Review: Oh, Eaux Claires – A look at Wisconsin’s biggest festival

A&E looks back at Justin Vernon’s two-day festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin that brought tunes, dance moves and rain showers.

Paul Simon plays for a packed crowd of the weekend on Saturday, June 17, 2017 at Eaux Claires in Wisconsin.

Ellen Schmidt

Paul Simon plays for a packed crowd of the weekend on Saturday, June 17, 2017 at Eaux Claires in Wisconsin. “Anger breeds anger,” said the 75-year-old artist as he delivered a short monologue.

Katie Lauer and Gunthar Reising

Walking through the fields of the Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival last Friday, puffs of cotton floated in the air — setting the scene for a dreamlike weekend. The many stages, art installations, craft tables and trails made for a festival chock full of good music and company, even if the weather didn’t always cooperate.

Friday’s first musical highlight was Francis and the Lights. After starting out confusingly quiet with a cover of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the quirky 80s synth of “See Her Out (Thats Just Life)” jumpstarted the set.

One thing is certain: Francis has moves. He flailed his arms, legs and body to the music during the whole set. Tucked away near the Chippewa River, one might think it looked like a joyous rain dance.

That guess would be spot on.

Leading right into the “Bon Iver Presents John Prine & The American Songbook” set, the clouds started to roll in. With Vernon introducing additional band members and features throughout the set, more than a dozen songs were performed. Personal standouts included “Unwed Fathers,” “It’s a Big Old Goofy World” and “Angel from Montgomery,” the latter featuring the The Staves’ intertwining trio of voices. Despite a downpour, people kept dancing beneath trees and ponchos.

Soon enough, the rain stopped for Sylvan Esso. But they wouldn’t have stopped for the rain.

One of, if not the only, major electronic acts, the duo offered a nice change of pace. The sun had just set, letting the duo’s multitude of bright lights and lasers enhance their show as they moved from “Die Young,” and “Signal” to “Hey Mami” and “Coffee” — a Chipotle lobby playlist classic.

The festival’s stage layout was both compact and clever. The main two stages, Lake Eaux Lune and Flambeaux, shared a main lawn area, but took turns hosting artists.

There was only ever a little bleed from The Creek stage, which held smaller, more intimate shows. The wood features and proximity to the river made The Creek seem permanently at home in nature.

After Sylvan Esso, Chance the Rapper came on, drawing the biggest crowd of the entire weekend. It seemed anyone who had left because of the downpour came back to see the 24-year-old.

Between his own tracks, Chance covered some of his collaborations, including his recent feature on D.J. Khaled, “I’m the One.”

“Y’all better act like you love this one,” Chance said to the audience in the intro. Perhaps he was self-conscious, but the audience wasn’t there to judge his commercial sellout.

Francis and the Lights came out to play “Friends” with Chance, and they didn’t miss the opportunity to do Francis’ choreographed dance to the song. The two artists got Justin Vernon on the stage for the dance as well, and he looked just as comfortable as he did in his music video with Francis and Kanye.

Chance closed the first day of the festival with “Blessings” — a prayer he got the entire audience to say with him.

Reflecting on day one, it’s easy to see this festival wasn’t the pop bop of Coachella. It didn’t have the raging EDM of EDC, or even Bonnaroo’s rock.

No, this was a calm, eclectic gathering in the woods of the Midwest. Curated by the folk of Vernon, it was more of an appreciation of music and art itself than a given spectacle taking center stage.

On Saturday, Vernon returned to a smaller stage without fanfare. Nevertheless, the crowd found him just in time to hear him and Aaron Dessner of The National play never before heard music.

The new songs had a similar sound to Bon Iver’s most recent album, “22, A Million” — electronic folk.

His first song, “Better Not Fuck It Up,” featured a typically angsty Vernon, mostly repeating the same phrase over and over. After this, Vernon moved into “More Time,” in which he sings, “I was gonna give you more time, more time, but now I’m dying, I ain’t lying.” After Vernon’s chorus, Dessner moved into a rambling guitar solo, starting off light and rolling but getting progressively darker and more abstract until it was mere static.

The duo’s other new songs included “Over My Dead Body,” “Big Red Machine” and “I’m the Guilty One,” which, incorporating a flute into the predominantly guitar based music, was the lightest and most accessible of the bunch.

Feist’s captivating day two performance was a wonderful surprise. Though dressed in a ruffled, bright pink ball gown, her music is actually what caught our attention.

Playing her new album, “Pleasure,” in its entirety, the distorted emotion of “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” along with the passionate sing-along “Lost Dreams” stayed with us; we found ourselves humming the tunes all night.

For those looking for something a little less alternative there was Danny Brown, followed logically by Paul Simon. The pair’s addition to the lineup created a wide enough spread of genres to appease anyone, from Northern Wisconsin grandparents to the youth of Milwaukee.

Walking to our car that night, we trekked back through the forest where white, blue and purple lights illuminated the leaves high above us. With puddles of water and mulch trails leading the way, it didn’t feel like we were leaving a quaint music festival in the woods of Wisconsin. It felt a little more storybook than that, and that’s probably what Vernon was going for.

Grade: B+