All told, they selected 41 bands to play the two-day festival, which features artists from all over genre maps. On day one, artists like The National and Lizzo played unforgettable sets.
Once through the gates, festival-goers encountered two large stages (called Lake Eaux Lune and Flambeaux, respectively) on the field. If set times on those stages had overlapped, the music would bleed together, too. So festival organizers scheduled it cleverly; once a set at Flambeaux ended, another would begin at Lake Eaux Lune about 15 minutes later. A third, smaller stage (the Dells of the St. Coix) lay a five-minute walk up a tree-lined dirt path.
A unique Eaux Claires touch: volunteers passed out yellow booklets of field notes, which brimmed with Vernon-crafted descriptions and logos for each artist. The festival team released the online version weeks ago to drum up anticipation for Eaux Claires, but physical copies were a great way to keep the schedule and artists straight Friday. "Category: American rock band. Category closed," read the entry for Spoon, who thrilled a packed crowd by playing the Cramps's "TV Set," as well as lots of material from their 2007 album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
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Musicians frequently jumped up on stage to perform each others' songs. In a festival highlight, gospel singers The Blind Boys of Alabama joined folk-rock group The Lone Bellow on stage for "Watch Over Us." For one song, eight voices yearned in poignant harmony, only accompanied by an acoustic guitar; it was the capstone of a great set.
Then, it felt like the Staves' set could have bubbled out of a water fountain. Clear and refreshing, the three sisters' voices rang out at the Lake Eaux Lune stage for 45 minutes. "Be safe, guys. Drink water and use sun cream," advised Camilla Staveley-Taylor. "Teeth White," the band's biggest single from this year's If I Was, went over especially well with the crowd; just like every song on that album, it was produced by Vernon in his April Base recording studio (located just outside of Eau Claire).
Minnesotan rappers Doomtree fought through the brutal afternoon heat and delivered a set full of hits. The crew highly encouraged crowd participation and they got it once emcee P.O.S led "Get Down," an anarchist anthem with a ridiculously catchy beat. From then on, the crowd jumped, danced and sang along with the crew. After a three-week European tour, Doomtree beatmaker Lazerbeak called Eaux Claires "the perfect homecoming."
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Lots of surprises followed shortly, of course -- Sufjan Stevens joined the National during their set. Vernon also played with that band, after having joined the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Dells. During The National's song "Slow Show," Vernon contributed vocals as well as guitar. If the National is a musical slow burn, those vocals were the flare gun that took everyone away.
The National played a well-built set, drawing from five different albums to please seemingly every fan at the festival. Audience chatter was overwhelmingly positive as the Dessner brothers joined their bandmates in emotional, melancholy performances. Also: vocalist/guitarist Bryce Dessner spent nearly all of "Terrible Love" in the audience, and they loved him for it.
Friday night ended with a stacked line-up at the Dells. When The National's encore ran long, many people had to miss Lizzo's first couple of songs. But once everyone showed up, the Minneapolis rapper threw an incredible self-empowering dance party, sharing two songs from her upcoming album and wowing audience members with her vocal range. "That was the craziest it's ever been. Y'all were amazing," she shouted after a new song about the beauty of brown skin.
Next came Marijuana Deathsquads (MDS), an experimental group from Minneapolis. The group has touched so many people in the Midwest music scene that they made perfect sense at Eaux Claires. During their performance, the MDS brand of punk-influenced, overstimulating noise engaged the audience all the way to the back of the tent.
In a Billboard-exclusive interview, day one closer Boys Noize (aka Alex Ridha) shared thoughts on his Eaux Claires experience. Hailing from Hamburg, Germany, he said, "I'm basically the only DJ at this festival."
When Vernon joined the conversation for a few minutes, he said, "There's a reason for that" -- Ridha is that good. Vernon first got into him through Ryan Olson, the Minneapolis-based catalyst for Eaux Claires artists Poliça and Marijuana Deathsquads. Vernon was quick to praise Olson, calling him "the father of Eau Claire music" and "an amazing person."
And it seemed like Olson did call it perfectly -- Friday night at the Dells stage, Ridha brought it, playing enthralling dance music until 1:30 a.m. The best part: he based his whole set off inspiration from MDS before him, collaborating even though he was the only person at the controls.
From the stage, everyone from the National to Hiss Golden Messenger thanked Vernon for his work in organizing the festival -- Boys Noize also thanked him in person during the interview, expressing how glad he was to be among "the coolest bands and the nicest people." "We're very honored to be here on the first day of the first Eaux Claires," said Emily Staveley-Taylor.
The second day should bring just as much fun.