EAU CLAIRE., Wis. – If a Bon Iver or Kanye West concert fell in the woods, would anybody hear it?
This was a legit concern this past weekend at the fourth annual Eaux Claires Music & Art Festival, maybe the first major music fest where ticket sales were driven more by rumors and FOMO (fear of missing out) than by the band names on the lineup. In fact, the public did not even know any of the names going into the fest.
Furthering his goal to reinvent the modern-day music fest while also downplaying his own star value, Eaux Claires’s hometown ringleader Justin Vernon — the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter of Bon Iver fame — opted to keep the lineup a secret this year.
Fans who paid $150 and up for two-day tickets didn’t know for sure who they were going to see until gates opened Friday, when the festival app updated with the full weekend schedule.
Once they found out, many concertgoers stayed glued to the app waiting/hoping there was more.
In the end, Vernon’s goal to add an element of surprise and open fans up to new artists backfired. That’s because the lineup was surprisingly light on surprises and heavy on acts who’ve played the woodsy Wisconsin camp-out before.
It was almost entirely just a Friends of Justin™ year, with names familiar to Bon Iverites such as the National, Sharon Van Etten, Phil Cook, Moses Sumney, Low and S. Carey. And then many of those friends wound up playing three or four times in different formats over the weekend to round out the schedule.
The biggest surprise of Eaux Claires IV may have been how many times we would see Francis Starlite of Francis & the Lights in one weekend.
It seemed awfully convenient to pledge an anti-celebrity approach to your music fest in a year when there weren’t really any celebrities in the lineup anyway. Expectations were raised by prior years’ iconic names such as Paul Simon, Mavis Staples and John Prine and modern favorites including Chance the Rapper, Sufjan Stevens and Wilco.
There wasn’t even a Bon Iver set this year, despite the fact that many members of Vernon’s live band were already there. Instead, Vernon closed out the fest’s biggest stage Saturday with something called the People Mix Tape, which found him singing Bob Dylan and Porter Wagoner songs with help from his Auto-Tune-like vocal-effect gadgets and friends such as Sumney, Phoebe Bridgers and (yep!) Francis Starlite.
Not helping matters, Eaux Claires organizers did nothing to dispel rumors — driven by their own social-media “clues” — that such bigger names as Patti Smith, Father John Misty, Arcade Fire and Stevens were a part of the EC IV lineup.
Instead of those names or an unannounced set by Kanye — whose collaborations with Vernon almost a decade ago has made him a rumored visitor every year at Eaux Claires — fans were treated to such surprises as a Francis & the Lights dance class or a performance by the National’s Bryce Dessner on the so-called Player Fence, one of several interactive art and music installations set off in the woods (think: wind chimes meet drum circle).
Disappointment was widely voiced on social media almost instantaneously Friday.
“Super sad that #eauxclaires was so bad this year,” tweeted Heather Lockwood (@hlockwoo) a digital marketer from the Twin Cities. “I’ve been the biggest fan/advocate.”
Walking the grounds Saturday in matching T-shirts that lewdly played off the name Bon Iver, Minneapolis friends Michael Haug, Andrew Block and Dan Spengler all complained about “the lack of big names” compared to their prior visits to the fest.
“When they finally sneaked out the lineup, we were like, ‘Is this it?!” Haug said.
And fans weren’t just complaining about the lineup. There were also gripes about a lack of port-a-potties and free booze in the $275-$350 VIP area. It appeared that costs had been cut as attendance slipped to around 12,000 people (from 22,000 in 2015).
Another complaint from Friday — that the free-spirited musicians were also generally under-rehearsed — carried over into Saturday.
Coming off a lengthy hiatus to debut what sounded like promising new songs, Van Etten was extra-rusty, with false-started songs and off-key vocals. Some of Saturday’s impromptu collaborations were also, like a drone-style jam session in the woods with the otherwise buzzworthy newcomers Julien Baker and Gordi (aka Sophie Peyton).
However, some fans were happy with the final results: “It was exciting not knowing what to expect,” said Kylie McCarthy, from Dickinson, N.D., whose only complaint was “it was hard to convince other friends to come without knowing the lineup.”
Ellen Meier from Kansas City said, “It sort of made you be in-the-moment more.”
There were still plenty of great moments to be in Saturday, including a few showings by relative newcomers (especially the Chicago area hip-hop acts Noname and the Era & DJ Spinn), and even a few of those unexpected collaborations.
Vernon’s old bandmate Cook seemed to make gold of every set he touched Saturday, including a bluesy stomp fest with Iron Boy and other American Indian musicians, plus a forest gig with Anaïs Mitchell billed as “Pirates;” it was actually a performance of Rickie Lee Jones’ 1981 album of the same name with Twin Cities all-stars JT Bates, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Mike Lewis and Barbara Jean.
Many of the main-stage sets also still came off well Saturday, including an early afternoon set by Sumney that blended slow-throbbing electro beats with his ethereal, haunting yet sexy vocals. His was a sharp contrast to the hyper-goofy showing later on the same stage by Russian political protest troupe Pussy Riot, whose messages were applaudable but whose sloppy dance routines and music were laughable, fueled by limp beats straight out of 1990s-era PlayStation games.
The second of the two big stages was itself a rock star: a giant, gazebo-like, in-the-round set-up built exclusively for the festival. It added greatly to the allure of Los Angeles songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, whose slow-rocking but stormy songs matched her tender yet powerful voice.
The National’s set on that in-the-round stage late Saturday was especially magical. The moody Cincinnati rockers’ songs were literally and figuratively brightened by the elaborate stage lighting along with a cavalcade of guest musicians, including Bridgers, Van Etten and Minneapolis’ own Chastity Brown, who lent her gorgeously smoky voice to “Carin at the Liquor Store.”
As the band played rockier tunes like “Day I Die,” other instrumentalists including Bates, Lewis, Ryan Olson and Andrew Broder added sonic flourishes to the mix from two smaller B-stages set up separately in the crowd.
That kind of Eaux Claires adventurousness shined through as the National’s singer Matt Berninger made a great sales pitch for the festival’s future near show’s end, saying, “Turn off CNN, and come out to see some trees and hear some music.”
If there is another Eaux Claires — and that seems like a big “if” now — could they make it possible to turn off our phones, too?
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658