By Eric Staszczak

It’s still in its infancy, so don’t be upset if you haven’t yet made it, but Eaux Claires is quickly becoming a defining midwest experience. Call it required-listening/attendance if you will for the midwestern spirit and countenance. Grounded, humble, and introspective–Eaux Claires is the distillation of midwestern ethic and outlook, set to some of the finest playing the world has to offer.

(Photo: Eric Staszczak)

(Photo: Eric Staszczak)

The festival, curated by Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon and National’s Aaron Dessner, doesn’t follow the vanilla prototype American music festivals have come to be and instead focuses on offbeat collaborations, pushing artists out of their comfort zones, and relying on spontaneity to ensure fans and musicians alike are creating and participating in an experience that can’t be repeated. And better yet, the festival consolidates such grandeur into just two days, allowing everyone involved a whirlwind experience that doesn’t become a tiresome drag. This year’s iteration took place August 12th and 13th next to the Chippewa River in Vernon’s home base of Eau Claire, WI.

(Photo: Eric Staszczak)

(Photo: Eric Staszczak)

Friday’s tone was set by Shana Nova’s (Worden) hefty vocals throughout My Brightest Diamond’s 1:15pm set on the Flambeaux stage. XRT listeners will best remember Nova from her vocal role as the Queen on the Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love, where she belted out some of the most memorable tracks of the band’s late 2000s rock-opera.

Across the way on the festival’s main stage Lake Eaux Lune, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and his backing band River of Dust created soundscapes built from cascading harmonies, vocal loops, and spiraling fingerpicked chord progressions that felt like a foil to the day’s impending drizzle.

After a midday lunch break, Matthew Houck and the rest of Phosphorescent swaggered onto Flambeaux, playing a set of the smoldering, country-drenched jams Houck has mastered over his near 15-year career. While no new songs came to light, Phosphorescent are in the midst of recording their follow up to 2013’s excellent Muchacho, and the show, one of their first in two years, proved to be an assured highlight of the weekend.

(Photo: Eric Staszczak)

(Photo: Eric Staszczak)

Considering Vernon and company’s reverence for the 80s hitmaker and former Grateful Dead keyboardist, Bruce Hornsby, played to a receptive crowd of long-time fans and greenhorns. His sound was cited as a major influence on Bon Iver’s second and self-titled record, and hearing the source material firsthand was a treat for attendees who grew up with Hornsby and for those who’ve only heard the name–a reaffirming reminder of generational and genre gaps the festival bridges so well.

On the eastern hill the festival’s smaller stages sit upon, LNZNDRF, a new collaboration that includes the National’s rhythm section and Beirut guitarist Ben Lanz, was the most unpredictable, enthralling, and for lack of a better word “trippiest” set of the festival. Equal parts krautrock heroes Can, Deerhunter, and Joy Division, the band improvised sprawling versions of the eight tracks from their 2016 self-titled debut and brought the National’s twin virtuoso guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner to bolster the already tightly packed wall of sound they unleashed in their golden hour set.

(Photo: Eric Staszczak)

(Photo: Eric Staszczak)

James Blake took Flambeaux just after 8pm to treat a sprawling crowd to the latest from his third, and most ambitious record to date, The Colour in Anything. The bass was bone-shaking, the drums pin-precise, and the vocals were Sam Cooke meets Kid-A/ Amnesiac-era Radiohead, further defining Blake as one of the most promising auteurs in more than a decade.

The most anticipated performance of the weekend came from Eaux Claires creator and auteur all his own, Justin Vernon, who only days before announced his band would be debuting his new record live. The album, titled 22, A Million, somehow builds as a natural progression from the fuller, saxophone-laden Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and his Yeezus collaborations into something only Vernon and his unfairly talented compatriots could create. It’s at times raw and aggressive and on a dime can bring a generous delicacy that only Vernon can dismount. The tracklist may be cryptic as ever (see below) and he may create his own vocabulary at times, but Vernon’s new songs reflect a deeper than ever excavation of the pysche amidst fame and overwhelming exposure to better understand one’s roots, priorities, and understanding of purpose.

22, A Million comes out 9/30 via Jagjaguwar and the album’s tracklist is below.

01 22 (OVER S∞∞N)
02 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠
03 715 – CRΣΣKS
04 33 “GOD”
05 29 #Strafford APTS
06 666 ʇ
07 21 M♢♢N WATER
08 8 (circle)
09 ____45_____
10 00000 Million

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