Music festivals have become a clichéd experience: The scene is overcrowded; lineups usually consist of a regurgitated roster that resembles every other festival; and fans flock to buy tickets to see all these bands they love, only to find out that many of them will be playing at the same time.
Tired of the mundane offerings of music festivals, Justin Vernon, the lead singer and songwriter behind Bon Iver, and Aaron Dessner, producer and songwriter for the National, brought an inspired approach to the northern Wisconsin town of Eau Claire. Vernon’s love for his serene hometown sparked the motivation to bring more art and culture to the community. Vernon and Dessner, along with creative director Michael Brown and narrator Michael Perry, were determined to stand out in a crowded market and, to many people’s surprise, that’s exactly what they have done, from the music to the beer. Since the inaugural year in 2015, Eaux Claires has approached the idea of a music festival differently. The festival returns to that small Wisconsin town on July 6th and 7th.
“Europe has such a great tradition of alternative approaches to events that we now generally recognize as ‘festivals,’” Brown says. “Some of those festivals were the original inspiration for year one and two, but we knew all along that we wanted to strive for something more unique and out-of-the-box—we want to re-define the artists and audience experience and not be bound by the expectation of normalcy each year. So, the mission of this festival and the creative task is just that—to change the experience from year to year. This is a festival created by artists who are looking to tinker with the festival concept.”
Eaux Claires does this through collaborations, both in the traditional and less traditional sense. The collaborative spirit is exemplified in sets like in 2017 when Paul Simon was backed by the chamber ensemble, Ymusic. Or in 2016, when an entire set was devoted to The Grateful Dead covers, with every song being performed by different artists.
That same spirit extends beyond the stage and into the beverage tent via beer collaborations with some of the world’s most respected brewers. An unexpected beer collaboration between local Eau Claire brewery the Brewing Projekt and Mikkeller was served at the inaugural festival. The beer was titled Eaux Henry! Eaux Sally!, a refreshing American pale ale. This year will bring a fresh collaboration between the Brewing Projekt and New Belgium. The hazy pale ale, featuring Citra, Mosaic and Nelson Savion hops, is titled ‘IV.’ The label was designed by Brian Moen, an Eau Claire native and founding member of the Shouting Matches.
“We’re excited to be at the festival this year and to have had the opportunity to work with New Belgium on this fun beer,” says William Glass, president of the Brewing Projekt. “Eaux Claires is an awesome part of our local culture and we are so happy to have been able to make a beer specifically designed to be enjoyed in the presence of friends, new and old, as well as amazing music.” In addition to the limited release beer, the festival has made it a point to offer both local and non-local options at non-inflated prices.
Almost every aspect of Eaux Claires is a bold departure. It wasn’t so long ago that I was fighting for space to pitch a tent in the sweltering heat at Bonnaroo. A weekend at Eaux Claires is different. I feel as though I have room to breathe as I pull into the forested campground. I leisurely set up the hammocks, tents, picnic tables and tarps cloaked in an array of fragrant pine trees. The nights are full of campfires and camaraderie, while the mornings give host to community yoga sessions over the smell of fresh cold brew wafting from the coffee truck. This environment, while carefree and communal, is very much purposeful.
“The more chances for unique interaction amongst the audience and artists, the stronger that communal feeling becomes,” Brown says. “That’s one of the only reasons why we still do camping at our festival—it’s an opportunity for the attendees to deepen a communal bond.”
Countless secrets are spread throughout the grounds waiting to be uncovered. Many of these surprise performances or hidden art installations are revealed through the official Eaux Claires app. I remember walking through the wooded portion of the festival, littered with art and sculptures, and finding a group peering into a rock alongside a trail. Lo and behold, through a tiny peephole, there was a magnificent diorama of a lost world by Gregory Euclide. This is only a small glimpse of the wonders Eaux Claire leaves for its guests to discover, from a water well dropping tiny drops of water into pales to create music controlled by an iPad to the Mom’s booth full of moms that have anything you may need, from sunscreen to a hug. Perhaps the most magnificent installation thus far has been “Baroque”, a pipe organ surrounded by a mesh sculpture that stood as the centerpiece of the festival in 2016. The bottom of the sculpture was laced with fresh hops, paying respect to the prominent role that Wisconsin played in keeping the hops industry afloat following the Civil War.
With each passing year, Eaux Claires has become more and more cryptic, with this year being the most enigmatic they’ve been since inception. Heading into its fourth year, the festival has pivoted their creative direction yet again, creating a music festival without a lineup. It seems asinine to conceive a festival under the assumption that people will shell out almost two hundred dollars for a ticket with no knowledge of the artists performing. If you've ever been to Eaux Claires before, you know that a community of trust has been planted and fostered over the first three years.
“I am so thankful and appreciative of the participants that are taking this journey with us in year four,” Brown says. “It’s a huge risk for us, but I think it’s going to make for an even more exciting experience. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. If I think back at my favorite moments of Eaux Claires from year to year, the most impactful moments were the spontaneous, personal and collaborative ones. Those experiences have convinced a portion of our audience, the true believers, to come participate and experience the event and not just a band name on a poster.”
I look forward to this year with as much excitement and even more anticipation than years past. With no knowledge of who will be there, spontaneity will govern the weekend. To mitigate the fear of missing out, many beers will need to be consumed.