There is something happening up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and it is important. It is important because it is a sign of a vibrancy of life and art that is uncommon, perhaps even flailing, in our time. There has been this call to make America great again. As if it isn’t? If you need reassurance that this country is great, look no further than Eaux Claires.

At first glance, today’s myopic popular culture can look (and sound) like a barren cultural landscape. Eaux Claires, a two-day music and arts festival that takes place in Eau Claire, is a cure for these ills. It is modern gathering that is rooted in old-school values. It is an experience akin to an all-hands-on-deck barn raising. There is work to be done, but it is noble labor in which a community comes together with and for one another.

The great barn that was built this past weekend in Wisconsin was a cornucopia overflowing with music and naturalism, creativity, Americana, DIY attitude, homegrown and virtually commercial-less collaboration on and off stages, and visual art.

The rural midwest, quite frankly, is often culturally forgotten. It is designated as the nation’s so-called breadbasket, but it seems rare for it to yield artistic output that either (a) reaches the masses, or (b) gains the attention and respect of a snobby cognoscenti.

For those of us relegated to one of the nation’s coasts, let us not forget that we are prone to this certain way of thinking. Rest assured, this neighborly and culturally rich America still can, and does, exist.

Enter Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, and Co.

Vernon, aka the figurehead of Bon Iver, hails from Eau Claire, while Dessner (a member of The National) is from similarly situated Cincinnati, Ohio. At some point during their ascension to indie stardom, the two had a shared vision to create a new kind of festival experience in Vernon’s hometown. It is intoxicating to picture this meeting of the minds next to a wood stove on a cold winter’s night, devising a sort of “if you build it, they will come” plan.

Flush with the pull needed to curate an off-the-beaten-path gathering, the first Eaux Claires took place in July 2015. Some took the gamble, made the trip, and returned home (and to the internet) with glowing reviews of a different sort of experience. And so, there would be a second edition this year, moved nearly a month later on the calendar to August.

On Thursday night at the Lismore Hotel, Eau Claire’s son Phil Cook and his band The Guitarheels kicked off Eaux Claires with a set of soulful music that belied its wedding reception ballroom setting. Cook, who was a part of Vernon’s high school band DeYarmond Edison, said it all when he let the crowd know, “It’s ok to talk to strangers in Eau Claire.” It was a simple but telling declaration that proved to be true over the course of the two days that followed.

The Guitarheels, bolstered all night by the participation of Sylvan Esso vocalist Amelia Meath, ran through songs off of Cook’s excellent 2015 album, Southland Mission. The energy in the room was that kind of anticipatory, communal buzz that comes at the outset of what everyone knows is going to be a special time. Think Christmas Eve or the last day of school before summer vacation.

Included in the encore was a poignant and well-placed version of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” a song that praises the America that fosters something like Eaux Claires:

In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family
You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree
You’re all gonna be an American

IMG_0042

Day broke on Friday under an overcast sky. Attendees who camped out close to the grounds and those who stayed in local hotels or dormitory rooms at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire made their way to the grounds via a network of local school busses that doubled as festival shuttles. Upon arrival, a curving wooden path led towards the stages, swallowing up some city souls and evidently initiating some sort of purification process.

IMG_0044

Entering the grounds just after noon, there was little expectation left that this was going to be a typical festival experience. Brooklyn’s So Percussion was the first act of the day. Banging away on a variety of percussive instruments, they built a huge sound in “Music for Wood and Strings,” an otherworldly call to arms that set an artful tone for the weekend.

Immediately apparent, as well, was that extra care and consideration was given in planning. There were two main areas where multiple stages were constructed. A lower field contained two larger stages, a midfield birdcage-like structure art installation housed an organ (and was wrapped in real deal beer hops), and a smaller stage was tucked away next to and above the Chippewa River.

baroque organ EC
Photo by Scotify

Walking away from this lower field led to a wooded path that was lined with a maze of foot paths, art installations, an illuminated tree canopy, and even a small hidden stage (where throughout the weekend, one was likely to encounter S. Carey playing unamplified sets of meditative music fit for its setting). At the end of the path at the top of a hill, there was an upper area of three more stages.

IMG_0110

The magic? Unlike many other uncouth leviathan festivals, thoughtful scheduling ensured that only one act would be playing to each area at a time.

Vertical light screens were placed around the perimeter of the upper field, and they projected the same digital imagery that was used for the backdrop of The Dells’ stage, helping to tie the room together. On the lower field, live organ interludes commenced in the birdcage structure mere seconds after the end of music on either larger stage and would continue until the next act was ready to perform on the opposing stage.

For the organizers, this must have required air traffic control-level logistics, all the while providing an absence of chaos and dreaded scheduling conflicts for attendees.

IMG_0105