“IV is the sum of the I, II, and III.” That was the driving thought behind the fourth installment of the Eaux Claires music festival, according to the festival’s homepage. In years past, co-creators Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner have used the weekend in the woods to shine a light on emerging artists and give fans the opportunity to see influential artists of a massive scale.
And while IV was marketed as the sum of all the prior iterations, it came out a product lesser than the sum of its parts. From the announcement of the festival, for better or worse, it was clear that this year would be something different than past years. The lineup was not announced until the gates opened the first day of the festival, and for all intents and purposes, there was only one headliner — Aaron Dessner’s band, The National (Big Red Machine, a collaboration between Vernon and Dessner that debuted last year, was billed as the headliner Friday night, but failed to capture the same excitement as any other billing). Speculation floated around that Sufjan Stevens would be there. Father John Misty was rumored. Even Patti Smith’s name popped into the discussion of possible surprise acts. Yet, none of them were there. The only big marquee name belonged to the band of one of the festival’s co-creators.
The past two years of the festival, while stunning displays of artistry and community, were not profitable. Despite Vernon and Dessner’s apparent desires to make Eaux Claires a place separate from the workings of the world, they are still beholden to the wants of their financiers. Which is to say: Their experimental paradise is only a paradise so long as it makes money for the people supplying the money. In a recent interview with VolumeOne, Vernon said, “We plan on being around 20 years. We made money the first year. We lost a lot of money the last ... couple years. But we’re not gonna give up.” This year seemed to strongly reflect Vernon’s sentiment of not giving up. Perhaps the financiers of the event couldn’t justify Vernon and company spending enormous amounts of money on headliners like Chance the Rapper, Sufjan Stevens or Paul Simon. Perhaps the lack of major surprises was an attempt to cut artist-booking costs. Perhaps they needed to make sacrifices to ensure the 20-year longevity of the festival.
None of this is an attempt to downplay the excitement this year had to offer. Because, truly, every set I saw was, at the very least, good.
Within the first hour of day one, the festival was formally kicked off with an opening ceremony from members of the Ojibwe tribe — the natives of the Chippewa Valley. The ceremony declared the importance of honoring the land around and living harmoniously with all those who inhabit it. The ceremony laid out the principles upon which the rest of the festival would rely on.
Just as in the past, the stages — for the most part — gave each performance a unique feel. From the newly constructed Music Box stage (an interactive stage reminiscent of a playground) to Oxbeaux hidden among the trees. In years past, Flambeaux, one of the two main stages, was a traditional stage only visible from the front. Flambeaux redux, with its new circular construction, gave equal lines of sight to all patrons hoping to watch sets from the acts playing there.
Mirroring previous years, there was no lack of collaboration, either: Countless artists made appearances during the sets of other artist’s solo sets. To a certain extent, the smaller surprises captured the same mysticism that Eaux Claires has long tried to present to audiences.
Indie rock darlings Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers both had sob-inducing sets filled with heartbreak and angelic singing. Baker’s Friday set was also incredibly memorable due to a surprise appearance from writer Hanif Abdurraqib. In between verses from Baker, Abdurraqib recited a chilling poem, bringing me and many people around me to tears. It seemed that vulnerability would be a recurring theme throughout the weekend.
Fitting the theme of vulnerability, serpentwithfeet had far and away the best set of the weekend. Fresh off the release of his full-length debut album soil, the singer did a wonderful job of bringing his recordings to life for the crowd. His set was a breathtaking display of artistry that, in hindsight, makes his debut that much more incredible. On the last song of his set, he brought out Moses Sumney for an impromptu duet that worked as a sample of what to expect from Sumney’s set on Saturday.
Big Red Machine’s headlining set on Friday was entertaining, but many of the songs seemed unfinished and sounded overly pretentious. Still, the eventual release of the Big Red Machine project is an exciting idea that comes with the potential for a more polished work of art.
Noname was extra bubbly during her evening set on Saturday. Many of the acts throughout the weekend featured mastery of guitar-driven moody music, so her uplifting set was a very welcome change of pace. Even more exciting than her infectious energy was the fact that she played a handful of new tracks most likely from her upcoming album Room 25. Unfortunately, that performance is all we have to hold onto until her highly anticipated follow-up to Telefone comes out.
The National’s headlining set on Saturday was a display filled with grandeur. With an hour-and-a-half long set, the band worked through some of the highlights from their massive catalogue, all the while keeping the exhausted festival-goers as attentive as possible.
The music was excellent. The art was beautiful. The weather was perfect. The food was delicious. On the surface, it looks like the IV was a success.
Still, one gets the feeling that had this lineup been released prior to the start of the festival, many people would have forgone the opportunity to buy the $200 two-day passes. There’s a sense of trickery that’s attached itself to this year’s festival — a sense that the lineup was intentionally kept a secret, not to keep people surprised, but to recoup as much money as possible so the festival can continue in the coming years.
Eaux Claires provided a welcome reprieve from day-to-day life, and it was, overall, a pleasant break. Still, the glaring issues with how this year was run left me wanting more. Whatever the truth may be behind this year’s decisions, it seems as though Eaux Claires needs to adjust the model for future years. As great as The National and all of Justin Vernon’s endeavors may be, the festival most likely won’t capture the same sense of wonder unless Vernon and Dessner invite a more diverse collection of artists to help with their weekend in the woods.