Eaux Claires 2016 Festival Review: The 10 Best Performances

Justin Vernon's second summer fiesta thrived from new music, surprises, and guests


Photography by Nina Corcoran

For the second year running, Justin Vernon gave thousands of music devotees a reason to descend on his sleepy hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. “He’s this big celebrity, but he drinks in our local bars,” a young woman told me on Day One as we waited in line for the shuttle (a re-purposed school bus) to the festival site. Even beyond Vernon’s warm and emotional Friday night set, where he debuted his unreleased album, 22, A Million, in full, his fingerprint could be found everywhere — from his obvious sonic influence on the work of billed acts like James Blake and Francis and the Lights to exclusive vinyl 7” copies of two brand-new songs at the merch table.

Wisconsin in the summertime is a lush, green place. The Eaux Claires venue is tucked away in a few secluded fields near the banks of the Chippewa River, and it’s easy to believe that it exists in its own pastoral world of echoing amps and endless cheese curds. This year’s lineup, curated by Vernon and Aaron Dessner of The National, was an eclectic mix of some of today’s top names in indie rock, as well as the elder statesmen and women that influenced them.

Nina Corcoran, Crowd 15

Eaux Claires is about collaboration and idea-sharing most of all. Matt Berninger of The National made the trek to the Eau Claire for a 15-minute guest appearance during the Dessner-curated The Grateful Dead tribute, and The Staves and Lucius were on hand as backup-vocals-for-hire throughout the weekend. Rising stars like Moses Sumney lent a helping hand to well-established artists like James Blake, and Aaron Dessner seemed to be everywhere at once, appearing wherever he was needed like a helpful wood sprite. Bruce Hornsby was another ubiquitous presence, performing his influential 1986 album The Way It Is in full and popping up in a handful of other sets throughout the weekend.

It’s clear that Eaux Claires continues to be a big boon for the community. It seemed that thousands of people from the area showed up for the sheer fact that something, anything, was happening, and it allowed for an atmosphere of optimism and wonder that persisted even through a steady stream of rain on Friday afternoon and evening. Unfortunately, a plague of sound issues — clipping, popping, and crackling — never seemed to find a real solution.

Nina Corcoran, Crowd 06

In the very last set of the festival, played in close quarters at the domed The Kills stage, Chance the Rapper joined Francis and the Lights for a surprise rendition of “Summer Friends” from Chance’s recent Coloring Book. In turn, Vernon showed up to perform “Friends”, his collaboration with Francis and Kanye West that inspired the Chance tune, bringing the set full-circle. Their coordinated boy band dance moves at the end of the too-short set, as well as their obvious love and admiration for one another, created the kind of moment that people travel hundreds of miles to catch a glimpse of. Here’s hoping that Eaux Claires can keep recreating those moments for years to come.

— Katherine Flynn
Senior Staff Writer


10. Buke and Gase

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If there’s one takeaway from the Eaux Claires lineup, it’s that Vernon built a festival that combats indie rock and folk stereotypes by looping eclecticism into the mix. From classical works to noise rock, there’s plenty to chew on from left field, but no act on the bill went for the weirdness without turning back quite like Buke and Gase. The experimental pop duo get their name from their handmade instruments: an altered baritone ukulele (buke), and a guitar and bass combination (gase). It’s about as DIY as it gets, and their set lit fire to creativity and inspiration for onlooking musicians and audience members alike.

Fittingly, they performed on The Banks stage, a raised cube on which projections were screened — creating the illusion of artwork in motion — where audience members were given headphones to hear the set’s ideal audio mix. The inner-workings of their songs — most of which rope electronic whips, competing melodies, and thudding percussion together in a dazzling, hiccup-like way — warrant tuned ears, so the festival’s immersive stage amplified their set. Both days, viewers had been sitting so everyone could see the stage, but Buke and Gase asked them to stand — and for good reason. As they chugged through unreleased material, cuts off their 2012 EP, Function Falls, and one song off their debut LP, the whole room began to dance on- and off-beat, a communal groove to music that broke up the festival’s flow.  —Nina Corcoran


09. Erykah Badu

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Despite a 45-minute delay, Erykah Badu did not disappoint once she took the Lake Eaux Lune stage early on Saturday night just as the sky was darkening. After a long lead-in from her backing band, she made her entrance through a powerful cloud of stage presence that many indie darlings, bless them, simply don’t possess. “Damn, you all feel this,” she asked early on, seemingly annoyed that the crowd wasn’t being receptive enough, warning: “I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive.” The sizable audience warmed up shortly thereafter, moving to R&B-infused sounds that were wholly unique in the Eaux Claires lineup.

Badu led into each new tune with a few tone-setting beats from an 808, including the brilliantly snarky “Cain’t Use My Phone” from the similarly-titled mixtape that she released in November of 2015 — her first new work after a five-year hiatus. Badu closed out the set with the classic “… & On”, repeating, “I’m an analog girl in a digital world,” one last time before exiting the stage 10 minutes early. —Katherine Flynn


08. The Staves and yMusic

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The Staveley-Taylor sisters — Jessica, Camilla, and Emily — from Hertfordshire, England, have slowly been building awareness around their brand of harmony-heavy folk rock for the past five or so years, and it was in heavy rotation at Eaux Claires this year. The three of them popped up during a handful of sets, including Jenny Lewis, the Day of the Dead tribute, and Bon Iver’s headlining show.

During their own set with classical music collective yMusic, where their beautiful, bring-you-to-your-knees voices were on full display, The Staves explained that the performance was the result of a collaboration that had taken place over the last 10 days. “I can’t remember the last time I felt so excited to be on a stage, playing music,” one of them shared, to cheers from the audience. The set was built around reworked cuts from 2015’s If I Was, as well as entirely new collaborations that showcased tender strings work from yMusic and the sisters’ signature interwoven harmonies. —Katherine Flynn


07. Moses Sumney

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The reason some voices carry is because, supposedly, their pitch resonates with both the human vocal tract and the human ear. Moses Sumney has a voice that carries, but in an entirely different way. Barely 10 minutes into his set, the California singer-songwriter rolled out a voice far too loud for The Kills stage, one that reached out to the lengths of the field not because his lungs can take in gallons of air in a second (which they can) or because it details the purest form of emotional storytelling (which it does), but because he leaps and climbs from one pitch to another, a vocal acrobat with years of practice and the ability to punch you in the gut.

The audience quadrupled by the time his set ended, most drawn in by the part-soul, part-folk delivery of his work, which led to everyone erupting into cheers so loud that Sumney bashfully hid behind his guitar. It was hard not to. Performing numerous songs off his upcoming debut full-length, as well as stripped-down singles “Man on the Moon” and “Plastic”, Sumney charmed the crowd time and time again — an act no doubt aided by his bountiful charisma and witty banter about Kanye West, doom, and well-intentioned heckling. The guy’s a natural talent. Next time around, his set time will likely be twice as long with a voice that, at the very least, warrants so. —Nina Corcoran


06. The Melvins

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The harsh, intricate, face-melting rock of The Melvins provided a surprisingly refreshing change of pace at The Dells stage on Saturday afternoon. Buzz Osborne, true to form, sported a garment that strongly resembled a wizard cloak in the 80-degree heat, and he refrained from speaking to the audience or making eye contact until the very end. The three Melvins opened the set with about 10 minutes of mood-building, sludgy noise before offering up a distorted take on Kiss’ “Deuce” — and the crowd responded in kind by opening up a mosh pit in front of the stage.

The Melvins provided a legacy act experience of a very different kind than the others interspersed throughout the weekend, and their appearance felt like a fitting, if too-brief, placeholder for the work of the groundbreaking musicians of yore that rocked just a tad harder than Bruce Hornsby. Then, in a closing move that was both out of left field and entirely fitting, they closed the set with an a capella sing-along of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. —Katherine Flynn


05. Mavis Staples

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Mavis Staples, at 77, was all smiles and gratitude on the Lake Eaux Lunes stage midday Saturday. The legendary gospel singer remained unfazed by a few disruptive sound issues, bopping her way through “Take Us Back” (the lyrics of which — “I got help from all the people who love me” — felt particularly relevant in this collaborative setting) and teaming up with Hornsby for “Celestial Railroad”, a track from his upcoming album, Rehab Reunion.

Staples appeared genuinely thrilled to welcome Lucius to the stage for a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People”, lavishing them with praise and making much of their matching hairstyles. For the grand finale, Staples melded voices with the duo for The Band classic “The Weight”, drawing appreciative and reverential applause from the audience. There’s no question — girl’s still got it.  —Katherine Flynn


04. Vince Staples

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Eaux Claires, as a whole, felt largely devoid of political commentary, which provided a much-needed atmosphere of escapism. Vince Staples, however, took a brief moment to make a statement about police brutality, cast as thinly veiled praise. “It’s hard for the cops out here — you save a life, or you kill somebody,” he said, in between iterations of songs from his most recent (and most polished) album, 2015’s Summertime ’06, featuring the kind of bass that makes chest cavities vibrate.

Staples’ set was all power and intensity, a notable break from the dreamy, leisurely acts that preceded him. The crowd was well-primed for it, and as one entity, they started to wave their arms and move their bodies. Staples performed in front of a scrim of moving images, some of them evoking his hometown of Long Beach, California, worlds away from the woods of Eau Claire. He offered sublime performances of songs such as “Lift Me Up”, but maybe his most powerful contribution was a gentle reminder of the world — and the problems — lying beyond the festival gates. —Katherine Flynn


03. Day of the Dead

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In May, Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National presented us with Day of the Dead, the 25th compilation album for the international HIV- and AIDS-awareness charity Red Hot Organization that saw a huge list of acts covering The Grateful Dead. Backed by a house band that included the Dessners, their National bandmates Bryan and Scott Devendorf, and Walter Martin and Matt Barrick of The Walkmen, the album’s performers (most of whom were also on the festival lineup) shared the stage for a 90-minute early evening set of its highlights. The most audible crowd-favorite moments included Vernon joining former Dead member Hornsby for “Black Muddy River” and a surprise appearance from Matt Berninger to complete The National’s full lineup and deliver a driving rendition of “Morning Dew”. —Steven Arroyo


02. Bon Iver

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The buzz around Bon Iver’s first new album in five years had been steadily building prior to Eaux Claires, bolstered in no small part by Vernon himself. Disjointed sound clips and mysterious runes had been popping up throughout his social media presence for the preceding few weeks like a trail of bread crumbs. A reverential hush fell over the assembled crowd at the Lake Eaux Lunes stage on Friday night as those same inscrutable runes appeared on the backdrop of the as-yet-empty stage, with strains from a nearby organ setting a decidedly spiritual tone.

The unveiling of 22, A Million was clearly meant to invoke an emotional experience, and, as someone whose young adulthood is bound up in memories closely linked to For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver, it was largely successful. As Vernon pulled out each new song — sonically linked to Bon Iver, but also undeniably fresh, with distorted female vocals, a backing band of eight saxophonists, and, as always, Vernon’s innovative use of Auto-Tune — the titles began to push out through the Eaux Claires smartphone app. The titles were fairly inscrutable themselves, so being able to match each song with its title didn’t offer much extra insight.

After Vernon collaborator Sam Amidon led everyone in a sing-along, asking the audience to open up an orange festival guide booklet that he referred to as a “hymnal,” Vernon sheepishly admitted that he had, yet again, made a short record, so he would fill out the remainder of the set with older songs. These included “Beach Baby” with help from The Staves and, appropriately, a reworked version of “Beth/Rest”, the elevator-music closer from Bon Iver, with an assist from Hornsby on the piano. —Katherine Flynn


01. James Blake

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Pouring rain created the perfect atmosphere for James Blake’s early-evening set on the low-slung Flambeaux stage. No one can command a live interplay between turnt and tender quite like Blake, and as the curtain of rain in front of the stage was illuminated by flashes of green and purple, he created a soundscape that made his hour-long set feel infinite in the best way. Much of the material was drawn from this year’s rather sublime The Colour in Anything, but one particularly masterful stroke was a cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” (also covered on his 2011 self-titled debut,) which, in Blake’s hands, becomes a beat-infused and dystopian party jam.

As is characteristic of any truly skilled artist, Blake managed to craft an experience that was vastly different from that of listening to his album cuts alone on headphones. The slow-burning “Love Me in Whatever Way” became a powerful crowd-pleaser, and an assist from rising gospel star Moses Sumney on “Modern Soul” created a perfect harmony of old and new, cold digital sounds and warm analog voices. —Katherine Flynn

Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Eaux Claires 2016.



Photographer: Nina Corcoran