Following a red woodchip path into the Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival, one becomes enveloped in an enchanting wonderland completely separate from that of the surrounding town. A dirt path lined with hidden art pieces, nearly invisible to the oblivious eye, leads the way into a clearing with two huge stages and swarms of people buzzing and observing the hidden treasures around the grounds.
One of these gems situated within the depths of the woods was a miniscule, triangle-roofed stage called Oxbeaux. Two groups who graced that platform Friday afternoon fit perfectly with the fantasy setting—dreamy folk group, Mountain Man, who was followed by another all-female trio, angelic British indie band, The Staves.
Mountain Man, comprised of Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Meath (one half of Sylvan Esso, who played later that same day), performed for what they said was the first time in five years. They showcased several tracks off of their sole album, Made The Harbor. Their name matched the vibes of their sound—several songs were done a capella, and the others were accompanied by minimal backing of an acoustic guitar, which made the tightly squeezed crowd feel like my dear friends sitting around a campfire in the mountains.
The intimacy among performers continued as The Staves took the same stage with a last-minute surprise performance. The three sisters began their set by leading the audience in a popular chant from their hometown of Watford in England, except changing “Watford” to “Eau Claire,” and kept this lively, familial banter going throughout their performance. They decided to pay homage to Paul Simon, who performed the following day of the festival, and played covers of his songs during their short set.
Among several other unexpected performances was returning artist Jenny Lewis who, along with The Staves, broke the news of her arrival quietly. She, too, performed on one of the smaller stages on the grounds, Sparreaux, along with special guest musicians from Minneapolis to accompany her.
Attendees wrapped in a daze following the mellow sets and continuous surprises from the festival could have easily gotten lost in the artist installations hidden in the brush that covers Foster Farms. More than a dozen artists, many of whom were based throughout the Midwest, were featured around the festival grounds, from painters to lighting designers. Several of the displays were interactive, encouraging fest-goers to connect feathers with words printed on them to make short poems, or to add sketches to a large mural made by Chuck-U. Sound and installation artist Chris Kallmyer made guests feel even more at home with his living room set nestled in the trees and surrounded by cricket sounds.
Besides music and visual art, Eaux Claires celebrated dance and writing as well. John Mark Creative took the Decorum stage with a group of several dancers performing modern choreography and were joined by spoken word artists. The performers braved the heat and danced continuously throughout both days of the festival, some of them also joining Spank Rock on stage during his set. Across the field in the Escape venue—a tiny gray house set up along the river—several writers sat at a kitchen table and welcomed visitors in for a casual reading of their work. These included Daniel José Older who read excerpts from his young adult fiction series, “Shadowshapers,” and Eleanor Perry Smith who exhibited her personal poetry.
Chance the Rapper, who was perhaps the most highly anticipated artist of the weekend, ended day one with several bangs of confetti and smoke. He put on an entertaining show that met all expectations of what a Chance show would be like. He played his hits, including “No Problem” and “All We Got” from his album Coloring Book, as well as tracks from his first mixtape, Acid Rap. He was joined by guests Thirdstory who killed with their harmonies on backing vocals, and also welcomed fellow performers Francis and the Lights and Justin Vernon on stage. They played Francis and Vernon’s collaboration, “Friends,” which concluded with the three artists lined up on stage dancing their playful choreography.
The weekend of mind-boggling dancing from the artists continued on day two with Perfume Genius’ set. The singer, Mike Hadreas, shocked with his large performance and powerful vocals that seemed unlikely to come from the slender performer. He seemed to be free on stage, wandering around with his handheld microphone and writhing his body in ways unimaginable, while singing with an appalling amount of strength. He treated the audience to several tracks from his album released in early May, No Shape. I was happy that he played two of my favorites, the well-known tunes “Queen” and “My Body,” complete with all the powerful vocals I needed in the middle of a hot summer day slump.
Also featuring new music was Canadian singer Feist. Perhaps known mostly for her cheery songs “Mushaboom” and “1234,” the artist’s newest album, Pleasure, is rougher around the edges. She dug deep into her lungs to let out haunting notes in her alto voice and did not hold back on her enthralling guitar skills. However, her set was a tad dry and long following the electric energy of Danny Brown.
The weekend was interrupted on two occasions by downpours of coin-sized raindrops. The weather put a damper on the very end of the festival, causing shows on the smaller stages to be cancelled and the larger-named acts to be accelerated. Concluding shows, Paul Simon with yMusic, along with Wilco, were delayed and many attendees left, drenched and disappointed. The show did go on, though, and Simon brought out crowd favorites, including popular Simon & Garfunkel ditties “The Sounds of Silence” and “The Boxer.” Wilco sealed the festival shut for good with a long set for those who were brave enough to face the muddy trails.
Eaux Claires provided an escape—people danced, played games, did crafts, ate, drank and occasionally frolicked openly in the woods as if going back to summer camp. I have many positive thoughts about the festival and am filled with pride for the festival’s growth and what it has brought to my little hometown, with the huge artists and people from around the world that visit. Several of the performers took a moment to acknowledge the greatness of the weekend and said it is one of the few music festivals that truly celebrates art, saying it is something special. I could not agree with them more.