In its third year, the Wisconsin-based music festival Eaux Claires continued its tradition of bringing together artists from across the world for a slew of astonishing live performances. Focusing on artist collaboration, experimentation and exploration, the festival fuzed genres ranging from folk and indie rock to classical and hip-hop.
Festival curators Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of The National christened both days of the two-day jamboree with People Mixtape Vol. 1 & 2—a highly collaborative set of unfinished music performed by artists from various groups set to perform at Eaux Claires.
People Mixtape Vol. 1 served as a sneak peak for Big Red Machine—a sort of indie super-group formed by Vernon and Dessner. Premiering new music with the help of other Eaux Claires performers, the newly formed group blended elements from indie, rock, ambient and house music into one beautiful soundscape.
Vernon’s 22, A Million-esque vocals were as bone-chilling as ever. Only Vernon and Dessner know if the music will ever be released, but I think it’s safe to say that nearly everyone who saw the two amazing Big Red Machine sets wholeheartedly hope that it gets released.
People Mixtape Vol. 2 was much more experimental. Members of Sad Sax and s-t-a-r-g-a-z-e joined Vernon and Dessner on stage to perform a set of deconstructed house music filled with jarring but calming feedback scattered throughout.
Keeping with the spirit of collaboration, chamber orchestra ensemble s-t-a-r-g-a-z-e played a role in several sets over the two days.
Music For The Long Emergency—a collaborative piece fuzing Poliçia and s-t-a-r-g-a-z-e’s respective musical styles—embodied the feeling of a society inching closer and closer toward dystopia. Gorgeously layered synths and booming drums set the backdrop for violins so eerie it seemed as if there was no hope for humanity.
Day two saw s-t-a-r-g-a-z-e collaborating with Minneapolis rapper Astronautalis. His vicious rhymes flowed seamlessly over reimagined numbers from new and old composers alike. It was an unorthodox set; in addition to strings, woodwinds and drums playing an integral role in the performances, brooms sweeping the stage and newspapers being torn were added to give a strangely simple touch to the extremely complex compositions.
In light of the overwhelming melancholiness in s-t-a-r-g-a-z-e’s two sets, the music trickled with a sense of sanguinity—an acknowledgement that in spite of the panic in the world, things just might turn out okay in the end.
It was a common theme found in the music throughout the two days—realizing that despite the world’s turmoil, collaboration and self-improvement could change things for the better.
Few groups manifested that feeling better than cup. The husband-and-wife duo performed a stunning, hypnotic set filled with synthetic and organic sounds that coalesced to form a futuristic dreamscape. Yuka Honda’s mixed ambient noises were so complex at times that it was only possible to completely focus on one layer of her sonic collage. Nels Cline’s dexterous guitar playing flowing in and out of modulators exhibited the duality of the music at the festival.
While there was a strong focus on combining synthetic and organic sounds throughout the festival, Bon Iver’s tribute to folk legend John Prine gave the festival an overwhelming sense of bliss when the synthesizers were abandoned for traditional acoustic guitars, drums and banjo.
The pinnacle of collaboration, Vernon recruited Jenny Lewis, Spank Rock, Mountain Man, The Staves, soul-legend Swamp Dogg and many more to help with a playlist of John Prine classics. Prine himself graced the stage to conclude the tribute set with a smile so infectious it could be seen on everyone at the festival.
Day two as a whole took on a more lively feel than day one. Spank Rock was the personification of that enthusiasm.
With a little help from DJ Delish, Amanda Blank and seductively dressed male and female dancers, the Baltimore rapper spit club-anthem style lyrics over infectious, electronic production that shook the crowd to its core. Not a single person lined up in the audience was able to resist the rattling percussion after the first few songs. Boastful lyrics from Amanda Blank and Spank Rock drew out screams of adoration throughout the set, making the energy that much more intense.
From that point on, the energy was unparalleled throughout the rest of the festival.
Later that night, as grey clouds began to roll in over the festival grounds on day two, the mood became eerily fitting for Danny Brown’s upcoming set. Lightning flashed in the distance as the oozing synths of “Die Like a Rockstar” blared through the Lake Eaux Lune stage’s speakers; the bass was so loud it could have been mistaken for the encroaching thunder.
Moving through his albums in chronological order, the set began with classic tracks from XXX; “Monopoly,” “Lie4” and “I Will” gave fans a chance to see the Detroit native spit some of his most outrageous and brilliant rhymes from the get-go.
By the time Brown began tracks from Old, the sky had practically turned black. The storm was coming. Never before have I seen a crowd worship a performer as much as this. Brown’s dark, drug-fueled production put the crowd into a trance.
Then, like clockwork, the rain began to fall as he began rapping his songs from Atrocity Exhibition. The show exploded with energy as Brown played the lyrically dismal songs juxtaposed with vivacious production. I’ve been to a lot of concerts over the years, but no experience has topped hearing the disturbing, anxiety-inducing production of “When It Rain” while dancing feverishly in the pouring rain. “Pneumonia” fittingly rounded out the set once the whole crowd was soaking and freezing cold.
As the storm swept away, I was left in shock of the entire festival. The joy on everyone’s faces while the sun shined through the looming grey clouds was unlike anything I’d seen before. A remarkable combination of music, art and fan interaction made Eaux Claires III a stunning place to spend the weekend.