least 10,000), and who kept the energy up despite being plagued by sound problems. At one point, Sufjan Stevens came onstage to sing backing vocals for a few songs. It was one of several times that day that a band had shared the stage with someone else on the festival’s lineup, and it was especially noteworthy given that Sufjan’s own performance wasn’t scheduled until the following day.
After The National, we stopped by the merch booth only to be told that several of the festival’s T-shirts had sold out, but that more were bring printed that very night. “If you want an Eaux Claires shirt, come early,” an employee told me. Excitement was rising.
Early Saturday morning, we stopped in nearby Fall Creek for breakfast on our way back to the festival. The Justin Vernon nerd in me noted the distinct possibility that this Fall Creek was the namesake for the JV/James Blake collaboration from a few years back, “Fall Creek Boys Choir.”
At the Fall Crick Café, an extremely cute little roadside diner, we learned that Eaux Claires Festival was taking place on the same plot of land that Country Jam USA was scheduled for the following weekend. We also learned there was a second festival happening concurrently with Eaux Claires, Rock Fest, which featured Godsmack. Eau Claire, it seems, is home to several festivals.
We told our waitress we were attending Eaux Claires Fest and she said, “Oh. Justin Vernon is my grandpa’s neighbor.” It was clear to me that, far from being bothered by a new festival setting up shop, the Eau Claire area was proud of its boy and happy to welcome newcomers.
Later, after drinking a few Spotted Cows and making our way back on to the festival grounds, I struck up a conversation with an Eau Claire couple who I’d peg as in their late forties.
“Yeah,” said the man, “Justin Vernon gave Eau Claire a shout-out when he won the Grammy [in 2012].”
“Wow,” I replied. My sense of belonging among Bon Iver fans, among good Midwestern people, deepened.
Ten minutes later, a sun-soaked Charles Bradley blew me away. As his keyboard player explained, “Mr. Charles Bradley likes to get nice and nasty: nice-ty,” and indeed his rock-solid backing band was relentless, a buoyant counterpart to Mr. Bradley’s heartbreaking vocals. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a vocalist that oozed sadness quite as readily as Charles Bradley.
We headed through the woods to a different stage and caught a set by Tokyo’s Melt-Banana. No one at ECF was ready for Melt-Banana.
Despite having only two members, Melt-Banana pummeled the crowd with thirty minutes of squealing guitar, yelping vocals, and thudding pre-programmed drums. I looked to my left and realized a mosh pit had formed. Rather than seeming incongruous with the rest of the weekend thus far, the heaving throngs represented well the undeniable happiness everyone felt at being in a place so beautiful with such a variety of music. I have to admit, though, I declined from jumping into the pit.
We walked back through the woods and caught an enchanting, infinitely dance-able set from Minneapolis’ Poliça, with vocalist Channy Leaneagh delivering a note-perfect, soulful performance from song to song, dancing all the while despite being visibly pregnant. “We’re taking a longer break than normal soon,” Leaneagh explained, “because I’m going to have a baby.” After hinting at an upcoming album next spring, Leaneagh went on, “We’ve still got five more songs, though. Just wanted to keep you informed.” The crowd cheered.
As Poliça finished to thunderous applause, I glanced down at my program and realized that the Indigo Girls would be taking the stage shortly. I have to confess: part of me was thinking, Ugh, this band is so old. Who cares what two old ladies with guitars have to say? I’m not proud to think these thoughts, but if I’m being honest, they were there.
I kept my mouth shut, though, and as the Indigo Girls took the stage to thundering applause, I realized I was being a jerk. Frontwomen Amy Ray and Emily Saliers beamed as they took the stage, wholeheartedly thanking the audience for being there and thanking Justin Vernon for having them. They then proceeded to play the entirety of their 1994 album Swamp Ophelia, and let me tell you: the crowd went bananas. People were crying. It was really, really beautiful. Again, I had the thought: this just would not have happened at Pitchfork. I was happy to be proven fully wrong in doubting the group.
As the Indigo Girls finished and we, the masses, got ready for Sufjan Stevens, evening fell. The trees surrounding the large, open field were lit with colored spotlights. In the wooded trail between stages, boxes had been hung from trees and lit. In the dark, they resembled the windows of cabins. The effect was eerily pretty.
Then, Sufjan Stevens began, and I kind of lost track of time. For me, Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver were essentially the reasons I opted for ECF, and I was beyond excited. Sufjan Stevens’ set was epic, his five-person backing band passing around instruments. “Vesuvius” from the 2010 electronic opus Age of Adz was magnificent. A few songs later, Sufjan led the crowd in a massive sing-along of his heartbreaking classic, “Casimir Pulaski Day.”
“I have social anxiety, and I don’t like crowds,” Sufjan told us at one point. “But I’m glad to be here.” It was one of several moments he stopped to address the audience. Later, he explained that he’d visited Justin Vernon in Eau Claire the previous year, during a difficult time when he’d been wrapping up his latest album, Carrie & Lowell. As others before him had done, Sufjan thanked Justin Vernon for his work on the festival. “I had a good cry in the corn,” he said.
The National’s Bryce Dessner came onstage and played the rest of the set. A visiting brass band, the No BS! Brass Band, came onstage for a rousing “Come On Feel The Illinoise.” By the time the final, epic notes of synthesizers and vocals swelled in front of home footage of Sufjan’s mother and father, we all knew we’d witnessed something special. A visibly shaken Sufjan wordlessly thanked us.
I turned around to the second stage across the field where Bon Iver would finish the evening, and I realized just how many people were there. It was breathtaking.
“This sounds so stupid,” I said to my girlfriend, “but I didn’t realize just how many people love Bon Iver.” It was clear that the entire 48 hours had been leading up to this next performance. The audience gathered was twice the size of the previous night’s crowd for The National.
Author Michael Perry took the stage. He had been serving as the festival’s “unofficial narrator,” having read a short piece before The National the night before. He thanked everyone for coming to the festival, and read another piece explaining the importance of reflecting upon nature when in Eau Claire.
The lights went dark. The audience erupted.
The next 90 minutes whirred by for me. Justin Vernon brought on guest after guest for each song. The trio vocals of England’s The Staves provided the perfect vocal backdrop for several tracks from Bon Iver’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago. New York chamber orchestra yMusic added lush layers to a few tunes. Vernon’s gorgeous, aching falsetto echoed across the field.
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about: Is there more than just us?” Vernon explained between songs. “And I’ve come to the conclusion that this it. All we have is each other.” Vernon visibly began tearing up. “Thank you to everyone for being here…Friendship is everything…I’m not sure exactly what Eaux Claires Fest is yet, but I have the feeling everyone here understands the same thing.”
As the evening came to a close, Vernon walked to a chair in the middle of the stage, sat down, and launched into “Skinny Love,” the lonesome anthem from For Emma. 22,000 people sang along.
I felt myself beginning to cry. Really. I had been moved by Bon Iver; by Eaux Claires the festival, a special place created for us; by Eau Claire the town, which welcomed us with open arms as we celebrated with one of its most accomplished natives. The night was alive, and we paid rapt attention to every note.
As we walked back to the car, I again found myself misty-eyed, thinking of the incredible journey Vernon took from writing songs alone to leading us all in singing together. I can’t remember the last time a performance made me cry, and I think it will be a long time before another concert approaches the ethereal magic I experienced in two days in the remote woods of Wisconsin.
Words by Gehring Miller
Special thanks to Jim Vondruska
Photo by Graham Tolbert