Eaux Claires chief guru Justin Vernon, right, was one of about 800 musicians to perform with Phil Cook, left, in the festival's first four years. / Star Tribune file

Eaux Claires chief guru Justin Vernon, right, was one of about 800 musicians to perform with Phil Cook, left, in the festival's first four years. / Star Tribune photo by Tim Campbell

Bad news for regional fans of Wisconsin indie-rock bard Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame: He and his team have officially called off their Eaux Claires Music & Art Festival for 2019.

There’s also some good news, though: They plan to bring back the fest in a new location in 2020, and in the meantime they will offer a big outdoor Bon Iver gig at Milwaukee’s ever-popular Summerfest on June 29.

“We find ourselves wanting to move out, change things and take stock of who we’ve become,” Vernon's Eaux Claires team wrote in a typically histrionic posting on the festival’s website. “In order to manage that transition we are going to take a year off.”

Vernon’s hometown newspaper, the Leader-Telegram, is reporting that the singer’s crew and city leaders are exploring the idea of moving the festival into or near downtown Eau Claire (90 miles east of the Twin Cities), where a new performing arts venue, the Pablo Center, recently opened near Haymarket Plaza, and where there are other open-space options such as Phoenix Park.

In its first four years, Eaux Claires was held a few miles out of downtown at Foster Farms along the Chippewa River, where the Country Jam U.S.A. festival is also held every summer. Camping was a big part of the experience for many fans, and it could still be a part of the festival’s offerings in 2020 with a little extra shuttle bussing.

This past summer, however, some attendees – and yep, a critic or two, too – expressed disappointment in the festival’s decision to keep its lineup a secret until showtime. It turned out to be a clearly less star-powered year, with fewer performances, no Bon Iver set, and the National for its biggest name.

Prior years were more enthusiastically received, both for the marquee-level performers (Paul Simon, Chance the Rapper, Wilco, Mavis Staples, John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Sufjan Stevens, Erykah Badu) and for the festival’s unique approach to staging and sideshow activities, with random art installations, improv sets and pop-up performances in its woodsy areas.

It sounds like one primary goal for Eaux Claires 2020 will be to maintain that creativity.

“In the last four years we have grown together as patrons and organizers,” the festival’s website further reads. “These experiences are perfectly focused within our own collected memories, and feel something like going through four years of high school — the growth, the mistakes, the energy, but most of all the searing, stumbling beauty of becoming one’s self. After our senior year, we find ourselves wanting to move out, change things and take stock of who we’ve become.”

That Summerfest gig seems like a good way to tide over home-state fans in the meantime, and it could draw plenty of Twin Citians to drive across Wisconsin, too; although that's the same day as Rock the Garden in Minneapolis. (There's no hint of a Bon Iver summer date in Minnesota as of yet, though Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth is practically screaming for it).

Summerfest takes place at the 25,000-person American Family Insurance Amphitheater (fka Marcus Amphitheater) and includes lots of other surrounding stages and fair-like activities; sort of like St. Paul’s long-defunct Taste of Minnesota, but with bigger names than Starship featuring Mickey Thomas.

Eaux Claires alumni Lord Huron and Julien Baker will open the Summerfest show. Tickets go on sale through Ticketmaster starting Friday at 11 a.m., with a fan pre-sale via boniver.org/me on Wednesday and a Summerfest Insiders pre-sale Thursday.
 

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