A Walk In The Woods

August 15, 2016

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve fallen a bit out of touch with one of the biggest joys in my life: live music. I ran the box office at a local music venue after graduating college, and between my early-afternoon office hours to settling shows at night, I saw hundreds of bands — some old favorites, some totally new discoveries, some just not my cup of tea. After spending so much time in the music world, I just sort of took a break from going to shows for a while. I’m getting more sleep, but it also kind of sucks.

But last summer, a bunch of friends came back from Eaux Claires, western Wisconsin’s newest music festival, babbling about their experiences. It was eclectic, exploratory, diverse, low-key, manageable and friendly — a rare treat among the crowded, crowd-pleasing festival circuit. So, when tickets went on sale this spring, I decided to recapture a bit of the spirit and buy a pass.

Well, I’m a convert. I’m just back from the two-day festival, held this past weekend just outside Eau Claire’s city limits, and I can say it’s well worth the exceedingly short drive and reasonably priced ticket. Eaux Claires is curated and produced by hometown hero Justin Vernon and The National’s Bryce Dessner, so the lineups have skewed toward some songwriterly indie favorites, but if you have an open mind and like a challenge every once in a while, it’s great fun.

Whoa! There were quite a few jaw-on-the-floor moments for me over the weekend. James Blake, the British synth hero for people who like to dance and cry occasionally, turned his occasionally sparse new record into a rave-worthy experience — and actually got a Midwestern crowd dancing. I had seen him at First Avenue several years back and was floored by the live translation of his introspective but soaring ballads. I won’t miss him next time he’s in town.

My Saturday kicked off with a set from EX EYE, a brand-new drone/metal band featuring saxophone innovator Colin Stetson and Liturgy/Guardian Alien drummer Greg Fox — one of my drumming heroes — along with synth artist Shahzad Ismaily and guitarist Toby Summerfield. It was a deafening, exploratory, mammoth set of noise, and I loved every second.

The same tent hosted a set from Shabazz Palaces, a Seattle-based rap duo that explores a bit of everything — music, sex, authority, society — through a filter of some pretty unclassifiable jazz-space-Afro-futurism. The performers in Shabazz have both been around for a while, but this more recently formed group has really spearheaded a renewed effort to push the boundaries of rap. I don’t think we’d have Kendrick or Yeezus without Shabazz Palaces, and though their records can be quiet sometimes, hearing their tracks at full volume with a mass of dancing bodies clearly unlocked new connections in the crowd.

And then there was Saturday headliner Erykah Badu, who hadn’t played near here for a decade or more. I missed a chance to see her many years ago at Bonnaroo and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. By now you’ve read that she was 40-plus minutes late for her set, which lasted about another 40 before she called it off early, claiming she was being booted so the next stage could play, and people were mad — “How dare she? Why couldn’t she just start on time? What was she on?” But I don’t care about those people! Every minute that Erykah Badu was on stage — and even her ace band, who vamped on some instrumentals as a way of cooling the crowd — was pure heaven, pure mastery, pure performance. I was so into it. This is why I came to this festival — to capture just a few minutes of feeling like I lived inside the music, my fellow attendees there with me. And I was lucky — I got that feeling for her entire set, not just a song here or there. It was wonderful, and I need to find another opportunity to see her soon.

Finally seeing some stalwarts. There were a bunch of people I had somehow never seen, whether it was a case of “I’m tired, not tonight” or “they’ll be back in six months anyway.” Phosphorescent, Little Scream, Deafheaven, Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers (childhood favorites of Justin Vernon, hence their appearance on a bill largely half their age), Jon Hopkins, Mavis Staples, Melvins, Lucius and Beach House were all new experiences for me. Some missed the mark for me, others were refreshing finds — Mavis Staples and Bruce Hornsby were both charming and joyous, and Jon Hopkins delivered an actual rave for those looking to dance at midnight. I’ve talked a big game about not “getting” Beach House, but their incredible live show did do quite a bit to bring me around to their camp.

New discoveries. One of the festival organizers saw a short documentary about Indonesian folk-metal band Senyawa and decided they needed to come to Wisconsin. I’m so glad they did; the two-piece reinterprets Javanese music through a filter of thrash metal and big amplifiers, and their vocalist, Rully Shabara, had a mind-bending vocal range. From eagle shrieks to basso profundo, from throat-hum drones to breathy staccato rasps, he sculpted some terrifying and impressive music for an appreciative Friday afternoon crowd. The aforementioned EX EYE also blew my mind — I’m eagerly awaiting another chance to see them, or an official release of some music.

Artistic exploration. The festival encourages its performers to explore, or to dig deep to find meaning in old works — Bruce Hornsby and Japanese noise-pop act Cornelius each performed a classic record in its entirety — while Bon Iver and relative newcomer (and fan favorite) Francis & The Lights each premiered new albums in sequence. The Bon Iver premiere was headline news in the indie-rock world last week, and it drew the most attentive (and biggest) crowd of the festival. The new record is thorny, emotional, challenging — I won’t claim to have a fully formed rendering of it right now. It didn’t really sound like anything else at the festival or in the Bon Iver catalog — we’ll just have to listen to the record and find out. (Bias: I neither like nor dislike Bon Iver.) Beyond full-album fetishism, there was plenty of artist crossover from stage to stage as collaborators and friends old and new took turns on each other’s songs. This was most prominent during Day of the Dead, an album of Grateful Dead covers and reinterpretations organized by The National guitarist Bryce Dessner that benefits the Red Hot organization. The revolving door of singers and guests gave the surprisingly strong contingent of Deadheads in attendance something to dance to.

The festival itself. The founders wanted to create a festival that was successful without falling into the formula that makes every major summer festival indistinguishable from one another — “If we book 85 bands that sell tickets, we’ll make money” — and the resulting experience is a comfortable, accessible festival where lines are short, performances are staggered well and you’re never sardined into a field with 90,000 people. Art installations, small performances and pop-up events keep attendees on their toes. The sound — oh my god, the sound — was uniformly crisp and crystal-clear. Bad sound ruins performances — but I’m happy to say that at Eaux Claires, every artist, from world music to metal to solo guitar, got a perfect mix. Huge kudos to the production crew.

And that’s one fan’s perspective of Eaux Claires. I hope it returns next year — I’ll gladly return to the river.