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 second day of the festival.
(Bon Iver photos captured by Graham Tolbert // All other photos captured by Freddie Paull.)
Day 2 began with Elliot Moss, a 21-year-old electronic artist similar to James Blake. I hiked the trek up the hill to the Dells stage to catch his electrifying set, which included four musicians on guitars and drums that looked about his age. The talent oozing off these young musicians was unbelievable! He performed songs from his latest album, which included "Big Bad Wolf" and his viral hit "Slip". He performed "Highspeeds" mostly a capella with the vocal effects adding multiple harmonies and octaves to his baritone voice.
One of the acts I was most excited to see was S. Carey, who I had found out about since learning he was the drummer for Bon Iver a few years ago. I listened to his album Range of Light multiple times on repeat, with the songs leaving an emotional footprint on me. When he entered the stage, an army of young, nicely-dressed musicians followed him onstage. As it turns out, he commissioned the UW-EC jazz ensemble to perform with him. The stage was lined with woodwinds and brass, with a guitarist, bass player, auxiliary percussion player, drummer, a conductor, and then Carey himself sitting at the piano. He began his set with "Glass/Film," which begins quietly, then erupts into a brassy burst into the second half of the song, which the crowd thoroughly enjoyed. I was happy to see him play songs that meant a lot to me, like "Alpenglow" (the song to be played' at my wedding) and "Fire-Scene" (a song that always makes me think of my mom). It was such a beautiful moment to relive the first time I heard his music, yet this time it was live.
Another artist I was excited to see was Givers. They released their debut album, In Light, four years ago, and we have yet to see or hear from them since. I saw them at Crescent Ballroom with Grouplove in 2012 following their album release, and it was one of the most energetic shows I had ever seen! I was excited to see them again, and to hear new songs. Unfortunately, they didn't deliver. I stayed and watched three songs: the first, a new one, which contain their belting vocals and intense drumming (one on kit, the other behind a steel drum set-up); the second, "In My Eyes" from their debut album, which proved to be sloppy, especially in the slowed-down breakdown near the end of the song; and the third, "I Saw You First," one of their more popular songs. Their set wasn't terrible, but I was expecting perfection from them. If you're going to be off the grid for four years working on your second album (by the way, the first two albums should never have that long of a gap), I'm going to expect your vocals, double drumming, and stage presence to be lock-down tight. It was apparent that it had been a long time since they've played together. I will give their album a shot when it's finally released, but I was hoping for better.
Phox is a band that I have loved for about a year now - which isn't long, but when I first heard them, I fell hard. I saw them play Rhythm Room last year, and Crescent Ballroom earlier this year. The band is from Baraboo, Wisconsin (a small town about two hours east of Eau Claire), so the crowd was packed with local fans and friends of the band. It was so great to see them play to a crowd of about three-thousand people, given that when I saw them in Phoenix, maybe forty people showed up. They started with the always-favorite show-starter "Shrinking Violets," then moved into "Kingfisher". Again, "1936" is a thing that makes me think of my mom, so when she said "This next song is about my family," I emotionally prepared myself for what was coming next. Throughout the set, the band members would turn and smile from ear to ear at how great the crowd was being during their set. Monica Martin mentioned many times how much she loved the audience. They played their hits "Slow Motion" and "Satyr and the Faun," as well as a rocking rendition of "Noble Heart". It was such a joy to see them in their (sort of) hometown where they received the love they deserved.
I already knew Sufjan Stevens was going to be an emotional roller-coaster, so I got a spot pretty far away (yet close to the Bon Iver stage for the next set). The beautiful thing about the two main stages being across the field from each other is that, no matter where you went around the festival grounds (except for up the hill), you could hear the music clearly anywhere. He began his set with "Death With Dignity" and moved seamlessly into "Should Have Known Better," both from his Carrie & Lowell album. The full-band set-up for the second half of "Should Have known Better" added some oomph to the song. He performed many hits including "Vesevius," "Casimir Pulaski Day," "The Dress Looks Nice on You," and "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross." Notable songs from his set include "All of Me Wants All of You," in which he incorporated an 80s funk feel to the already-acoustic jam, and set-ender "Chicago," in which the audience sang along to every word. My favorite song? "Fourth of July," a tune which proves to be too emotional to perform as Stevens crescendoed through the last chorus repetitively while fighting to hold back tears. As soon as the song ended and his voice echoed through the forest, Stevens could be seen wiping his eyes, which holds too much pain to bear.
Now for the moment everyone was waiting for; Bon Iver. Narrator Michael Perry came out before his set to paint the analogy of being baptized in the Chippewa River (which ran next to the festival) as the rebirth of Bon Iver was being baptized here in front of 22,000 festival goers. Once Perry's speech was finished, Bon Iver launched into "Heavenly Father," a tune which was written for Zach Braff's movie Wish I Was Here. The Staves sang harmonies, which were beautiful, until they sang the next tune "Lump Sum". The recording starts with about five of Justin Vernon's voice looped in an angelic round. With the Staves replicating this, it created a beautiful live version of this song. The set was joined by many guests, including both Aaron & Bryce Dessner of The National for "Babys", Colin Stetson for "Brackett, WI", Aero Flynn's Josh Scott for "Blind-sided", and yMusic and No BS! Brass Band making several appearances throughout the set. With the debut of two new songs, the audience's excitement grew with each song on the set. Vernon did an excellent job highlighting his friends, giving thanks to those who worked hard, and even handed over the spotlight to some of his bandmates to take over on lyrics. Many times, he would try to put into words how he felt about the whole experience, but his last speech really summed it up: "Everyone is looking for something greater than themselves. There's nothing greater than you. The only thing in this world that means anything and everything is friendship. Without your friends, it's hard to get through this crazy life. Friendship is the reason we are all here today." I turned to my best friend and held his hand as we listened to Vernon close his set with "Skinny Love," just himself on guitar and a choir of friends behind him - and in front of him - singing along.