The inaugural year of Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s Eaux Claires festival was nothing short of magical. 22,000 people from across the country gathered in the sweltering heat of the Chippewa Valley to be a part of a new breed of music festival. Sylvan Esso’s Nick Sanborn summed up what felt like the general consensus from performers and attendees alike, saying, “We’ve done a lot of these [festivals], and this is the first one that feels like a celebration of music.”
The festival didn’t quite go off without a hitch, however. The shuttle buses taking people from Eau Claire hotels and UW-Eau Claire experienced long lines and a lack of buses Friday morning, although by that afternoon and the following day, it seemed that most of the issues had been fixed and lines were small and moved quickly. Inside the festival, food and merchandise vendors also suffered from lines, as well as running out of inventory. Even mother nature took a shot at festival-goers, as those camping at the Whispering Pines/Whispering Fields campgrounds were met with severe storms Friday night, forcing many to take shelter in cars and buildings on the campsites.
None of this took away from the music or the feeling of the crowd. Friday’s headliners, The National, drew an absolutely massive crowd, and were joined on stage by other festival performers including Sufjan Stevens and Justin Vernon. The set also featured frontman Matt Berninger’s typical drunken stage antics, as well as a crowd member’s marriage proposal to the song “I Need My Girl” (she said yes, by the way).
Saturday featured many of the festival’s biggest names, including Sylvan Esso, Poliça, Sufjan Stevens, and Bon Iver. During Poliça’s set, a pregnant Channy Leaneagh announced plans for the band to release a new album in the spring of 2016 after taking a hiatus for the birth of her child, and debuted two new songs from the as-yet-unnamed album. Sylvan Esso also debuted new songs, although details of the new album haven’t yet been revealed.
Fans of Bon Iver were given some small glimmer of hope for the band’s return, as Justin Vernon debuted two new songs during his first performance with the band in three years as Saturday’s headliner. The jury is still out on whether or not Vernon plans on making a new Bon Iver album, as the indie icon has been decidedly unspecific and even cryptic when approaching the subject in interviews. Hopefully the crowd’s excitement at the Bon Iver reunion has at least motivated Vernon to revisit the band, although only time will tell.
Even with its first-year hiccups, the Eaux Claires festival was an undisputed success. Future years of the festival have nowhere to go but up. After learning from the logistical issues from this year’s festival, next year’s will surely be something not to miss.
(Title image via; photos courtesy of Rachel Lueder).