In three short years, the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival (EXC) has become my most anticipated event of the year.
There’s a spirit in the Chippewa Valley that lives and breathes. It’s wild-eyed and ready to lend a hand. It prepares for wonder and embraces the unknown.
In addition to the musical cross-pollination and art installations, Mother Nature has become an EXC regular. Each year she throws the festival a curveball, but she makes up for it with gorgeously lush surroundings.
My girlfriend and I attended the inaugural EXC as fans. Last year, I covered the second EXC (Deux) for WiG. This time around (Troix), I was assisting my girlfriend with her art installation — Kristina Rolander's “Neon Forest Galaxy” stage design for The Creek.
As a result, I can’t offer an extensive review of the lineup, which included headliners Wilco, Paul Simon with yMusic, Sylvan Esso and Chance the Rapper.
But I can recount some of the magical moments that made my EXC experience unforgettable. And that is what this festival is truly about — singular moments. Whether they are shared with thousands or experienced alone in the woods, EXC excels at elevating the ordinary.
The most significant shared moment in the short history of EXC took place last year during the festival’s final act. Francis and the Lights brought out friend Chance the Rapper for a surprise appearance that culminated in a choreographed dance that included Eau Claire native and EXC co-founder Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver).
And so it came as no surprise when the Grammy-winning hip-hop star was announced as an EXC 2017 headliner. Whether it was intentional or coincidental, Troix gave a nod to the Chicago emcee’s independent hustle by labeling the collaboration-heavy sets by Vernon, Aaron Dessner (co-founder and member of The National), s-t-a-r-g-a-z-e, Poliça, Sam Amidon, Trever Hagen and others as “mixtapes.”
If Deux was highlighted by the debuting of new music — Bon Iver’s 22, A Million and Francis and the Lights’ Farewell, Starlite! — it would appear that Troix was about experimenting with friends. Most reviews of the “mixtapes” seem to think they were primarily improv. However, Dessner indicated to me that People Mixtape Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are from an in-progress record. I also found a set list for People Mixtape Vol. 1 while clearing The Creek.
It’s a testament to how gracious the EXC audience is that Vernon and company felt confident debuting unfinished material at the festival. In fact, EXC hopes to someday exist without a lineup announcement. Rather, the festival will be buoyed by a simple understanding that whatever the weekend holds will be worthwhile. And they seem to be on track, as each year EXC builds trust with its audience.
As far as moments go, it felt like a dream to open the festival with thousands of eager fans standing in front of Kristina’s artwork at The Creek waiting to hear whatever Vernon and Dessner had in store.
Other moments included:
- The day before the festival when Kristina was installing on the boom lift and Sylvan Esso began to sound check across the way.
- Vernon taking part in an Ojibwe ceremony with members of Midnite Express.
- Hundreds of souls held captive by Mountain Man’s delicate voices emanating from a small wooden stage among the trees.
- Francis teaching us to dance and later letting fans dance onstage during his set.
- That initial stroll in the woods after dark.
- Riding in the back of a golf cart down a steep, slippery road with strangers after the first big rain.
- Chance taking us to church, literally and figuratively.
- A bald eagle flying overhead as Big Red Machine take flight.
- The “click-click-click” of the Eddy Currents electromagnetic sound installation.
- The siren call that was the first few notes by Perfume Genius.
COLLECTION OF COLONIES OF BEES
Milwaukee-based guitarist Chris Rosenau has had his share of Eaux Claires moments.
The first year he performed solo amid a stack of television screens inside a “hallucinatory sweat lodge” (The Banks).
In 2016, Rosenau accompanied Nick Sanborn (of Sylvan Esso) in an updated version of The Banks, surrounded by transparent screens and Nick Cointea’s analog video projections, plus air conditioning.
“I had done a bunch of quiet stuff, acoustic solo, non-band based stuff for the first two festivals,” Rosenau tells me a few days after Troix at Bay View’s Chill on the Hill.
“So when I was driving home after the last Eaux Claires I thought this might be an interesting place to do a more full-band type of thing. I texted Justin and asked if I got the Bees back together and wrote a record specifically for this fest would he be interested, and he said sure.”
As Rosenau told the EXC audience at the beginning of Day Two, “Collection of Colonies of Bees has been a band for a long time, but we’ve never been a band like this.”
Indeed, Rosenau is the only original member remaining from the 19-year-old outfit, which he started with drummer Jon Mueller in the late 1990s as a side project to their band Pele. The latest incarnation of the Bees is the first to include vocals.
The Bees have released ten albums since 1998, all of which explore avant-garde instrumental rock music. Three and a half years ago, Rosenau put the Bees on hiatus following a Japanese tour. At the time, Volcano Choir (a project with Vernon and Mueller) was occupying most of his time and creative space.
“When we got everyone back together, we figured we didn’t want to do the same thing. I was out to dinner with my wife and had this idea of doing a freaked out vocal thing where we hooked up to my looper with a kill switch. That way, someone could sing like a straight line but kill it at different parts, so it would eventually make this kind of structure that would be melodic but super tweaked.”
Rosenau and drummer Ben Derickson built the rig, while guitarist Daniel Spack suggested they invite Marielle Allschwang to lend her celestial vocals.
“I love that band, my whole family loves that band, and I’m sure a lot of people in Milwaukee feel the same way,” Allschwang tells me. “So I was honored. But I wasn’t sure what my role would be or what the challenges would be.
“It’s been really fun and interesting because I don’t usually work with pedals. I definitely had an ‘aha moment’ a couple months into practicing where I figured out what I was doing and could just experience it.”
“It’s a whole new instrument,” says Rosenau of the vocal rig. “There’s tons of subtlety and nuance and technique to it. She’s the only one that knows how to play it and she’s gone above and beyond.”
The result of the Bees six-month writing and rehearsing process is an entrancing, bombastic experimental set, which they have plans to record. At some points the disorienting effect on Allschwang’s vocals almost seemed to be the result of a malfunction, but there was a method to the madness.
While some bands would scoff at a 12:15 p.m. slot at a festival, Rosenau and the rest of the Bees were delighted to open the second day of Eaux Claires.
“I guess if you’d never been there and saw that was your slot you’d think, ‘Oh, no one will be there.’ But I knew it was going to be packed. People come in right at noon and they go to the merch and the second music starts everyone just runs right over. The weather was perfect, everyone was amped, it was just a great way to kick-off Day Two.”
Collection of Colonies of Bees will play the 10th Annual Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party on Saturday, July 1.