When he signed on to be co-curator of an edgy new music fest in the middle of Wisconsin farmland, Aaron Dessner had to trust his friend Justin Vernon’s faith that locals would welcome it and music fans from around the Upper Midwest would drive to it.
The fest in question, Eaux Claires, was a relatively smashing success in its inaugural year last summer. Not only that, the namesake town that hosted the two-day music marathon also earned ample respect from its Cincinnati-bred co-organizer, a guitarist with revered indie-rock quintet the National.
“I’d been to Eau Claire quite a few times, but it was always to hang out or work at Justin’s place in kind of our own little world,” said Dessner, referring to the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter of Bon Iver fame. Vernon was born and raised in Eau Claire and has since moved back and built his own studio in the area.
“The town has its own great vibe, and everyone there was so hospitable and welcoming,” Dessner continued.
“You could draw a circle around Eau Claire and find all these interesting places within a three-hour or so radius of it, and I really felt that during the festival last year. It felt like a very regional sort of gathering.”
Fans might be coming from even farther away as Eaux Claires returns for its second year Friday and Saturday on the same thickly green site along the Chippewa River.
In addition to Vernon’s Bon Iver crew — who’ve only played a handful of shows since last year’s fest — the adventurous lineup this year includes Beach House, James Blake, Erykah Badu, Mavis Staples, Vince Staples (no relation), Jenny Lewis, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, the Melvins and Twin Cities mainstays such as Har Mar Superstar, Kill the Vultures and Fog.
The National is not part of the lineup again this year, but Dessner and most of his bandmates will be there, and they will have plenty keeping them busy.
First and foremost is their one-and-only staging Saturday of “The Day of the Dead.”
Raising the Dead
A massive 59-song tribute to the Grateful Dead, “Day of the Dead” was issued as a four-LP set last month by the AIDS/HIV organization Red Hot. Dessner co-helmed the recordings over a four-year period with his brother/bandmate Bryce Dessner, also a guitarist in the National.
After getting the Dead camp to OK the project, the Dessners also landed several musical contributions to the collection from the band’s surviving co-leader, Bob Weir. He’s among a sprawling list of participants that also includes Mumford & Sons, Wilco, Courtney Barnett, Béla Fleck, the Flaming Lips, Lucinda Williams and Charles Bradley.
“It was done in very much the same collaborative spirit and sense of community” as the Eaux Claires fest, Dessner said, “so it’s fitting for us to do the performance there.”
Among the “Day of the Dead” contributors who are performing this weekend at Eaux Claires — and thus likely to be participants in Saturday’s all-star live tribute — are Vernon, Jenny Lewis, Lucius, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Phosphorescent, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Moses Sumney and one of the festival’s most curious bookings, Bruce Hornsby, who was a touring member of the Dead in the years before Jerry Garcia’s 1995 death.
Fully cognizant of the fact that younger indie-rock fans coming to Eaux Claires might shun the thought of a Grateful Dead concert, Dessner pointed out, “Actually, quite a lot of the artists we lined up to record weren’t all that into the Dead.
“It was an interesting way for them to discover the band or discover new things about them. Most of them went away with a deeper appreciation, I think.”
Don’t lump the National in that category, though. Dessner said he and the band’s other three instrumentalists “all grew up listening to the Dead.”
“We really got into the musicality of the band. I really never played music by other bands, but the four of us would sit around playing Dead songs a lot.”
The National is alive and well and “pretty far along and feeling very good” in the recording of its next album, the guitarist said, but then added with a laugh, “We’re at a point in our career where we feel like we don’t really need to rush a record. And hopefully no one will try to make us rush it.”
Even though his regular band won’t perform its own work at Eaux Claires this year, Dessner said there will still be an inordinate amount of “untested music” that he’s excited to hear. That includes songs from his friend Vernon’s first Bon Iver record since 2011 — rumored for a surprise release this weekend.
“Last year’s festival was amazing, but I think this year is going to be even better,” he brazenly declared. “There will be a lot of music that’s premiering at the festival, or that is rarely performed, or is being specifically performed just for this festival.
“One of the things we really wanted to accomplish with Eaux Claires is to create more intense and creative experiences for us musicians than the typical festival, with other artists we really admire — and to give the audience something different, too. I think you’re going to feel that even more this year.”
Eaux Claires Festival
When: Noon Fri.-midnight Sat.
Where: Foster Farms, 3443 Chippewa Av., Eau Claire, Wis.
Tickets: $169/two-day, $90/day, EauxClaires.com