The air feels different up there in Northern Wisconsin. For a few days, sheathed in soaring pine, around 12,000 of us came together searching for an experience that not many would take the gamble on. That notion alone brings a sense of camaraderie. It’s a strange feeling knowing you’re surrounded by so many people you share a very specific common interest with.
Shortly after setting up camp the day prior to the Eaux Claires festival, I found my people. On a wooden table surrounded by eager beer lovers, we set out craft options from where we traveled from. Leave a beer. Take a beer. Variations of all kinds peppered the table, hailing from around the country and some even from overseas. I contributed a relaxed session ale for an exceedingly hot weekend—Revolution’s seasonal peach saison, Freedom of Speach. In exchange, I took a brisk summer ale from Fernson Brewing out of South Dakota called Zoo Brew, as well as a citrusy but yet robust Twisted Logik IPA from Defiance Brewing in Kansas.
Leading up to this year’s Eaux Claires, creative director Michael Brown explained, “We want to create an environment that is completely unique from any other weekend you would experience in the year and hopefully inspire and connect with people on a deeper level. Deeper than just putting a band on a stage and have folks huddle in front of it. I want this festival to mean something for people.”
As the concept of the festival gets more niche, so does its community—fans and artists alike. Eaux Claires began as a creative response to other festivals. While much of the event’s early success stemmed directly from the adoration of its creators’ bands, Bon Iver and The National, the diverging approach is what keeps the festival intriguing. Eaux Claires was always meant to be a weekend of sporadic collaborations dotted with thought-provoking authors and diverse art installations. The first year gave us a taste of what it could become and every year it becomes more and more spontaneous. This year, the creators upped the ante by offering no lineup until day one of the festival, leaving guests to rely on blind faith.
The approach had mixed results: Did I get to see surprise guests like Chance the Rapper on top of an already stacked lineup, as I had in previous years? No. When walking into the festival and being handed the lineup for the first time, did the excitement correspond with the anticipation? Hard no. Did Bon Iver play a special set like he did last month at Bonnaroo? I wish.
What I did see was poet and music essayist Hanif Abdurraqib read an excerpt from his latest collection of essays in a tiny camp trailer to about six of us, and then again later in the woods with guitar amplifiers mic’d at the tops of trees echoing his voice. I saw Pussy Riot demand democracy through abrasive visuals and trembling rhythms. I watched as Matt Berninger utilized every inch of the 360-degree, elevated stage as The National played “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. No mics. No audience chatter. Just a divine moment of unification.
Togetherness in that sense came in many moments throughout the weekend. A bus full of us pounding cans of cheap beer together en route to the festival grounds the first time, eagerly awaiting who we would be seeing that weekend. The collective positive energy during Phil Cook’s set as he urged all of us to open our hearts and talk to strangers. Holding back tears as a choked up Sharon Van Etten paid tribute to a recently lost fellow musician, Richard Swift, just as the sun was setting. A sardine packed bus of strangers reveling in the B-52’s “Love Shack” and Elton John’s “Blue Jean Baby” journeying back to the campground to sit around a fire and mull over the days experience.
“We’re less interested in ‘getting it right’ once and then repeating that experience,” Brown says. “We’re more interested in pushing ourselves to create a new and unique experience each year so that the audience can also grow and change along with us.”
Some of it worked. Some of it didn’t.
When fan favorite S. Carey played a last minute set in the fashionably constructed stage in the woods, there was only room for fifty people or so to hear it, let alone see it. The surprise element becomes a frustrating endeavor of constantly checking your phone in a field of shoddy cell service.
The beer options also fell flat this year. In exchange for an assortment of local selections, Eaux Claires offered three New Belgium choices: Fat Tire, Fat Tire Belgian White and The Hemperor IPA for $8 a can. To be fair, for a dollar more, there was one appealing option—a collaboration between New Belgium and locally operated The Brewing Projekt titled simply ‘IV’. The ultra cloudy pale ale exceeded all of my expectations. ‘IV’ was surprisingly easy to drink on a sweltering day with rejuvenating notes of citrus and a slight hoppiness. However, the anticipation of this collaboration was not well managed, as the pre-fest Oxbow show sold out of it within an hour or two of doors. In fairness, The Hemperor IPA was somewhat alluring, joining in on the new trend of adding a key ingredient to the hops: Hemp. The skunky smell didn’t make up for the mediocre taste. The irony here lied in the clusters of undercover officers who were making every attempt to eradicate taking part in said ingredient in any other fashion.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from the weekend is that this is an ever-changing festival. Eaux Claires was never for everyone and it’s for even fewer now. As I ventured through the forest in the late hours of night one, giant illuminated balloons pierced through the trees and I stumbled upon a crowd banging on tubular steel pipes. I picked up a wooden mallet and constructed a single melody. In the sea of noise, I was part of the creation.
Many complaints have been voiced after this past year, and that’s OK. I, too, am critical of Eaux Claires because I care about it and how it’s gotten so damn much right. Many people will not be returning because there wasn’t a plethora of headliners or surprise guests like in years past. I get that. I painstakingly get that. But when it comes down to it, what this weekend of drinking aimlessly at Eaux Claires has validated, is that I will always be searching for that wooden mallet, ready to join in on the moment.