A Review of the Eaux Claires Music Festival

For eight hours on Saturday, I wandered around a field and listened to music performed by old friends and other musicians I’ve heard so many times they feel like old friends. On Sunday, I spent about eight hours wandering social media, searching for confirmation that my experience Saturday was as notable and unique as it felt.

Two things. One, it was. Many a Tweet and Facebook post and big city newspaper confirmed that the Eaux Claires Music Festival was a success, both on a technical, music line-up and fest organization level, and on a deeper community vibe level. Second, as far as reviewers go, I’m probably not the guy to trust. I’m biased beyond recognition, and I have little to compare to. As I kid, I saw Kenny Rogers at a State Fair. And Weird Al Yankovic. Last year I attended Rock Fest to see Cheap Trick, Live, and Aerosmith. And that is the full extent of my professional outdoor music experience.

I only attended one day of Eaux Claires, because weekends when grandma and grandpa take the kids require a broad assortment of unencumbered activities. Friday, my wife and I read on the porch and went out to dinner. Midafternoon Saturday, though, we took a hike down a wooded trail and attended the big shh-bang. Social media and the big city newspapers can fill in the specifics. The weather was warm and the food lines were long. There were art installations and multiple stages. I had a walking taco and some cheese curds. They were delicious.

But there was something deeper at work last weekend. Mike Perry, author and narrator of the festival, blamed it on the rivers. Justin Vernon cited friendship, dozens of Twitter users noted the reverential nature of the crowd all weekend and assumed it was the setting, or the music, or that everyone was stoned. But there definitely was something. The Indigo Girls were a unique inclusion in the line-up, but they brought a sense of generational connection. Sufjan Stevens told the crowd that he doesn’t play festivals because of his agoraphobia, his fear of large crowds, which is actually another reason I only attended one day. But when the crowd joined in singing at the end of “Casimir Pulaski Day,” and I felt the pull of tears at the back of my throat at the grandeur of the moment, and the song finished and Mr. Stevens said, “That was amazing,” he felt that something deeper too.

We Chippewa Valley folk tend to be very impressed with ourselves. It is a criticism lobbed at our media and our artists and it is something I have felt. Our city puts a park on a river, someone comes along and starts hosting concerts there, and you would think we invented the whole idea of outdoor music. We train some great bands at our schools, some of those band members go off to make careers in music,

maybe win some Grammys and come back to host notable music festivals, and everyone starts looking to the water, or the weather, or, who knows, gravitational vortexes to explain how we could be so lucky, or so special. A few years ago, when I advised Student Council at Memorial High School and we produced a talent show, a group of high school guys covered a Killers’ song, and I stood in the back of the darkened theater and knew, fundamentally and forever, that the performance was one of the greatest I would witness.

But, come on. It was a high school cover band.

I can’t say if Eaux Claires was different, or why. Authenticity is nothing that can be measured, heart and passion are elements that are hard to account for. It is entirely possible that I loved the festival because just about all of my current and former friends were there, and all day was like a huge reunion without the judgment and crappy buffet. Maybe I would have been just as impressed with Pitchfork. Maybe that walking taco was a dinner so sublime that it will go unrecognized as the pinnacle of the experience. At the end of his set, Justin Vernon seemed to get choked up, and much of the crowd with him. Why the hell would he, and I, and we, go through all that work if we didn’t impress ourselves with the product?

The internet probably doesn’t need more people raving about Eaux Claires. Thirty-six hours after “Skinny Love,” all the gushing is becoming cliché. But just in case the festival was something worth gushing about, I need to join in. I had a really great day.

Eric RasmussenEssay