I probably would never have decided to travel the one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine miles from Washington to Wisconsin to experience the Eaux Claires festival if not for Sunita’s mild (and by mild I mean severe) addiction to Bon Iver. When I saw that Justin Vernon was organizing a music festival in his home town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, it wasn’t really an option. I had to get that woman to that festival. Alas, mid-July found us in mid-America.
Cold. White. Canadian tinted accent. These were the only notions I had about either Minnesota or Wisconsin. So upon exiting the parking garage of Minneapolis St Paul airport and finding grey skies and green surroundings, I was perplexed. Were we still in the pacific northwest? The ubiquity of Minnesota/Wisconsin license plates suggested otherwise. I found the entire two hours of scenery both enchanting and surprising. Who knew this part of the country was so quaintly interesting?
It took a goodly amount of time to check into our temporary home in Whispering Fields. Our fancy two wheel drive rental car didn’t agree with the foot deep mud of row H. Fortunately, festival goers are lovely humans, and we were immediately swarmed with offers of help to push the car into place. It took some effort, but we settled into our site in no time.
The festival commenced at 12pm on Friday. We took a shuttle around 11 and waited excitedly in line. Unfortunately we were snagged by security for Sunita’s ‘camera with a lens’. I had read that professional/dslr cameras were prohibited, but figured her glorified point-and-shoot would be fine. Not so. We had to take the shuttle back to camp to deposit her camera and then wait in line again. Regardless, we arrived and we were ready. We tried to catch a little of everything. But there were a lot of bands playing. Sometimes we just sat wherever we found ourselves and listened to whomever showed up. Which is kind of a pleasant way to go about a festival.
Personally, I was most excited for The Tallest Man on Earth. I’m no fan girl, but he does have a special place in my heart that no one else can match. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Kristian put on an excellent show. Better than I could have even imagined. Full of a captivating and impossibly energetic playfulness. And the heart that seeps from his music doesn’t seem to have faltered from all of the time and touring it has weathered. It was truly a delight to experience. I’m platonically smitten.
Still enchanted from The Tallest Man on Earth show, we shuffled across the way to the stage opposite. The National, the first band claiming the star-ceilinged stage of nighttime, was pretty perfect. Well, apart from the high-and-getting-higher bunch behind me who sang louder than the band and thought this was the opportune moment for loudly discussing the finer points of life. Those guys kinda sucked. But otherwise I think we were all caught up in a magnificent cloud of musical ecstasy. From both this particular show as well as the days’ musical offerings up to this point.
Sore and sleepy, we caught some of one more band before retiring. Sunita woke in the middle of the night, declaring she was moving to the car because of her old lady back and the recently commenced rainfall. I waved her off and was almost back to sleep when I drowsily heard a passing golf cart driver say something about a tornado. Reluctantly, I joined a beckoning Sunita in the car where we watched in fascination as the trees in front of us danced frantically in the sudden wind. The lightning show was at least on par with the stage lighting of the various shows of the day. The thunder, however, was decidedly quieter than all of the passionate performances and sizable high tech speakers. I wasn’t much concerned about my safety, In fact I don’t think it occurred to me until the following morning. I was concerned rather with my nonchalant decline of insurance for the rental car. I was thinking about those larger-than-Oreo sized dents that I was meant to avoid. Tornados didn’t seem favorable for keeping a giant scratchable/dentable object in pristine condition. But, instead of worrying about what I certainly couldn’t do anything about, I snuggled down and fell asleep. Morning arrived with a sunnily; with no limbs caving in the hood and no flyaway tents having scratched the silvery sides. And we were okay too, I guess.
We started the day with Eliot Moss – a band neither of us had heard of (and a fine start it was). Then layered food and music throughout the afternoon. Lake Eaux Lune stage saw us for the better part of eight hours. Bon Iver was set to perform at ten, and we showed up by four to see Givers…and reserve our spot for Bon Iver…ahemroommateaddictionenablerahem. Not that we just sat – our staged boasted a great show by Givers as well as Indigo Girls, also Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, Poliça, and Sufjan Stevens performed opposite at Flambeaux. So, we were hardly in poor condition. That said, we got damn good front row spots. Out of twenty-two thousand people. Do I feel guilty and selfish for claiming the front? Yes. Was it completely awesome? Also yes. I said I was most excited about The Tallest Man on Earth, because if I had an actual list of favorite bands, he would likely make the top three. But realistically I was equally looking forward to Bon Iver. This because they aren’t exactly together anymore; because this is Justin Vernon’s shindig; and also because their music is flawlessly beautiful (and they also boast high standing in my nonexistent list of favorite bands). Yeah, anticipation levels were high.
I oughtn’t have been, but I was surprised by the lack of glamour and extravagance of Bon Iver’s show. I think festivals, by definition, exclude a ‘main event’. If there was one, however, this would certainly be it. I don’t know if I expected fireworks or a four hour set or a heartwarming speech or what. But somehow I didn’t expect the humbly understated, yet exquisite show that we got. It was exactly as it should be – no pretension of superiority to any of the other bands playing during the weekend, no demands of fawning or admiration. Just some guys on a stage doing what they are passionate about and thankfully sharing it with the rest of us.
I’ve never been one to want to meet celebrities – we idolize them to this distant inhumanness which I find uncomfortable and bizarre. However, the impression I have of Justin Vernon from everything leading up to the festival, as well as the few glimpses I had of him once there, I suspect he’s a particularly good human to know. He seems full of passion, creativity, motivation, collaborative ambition, and geez have I mentioned humility? I’ve just been constantly impressed by what he has created as well as the way in which he has made it happen. He certainly put together a stellar weekend. Filled to the brim with both as-yet-unheard-of and well-listened-to music. An endearing smattering of the place he proudly claims as his home. I certainly have an affinity for the place, in contrast to the complete apathy I held before. Everything seemed very intentional and I dare say even personal. Despite being one of thousands, I feel like I connected with what he set out to create. Anyways, I’m pretty excited that my first music festival was his inaugural festival as well. It was totally worth every penny, every mile, every moment. Thanks Justin Vernon. It was mighty fine.