Half the fun of Eaux Claires—the festival co-curated by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner in Eau Claire, Wisconsin—is the surprises that pop up throughout each day. In addition to a lineup featuring Friday night headliners like Chance the Rapper, Sylvan Esso and Bon Iver playing a specially curated set of John Prine songs with John Prine himself, Francis Starlite (he of the famous dance-heavy “Friends” and “May I Have This Dance” music videos) taught the latter’s choreography to a crowd. Or that The Staves, the English sisters with siren voices, performed an intimate set of Paul Simon songs on a petite stage lying back in the woods. Or that Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner and friends played a 30-minute set of jams (as People’s Mixtape Vol. 1) to officially kick off the festival’s third year. Eaux Claires trades in a currency of exclusivity. It offers the lineup appeal needed to ensure advance ticket sales, but goes beyond those expected sets in order to cultivate an experience that relies on that old turn of phrase, “You just had to be there.”
This year, the festival featured several artists-in-residence announced about a week prior to its start, with actual performance times arriving the day of. Placing The Staves on the small Oxbeaux stage may have been a curious choice considering they played the main stage during the festival’s first year, but their presence revolved around the unknown. They took the opportunity to “sing songs about Art Garfunkel,” Jessica Staveley-Taylor joked, since Paul Simon will perform on Saturday. They covered “Blues Run the Game,” “The Only Living Boy in New York,” and “America,” among others. The day gave itself over to such intimate moments. Mountain Man took the same stage for their first performance in some time. Their a cappella set could only be heard up close, and was at-times overshadowed by the hoots and hollers coming from Tweedy’s set a mere hop across the trail, but that didn’t stop Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Meath from delivering an arresting performance, including their single “Animal Tracks” to a hushed crowd.
Indie electro duo Sylvan Esso and hip-hop luminary Chance the Rapper each delivered Friday’s two most energetic moments. Sylvan Esso (Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath, of Mountain Man) sang a mix of songs from their 2014 self-titled album and their late April sophomore LP, What Now. After playing “Just Dancing, “ Meath laughed that, “Yes, we are the dorkiest band of all time. We did just high five each other.” Chance closed out the night with songs old and new. Backed by The Social Experiment, he mixed up his list with “Sunday Candy” off Surf, and DJ Khaled’s newest hit, “I’m the One” (though without any of the track’s big guests). He kept testing the crowd’s knowledge, trying to catch their fandom for some glitch that would reveal its fairweather nature, but they kept up and impressed him into a more celebratory set than usual. Francis joined him for their remix of “May I Have This Dance,” stayed around for “Summer Friends,” off Chance’s 2016 mixtape Coloring Book, and then closed out the special guest moment with Justin Vernon, who came out for Francis’ song “Friends.” They sent the crowd into near-euphoria when they reenacted the choreography from Francis’ videos, though the moment did recall last year’s big exclusive when Chance surprised the crowd at Francis’ closing-night show for practically the same exact thing.
Eaux Claires’ identity continues to shift slightly each year, a point worth returning in the Day Two write-up (check back tomorrow), but its aim throughout those developments remains true: collaboration above all else with a few surprise to lend the entire event that ever-necessary cultural cachet: exclusivity.