Live Shows, Music and Healing

Cracked Foundations: My Eaux Claires Troix Story

Integrity is powerful thing. While, in many cases, we have reduced it to a measure of consistency in thought, behavior, speech, etc., it means more than that. It has to do with wholeness, with the pieces of a whole being held together securely. The foundation of a building begins to lose its integrity (or, practically, disintegrate) when it cracks, its constituency (brick and mortar) begins to disintegrate, and it can no longer support the weight of the building resting on it. At the start, brick and mortar were securely connected to one another. There were no cracks and no giving way. But, as the foundation begins to compromise… one crack leads to another and another and another until eventually the walls of the foundation begin to bow. Before long, the building as a whole begins to fall apart and is headed toward demolition.

My first Eaux Claires experience, in a true and deep sense, shook my soul, my very foundation. If I’ve had a conversation with you about it, you know how deeply it impacted me. Quite literally, I took weeks to recover emotionally. Beach House’s Space Song haunted me on a regular basis and Bon Iver’s 22 (Over Soon) was a continual invitation into not only the rest of 22, A Million, but right back into the emotion I felt during those two days. I was overwhelmed with an awe of the God-given creativity I experienced that weekend and I felt as though I was a part of something very special.

Last Christmas, my beautiful and generous wife bought me a ticket for the third edition of the festival, and I couldn’t wait to hear about the lineup and start dreaming about what this year’s experience would be. When the lineup was announced, I was very excited to say the least. I mean, Paul Simon with yMusic! Sylvan Esso! Music for the Long Emergency! Now, while I was very much looking forward to the event, I was also trying very hard to temper my expectations. After all, Eaux Claires Deux was an emotional and spiritual event for me. I shouldn’t expect that to happen every year, right?

Well, I was wrong about that. Troix was emotionally and spiritually moving, just as Deux had been. However, the emotional and spiritual dynamics were quite different this time around for me. For this attendee, this year’s festival was a combination of joy and sorrow. I didn’t expect the sorrow, and it was the reason I actually  left the festival early on Day Two. It was a sorrow borne out of what I saw as extreme inconsistency, or compromised integrity, in several aspects of the festival.

Before I dive too deeply into that subject, let me reaffirm, there certainly was joy. Sylvan Esso. Sylvan freaking Esso. The Durham duo was incredible and they created such vibrant energy in the crowd… it was impossible to stand still during their set. It didn’t hurt that Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn looked like they were genuinely feeling it that night as well. I thought Perfume Genius was pretty incredible as well. Mike Hadreas and band came across as this eclectic blend of provocation, expression, and straight out fun as well. I also really enjoyed Collections of Colonies of Bees and Zebulon Pike. Collections was one of the first acts to play on Day Two and they were tight. Incredible creativity and craftsmanship. I need more. And Zebulon Pike… let me tell you, it did this old heart good to witness four guys about his age rocking like those guys rocked. The Minneapolis instrumental metal outfit were able to blend passion and precision in their performance in ways I don’t often see.

While these performances were great, the most poignant moment of the festival for me occurred early on Day Two, when s*t*a*r*g*a*z*e welcomed Minneapolis rapper Astronautalis to the stage. The day before, we learned of the acquittal of the police officer who killed Philando Castille. I hadn’t heard of the verdict until it was announced by Broder as he began his set on Friday afternoon (more on that in a bit). When Astronautalis took the mic, he was flowing on about how blessed he was to be a part of the day, to experience the beautiful sunshine, and on and on. But then his words told the story of his mixed emotions. Yeah, he was grateful and should feel happy about the moment, but he kept “thinking ’bout Philando.” It was a beautiful, soul-bearing moment in which he could not help but feel the weight of injustice. And my heart resonated with his. It was broken as well.

My recollection of that incredibly emotive, connecting moment leads me right into parts of the Troix experience with which I struggled terribly. As noted, the Philando Castille situation colored the festival. I first heard the verdict just as Broder was starting his set. Before the music began, the he mentioned what happened and encouraged the audience toward love and peace, which was beautiful. But then he said (this is verbatim to the best of my recollection), “Rest in peace, Philando. And rest in piss to the motherf*cker who (killed him).” This statement struck me as wildly inconsistent with his previous words about “peace” and “love.” For me, I found this kind of inconsistency to be a virtual theme running throughout the festival, and it ate at me throughout the weekend.

Another example of this inconsistency (or compromised integrity) was the festival being presented as an “All Ages” event. The Eaux Claires website states, “All ages are welcome, children ten and under are free.” “All ages” is also printed on the ticket. This would lead me, and likely others, to think the event is family-friendly. Now, I remember, during last year’s festival, seeing kids there and wondering if it was a good thing for them to be exposed to some of the lyrical content flowing from the artists. This year, that tension was palpable for me, and it began from the very onset. The first set on Friday saw Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, and friends playing what they called “People Mixtape” on a small stage. Now, creatively, it was a fun set and I really enjoyed it. However, one of the very first songs had Vernon repeating “I don’t want to f*ck it up” over and over again. As I stood there listening, just in front of me was a young girl, maybe 7-8 years old. As the father of an 8 year old, I would not want my son listening to that. This little girl stood there trying hard to protect herself from what she was hearing, hands clasped tightly over her ears. My heart sank a little bit in that moment.

And then there was the Spank Rock set on Day Two. In the months preceding the festival, I spent time trying to get to know the artists’ music so I would know whose shows I wanted to make sure I did not miss. Spank Rock and Danny Brown were two I quickly determined I wanted to miss. It wasn’t because of the music. I thought the few songs I listened to were funky, fun, and creative, musically speaking. But the lyrical content was just gross. The songs I previewed were sexually explicit, graphic, and unfortunately vivid, and some degraded women. So, I determined that I would be glad to miss those two sets.

However, when the time for Spank Rock’s set arrived, I decided to give it a chance. I thought maybe he would show some restraint in what had been billed as an “All Ages” context. Such was not the case. What made it worse was seeing children mixed in with the crowd while Spank Rock’s sexually explicit lyrics poured over their little ears, minds, and hearts. Now, we can debate on whether or not such lyrics should even be shared at all in a public forum, but I would suggest what is not debatable is that kids should not be exposed to such things. In fact, according to psychologist Dan Allender (in his book, The Wounded Heart), such exposure is tantamount to sexual abuse. My heart was broken for these kids. I walked away from the stage and tried unsuccessfully (more on that later) to escape the barrage of graphic language and content, and process what I was feeling about the whole Spank Rock experience. Again, the divide between the “All Ages” concept and the inundation of vivid sexual content for children’s ears screamed of the aforementioned compromised integrity.

Spank Rock’s lyrics are not only sexually explicit, but they are also blatantly misogynistic. He consistently refers to women as “b*tches.” Now, I don’t know if some folks are numb to this or if they simply choose ignorance, but this is wrong. Women are not dogs. Women are beautiful, powerful beings created in the very image of God and they are not to be demeaned in such ways. And several of the artists featured at this year’s Eaux Claires use that term when referring to women. It’s not okay. It wasn’t okay with Donald Trump referred to a woman as a “b*tch” in that infamous Billy Bush video, and it’s not okay for a rapper to do it either.

For me, this was perhaps the most glaring inconsistency I experienced at this year’s Eaux Claires. The vibe last year, for me, was one of connection, celebration, and respect. Empowering people to be who they are seemed to be part of that vibe. Women being seen as equals to men and being celebrated for who they are… this felt like an inherent part of the Eaux Claires ethos. But then we have artists take the stage and refer to women as dogs… There is no respect there. There is only misogyny (which was being funneled into the ears of little girls and little boys).

I mentioned earlier about not being able to escape the Spank Rock experience. There was a reason for that. When I was previewing music for the 2016 edition of Eaux Claires, I had similar concerns about Vince Staples’ lyrics as I did about Spank Rock (and Danny Brown) for this year. So, when Staples’ set was to begin, I simply walked up the hill and was able to escape, while enjoying other music (last year, the grounds were basically set up into two sections, a lower section housing the two big stages and a couple of smaller ones and an upper section with three other stages, separated by a walking path through the woods). This year, the planners reconfigured the grounds so that everything was on one level.

Now, I understand the idea was for the festival to be more of a shared experience. Admittedly, there were times in which the two separate sections felt fairly disconnected from one another. And I understand there were complaints about two popular acts playing in the same time slot (i.e. Beach House and Nathaniel Rateliff on Day Two last year). So, I understand why they made the adjustments and was optimistic about it going into the weekend. The organizers were explicit about wanting attendees to experience more of the festival “together,” and having all sets originate from the “lower” section was an effort to facilitate that togetherness.

However, for me, that change greatly hindered the overall experience. Yes, more of us attendees experienced the festival “together,” so that goal was achieved. However, the main grounds were significantly more crowded, obviously. I found the more densely populated main section a little overwhelming and at times I felt little claustrophobic. I know this was probably great from the perspective of the artists. After all, they had more people at their sets than they would have had in years past. But, for me, it made the whole weekend much less enjoyable. I felt as though, in an effort to bring people together, I was being forced into a shared experience, which is always going to hinder said experience.

In fact, this forced togetherness along with all of these perceived inconsistencies in mind, led me to feeling very alone amid the 20,000 or so people who were there. Whereas in 2016, I felt deep connection with what was happening, the music, and my fellow attendees, this year I felt isolated and as if I didn’t belong there. In fact, by Saturday evening, I was even feeling a bit depressed. Halfway through Feist’s performance, I walked over to stage known as The Creek, sat down in one of the plastic chairs, and found myself longing for home.

This was a far cry from what I had experienced on the Saturday evening of last year’s Eaux Claires. I still remember vividly how incredible Lucius was that night, how I was captivated by that performance, and how I couldn’t keep myself from moving. I was floating on the proverbial Cloud Nine. I can still feel how deeply I was stirred as I walked away from the festival to the tune of Beach House’s Space Song. But Saturday night felt much different for me this time around.

As I sat there with my head in my hands, I seriously contemplated going home early. Paul Simon and yMusic was one of the sets I was most excited about and they had not played yet, so I really wanted to hang on and be there for that. However, I was also aware that to get to Paul Simon I had to wait through Danny Brown’s set, and I had similar concerns about his lyrical content as I’d had about Spank Rock. And I couldn’t escape the things he would say. There was no upper section for me to retreat to. Eventually, after a moment of prayer, I decided to go home.

To say I was disappointed in my 2017 Eaux Claires experience would obviously be a major understatement. I would never have dreamt that I would actually leave early, especially after the way last year’s festival rocked me. But I did. And as I walked away, I wondered if this would be my last Eaux Claires, a thought which saddened me deeply.

After several days of reflection, my heart and mind settled a bit, and I decided not to make any rash decisions about next year. I still think Eaux Claires is not only special, but it has the potential to be deeply and positively impactful for attendees. For that to happen, in my unsolicited opinion, there has to be more consistency, more integrity. If we are about love, peace, and creativity, then the content coming from the artists ought to line up with those ideals.

Eaux Claires Troix lacked integrity, from my perspective, just as a cracked foundation has lost its integrity. The desire was to connect people in shared experience, but that connection felt forced to me. Crack. Women are to be respected and valued, but our artists call them “b*tches” from the stage. Crack. Our tickets state the event is “All Ages,” but there is profanity, the degradation of women, and sexually explicit lyrics flowing through the speakers. Crack. Unless these cracks are filled and the foundation restored, I don’t know how long Eaux Claires will retain its uniqueness and its potential to create significant positive change both for its attendees and for the Chippewa Valley.

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2016 Tomme Suab Song of the Year: Bon Iver’s #29 Strafford Apts

I love this song. I hate this song. Let me tell you why. When I listen to this song, I hear this gentle, heart-on-the-sleeve tone throughout. That combined with Bon Iver’s talent and artistry would be the initial draw for me. There is a tender heart at the core of #29 Strafford Apts.

But then there are the technological, intentional blemishes that run throughout the entirety of Bon Iver’s 22, A Million record, and they are prevalent in this one. When I was first becoming acquainted with #29 Strafford Apts, that additional layer was not welcome as far as I was concerned. I wanted that tender heart to reign supreme. Not only did the techno-glitchiness interrupt that vibe, it totally “corrupted” the climactic third chorus in the song. Dammit. What was Justin Vernon thinking?

I cannot be sure what Mr. Vernon was trying to do, but my suspicion is that he did with this song exactly what he intended to do, and that was to disrupt the portrayal of that tenderness on purpose. At first, I was not very happy about that. And, I think maybe that was the point. As I’ve listened and contemplated further, there was another related dynamic I found provocative.

 

The techno-muffling during that third chorus sounds very reminiscent of when a tape got warped back in the day. Those of us who used to listen to cassettes on a regular basis know what I’m talking about and are well-acquainted with that malady. You’re listening to your favorite Thompson Twins song and then all of the sudden the voices are muffled and music is warped. Then it everything returns to normal. I’m quite sure this was the dynamic Vernon was going for.

However, when I heard my muffled version of Hold Me Now (look it up, kids), I knew if I heard it on the radio or someone else’s tape, I would hear the regular, pristine recording. That’s not the case with #29 Strafford Apts. I may NEVER hear the pristine, pure version of that chorus. And, that makes me mad. Furthermore, it convinces me further of Vernon’s genius. And when I consider that, it makes me smile.

So, yeah, I love this song and I hate this song. Which is why it is the 2016 Tomme Suab Song of the Year.

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2016 Tomme Suab Album of the Year: Bon Iver’s 22, A Million

If you happened to see who was named the 2016 Tomme Suab Artist of the Year, then you may see a theme emerging with the Album of the Year. Yep, it’s Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. It just is. It’s been a long time since an album captured my heart like this one. Without going into great detail (I already did that in my post, Caught in Bon Iver’s Web… 22, A Million), this album is still in regular rotation in my personal playlist and it ain’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s beautiful, deep, provocative, and terribly creative. Congrats to Bon Iver for not only creating the 2016 TS Album of the Year, but also for making what could be one of my favorite records, period.

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Artist Focus

2016 Tomme Suab Artist of the Year: Justin Vernon

I know, I know. This feels like it could have been impacted at least slightly by the artist’s hometown. Yes, I live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and Justin Vernon resides in the area. But I swear, this recognition has only been indirectly influenced by that reality.

The truth is, like many of us Chippewa Valley denizens (let alone people around the globe), I have been aware of Vernon’s various music projects for years. And, I have appreciated his earlier Bon Iver work, as well as his work with Shouting Matches, Gayngs, Volcano Choir, and others. He is clearly talented and committed to his art and his craft. None of that changed in 2016.

What changed for me this year, regarding Justin Vernon, has everything to do with my own personal experience of Vernon’s genius. That experience began at the second annual Eaux Claires. I won’t recount too much of what that weekend was like for me, as I shared it some time ago in my post, The Eaux Claires Impact: Connection and Belonging. But, without trying to sensationalize anything, it was in some ways a life-changing experience for me. And Vernon’s imprint, obviously, was all over those two days.

Certainly, my initial Eaux Claires experience in and of itself was enough to make me a bona fide fan. But it was Bon Iver’s 2016 release, 22, A Million, that cemented the deal. That record, of course, was also ingrained into Eaux Claires. Vernon debuted the entire album live during the first night of the festival. That was my first time hearing Vernon/Bon Iver play live, and it was absolutely incredible. The new music was mesmerizing, and I felt like I was a part of something important that night.

22, A Million is an amazing record. Again, I wrote about that a while back as well, in my post, Caught in Bon Iver’s Web… 22, A Million. Just like the Eaux Claires experience and the Bon Iver live show, this album has captivated me in ways I would have never expected. Because of all these factors, as well as Vernon’s inarguable influence on the cultural path of the Chippewa Valley and western Wisconsin, Justin Vernon is this year’s Tomme Suab Artist of the Year.

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Album Releases, Artist Focus

Caught in Bon Iver’s Web… 22, A Million

There’s a pretty good chance my feelings about Bon Iver’s new album are a bit tainted. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed Justin Vernon’s music for a while, whether it’s Bon Iver, Shouting Matches, Volcano Choir, or any other of his projects. However, in August of this year, I truly became a fan when I experienced Bon Iver live at Eaux Claires. Not only was it my first time seeing him perform live, but it was the debut of all the songs that make up his new record, 22, A Million. And, admittedly, every time I listen to the first track on the album, 22 (Over Soon), I am immediately emotionally transported to that moment, to that amazing experience. So, I bring some baggage into first impressions of Vernon’s most recent creation.

Those considerations aside, the most definitive thing I can say about the album is that it moves me deeply. I resonate with the words of one of my favorite artists, Derek Webb, who when describing 22, A Million, simply stated, “mind/heart blown.” Yep. I get that. Me too, brother. Me too, brother.

Frankly, in a vacuum, it would be surprising to me that I am so drawn to this music. Vernon employs so much Autotune and constantly manipulates everything electronically. There are times when it seems like I’m listening to a warped cassette tape. I’ve gathered that’s what he was trying to create, but that kind of stuff usually grates on me. For instance, one of my favorite tracks on the album is 29 #Strafford Apts. It builds a little and offers a high-note crescendo, with emotive movements throughout. But, just as we’re getting to the main crescendo, the payoff is muddled by that warped tape sound. Again, this would normally turn me off… and yet I continue to be drawn in. And then there’s the whole principle of using current technology to make sounds reminiscent of older technology, and specifically it’s failings. Yeah, usually, that’s not for me… and yet I can’t walk away.

There is something magnetic and provocative about 22, A Million that I can’t even really describe. Certainly, Vernon and his team have worked hard to build some mystique and intrigue around its release. When he debuted the album at Eaux Claires, each song was accompanied by vivid, yet distorted video imagery. And as each song began, the official Eaux Claires app would inform us of the name of the song. Throughout the first day of the festival, Sam Amidon and his Guitarkestra walked the grounds, teaching everyone the words and melody of the album’s finale, 1000000 Million, “where the days have no numbers…” so we could all sing along later that night. Then, there were the “unique” listening parties a couple of days before the release in which hundreds of people would show up to catch an audible glimpse of the album as it was played on a small boombox (a fairly fruitless venture, from my personal experience). Certainly, the cryptic artwork on the cover/liner notes add to the mystique as well.

Another element contributing to this mystique is the utter unpredictability of the album. I mean, seriously, the first few times I listened, I had little idea what was coming next, not only between songs, but in the middle of each individual track. It is all over the place in the most precise, intentional manner. It leverages unique samples, traditional rock/pop instrumentation, incredible creativity, and Vernon’s signature falsetto to create a meandering, yet purposeful work of art.

I don’t know what the lyrics are really about, other than to say it certainly seems as though Vernon is tackling some deep and heady subjects. There’s God, the Devil, numerology, hope, and despair, among other such issues. All of this seems to come together in a central message. I’m not sure what that message is yet…but it seems to be something powerful. Something meaningful. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

As an Eau Clairian, it is incumbent upon me to be at least interested in Bon Iver. I’ve gone from being interested, to liking, to being an all-out fan. My 22, A Million experience has solidified that. And even now, as I listen to the emotive closing anthem of the album, 1000000 Million, my heart is captured and held in suspense. The emotional tension and grip is almost palpable. I expect that captivity, suspense, tension, and grip to hang on for a while to come.

 

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Live Shows, Music and Healing

The Eaux Claires Impact: Connection and Belonging

On Saturday, August 13, 2016, around 11pm, I walked away from my first experience with Eaux Claires (EXC). In that moment, I was already fully aware that something had shifted in me. I was different. As I began walking toward the exit, I was serenaded by Beach House’s The Space Song, a dreamy ballad which has been running through my head and heart ever since. When I think of it or hear it, I am immediately, inwardly, transported back to that moment. And, I remember how a music festival utterly wrecked me.

Now,  let me be clear, I don’t mean “I got messed up” at the festival. I’ve never been to other local music festivals (i.e. Country Jam and Rock Fest), but I understand there’s a pretty serious party vibe at each of them. I did not sense that vibe at Eaux Claires. No, I didn’t get high or drunk. I was wrecked emotionally, deeply and personally impacted by what I experienced that weekend.

When I arrived at Foster Farms around noon on Day One (Friday, August 12), I could immediately sense there was something special in the air. I couldn’t define it and didn’t really want to. Even before the music began, I was glad I was there and I felt, in a sense, I belonged there. That sense of belonging only increased over the course of those two days. Now, I could offer a play-by-play of every show I saw, every piece of art I witnessed, and every nuance of the overall experience, but I’m not going to do that. But I will say that everything I experienced at Eaux Claires only served to bolster that feeling of belonging.

That feeling was affirmed further during Phil Cook’s set on Saturday. While I certainly enjoyed his music, my heart deeply resonated with a simple statement he made in between songs: “Music is sacred.” I responded with a holler and clapping, which could otherwise have been translated as my “Amen.” There is something transcendent about music, from its primary role in corporate worship for many religious groups to the fact it is an integral part of every cultural group in the world (at least as far as I’m aware). Music, and art in general, is special. There is something holy in creative self-expression.

If you’ve read much of what I’ve written on Tomme Suab, you know how I feel about the importance of art. I believe God created everything and that he wired that creative DNA into each of us. So, when we are engaging in creative expression, or appreciating someone else’s art, there is something “sacred” happening. There is a connection with the Divine, in a very real sense. Regardless of what the creators and contributors of Eaux Claires may believe about these things, they created a Mecca, at least for me, of that connection, that sacred dynamic. And being there in the middle of that, being saturated by it for two days, moved me. I felt as though I belonged there, even as if I was meant to be there.

Along with the sense of belonging, another dynamic I witnessed that weekend was the intentionality and purposefulness interwoven throughout every part of the festival (at least my experience of it). It was clear to me this was not intended to simply be a music festival. It certainly wasn’t meant to be a pretense for partying. It was a holistic experience, purposefully incorporating various genres of music and multiple other art forms (seemingly including the food options as well, which featured various ethnic and fusion cuisines). And there was an intentional connection with nature, which, in my mind, is the ultimate creative expression from the ultimate Creator. There also seemed to be a continual, purposeful flow between shows, performances, exhibits, and art installations (a flow which included shows starting when scheduled for the most part). The attention to detail inherent in the planning of such an experience was impressive.

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Lighted trees on the path between venues

I mentioned the multiple genres of music represented at Eaux Claires. Now, I’m not much for categorizing musicians by genre or style. I hate the idea of boxing artists into a certain mold. But certainly, there were some highly identifiable styles there from southern folk/rock to hip hop to experimental orchestral to punk (and everything in between and around these). And on the surface, it may seem as though having such diverse styles on the same bill would be awkward or clunky. It wasn’t. I can’t really explain it, other than to say there was that unifying belongingness grounded in the creative expression connections mentioned above. That’s not to say that I connected with everything I heard in those two days. It really isn’t about that. It’s about how these diverse artists from diverse backgrounds playing diverse music were able to, somehow, collectively come together to inspire and challenge everyone in attendance (including other artists).

And maybe that collaborative diversity was the most compelling part of my Eaux Claires experience. As I come to understand more of Jesus and his message, I am beginning to recognize how important the idea of reconciliation is. I am beginning to comprehend how important it is to honor and celebrate our differences while learning to work with each other to create good things. At Eaux Claires, I got to experience that dynamic on a small scale, but it spoke to me in a large way.

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The calm before the Shara Nova storm

Now, without giving you a rundown of everything I witnessed those two days, I would like to highlight several pieces of the Eaux Claires puzzle which illustrate some of what I’m sharing here. First off, the musical aspect of my experience kicked off with My Brightest Diamond, which is driven and fronted by the dynamic Shara Nova, whose performance that afternoon set the stage for the entire weekend. She was passionate, emotive, and precise. Fittingly, her music is hard to classify, with its mixture of poignant lyrics, operatic sensibilities, punk edge, and various other musical influences. I walked away from her performance shaken (in a good way) and inspired. I was grateful to have a chance to meet her the next day after we both rocked out to EX EYE. She came across as genuine and dynamic, just as she was on stage the previous day.

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A picture with Shara Nova of My Brightest Diamond

And then there was the James Blake experience. Before the Friday of the festival, I didn’t know any of Blake’s music. But, when a friend of mine suggested Blake was one of the artists he was most looking forward to seeing, I decided to check out his set. I’m glad I did. I was captivated by the electronic soulfulness Blake brought that night. While his performance was amazing in and of itself, it was (perhaps divinely) integrated with a nature experience neither he nor the EXC planners could have planned: rain. For some, standing out in a field while the rain is coming down (without a jacket, umbrella, or poncho) may sound miserable. It was anything but that for me on that Friday night. As Blake played and sang, the rain came down and the combination created something almost ethereal. While a dry James Blake set would have been great, there was something about the falling drops that made it that much more special and captivating.

Another of the great surprises of the weekend for me was the Banks venue. It was the only indoor venue (a large tent) at the festival, and each attendee was issued a set of wireless headphones upon entry. At first, I thought that was a little strange, but after witnessing a portion of one of the sets there, I got it. On the first evening, I was walking around sampling various sets and wandered into the tent to catch a little of Sarah Neufield’s set. It’s really hard to describe with any kind of justice what I experienced there. Basically, the musicians stood inside a stage with three walls surrounding them. The walls were somewhat transparent, so you could see the artists to an extent. However, when they were playing, the screens were filled with lights and graphics that moved and changed with the flow of the music. I was fairly mesmerized. It was a tremendous and gorgeous blend of visual stimuli with creative experimental music. I came back to the Banks the next day to catch Catsax. The video below is a small piece of their show (which again, does not do justice to the experience).

But, perhaps the greatest example of the continuity, connection, and expression of Eaux Claires 2016 was Bon Iver’s set itself. Of course, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon is one of the driving forces behind the festival. And perhaps it is fitting that his set on Friday night typified much of what made EXC great. To represent this part of the weekend well in any sense, I need to start with the lead-up to Bon Iver’s set.

James Blake played on the Flambeaux stage across the field from where Vernon would be playing (Lake Eaux Lune). As mentioned above, his set was captivating, and it ended with an incredible loop-creating session that built upon itself repeatedly, frame after frame, until it reached its emotive crescendo. As soon as his set was complete, someone immediately began playing baroque music on the organ housed in the lighted cage pictured below.

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Lighted organ cage

When the organ stopped, there was a short silence as everyone moved into position for the Bon Iver show. And then, after a brief introduction by Michael Perry, it began. As had been announced in the days leading up to EXC, Vernon debuted his new album, 22, A Million, that night, starting with track one and playing straight through with limited interruptions. The huge screens on and around the stage told the stories of the songs in glitchy, blurry, and colorful abstractions, which was completely fitting for the music being played. I will not attempt to describe the new songs; you need to check them out for yourself. But, the performance that night was amazing, beautiful, and inspiring, bringing together collaboration, diverse influences, visual stimuli, and the magical blend of poignant artistry and immense talent. I’ve liked Bon Iver for some time; but I became a fan that night. Note: To catch something of the flavor, check out the video below, which captures most of the performance.

There are so many more dynamics of my Eaux Claires experience I could share… like hearing a heavy metal band with saxophones (EX EYE), like being drawn into the tribal rhythms and visual theatrics of Jon Mueller, like the infectious catchiness of Lucius, like the creative orchestral work of yMusic and Eighth Blackbird, like the experimental hip hop of Shabazz Palaces… I could go on and on. But, I won’t. What I will do, however, is tell you that my life was impacted deeply by this experience. It marked me to the point in which I couldn’t think of much else for days afterward. In fact, it’s just been within the last week that listening to The Space Song by Beach House no longer stirs up a bit of mourning (that the festival is over). Nonetheless, I am different after Eaux Claires 2016, and to say I am grateful for the experience feels like a significant understatement.

 

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