The second Eaux Claires festival (Eaux Claires "Deux") really got underway back in February. Fans who preordered tickets to the festival without knowing who would be on the lineup were rewarded with a literal cassette mixtape of songs handpicked by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of The National. This genius marketing move announced the lineup in a clever way and helped build buzz through word of mouth as the follow-up to last year's inaugural Eaux Claires approached. Patrons who attended last years festival (myself included) looked forward to this iteration with anticipation. And, a few hiccups aside, the second Eaux Claires really exceeded expectations.
There were some big name headliners, to be sure, and we'll get to those in a bit. But this festival was really the year of experimentation for many artists. A few members of The National and Beirut teamed up as LNZNDRF, Aaron Dessner performed with Lisa Hannigan (no National this year), and a powerhouse combination of The National, Phosphorescent, Lisa Hannigan and Richard Parry of Arcade Fire, and more paid tribute to The Grateful Dead.
No experiment was bigger than Bon Iver's revealing, and subsequent performance of, their new album 22, A Million. A clear departure from their previous efforts, the new album replaces many of the building horns and percussion with synths and saxes, Vernon's vocals less ethereal falsetto than staccato and synthesized. Technical sound problems aside, this was a soaring unveiling. Each song on the new album is brief and succinct, ending almost mid-stride. It will be interesting to hear how this translates to the headphones.
The rain soaked day one of the festival had many highlights before Bon Iver's closing. Phosphorescent peppering old material with new, as a cover of This Land Is Your Land led seamlessly into the showstopping Song for Zula. Vince Staples mixed tracks from his Summertime '06 and Hell Can Wait projects, successfully igniting the crowd with energy before ending his set with a mashup of Summertime and Blue Suede Park. LNZNDRF took to one of the side stages to introduce many newcomers to songs from their self-titled effort, and James Blake's somber keys served as a perfect soundtrack as the day gave way to night and the rain kept falling.
While one could argue that day two of the festival was lighter on star power, it'd be tough to convince anyone that it didn't match the highlights of the first day. Case in point: Mavis Staples. Just as Charles Bradley in the first year, Mavis delivered perhaps the most energy of any performer despite being one of the oldest. She had the crowd eating out of her hand, and by the time Lucius joined her on stage, it was game over.
Elsewhere, Jenny Lewis (also joined by Lucius - man they really earned their paycheck at the festival) effortlessly delivered a beautiful set, Lucius continued to show why they are one of the most in demand bands in the world right now by putting on a typically flawless show, and Har Mar Superstar had a crowd of thousands dancing happily to his infectious melodies. (Editor's Note: we were able to sit down with Har Mar at the festival for an interview, which will be forthcoming). Seattle was represented, too, as Shabazz Palaces packed The Dells stage to max capacity, the crowd eating up their bass-heavy, spaced out blend of hip hop.
Perhaps the biggest letdown of the festival was Erykah Badu's heavily, heavily truncated set. Scheduled to start at 8:45, fans grew restless as 9 approached with no sign of her. Then 9:10. Then 9:20. It wasn't until 9:25 that she finally took the stage, to the clear dismay of many in the audience. Scheduled to end at 10:15, she sort of just…disappeared from the stage right before 10. No doubt about it: when she sings, she's one of the most transcendent voices alive, and an impeccable performer. The roughly 30 minutes she did manage to perform were quite special. But when folks are expecting well over an hour set, performing for less time than practically everyone else at the festival can't help but end up being a colossal disappointment.
Still, the festival ended on a high note as Chance the Rapper saved the day by making a surprise appearance for Francis and the Lights' festival closing set. (What can't that guy do?) Couple that with the many phenomenal aforementioned performances, copious delicious food vendors, bathrooms and water stations aplenty, and abundance of community, camaraderie, and charm, and Eaux Claires has something special going on. Maybe there's something in the water, but if there is indeed a third Eaux Claires, you and everyone you know would be highly encouraged to return to the river.
Photos // Words by Alexander Hallett