I’m proud to say that last weekend I finally popped my music festival cherry at Eaux Claires. Seriously!? How is it that I’m 27 and never been to one? My friend M heard (all the way from California, mind you) about an under-the-radar festival Justin Vernon from Bon Iver was putting on. I was familiar enough with the headliners Bon Iver and The National so I checked out the rest of the music line-up. Not surprising to me I hardly knew anyone but I decided to go anyways. Open heart, open mind people! Here is a write-up I just submitted to the curators. (Mom and Dad — you may not want to read the third to last paragraph).
A Love Letter to Eaux Claires
For someone with no real music knowledge or festival experience, Eaux Claires was the perfect introduction into what I always imagined that experience should be like – a space for intimate, authentic, and clear moments to emerge. A place where the sensations and emotions those moments provoke lasts well after the last chords are strung and the sunburns fade.
I couldn’t have imagined the magnitude of how much my feet would hurt or my back would ache or the fact that no matter how Instagram worthy you think you look all you are is a hot, sweaty, hair plastered to your face mess. I can’t count the number of times I audibly groaned wondering how many more times I would have to make the trek up and down the steep tree-lined dirt path up to the Dells stage. Yet all that uncomfortableness was totally worth it because in a sea of 22,000 beating hearts, it hit me. We were all here for one reason. Music. The driving force behind unity and belonging. That which evokes feeling through action and which begs for action through feeling. The one thing that proves we don’t just exist, but that we truly live.
Although I couldn’t sing along to a majority of the songs and half-wondered why I was there given I knew very little about the Eaux Claires music line-up, my lack of musical knowledge allowed me to experience the festival in a unique way. What my mind, body and senses were in tune to extended beyond singing the lyrics of a song or how well I could hear the bass on stage. I think it’s what made my experience unforgettable.
With no preconceived notions I let myself be saturated with a diverse mix of music genres. I listened to those sounds with an open heart and mind and I became mindful of how the music affected me as well as how it affected others. I noticed facial expressions, the way people around me moved their bodies, how a guy stole longing glances at a girl he liked, the enigmatic energy between a group of friends as they belted out the words to their favorite song, and the sense of comradery and admiration between collaborating artists.
I mentally cataloged these moments and the emotions they triggered. And every time I sat down – next to the riverbanks or under a tree – I was inspired to write it all down. Just a few short phrases or words here and there about time, people, and spaces. As I sit here reflecting on and writing about my experience these are the words and the moments I carry with me.
The one that most vividly stands out is listening to Colin Stetson play his saxophone. Standing there, I was moved watching my friend as he closed his eyes and held his hand over his heart, feeling it beat in unison with the fluid and powerful vibrations those gravelly sounds held. It was as if the music came through you, automatic and unforgiving and in full force. If anyone standing there listening to Colin play didn’t feel the emotion and the imagery and the awakening of their soul as me and my friend did, then they must be dead.
Then there was Francis and the Lights. To find a word or phrase that fully encapsulates what seeing his set was like is difficult. The way Francis sang with his entire body, bouncing and spinning around the stage, you could see just how completely in the moment he was. His devotion and love of music transcended through him. I wish I had moves like his!
To say I became obsessed with Elliott Moss after seeing him live is an understatement. I’ve been jamming to their music non-stop since and I blame that entirely on the emotional whirlpool his song Slip put me through. Almost from the beginning I felt a sense of anguish and personal pain. It reminded me of giving up on someone – or something – which I imagine all of us can think back to a time in our lives where we shared similar sentiments. Standing there, swaying to the beat, I noticed the entire audience was transfixed and quiet during this particular song. Mesmerizing and haunting, I was left with goose bumps in the midst of a 90-degree humid day.
In my humble opinion, though, Spoon brought down the house. Drinking beers and vibing out, I watched in amusement as three girls in front of me went crazy for a song I have no idea what the name of is. Bodies rolling, they yelled “I love this song!” The pure rush of musical elation was seeping through every pore of their bodies. It was infectious. And like them, I surrendered my body to the music; I danced my god damn heart out.
At one point, a friend and I found solace in the shade to listen to Haley Bonar’s set. It was a simple and sweet thing to be lying there under a tree, staring into the branches. The sun peaked through rustling leaves and I was mesmerized by their beauty. It was here I understand how music might make us feel love. I certainly had all the feels.
I will say what intrigued me most, and which I certainly didn’t expect from a music festival, was the blending of music with other interactive art forms. Like Phox’s documentary film premiere or the geodome where I sat on the ground with headphones over my ears and watched as artists sang behind a translucent screen. Intimate and visually appealing, it made my experience one of a kind.
The final performance will forever be burned in my memory not just because Bon Iver’s song Skinny Love turned into a giant sing-along but because of the debut of two new songs, which a special someone and I made love to by the light installations lining the path to the St. Coix village. I like to believe the curators of Eaux Claires and the pastor with gold teeth would approve. We were active participants in our experience. And what greater compliment is there to a musician than to say your message inspired an expression of longing, connection, and love.
Talking about these moments with other Eaux Claires festival-goers has been fascinating. The entire musical line-up was fantastic, yet the moments that stick out to me and what sticks out to them varies widely. The one thing that unites all of us, though, is the fact we were having the best fucking time of our lives.