All photos by Kyle B. Smith unless otherwise noted

The third installment of the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival blossomed up in Wisconsin, once again finding its own special way of putting the heart in heartland.

Posted on the grounds of the festival was a copy of Bring Me a Unicorn: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Opened to pages 260 and 261, it was screwed in to a makeshift wall at eye level.

Saw white birches on way to Deerfield. They have the same breathtaking whiteness that white dogwood has. I don’t see why I am always asking for private, individual, selfish miracles when every year there are miracles like white dogwood.

Eaux Claires could also be dubbed a Collaboration, and Nature Festival. The gathering was comprised of myriad artful spaces in a natural setting each serving as a backdrop to what evolved in to a contagious form of artistic collaboration. All these elements, miracles like white dogwood.

From poetry slam interwoven with modern dance, to Twin Cities rapper Astronautalis free flowing rhymes backed by an orchestral ensemble, boundaries were defied in the name of a collective experience designed to reimagine what a music festival can be.

Friday headliner Chance the Rapper agreed: “This fest ain’t like no other fests.”

Photo by Kyle B. Smith

Festival co-founder Justin Vernon, a man who was nowhere to be found at Eaux Claires 2016 until debuting Bon Iver’s jaw dropper of a new album 22, A Million on a rainy Friday night, was ubiquitous this year. If not appearing at either his own or as a part of another act’s performance, he could be spotted darting between stages in a golf cart or on foot, in perpetual mad genius dishevelment.

At a kickoff block party Thursday night in “downtown” Eau Claire, Vernon and best pal Phil Cook got The Shouting Matches back together for a right-on-time set of swampy, blues rock. The Shouting Matches’ 2013 LP Grownass Man is painfully overlooked, and quite a counterpoint to the abstract direction Vernon and co. chose for 22, A Million.

The Shouting Matches’ punchy opener “Avery Hill” set an upbeat tone that never let up, and flaunted a tightness that belied the years since a proper live set from the group. In “Heaven Knows,” Cook’s harmonica solo served as a dirty slap in the face. With some locals watching from the roof of a nearby ice cream shop, jagged instrumental “Milkman” ultimately closed out the evening. It was followed by a sincere reminder from Justin: “be good hosts.”

A mere twelve hours later, Vernon opened the festival at noon on a creek side stage about the size of the Troubadour’s. The crowd assembled during an ad hoc soundcheck, providing the early birds their worm: an up-close glimpse behind the curtain, and even a little whimoweh from Wisconsin’s own Wizard of Oz; Vernon warmed up his voice with a bit of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

“The People’s Mixtape Vol. 1” unfolded as a sprawling jam session. Eaux Claires co-founder Aaron Dessner joined an ad hoc group, including Vernon, Francis and the Lights, and a wild-eyed Matt McCaughan on drums.

Glitchy sketches of songs were played that later reappeared elsewhere during the weekend, as when Dessner and Vernon revived their dormant side project Big Red Machine. “Over My Dead Body,” “More Time,” or “You Are Who You Are” could be a few of the working titles, the latter of which is an emotive and life-affirming battle cry.

Disparate musical moments ruled the weekend. Amidst a dancey banger set, Sylvan Esso slowed things down for “Slack Jaw,” a song of their newest LP, What Now. The colorfully clad Julieta Venegas (the other JV) strapped on an accordion during her bouncy, percussive set, then later rapped a verse in the choppy “Eres Para Mi.”

From the back of the field, it was easy to see how Perfume Genius and the lithe Michael Hadreas stunned the crowd from the get go with the opening bars of “Otherside,” a piece that pops early on with a vertical trajectory that recalls the beginning of The Cure’s similarly-titled “Plainsong.”

Kate Stables and This Is The Kit came from the UK to play a crystal clean set that included songs of their 2017 release, Moonshine Freeze. Unlike Perfume Genius, This Is The Kit saved their explosion for its coda, “Hotter Colder.” Guest collaborator Aaron Dessner tapped into his Eaux Claires 2016 Day of the Dead chops, helping to drive a huge groove that birthed a dance party pretty much out of nowhere.

Wisconsin’s own Collections of Colonies of Bees were a fantastic start to Saturday. Their expansively wide open songs played to a still emptyish field under a massive blue sky. Nearby, friendly locals taught patrons to play kubb, a Nordic lawn game that finds it’s official North American capital in Eau Claire.

Photo by David Szymansk

As for the avant-garde af element, Astronautalis’ improvisational rhyming enriched the s-t-a-r-g-a-z-e Mixtape Vol. 2 set, which also saw Romain Bly singing in to his French horn, and another participant tearing newspaper pages in front of her microphone.

The Oxbeau stage, a basic wooden platform and roof set off a path, hosted Mountain Man, a group of three women (including Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath) whose acapella harmonies sound as if they had been born in the woods. A rapt audience filled trails in front of the stage, and climbed trees for an elevated vantage point. All of this a few steps away from a box of amplified chirping crickets (no, really).

Photo by Scott Kunkel

While Jenny Lewis teamed up with Phil Cook and others to form a “Hawaiian psychedelic swing band from Mars,” in actuality, there was no better example of the cross-pollination of musicians than during “Bon Iver Presents John Prine and the American Songbook” set Friday evening. The performance, which included somewhere around 30 contributors, paid homage to John Prine, the mailman poet who has written songs that are found at the crossroads of humor and heart.

Host Justin Vernon started by himself, tackling “Sabu Visited the Twin Cities Alone.” Later, the ethereal layers that help define Bon Iver’s indefinable sound emerged ever so subtly during “Unwed Fathers.” Amanda Blank and Spank Rock led a spirited take on “In Spite of Ourselves,” an unmistakably John Prine tune.

The music paused so that local poet and author Michael Perry could recite an endearing letter to his friend, Justin Vernon. Perry’s annual reading as “festival narrator” has become a centerpiece moment of the wholesome, barn-raiser of a weekend.

Perry waxed about their shared love of John Prine’s music, how Justin explored Prine’s catalogue on “tiny foam headphones” in his father’s minivan, being careful to make sure that the Discman was held in a way so the songs wouldn’t skip.

“We’ve talked about this, you and me, how we like heroes who run close to the ground,” Perry intimated, and then went on to poignantly reference John Prine’s oeuvre: “I like songs written in the key of empathy.”

Photo by Graham Tolbert

The narrator stayed on to sing, “It’s a Big Old Goofy World.” Soon thereafter, the man of the hour, John Prine, ever the gentleman and dressed to the nines, came to the stage just about the time it started to rain cats and dogs.

Mr. Prine, now backed by Bon Iver(!), began with the impeccably titled “Storm Windows.” Later, the musicians battled the elements during “Hello in There” and “Paradise.” All the artists came out for the family-style sing-along finale.

Set in Wisconsin, “Lake Marie” was an a propos but bittersweet farewell. Now 71, John Prine’s dapper suit and gracious mannerisms spoke to the presence of a man from another time. His departure from the stage during the outro of “Lake Marie” conjured an acute awareness of the inevitability of the passage of time; his waves reached beyond the outer edges of the festival field.

Photo by Graham Tolbert

This year, the network of footpaths, microstages and art installations tucked away in wooded areas at the eastern end of the grounds were significantly expanded. The quiet space sits under a veritable canopy, and is blindingly lush to those attendees who ventured from the arid west.

But Eaux Claires’ naturalism was not confined to the forest. In a “is this really happening??” moment, a thunderstorm encroached during the Prine set as The Staves emerged to perform his larger than life crusher, “Angel from Montgomery.”

The lyrics, “If dreams were lightning, and thunder were desire, this old house would’ve burned down a long time ago,” had just bowled everyone over when actual lightning struck in the sky above the stage.

The surreal event was serendipitously reprised the next evening, as Paul Simon, backed by six-piece orchestral group yMusic, closed out their performance with a masterfully restrained version of “The Sound of Silence.”

After a vicious deluge delayed and nearly canceled the set, gun mental gray clouds hung low over the scene, creating a damp, austere light that illuminated a collective moment of solemnity. Another miracle like white dogwood.

Photo by Scott Kunkel

Photo by Graham Tolbert