The debut of Eaux Claires: The little Wisconsin festival that could

This is a photo caption --photo by el wright
Sufjan Stevens is one of many high-profile acts performing this weekend at Eaux Claires. — photo by el wright

Eaux Claires Music Festival

Eau Clair, Wisconsin — July 17-18 — See website for details

46 acts form the Pitchfork Music Festival, and when they converge onto Union Park, Chicago during the weekend of July 17, only five of them will be representing the Windy City. But this isn’t unusual for a music festival of Pitchfork’s size. The modern American music fest strives on its ability to attract the masses through artists of various communities, opting to cast wide nets versus highlighting a niche scene. But the limitations lie in their success.

It’s this emphasis on local groups over marquee acts that propels the Eaux Claires festival, co-curated by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner, into a realm of its own — a realm where music from regional artists is presented alongside international household names.

While Pitchfork descends on Chicago on July 17 and 18, Vernon and Dessner’s festival will make its debut in a grassy field of Wisconsin farmland, about 300 miles to the north. 42 performers are listed, with 19 of them based within an afternoon’s drive of the host city: Eau Claire, Wisconsin. There are bigger names to be heard: Spoon, Sturgill Simpson, Tallest Man on Earth, Indigo Girls, and, of course, the bands of both curators; but prominence is given to groups of a more modest magnitude.

Eaux Claires will feature Iowa’s Penny Serfs, Eau Claire’s own Grandma Sparrow and Ragnar Kjartansson’s Forever Love, as well as a bevy of Minneapolis bands including Aero Flynn, which showcases the reclusive talent of Josh Scott. Bon Iver’s Vernon founded Chigliak Records a few years ago as a way to give a proper release to Scott’s former band Amateur Love and their phenomenal 2003 record It’s All Aquatic.

“I learned from Aaron how you can shape opportunities for friends -– ways to show off artists to people, and to use the power you have when you have a recognized name to do something like this,” said Vernon in an interview with the Star Tribune. And this repositioning of influence is in the DNA of Eaux Claires.

The sun will rise at 5:36 a.m. on Friday, July 17 and will set approximately 15 hours, 11 minutes and 50 seconds later –- or, at 8:48 p.m. This irregular information along with various other tidbits are featured in the Eaux Claires Field Journal, the festival guide available online. It’s a detailed exploration not just of the performers (with a unique, hand-drawn visual accompanying each name), but of the surrounding Chippewa Valley atmosphere. The festival is an thematic embodiment of the state. The stages and campsite area are named with Wisconsin-orientated detail: The main stage Lake Eaux Lune signifies “Moon Lake Water” and some reassurance is offered for the troubling pronunciation of St. Coix Village. “Just like most things in Wisconsin, no one knows how to pronounce it. Our version is pronounced ‘Kwaah,’” they note.

Found within the lineup of Eaux Claires are acts of such variance, you’d be stressed to consider the festival a tribute to just one genre. Coachella, Outside Lands and Governors Ball typically book popular rock, indie and hip-hop artists while EDM thrives in settings such as the Electric Daisy Carnival, Hard and Ultra festivals. Eaux Claires, meanwhile, prefers groups of various musical persuasions. The first confirmed band was the noise rock duo Melt-Banana from Tokyo, Japan; whom Vernon saw in Minneapolis back in 1994, leaving the show with a life-long impression.

Gospel and soul will join the ranks via the Retribution Gospel Choir, Blind Boys of Alabama and the James Brown-recalling Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires. And nocturnal concertgoers can relish in the heavy electro acid house of German DJ Boys Noize while, on the contrary, the delicate melodies of Sufjan Stevens and his gorgeous new album Carrie & Lowell will be presented in whispering solace.

Eaux Claires reaches its end with a Saturday night performance by Vernon’s own Bon Iver, marking the band’s first outing since 2012. He’s stated there are no plans to tour or record; this Bon Iver show -– for all we know -– could be his last. And if this is to be the case, Bon Iver’s legacy may continue to rest comfortably for the music is timeless. The success of Bon Iver proves that meaningful, complex music can win a Grammy and earn the trust and support of Kanye West -– though, that’s either a commendable feat or a trifling one.

Vernon’s ambition is evident in his records and his attention to detail; it would appear as though that same dedicated spirit has been passed on to Eaux Claires.

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