One of my favourite things about being alive is music festivals. Those crazy, sacred places where you get a sense of a different kind of world void of normal society’s rules, and where you know that all the glow-sticked, muddy-footed fellow revellers are there for a common purpose: for the love of music and fun. At festivals, the new norms include smiling and saying hi when you make eye contact with someone, and if this happens during a show, you have to have a mini boogie together. And if you’re me, you whip out your stash of glitter and shiny stars to stick on friends you make while waiting in line for the loo. The first ever Eaux Claires fest in Eau Claire, Wisconsin was one of my favourites of all time, maybe because there was something extra special about all of us taking a chance on an inaugural affair, or perhaps because most of the acts hadn’t been featured on the big festival circuit like Coachella and Bonnaroo. It was like one big campout with 22, 000 of your mates who are mates with all the coolest bands. And that may be what I liked the most – the chance to hear good music live and fall in love with something new. It’s hard to narrow down the highest highlights after two days filled with jam after jam, but these are the ones that will forever be imprinted in my festival heart.
For those who don’t know, Wisconsin is full of trees, which were made more beautiful on the first day as the sun was setting and rays were beaming through the leaves during Spoon’s set. At night, the leaves were lit with blue and purple and red, and on the path to the third stage, the treetops hung like an umbrella guiding us to a special place. It was definitely one of the most beautiful settings, and honestly, I was expecting a unicorn to step and shine silverly underneath the new moon sky.
Admittedly, I was mainly looking forward to hearing tracks from Sufjan Stevens’ legendary Illinois album, and I came away feeling warm and fuzzy from seeing the man in real life and hearing him talk in between songs. The best parts included Stevens confusing his days of the week during ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ – an endearing error that I love because it made him even more real – and when he played a seriously awesome version of ‘Chicago’ with the No BS! Brass Band, who are a whole ‘nother favourite thing. Plus, I think we all felt a little special when he admitted that he didn’t usually play music festivals but said this one felt like a two-day long My Little Pony episode.
The No BS! Brass Band
The brass band was definitely not BS-ing around and made several memorable guest appearances during various sets (this is another thing I liked, so much collaboration!). They also paraded around the festival grounds, but I only caught them right at the end of the second day – after everyone realised Bon Iver wasn’t coming back on and people were just cheering the stage crew. A tight crowd gathered round, and then there was that familiar synth riff from A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’ except that it was being blown from the golden instruments. We sang and hit the high notes together before conceding that the shows really were over.
Francis and the Lights and the Social Experiment
I only found out about Francis and the Lights from my pre-fest listening but I knew instantly that if there was a serious jam to be had, Francis and the Lights would be it. The New York act definitely brought what the kids would call his A-game: he was defying gravity leaping to the music in front of a backdrop of the coolest looking instrumentalists one could hope to see. My absolute favourite face-melting part was hearing a familiar trumpet sound and the words Social Experiment flashing on the screen. Surf has been one of my favourite musical things about this year so far, so to have Donnie Trumpet himself show up (with Nate Fox and Peter Cottontale) and do ‘Just Wait’ was pretty much part of the dream come true (a big part of me was hoping Chance the Rapper would come out too).
I reckon if you did a survey and asked people which was their favourite set, Sylvan Esso would definitely be up there. I felt like I was in a sea of kindred spirits; we all knew the words and danced hard core to the music that we’d obviously been listening to repeatedly since the duo’s debut album came out. At one point, the girl next to me turned and made that circley-pointy motion next to her temple and mouthed, this is crazy, and I whole heartedly agreed. How amazing it was to hear ‘Hey Mami’ live and watch Amelia Meath writhe around in her signature platform shoes. Mud was squishing between my toes and arms sprouted upwards as we roared when we were hit with the drop on one of the two new songs that they included in the truly sensational set. Just loving and jamming.
The beautiful silence during Bon Iver
All 22, 000 of us were definitely, probably, obviously at Eaux Claires because of Justin Vernon and Bon Iver. There was something peaceful and magical and sparkly in the air and at some points there was loud cheering, but there was also this real silence of awestruck listening. It was like we were all being connected by the same kind of invisible thread that makes flowers sway together in the breeze. While hearing two new songs after a such a long time was obviously a huge moment, my personal favourite was hearing ‘For Emma’, mainly because I went through a phase when the song was all I could listen to for days at a time. There’s nothing else to say about that except that the crowd could have stayed in that great field all night listening to Justin Vernon and his wonderful friends.
Meeting my Twin Soul Creature after the Sylvan Esso set
Yes, all of the above moments were wonderful in their own right. But if I had to pick a real, real highlight, it would be the moment I made eye contact with a short girl with an afro and a polka-dot bow in her hair and knowing immediately that we had to hug. It was like finding my sister from another mister and filled me with the happiest of feelings because we found each other at a beautiful place and time in Wisconsin. That’s why I love festivals, and that’s why I loved this one because hugging a stranger (after basically exchanging no words) was not strange at all. Shout out to you all you stranger friends, thanks for the jam.