By Mandi Kimes
Last week, I attended the Eaux Claires Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin with six of my friends. Curated by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and The National's Aaron Dessner, I soaked up some sun, sweat, and sweet tunes by the following artists on the first day of the festival.
(All photos captured by Freddie Paull.)
I wanted to check out The Lone Bellow live, because before I came to the festival, I listened to their music on Spotify and heard the perfect hybrid (which happen to be both my my stepmom's favorite bands): Kings of Leon and Mumford & Sons. Zach Williams, the lead singer, has the southern belting voice of Nathan Followill, while his band carries the vocal intensity and musical tightness of Mumford. For "Heaven Don't Call Me Home", Williams came down into the pit to conduct the audience in a choral "aah" part. Williams mentioned that Aaron Dessner helped produce their latest album, Then Came the Morning, which lead to Dessner approaching the stag with his guitar to provide accompaniment for one of their songs. For their last song, The Blind Boys of Alabama joined them onstage to sing harmonies on "Watch Over Us", to which the audience erupted into tears and applause.
Sturgill Simpson's set was met with talent across the board - his drummer kept with the speed of the chugging tempo of each song, his bassist walked up and down the bridge as if his fingers were burned against the stings, his guitarist had fingers that seamlessly danced across the strings, and Simpson's southern growl and ability to lead a band and a crowd was impression. The humidity took a toll on his guitar, as he mentioned to the crowd, "You gotta stop breathing on me, guys," as he continuously tuned his guitar in between songs.
The Staves approached the stage with grace as they grabbed their instruments and wasted no minute on belting out perfect, three-part harmony. Sisters Emily, Camilla, and Jessica possessed voices that intertwined and lead you to heavenly bliss, occasionally reaching outside of the range into the nasal cavity to produce louder notes. When they performed one of my favorites, "Wisely and Slow," they gathered around one microphone to sing the first verse a capella and using each other's voices as cues, then later jumping back onto their instruments with their band to sing "Brother---you may never know!". Since Justin Vernon produced their latest album, If I Was, they were challenged to stretch beyond their comfort and experiment more with their voices, and instrumentation, which they showed off in their set.
One of the most impressive sets of the day, in my opinion, was Spoon. As I had been listening to Spoon for years (instead of the previous artists who I only just recently started listening to), I was especially excited to hear what songs from their vast discography they would play. They started with an eruption of sound for "Rent I Pay," and immediately the crowd was engaging. Britt Daniel's energy was contagious as he moved across the stage and expressed his emotions perfectly across his face. His voice was just as crisp as the recordings, which was a relief. They played a bunch of my favorite hits, such as "The Underdog," "Don't You Evah," "The Way We Get By," "Do You," and "Cherry Bomb" (although they did not play "I Turn My Camera On"). Despite the overwhelming heat at this time of day, especially since by this time of day we were all pretty tired and waiting for the sun to go down, they never seemed exhausted. Spoon carried the energy for the full hour set. They were definitely a highlight.
The Tallest Man on Earth, whom we previously featured on the blog, was surprising to see; not just because of the sheer talent that radiated off of him, but also his height: he's actually quite short. Don't get me wrong; I'm short. But he looked like he was maybe three inches taller than me. It was definitely comical given his stage name. However, his size seems to have suited him, as he ran across and jumped up and down across the stage throughout his entire set. He held his guitar like a machine gun: perpendicular to his body and strummed it with force, as if he was shooting a musical gun. He performed hits from his new album, Dark Bird is Home, as well as older works. And to be honest, his voice sounded much better live without that filter on his recorded vocals.
By the time The National had finished set up, the crowd had gather around the main stage in anticipation of the first half of this beautiful marriage. The lights dimmed and the Dessner brothers (Aaron and Bryce), as well as the Devendorf brothers (Scott and Bryan) hopped on stage as they whirred through their instruments, as a uniformly-clad Matt Berninger joined the stage and grabbed the microphone with his fists and wouldn't let go of the head of the microphone as he kissed it through the entire set with his low-baritone voice. The lights and fog draped the stage with ornate decorations that it added some spice to their already intense music. Sufjan Stevens joined the stage for a few songs, including providing hushed whispers behind Berninger's plea in the chorus of "I Need My Girl." During "Sorrow," which was famously performed for a six-hour art installation at MoMA, Ragnar Kjartansson, the curator of the project, jumped on stage (literally) to sing a verse while skipping across the stage waving a scarf, to which Berninger responded, "This is a sad song, what the fuck are you doing?" And as if the musical guests weren't enough, Justin Vernon joined the band for a few songs, and provided his famed-falsetto voice during "Slow Show". The last song of the set, "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," was joined by Vernon and Stevens and they joined in a choir with both Dessners and Berninger.