Last week I received my booklet for Year 3 of the Eaux Claires music festival in Wisconsin. I was traveling when I ordered the tickets and had it shipped to a friend on the east coast so they just brought to me when they came to visit a few days ago. After shaking the book out of the envelope like a kid at Christmas, I cracked it open and read an intro likely written by the impeccable Michael Brown (have y’all read him yet? Go do that. Start with Truck). Written just inside the front cover, I found these sweet words:
“We resent the darkness more than the cold. It is the darkness that makes us long for spring. The cold chills your bones, but the darkness deadens your heart. It is the darkness we are desperate to dispel. And so we are making plans for the light……For now this place is rimed with ice and studded with slush kabobs. What sweet antidote is it to envision how we might dance in the grass. There is great power in wanting what you can’t have. To blow your frozen breath against the sky and imagine it a summer cloud. To sit stuck in a snow bank dreaming of beach babies. Fresh or frozen, we love this place. But sense of place is not static. Sense of place is portable. Sense of place is importable. You know when we are at our best? When the people become the place”
Reading it made me realize how soon the festival is, how excited I am to attend this year and how (I often wince at this cheesy word, excuse me) special it feels already, having gone every year with the same people. We’ve taken to calling it our family tradition- we drive from Ontario to Grand Rapids to pick up Magda, then take The Badger Ferry across Lake Michigan, playing bingo and hunting games en route with nice people from Idaho in hopes that one of us will win a sailor hat. Then we head to the city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin for 2 days of dancing and discovery and music in a field with 20,000 friends. There’s this silly thing that happens when people find something they love- they often don’t want to share it with others. Favorite restaurants, bands, even people, we want to keep it to ourselves. Call it the hipster stance, whatever you want, it’s a natural inclination for a lot of us. I’ve tried to be very cognizant of this and do the opposite because when you love something, you share it. And I have found something uncommon and wonderful and I want to share it with you, too. Let’s get into this.
I’ve been to/worked almost every major festival in North America and truthfully I was beginning to feel like I was getting a little old for it all. I don’t have much of an interest in sitting in a crowd of 200,000 kids doing fancy drugs in a field anymore. I outgrew it, or so I thought until I found Eaux Claires, a festival curated by Aaron Dessner & Justin Vernon. I can feel some of you rolling your eyes as you read that, thinking ‘oh you enjoy a festival planned and curated by some of your favorite artists, wow what a surprise Teresa tell me more shocking news’. Yes, yes I know, it is common knowledge among those that know me that I worship at the church of BI & The Ntnl but it’s not because I have a skinny love tattoo and tumblr dedicated to national lyrics superimposed over photos of woodland cabins (I have neither of those things, to be clear). It’s because I like, trust them. Trusting an artist is an increasingly rare thing, but it still exists. Trusting a musician and their integrity means that you know you won’t wake up to them releasing something completely unpalatable, that you’ll give it all an honest listen with an open ear. It means you’re willing to grow with them. It means you know you probably won’t hear their song on a pepsi commercial one day. This sort of relationship can’t happen after one great album that you deeply relate to. It’s something that happens over time and it’s the reason I’d listen to almost anything that Brandon Boyd or Keith Jarrett or Justin Vernon or any Dessner released and give it a real shot. It’s because their music has been with me for years, they’re not just songs anymore- they’re a part of my fabric now. It’s why I’ve bought a ticket each year to this festival before the lineup is even released.
photo by @leebutterworthphoto
I’ve witnessed a few strange reactions from people when I tell them I’m going or invite them to come along without knowing the lineup. ‘Oh who’s playing?’ is the expected first question but when I answer with ‘no idea, can’t wait!’ their face often changes. I get it- most people wait for these announcements. I took a chance on the first year and bought tickets without knowing and I’ll continue to do so. I’ve discovered so many great artists in the past two years there and I know that this year won’t be any different. We all had that person growing up that showed up new music, right? The one that was unaffectedly cool and introduced you to music that changed your life.
Mine was named Frank. He was a friend of my best friend’s older brother and he recognized my obsession and devotion to music and took me on as his little protege. At the time, my father had fed me a strict diet of motown and classic rock and I had just begun to branch out from his tastes and select my own music. My hunger was there but my tastes weren’t yet and Frank took pity on me and let me spend hours in his room downloading songs from Napster and burning mix CD’s. I didn’t even know him that well; all we ever talked about was music, but he has so much to do with who I am today. He was the first person I met outside my father who made me feel like it was okay to be hyper-obsessed with music; to this day I have only met a handful of people who are as relentless in their search for new work as Frank and I were. He talked about music like it was a living thing instead of just something people listened to; we could go on about the way a drum beat ch-ch-ch-ched until the crickets came out and he would walk me home, both of us waxing poetic about a single lyric the entire way. He slipped me Prince records and passed me mixes in the hall, pastel jewel cases bursting with rap and hard rock and pop and folk songs that made my brain feel like it was going to melt. Music that profoundly affected my life. Music that made me feel like the world wasn’t what I thought it was. Music that said what all good music says: your people are out there. You are not alone.
It’s important to feel like a part of something when you’re like me, having an existential crisis every couple weeks since I was was 17. Not in the cute, ‘let’s have some deep conversations about aliens when we’re the right sort of high’ sort of way, but the kind that needs to sit down every few days because I’m overwhelmed from thinking about how life is an absurd ride of joy and trauma between two unfathomable voids. Modern life is hard to cope with and understand and I’m the sort of person that wants to understand it all in spite of the fact that I know I never will. Music is, and has always been, the tangible little strings I can grab ahold of when things get too overwhelming.
Somehow through my years of touring and traveling, I had never really visited the state of Wisconsin, save for gas station stops where I would fill the van with jerky and cheese curds that sounded like dry wipers on a windshield between our teeth. In addition to the music and art of Eaux Claires, getting to know this new part of America through the eyes of people who love it and through one of the most universal mediums has been such a delight.
Vince Staples by @annakturo
There are so many highlights from last year’s show- James Blake’s incredible set in a downpour that no one gave a fuck about, treating the rain like baptism instead of an inconvenience; Vince Staples fiery performance; Erykah Badu commanding our devotion to her. Here are a few more of my favorite moments:
Photo by @davidszymanski
-Miss Mavis Staples, my goodness. Would you like to come over for dinner/adopt me? A show stopping performance plus a sense of humor that had me in literal tears. She sweetly joked “I’ve been trying to pronounce the name [of EC] E-clair… Eclair with whipped cream inside. That’s exactly what I see: A bunch of beautiful, sweet eclairs!” Her entire set was incredible, my personal favorite was her cover of ‘The Weight’ with Lucius; it gave me a visceral flashback to watching my parents slow dance in the kitchen to The Band and then a whole lot of grateful thoughts that I was here witnessing this living legend and such a rare cross-generational collaboration. I left my friends to ‘go closer and take a photo’ but truthfully I was trying to hide the shitty tears streaming down my face thinking of all the father daughter songs of my childhood
-The Day of the Dead, a multi-artist collaborative tribute to the Grateful Dead, the longest and most diverse set of the weekend that magically just got better and better as it went on.
-Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats set was one big sing along that felt like those nights in someone’s backyard in Nashville when the stars are out and there are no bugs and people pull out instruments and start playing and everybody stops. The kind of show where everyone knows this band is on the precipice and you feel so lucky to be here, right on the edge of their history. The whiskey goes down smooth and everyone is smiling at each other across the fire and singing along- that’s what this whole set felt like. Like everybody recognized how happy and fortunate we were to all be here, in this exact place, singing together.
-Two standout pieces of the weekend were the performances that filled the lulls in between scheduled performances- the visually striking wire mesh organ created by Edoardo Tresoldi and the Native American Dancers that roamed the grounds and struck us all down with incredible drumming, singing and dancing.
-The final set of the weekend, Francis and the Lights, was a thing of resplendent beauty. There’s a line in an Augusten Borroughs book that says ‘he will grip your neck and wrench you around and blow stars down your throat until you are so full of light’. That’s what it felt like to watch his set, like we were all being filled with light. Francis’ feet tap tap tapped phosphorescence and levity into everyone as we danced with him, imbuing within us a pummelling light that seemed to explode towards the end when Chance and JV came out to perform ‘Friends’. I swear the ground was pulsating with our happiness and scream-jumping; it was the perfect burst of everlasting joy to end the weekend on.
Photo by @davidszymanski
Photo by @davidszymanski
Of course, as with any large gathering of people, there were the things you can’t escape from. There was the occasional drunken idiot and the young women in american apparel bodysuits gyrating on any one with a guest pass and laughing at unfunny jokes in hopes that they could sneak them backstage. But mostly, everyone just kind of seemed like people you’d hang out with on your own, ya know? (except for that one guy in line for korean who kept hitting on me and trying to show me his butterfly puddler; he eventually gave up on me, called me a snob and moved on to the girl in front by telling her about his band and how he played a ‘thumb piano that he carved from a withering cedar’. Truthfully, I don’t know if I I can hang out with that guy)
Occasional insufferable human aside, I don’t know if there’s anything to really complain or offer constructive criticism about. I guess I wasn’t super excited that the price of the bus shuttle quadrupled for our group from last year (it was 20 a car to park at the college and take the bus last year, this year it was 20 a person) but truthfully the worst part of the whole weekend for me was when the gourmet popsicle man ran out of basil & blueberry (hot tip: Bring at least 20 bones to spend at Pete’s Pops). Other than that, the most constructive criticism I can offer would be hopeful suggestions instead- maybe next year some sort of Prince tribute take place, in the same vein as the Grateful Dead tribute? Pretty please? Maybe an online guide on the EC site about things going on in the Eau Claire area tailored to the time frame around the festival? I think a lot of people would love to the explore the area more, myself included.
Photo by @leahtribproductions
There were so many little things going on that made you feel like someone was paying attention and cared about what it was like for the thousands of people who trekked to the midwest. Like having decent food and beer with prices that didn’t make you wince. Like the sun shades this past year that were in between the two main stage. Clearly someone said ‘oh hey it was hot as hell last year and we noticed and we want you to be comfortable so this year we got you these nice shades’. It was like we were being taken care of, like we weren’t just a dollar sign and body. Most festivals want your attendance, yes, but more importantly they want you line up and max out your credit card to buy their mass produced t-shirts. They don’t particularly want YOU there. EC doesn’t feel like that. Togetherness and connection and music just for the sake of music, these things are important and they are exemplified at Eaux Claires. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much to a lot of people, but in a world where I’m often annoyed by the circle jerkery of it all, it is rare and special. Here’s the thing: we are all looking to feel like a part of something, to feel like we collectively mean more than we do standing alone. It’s not easy to admit and it’s not easy to do but that’s what I saw those weekends; it was a rare glimpse back to when I had such a clean and pure connection to music, before festivals were about instagram and pitchfork articles.
Showing up is one thing, but participating is another. If there’s anything I’ve learned that can be applied to almost everything- life, love, people, music festivals, creativity, discovery, all of it it’s that we are here to participate. Eaux Claires felt like a party you’re always invited to, one that you’re wanted at. Your participation is just as important as anyone else’s. No special behaviour or status qualifies or disqualifies you to dance next to the DJ at the biggest party on the playa or get a free homemade ice cream cone, you are honored and invited by just being present and contributing to this big living organism that wouldn’t be the same without you. It sounds so clichéd, but that’s what we, or at least what I, felt in that field. It’s something to believe in.
photo by @leahtribproductions
I could end this by coming up with some clever pun about spring and the river and rebirth and discovery and bon iver and winter but ugh that would be easy and awful and I’m a better person and a better writer than that so instead I’ll leave you with the words of someone far wiser than I, my main man TS Eliot, who once declared: ‘The river is a strong brown god, it is a symbol of self belief. The river is within us.’
Coming to the river for the first time felt like that aforementioned friend with great taste in music inviting you to his house for a weekend-long sleepover. Being a part of it again last year felt like coming home. I can’t wait to do it again this summer and grow with everyone again, whatever that looks like.
To Aaron Dessner, Michael Brown, Justin Vernon, the entire massive crew and volunteers seen and unseen that make EC possible-
Thank you for showing us your corner of the world. We love it and we love you.
The river is within us all.
photo by @jebbunks
Photos by me unless otherwise noted.
Special thanks to @davidsymanski, @skinyourknees, @leahtribproductions, @annakturo and @jebbunks for their generous use of these photos and collaboration on this article; please click through on their names and check out their wonderful work.
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