When he broke big with Bon Iver in 2012 after winning a Grammy Award for best new artist, Wisconsin singer/songwriter Justin Vernon wound up playing a dozen major rock festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, including Bonnaroo, Coachella, Roskilde, Way Out West, Jazz Fest and Sasquatch.
That dream list of gigs, however, wound up being more like a laundry list he wanted to wipe clean.
“They were mostly all bummers as an artist,” Vernon said. “I couldn’t even begin to understand how comfortable I’d be at most of them as a ticket buyer.”
That’s when the acclaimed folk rocker got the idea to curate his own festival. Enter the Eaux Claires Music & Art Festival, taking place Friday and Saturday in Vernon’s hometown of Eau Claire, Wis.
Vernon’s live version of Bon Iver will play its first gig in three years at the inaugural event alongside many of his friends’ bands and/or favorite acts, including the National, Spoon, Sufjan Stevens, Indigo Girls, Blind Boys of Alabama, Boys Noize and dozens more. More than 20,000 attendees — about a third of Eau Claire’s total population — are expected.
Eaux Claires (still pronounced “oh Claire,” like the city) is an ambitious undertaking that breaks new ground among Upper Midwest music festivals, but it’s not the first time a musician from our area has opted to lead his or her own music fest.
Minnesota music bigwigs Atmosphere, Trampled by Turtles and P.O.S. all beat Vernon to the idea and launched self-curated festivals in recent years. Some of the other big festivals happening around the continent this summer have been co-organized by and branded under such bands as Mumford & Sons, Wilco, the Roots and Drake.
In many cases, these independent artists are pulling off the kind of events that concert corporations such as Live Nation and AEG Live have struggled to launch with far greater resources. Live Nation spent about $5 million on the River’s Edge Music Festival on St. Paul’s Harriet Island in 2012 with such acts as Tool and Dave Matthews Band. The company folded the event after the first year, which drew about 25,000 people daily.
By contrast, Minneapolis hip-hop group Atmosphere has been hosting its Soundset festival over Memorial Day weekend for eight years running, with lineups made up mostly of underground hip-hop acts. The last two years have sold out in advance with 30,000 attendees outside the Canterbury Park horse racing track in Shakopee.
“We didn’t just show up, take fans’ money and run,” Atmosphere rapper Slug (Sean Daley) said. “We are still here, still trying to do things that are progressive and beneficial to the whole hip-hop scene.”
Trampled by Turtles followed suit and launched its Festival Palomino last year inside Canterbury Park, featuring a dozen other rootsy acts that the Duluth-bred acoustic string sextet helped pick. The festival, which drew about 10,000 fans, was a partnership of the band, First Avenue nightclub and Minneapolis concert promoter Rose Presents.
“It seemed perfect: We’d help curate the music, and those guys could do all the hard work,” Trampled frontman Dave Simonett said. “They know this stuff. Now I don’t have to Google how to rent port-o-potties in Shakopee myself.”
First Avenue also had a hand in helping Twin Cities rap star P.O.S. throw his second annual P.O.S.’ [Bleepin’] Best Show Ever last month in a parking lot outside Familia Skate Shop in Minneapolis. Like last year’s Palomino festival, many of the acts at P.O.S.’ mini-fest were unknown to attendees.
“Fans show up early knowing that if those guys like those bands, they’ll probably like them, too,” said First Avenue general manager Nate Kranz.
Are you fest-perienced?
Palomino has far bigger names on its lineup as it returns to Canterbury for its second year on Sept. 19, including Father John Misty, Dr. Dog, Laura Marling and Benjamin Booker. Perhaps just as important, Kranz said Trampled by Turtles’ members have also been involved in tweaking the concessions, backstage offerings and other nonmusical aspects of the festival to make it more enjoyable to the performers and fans alike.
“They’ve played so many festivals,” Kranz said. “They can share all those experiences with us and really provide a lot of creative ideas about what works or doesn’t work to make their own festival better.”
One of the main selling points of Eaux Claires has been Vernon’s involvement in all levels of the planning.
“Justin’s attention to detail has really been a key factor in distinguishing this festival from other festivals,” said Brian Appel, co-founder of Crashline Productions, the Boston-based concert promoter that signed on to produce Eaux Claires with Vernon. “He has very specific ideas about how he wants the audience to feel at this event, and the artists, too.”
Some of the ideas that Vernon brought to his festival: He invited visual artists and filmmakers to show their work, and put together a “field notes” guide to encourage fans to take in those offerings. He made sure the concessions were as local as could be, i.e., Leinenkugel’s and Summit for beer. He also insisted on eliminating the tiered, VIP-level offerings common at other fests.
“We’re not doing a classist thing,” Vernon said. “That’s horrifying.”
(Eaux Claires did sell “enhanced passes” good for a few perks for $250, compared with the $135 general two-day pass, but that’s a far cry from the $1,000-plus air-conditioned offerings at fests such as Lollapalooza and Coachella.)
Vernon’s involvement in the little things might be an important factor, but Appel clarified that the musician was also involved in the biggest thing Eaux Claires has going for it: the lineup. It includes some of the biggest names in indie rock and a lot of other names frequently seen on the schedules at much higher-buck festivals.
“The lineup was very easy to put together, because Justin called most of the acts himself,” Appel said with a laugh. “He knows a lot of people, and he’s well-liked, and that goes a long way.”
Vernon recruited guitarist/bassist Aaron Dessner of the National to serve as a co-curator, since he also has experience helping put together the lineups for the National’s own MusicNow festival in Cincinnati, as well as Boston Calling, which Crashline puts on.
Said Vernon, “I learned from Aaron ways to show off artists to people and use the power you have when you have a recognized name.”
Lest you think he’s putting on Eaux Claires just to benefit his fans and musical friends, though, the singer also said, “I vaguely just picked a diverse cross section of my favorite music — and my favorite live music, specifically. It was all just selfish.”