In west-central Wisconsin, almost equidistant from Minneapolis and Wausau, Cranberry Lake and Brownsville, sits the city of Eau Claire (pronounced ‘Oh Claire’). From the west, it’s a straight shot along I-94, past farmlands where farmhands on big green machines routinely remove caps and wipe foreheads while grimacing into a sun so bright it’s shapeless, past stands of prefabs that look like they were built in a single afternoon, traffic logjammed outside exit towns like Baldwin and Menominee as eighteen-wheelers file plaintively toward the Rust Belt. You’ll take Exit 59 into the heart of Eau Claire’s outskirts, through tree-lined neighborhoods, the kind of place where locals welcome newcomers at their door with quivering Jell-O molds. Where the high school football field is hallowed ground, goalposts sentinel as relics, the players themselves liaisons to a golden god. You’ll park your car in one of these neighborhoods. Then you’ll cross a sunbaked field at the foot of Fanny Hill, grasshoppers shooting up like shrapnel, monarch butterflies pitching and yawing at the tree line. You’ll hear music: something iridescent by Prinze George rising up from The Kills stage. The grass will grade to gravel, and, after descending some wooden stairs—surrounded by what look to you like Jack Pine but are probably Eastern Hemlock—you’ll arrive. An open field flanked by stages Lake Eaux Lune and Flambeaux, cool kids lazing. Between songs, cicadas hum like high-tension power lines. (You’ll forget that you still need to drive thirty minutes and set up camp on the shores of Lake Wissota [which will end up happening in the rain, by headlight].) Eventually, while sipping something like your tenth Summit tall boy backstage, you’ll be challenged to an impromptu thumb war by Matthew Houck’s lovely partner, musician Jo Schornikow, as she cradles their youngest child. You will lose.
Har Mar Superstar
This is the second annual Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival, “a deeply meaningful experience of togetherness and expression,” says Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, the festival’s founder, who, according to Creative Director Michael Brown, “didn’t want to just be an ambassador of the city [of Eau Claire]. He wanted to actually have something to give back to the community.”
(You will carry a sheet of tri-folded paper in your back pocket listing all the weekend’s portrait and interview information. By Saturday night, this sheet of paper will look like it went through the clothes dryer. Twice.)
“There’s something special about this area,” Phil Cook tells you in the backstage Artist Lounge, the L-shaped ranks of band trailers adjoined over his shoulders. Across one door: Little Scream. Another: Phosphorescent. “The people that come from this area consistently make music that is honesty and integrity, and I feel like that’s at the heart of this festival. It’s really powerful for me to watch, being from here. I love it so much.”
It’s hot and humid. The paisley patterns of a storm loom northward (over Lake Wissota). The harder you try not to sweat, the harder you sweat. After speaking with Phil, you slip into the luxury port-o-potties backstage and bask in the A/C as chart-topping country (Brantley Gilbert’s “Small Town Throwdown”) paradoxically plays over the little sound system.
There are special moments of reflection: As Vince Staples sings, “Tell me whatchu need, bitch you know a young nigga got / Pills to the weed,” you watch a moth uncoil its proboscis and dab it upon a mossy stone; when the rain finally arrives—misting at first, then exploding in the dirt—everyone gathers under tents, laughing; when the sun starts to set, fireflies emerge, winking suggestively. You and Lilly Ball, Editor-in-Chief/interim photographer, see familiar faces—Nate Eisland, formerly of ON AN ON; Claire de Lune of Tiny Deaths. And it is special. Surrounded by thousands of people, the place feels somehow intimate, deeply personal, almost familial.
When you meet up with Har Mar Superstar at the Media Tent, you offer him one of your beers. He opens it immediately and toasts.
You then meet up with Prinze George (all three members clad in apparitional white), then Tuskha, and, right after, Elliot Kozel a.k.a. Tickle Torture a.k.a. Uncle Tickle.
“I always describe my sound as Justin Timberlake and Prince fucking in a dumpster,” he says.
“Behind a dumpster?”
“There’s bourbon over there,” you point out.
“Dude, I’m sleeping in a tent, so I think I’m gonna need to get fucked up.”
“Drunk enough so you can sleep on the ground.”
“Exactly,” he says, “then you wake up with the fucking birds, dude. I hate camping.” Then, as an afterthought: “It’s good to get back in touch with your animal nature. Have you ever taken a shit naked in the forest?”
After unforgettable sets by Little Scream, Phosphorescent, Senyawa, Bon Iver, et al., you climb the stairs and cross the field under the last pink smears of sunset. Day One is over. Time to set up camp, which proves to be a struggle.
Velvet Negroni + Tickle Torture
"Baroque", by Edoardo Tresoldi, Michael Brown, James McVinnie and Griffin McMahon
Like Tickle says, you wake up with the fucking birds.
Since the festival gates don’t open till noon, you go searching for fully leaded Americano in the hills of Chippewa Falls. While waiting for your order at the 4:30 AM Coffeehouse (hours: 6AM-5PM), Ball wraps her knuckles against the cover of an outdoors magazine, against a picture of a pileated woodpecker, and says, “What kind of bird is that?”
“I don’t know,” you say wearily. “Hummingbird.”
At the festival, finally—partly cloudy, temperatures steady at 73°—you meet up with experimental outfit Catsax.
Since they’re a fairly new band, you ask them to describe their sound.
Nelson Devereaux: “We’re always evolving. We started really far out, spacey and free, so we’re keeping those elements of musical excitement while starting to mix in some other stuff. The [eponymous] album was just a snapshot of what we’re capable of producing in the moment.”
You guzzle a Summit Saga backstage (while Lilly sips a Greyhound, an obscenely refreshing cocktail made with Tito’s Vodka). Then, it’s off to check out the art exhibits (chiefly, “a massive baroque organ cuboid sculpture,” the collaborative centerpiece by renowned sculptor Edoardo Tresoldi, festival Creative Director Michael Brown, and organists James McVinnie and Griffin McMahon) while Jenny Lewis kills it on stage Flambeaux.
Eventually, you meet up with Nick Sanborn (Sylvan Esso, Made of Oak) to talk shop.
“[Eaux Claires] makes it really easy to find things you don’t know anything about,” he says. “So many of the performances are one-offs or weird happenings, and it kind of encourages you to stop caring about who’s headlining or what band is playing next. You see a lot of things you’re not expecting to blow you away.”
The trickiest thing about Eaux Claires is catching all the shows; it’s damn near impossible. After washing down a dubiously named Potato Spiral with your umpteenth Summit—your blood fermented at this point, your kidneys pickled—and watching Phil Cook, without a hint of derision, join an impromptu drum circle backstage, you catch up with Laurel Sprengelmeyer of Little Scream, who’d recently “binge-watched Stranger Things.”
“I’ve been watching Project Runway,” you say, the beer taking hold.
After a pause, she says, “I don’t think I’ve ever watched an entire episode of Project Runway.”
Later, you meet Laurel’s sister, who hands you a sticker for their dad’s antique shop, Driftless Sisters, in Galena, IL. Again: Eaux Claires’ ever-present familial tone.
Finally, after a scheduling snafu and a dead phone (you spend your fair share pacing at the complimentary charging station by the entrance), you meet up with Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck.
It’s a quick conversation—he’s due on stage any minute for the Grateful Dead tribute act, Day of the Dead. You talk music (You: “What have you been listening to?” Houck: “To be honest, man, I’ve been off the road, and I haven’t been making music for about the last year. I’ve had two kids since Muchacho came out. I’ve just recently started working again, and, really, that’s about all I’ve been listening to.”), he introduces you to his kids, you hug (Houck and you), and he’s off, literally jogging stage right.
The night draws to a close. You watch transcendent sets by Tickle Torture, Har Mar, Erykah Badu. Before heading out, there’s a surprise appearance by Chance the Rapper, who joins Justin Vernon and Francis and The Lights.
Then, just like that, it’s over.
Back at the campsite, exhausted, you build a fire and sit listening to the pop and hiss of split logs, the sighs and bleats of changing properties, and you let the weekend break over you. We’re in the business of collecting memories, you think, and our entire lives are built on them—a song, a thumb war, enjoying the company of insanely talented people. You hope these memories stick, that they endure, that—no matter what you put yourself through—these, at least, withstand.
Special thanks to Kelsey Bruun, Michael Brown, Jennifer Trebisovsky, Justin Fitterman, Will Gallagher, Rusty Sutton, and all the wonderful Eaux Claires volunteers.