It was hard to imagine in 2015 that we’d ever grow accustomed to seeing renowned indie-rockers and psychedelic art installations in the woods overlooking the Chippewa River outside Eau Claire, Wis. However, there is a certain sense of predictability as the Eaux Claires Music & Art Festival enters its third year.
Hosted once again by Bon Iver singer/songwriter Justin Vernon in his beloved hometown (90 minutes east of the Twin Cities), the two-day musical campout set itself apart from the crowd of other music festivals in its first two years. Or at least it was the first music fest I attended that offered a confessional booth helmed by a rapper, and a tent where the audience listened to classical music in the dark through headphones.
This year, Eaux Claires seems less full of surprises, and lesser across the board. Not only has the music lineup been downsized, but there are several repeat acts on the lineup (once a decade really is enough for Francis & the Lights).
Look a little closer, though, and Eaux Claires actually did a pretty good job of keeping things interesting. Here are five selling points that we found intriguing.
1. Songwriting legends, remixed. Two of America’s all-time greatest songwriters, Paul Simon and John Prine, will each get outside their comfort zone and perform with younger collaborators at the festival.
Simon’s set on Saturday (8:30 p.m.) will pair the twice-inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with Eaux Claires regulars yMusic, an innovative classical sextet that has also teamed with Ben Folds and Sufjan Stevens. They will perform Simon’s classic songs with new arrangements by hip young composers such as Nico Muhly, Son Lux and the National’s Bryce Dessner. Prine will be backed Friday (7:15 p.m.) by superfan Vernon and many of his cohorts, including Twin Citians Mike Lewis and Jeremy Ylvisaker, for what’s being billed as “Bon Iver Presents John Prine & the American Songbook.”
2. Beaucoup Wilco. Like they’ve done at their own Boston-area festival, Solid Sound, revered Chicago rockers Wilco will not only perform a standard band set on Saturday (10:15 p.m.), but each of the six members are also playing in side bands.
The extracurricular gigging includes: frontman Jeff Tweedy’s rawer act with his son Spencer, known simply as Tweedy; bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone’s great Big Star-flavored group the Autumn Defense; guitar whiz Nels Cline’s ambient duo Cup, a collaboration with his wife, Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto fame; keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen’s synth-art duo Quindar, and drummer Glenn Kotche’s first-ever live set with Bon Iver timekeeper S. Carey. Don’t be surprised if the fellas show up as guests in other people’s sets, too.
3. Rappers taking chances. It’s cool that Top 40-crossover hip-hop star Chance the Rapper — who made a surprise appearance at last year’s fest — agreed to headline the Friday lineup this year (10:15 p.m.), even though he’s big enough to sell out arenas nowadays (like he did at Xcel Energy Center last month). It’s even cooler that the other rappers on this year’s lineup are as far away from Top 40 as hip-hop artists can be.
Foremost among them is Danny Brown, a wiry Detroit rapper whose low-down lewdness and crazy story songs have been freaking out Twin Cities fans since Soundset 2012. Baltimore’s Spank Rock is another semi-raunchy, freakazoid hip-hop innovator with songs that’ll conversely make you blush and give you an adrenaline rush. And the Twin Cities’ own Velvet Negroni — aka Jeremy Nutzman and formerly known as Spyder Baybie — will make his big coming-out under that promising new moniker/alter ego.
4. The return of Feist. Canadian singer/songwriter Leslie Feist of “1234” and “How Come You Never Go There” hitmaking fame went six years between albums, with the chief goal of taking a break from the music biz. Go figure. Her performance Saturday (5:15 p.m.) comes only a month after the release of “Pleasure,” a decidedly raw and sometimes intense collection that might not land her another radio hit, but it should hit hard in concert.
5. Doubling down on the art part. While the music lineup is smaller in size, the visual side of the festival sounds more ambitious and extra enticing this year, with 20 installations. Highlights include: “Fluid Process,” a large musical instrument by Boston’s Pickup Music Project played with falling water; another water-related contraption involving electromagnetic forces called “Eddy Currents” by Los Angeles’ Davy Sumner; and a melding of original dance and 1960s-era public service announcements called “Decorum.”
There will also be an installation called “Moms Booth,” where actual mothers (including some musicians) will listen to your deep inner thoughts. Sounds like organizers are really reaching out to the millennial demographic on that one.