Bon Iver Debuts New Music as Inaugural Eaux Claires Festival Reaches its Climax

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Bon Iver's Justin Vernon

We don’t talk about Bon Iver’s name enough. A homonym of “bon hiver,” or “good winter” in French, the words recall a wooden Wisconsin cabin, probably with the chimney puffing and snowbanks heaped outside. But this Friday and Saturday in that very state, the average high temperature was much hotter: the heat reached around 90 degrees, plus humidity. Far from the icy grip of winter, a July audience enjoyed a rare Bon Iver set from musician Justin Vernon. The occasion? None other than the inaugural Eaux Claires festival, which Vernon founded and co-curated with the National’s Aaron Dessner. It kicked off on Friday; read a recap here. Eaux Claires’s second and final day of music featured extra genre-blurring excitement, a fun Indigo Girls set, and Vernon’s first Bon Iver performance since 2012.

The day began at the Dells stage -- the smallest of the three main areas -- with a show by rising electronic artist Elliot Moss. Born in 1993, Moss was one of the festival’s youngest artists. But he showed rare maturity and dedication by letting his songs transcend normal genre constraints. For example, they’re longer than the average pop song; he played only eight tracks in a 45-minute set, and standout tracks “Slip” and “Best Light” last about five minutes each. Also, he writes, mixes, and plays his own music. On stage, a band of four musicians joined him; he seemed to stay in the zone during his performance. But after nearly every song, he genuinely thanked the audience for being there. He said, “We’ve been looking forward to this forever.”

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After Elliot Moss, Minnesotan folk artist Haley Bonar took the Lake Eaux Lune stage and played her signature variety of folk rock. Debuting a new song that’s “lovingly titled ‘Stupid Face,’” Bonar shared her plans to record an album next month. “I’m pretty excited about my new material,” she told Billboard. “I think it’s some of my best writing yet.”

Aero Flynn is a relatively new band at Eaux Claires, but they have more history with Justin Vernon than almost anyone. As the story goes, Aero Flynn frontman Josh Scott was a member of Eau Claire band Amateur Love, while Vernon played with DeYarmond Edison in the same town. Scott had the reputation of being the better musician, which Vernon has alluded to several times this weekend, in field notes and from stage. But personal issues kept Scott down for many years, and Vernon was the one to break out as a star of indie rock. Now, Aero Flynn is here, produced by Vernon, and they work in the same scene again. Between playing warm, fuzzy rock songs, Scott said, “We grew up here -- we’re all in it together.” 

After a dance-filled soul set by Charles Bradley and GIVERS’s Louisiana-based indie pop, electronic/alt-rock group Poliça played rustling, syncopated tracks at Flambeaux. Benefitting from the presence of two drummers on stage, the band ran through lots of material from debut album Give You the Ghost and its follow-up Shulamith; they thundered during songs like the darkly bouncy “Chain My Name” and throbbing cut “Wandering Star.” Vocalist Channy Leaneagh powered through “Dark Star,” the snazziest feminist anthem of the festival, while the chugging bass line seemed to chomp drumbeats for fuel.

Justin Vernon asked his favorite band, folk rock duo Indigo Girls, to play their 1994 album Swamp Ophelia in full at Eaux Claires. When they got the request, they were honored; even though Indigo Girls had just released a new album, One Last Day, they found the time travel worthwhile and “really, really fun.” The journey’s biggest payoff came during their moving performance on Saturday, which impressed even those unfamiliar with the band’s legacy or catalog. 

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When first song “Fugitive” began and the duo stepped up to the microphones together, something crackled in the air. As Ray and Emily Saliers started harmonizing, their voices projected strength and surety, steady as the strumming patterns they played on their guitars. One of the best songs on the album, it’s Vernon’s “favorite song of all time”; “Thanks, y’all,” said Ray after the final chords evaporated. Saliers echoed, “Thank you.”

Although she may not have expected it, Saliers said she found her view toward certain songs transformed by the re-learning process. She told the story of “Touch Me Fall”: “I did not like the song at the time, and now I’m really into it. Well, Amy’s always been ahead of her time.” When Ray laughed, Saliers turned to her bandmate, insistent. “Honestly, I believe that about you.” Then, a pause: “So to get to live in that song and love it -- for us, some things happen in the right time.”

After jumping on stage with The National the night before, Sufjan Stevens played Eaux Claires’s last set before the headliner. He held the audience rapt with lofting, intense production and whisper-singing galore; even the Bon-Iver-expectant crowd by the biggest stage, Lake Eaux Lune, stood facing Flambeaux as Stevens sang. He was a talkative performer and encouraged the audience: “You guys sound so amazing. We should set up microphones to record this.”

Stevens also shared some of his personal feelings about the show: “Great to be here and have this view…beautiful and happy faces. It’s a picture of abundance.” He looked out from stage. “I never play festivals -- I have such a fear of crowds -- agoraphobia, social anxiety. The last two days have been proving all my fears wrong. It’s been like a 48-hour episode of My Little Pony.” Though he didn’t seem completely comfortable during the show, he made it through and delivered a beautiful performance.

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Even more Bon Iver fans meandered over to Lake Eaux Lune during the latter half of Stevens’s performance, and by 10:00 p.m., the crowd had swelled. To kick off the set, festival narrator Michael Perry entered and greeted those “gathered round for vespers.” Then, thousands applauded when Vernon entered the stage, going right into “Heavenly Father” from the Wish I Was Here soundtrack.

The lights, song choice, and sound mix of Bon Iver’s set all stood out as exemplary. But one of the best parts of the performance was how reflective it was of Eaux Claires itself, in that several slotted musicians joined Bon Iver on stage, making art and celebrating a successful festival. Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Colin Stetson, Josh Scott from Aero Flynn, and several others performed; The Staves spent the first two songs with Bon Iver, and yMusic (“the biggest mentor beside my parents,” according to Vernon) popped in and out as needed. Bon Iver called The No BS! Brass Band the MVPs of the fest before their joint performance of “For Emma.” He started the song off with, “D-flat. And watch me for the changes.” When not everyone caught the reference, he laughed and gave it away: “Goonies, yeah, f--- it!”

As for stage banter in general, Bon Iver switched between tones. He went from awed (“Eaux Claires. That’s a thing now.”) to awkward (“I feel we all learned something. What did we learn?”) to honest -- when the setlist instructed him to leave the stage to organize for a new song, he said he’d rather just stay, even if he had to prepare his guitar on stage. He asked, “Is that unprofessional?”

For the first time in years, Bon Iver debuted two songs to a cheering audience. The first featured electric guitar and a looped beat like an electronic metronome. Falsetto yells covered the soundscape. Then, bass took a heavy role in the second song, which featured The Staves again and climaxed with Bon Iver headbanging over a keyboard. “If you don’t have friendship, you don’t have anything,” he said. “Is there anything great than us?”

It might be controversial to pick a set highlight, but “Perth,” the ninth song of the day, was simply as good as it gets. The chorus’s mighty drums and clarion horns whipped up a tempest at Eaux Claires, and The Staves’ glorious harmonies took it out of this world. Final song “Skinny Love” might be a candidate for best song, and the two new songs would contend, too. But with the lights flashing over an audience of thousands, all gathered under a starry sky to watch Bon Iver cast a spell, “Perth” was a magical moment. Hopefully, it won’t take another three years before the world can see this again.