Let it be known that this is in no way a review of the Eaux Claires festival and I’d like to think Michael Perry, the festival’s narrator, would have my back on this. He spoke before Bon Iver’s set on Friday night and said something to the effect that the curators intentionally set up the festival so that each person can experience it in the way they choose. It’d be impossible for me to say anything but “I attended Eaux Claires 2016 and this is how I experienced it” because it’s different for everybody. Some were caught in the rain without protective gear for hours. Some listened to a few songs of a set before moving on to the next for both days. Some might have not even left the Chippewa/VIP area because hello free beer and food – we all did it differently. This is just a recap of my personal experience along with some photos.
⌊ personal preface ⌉
I’ll first note that the inaugural Eaux Claires was a sort of homecoming for me since I hadn’t revisited the area for about five years. It meant driving down the stretch of I-94 I drove dozens of times after attending shows at First Avenue back to campus and remembering how we’d hang our heads out the window – especially in winter – to keep ourselves awake for the trip back. It meant sleeping and showering in Towers, the building that inspired a track on Bon Iver’s second album and also happened to be where I’d watch TV, do homework and binge on candy bought at Hilltop. It meant running into people out on the festival grounds that I’d known back in school either from classes or working at the college paper and being elated to recognize a face amongst a crowd of 22,000.
Returning this year wasn’t any less exciting, but it was less nostalgic, which was a welcome change. I have a bad habit of romanticizing nearly everything in my past, especially my time spent in college, and coming back for the second time actually helped me to put some distance between myself and those four years. As we exited off the interstate and made our way into the city the same way I had countless times before, we drove past my first apartment and … I felt nothing. Not even one errant goosebump. As we continued down the street, I didn’t seem to recognize a lot of the buildings or storefronts. Even as we came upon a sure-fire mainstay of the street – a big ol’ statue of a guy holding a seriously large doughnut outside of an auto shop – I noticed the statue was now holding a BAG of POPCORN??? I was at a loss, folks. One of the only familiar sights on the street was a sign for “Spanish Stew” at Ray’s Place. God bless you, Ray, for having that sign up every single day even though it never tempted me enough to actually walk though your door to give it a try. I’m sure it’s lovely!
The bridge we’d normally have gone over to drive through lower campus was entirely closed for construction. Taking a short detour over to the area proved unsuccessful as there was construction closing the roads leading into it, too. So much for that trip down memory lane! Instead of the grand Eau Claire tour I’d planned in my head, we stopped in at a downtown bar and enjoyed a few drinks. When we got the check and it was only $10.75 I thought the server had forgotten to ring up a beer or two – but no, that’s just how cheap it is to drink in Eau Claire. The good life.
⌊ the pluses ⌉
While the nostalgia factor was low for Eau Claire the city, it was high for Eaux Claires the festival. I think of the festival as its own entity, separate from the actual city. It exists for two days and then it doesn’t. It is a place created specifically to take you away from everything else so you only have to focus on the music, art, food, drinks, and people. I don’t know how the curators of this festival are able to create such a warm, positive environment that exudes community and togetherness but they did it once and then again this year. Part of it, Perry noted, is trusting in us, the festival-goers. I don’t think we’ve let ’em down yet.
I also really appreciate that they surveyed people who attended last year soon after the festival and took in a lot of feedback from people on social media and made the second go-around even better. The dates were pushed later into the summer; an expanded area for Chippewa ticketholders that included a couple of tents, lots of seating plus free catered lunch and dinners – as well as the option for VIPs to get their free drinks up on the hill by the smaller stages – were added; and so were shade shelters and some seating out in the open field between the two main stages. The food trucks were well dispersed throughout so large lines didn’t form, and they nailed the water station situation again as far as locations and quantity. There was never a line for water, that I saw, although I was confused at first when I filled up my bottle and the water was white, almost cloudy. I’m still confused actually. But I drank it! And here I am, typing away, so it must’ve been all right (???).
⌊ the minuses ⌉
I stayed in a hotel this year because communal showers aren’t my aesthetic anymore. A plus is the shuttle service in general, however, rider beware: there are three- to-five or so hotels per route, and if your hotel is the third or later stop, there’s a chance you’ll have to sit it out and wait for the next one, which could take up to 30 minutes. I felt mildly guilty on the second day riding away from the third hotel stop while a bunch of miffed people got settled back in to wait for their next opportunity to get to the grounds since our bus was full.
Once you’re there, the trek from the shuttle area down to the main entrance is fine, but attempting to walk back up after a day’s worth of standing, sun and beer is one of my least favorite activities of all time – especially when four hours of rain creates a muddy night-time escapade. Even once you’re at the top, there’s more waiting. I get that this is somewhat of an unavoidable aspect of a festival, but is something to keep in mind.
Most of the minuses I noted were out of the festival organizers’ control, or, as I said above, come with the territory of a festival experience: long lines to get in the first day (due to bag checks, putting on wristbands, getting ID’d), port-a-potties (ladies, reconsider that romper), humidity, a sun that won’t stop, rain showers that won’t let up (a $5 poncho saved my life). You just have to shrug and deal with the elements.
Also: balloons. Can we just not? One popped during a tender moment and it startled Jenny Lewis. Thanks in advance!
⌊ the sameses ⌉
The quality of the people, performers, sound, artists, food; the overall vibe and environment; the short interim between sets so there’s always something going on; and the overall lay of the land. It was not an exact replica but there were hints of familiarity and I found it easy to make my way around. The performances I caught were basically flawless, save for some technical difficulties here and there, but most sets seemed to go off without a hitch (at least from the audience’s perspective). The surprise collaborations that made the first Eaux Claires were there, too, with Lucius and Jenny Lewis taking turns showing up as a guest for the other’s set and the many artists walking on and off the stage, one after another, for the Day of the Dead set.
It seemed like Justin collaborated less on stage with artists during their sets than last year, though his performance with Francis and the Lights and Chance the Rapper maybe made up for that for those who stuck around until the last minutes of the last night. Musicians wandered around doing pop-up shows being announced through the Eaux Claires app, people milled around the art installations and rested on the hills by the river. The festival is all in what you make of it, but the curators make it nearly impossible to not enjoy even just being present.
⌊ the photos ⌉
until next year …