Review: Eaux Claires Festival 2016

I never did get around to writing a review of last year’s inaugural Eaux Claires music and arts festival, located in my hometown area (Eau Claire, WI). It felt a little too personal to write about. It was a mixture of people I knew from school and famous acts making music together. I felt nostalgic and proud as I saw people travel from all over the world to an area that still feels like home.

This year was not much different in that regard, though overall it felt a little more predictable, and therefore less magical to me. Nobody really expected Kanye to take the stage anymore, and I probably wasn’t the only local who’d given up hope of a Mount Vernon reunion. The rain that plagued us all day Friday, which only let up when Bon Iver took the stage, probably didn’t help our spirits.


The lighting and art displays, however, were even more enchanting than last year. After sundown, the woods became awash again with color from powerful LED lighting. Winding paths encouraged discovery of art installations and a small hidden stage where my friend Sean led several performances (under the name S. Carey). My favorite installation was an odd boxy creation sculpted from what appeared to be chicken wire. When the sun went down, its true form was revealed through a lighting trick: it was an illusion of a church organ. The keyboard part was real, and performers used it for interstitial music between headliner sets.


While I would have loved more electronic, rap, and R&B artists, the music was the festival’s worthy focus. The musicians all seemed at ease despite the muggy/rainy weather.

My favorite acts, in no particular order: Mavis Staples (who could have benefited from a later set with a loosened-up audience); Erykah Badu (who showed up late, teased “Didn’t Cha Know?” and “Window Seat” without actually performing them, left early, and still managed to show everyone how it’s done); So Percussion (because percussion); Vince Staples (the often beleaguered sound techs were at their best for him); Jenny Lewis (who mercifully stopped a song to have those sound techs fix her monitor levels, then filled her stage with women and sang about domestic abuse); my friends Phil Cook and S. Carey (who I can’t write about without bias, but trust me when I say they were great); Eighth Blackbird (who had a fantastic performance of Steve Reich’s Double Sextet featuring members of yMusic and So Percussion); and, of course, Bon Iver (who performed their upcoming album, 22, A Million, which will only get better with repeated listens).