The Magic of Eaux Claires

As I am typing this, it has been exactly one week since I tumbled out of a very tiny,  overstuffed car onto the Eaux Claires Whispering Pines campgrounds. I had never been to a proper music festival, let alone camped at one, and when you factor in that I didn’t know that I was attending Eaux Claires until the day before, you can imagine that I was singularly unprepared for what awaited me.

A few things you need to know about me before we continue with this recap of my weekend:

  1. I am not a joiner. If fun is presumed to be obligatory at any level I will fight against it. I am not proud of this quality, but it’s always been an intrinsic part of me—loner kindergarten Mallory will haunt me forever.
  2. I can get kinda emotional at music events. “Kinda” might actually be putting it mildly. I should probably say, “I get emotional at concerts.” Read it and weep. Or watch me weep. A lot. Because I can’t help it.
  3. I am gluten intolerant. I know this might seem like unnecessary information. But think about all the big public events and the types of food you will find there, and now think about the gluten thing. You will perhaps understand wherein this could pose a problem.
  4. I prefer intimacy in my musical events. Tiny venues make everything better. Also the sound is usually better in these situations because you don’t need humongo speakers, making half the audience go deaf so the other half can hear what’s going on. Also sometimes you can meet the musicians…which is kinda the best thing ever.
  5. I am not really about “roughing it” even though I wish I was. I am capable of living in the woods and going days without bathing. I can do it. I can not be high maintenance. But, given the choice, I will err on the side of high maintenance.
  6. I am not a party animal. Sure, I like a drink as much as the next person, but I’m not big on the “LET’S PARTY AND GET SHWASTY AND GO CRAAZZYYY!!!!” scene. The fact that I had to google the spelling of “schwasty” should be a good indicator of this.

So perhaps you can see where I might have hit some snags with the whole festival lifestyle. You can also, perhaps, understand why I was a little reticent to go to this one. Nonetheless, all year I have listened to my friend talk about how amazing Eaux Claires was last year. Magical, she called it. And who wants to miss out on a magical music experience? Not me! Plus I’m really good at denial. I mean, I am totally the type who LOVES roughing it in the woods and meeting a bunch of strangers and dancing and having fun and boozing all weekend. Because who isn’t about that life? Sleep and bathing are for the WEAK, am I right?! LET’S PARTY Y’ALL!!!!

Suffice to say, there were a few rough patches. I felt incredibly socially awkward and glared at the drunken people who repeatedly bumped into me. I made the mistake of mixing alcohol with music and hit a true emotional low mid-afternoon on the first day. “I just…I don’t know that I’m good at festivals,” I told my mom, crouching damp from rain in the tent of The Banks, biting back tears and thanking god that my friends had wandered off to the toilets or something so I could wallow in self pity. I realized repeatedly that I had forgotten some crucial something or other and made poor wardrobe choices—HONESTLY who forgets RAIN GEAR to a festival?! I also spent half of one artist’s set wondering how much hearing capacity I was losing by standing next to the speaker...According to that podcast, you lose hearing if you stand near a running chainsaw for only 30 seconds, so if I’m here for 30 minutes how much will my ears hate me?…

And yet, Eaux Claires, was indeed magical. To begin with, the layout and location were perfect—secluded, picturesque, and designed to protect festival goers from the elements as well as prevent excessive noise bleeding from stage to stage. Having watched countless interviews with musicians bitching about festival sound bleeding, I was very impressed by this level of forethought. It also offered up a myriad of elements other festivals don’t such as readings by authors and poets, organ music between sets on the main field (some people got sick of it, but I totally dug this feature all weekend long), scavenger hunts and art installations. All served with the perfect balance of 21st century tech (the app was surprisingly useful rather being filled with self-promoting crap) and woodsy retreat vibes. The crowds were also remarkably well-behaved and I made a number of really cool acquaintances while taking food/shade/phone charging breaks. This extended to the campsites as well, where people were respectful and friendly except when it came to waiting in the enormous line for coffee in the morning (best bring your own, friends). BUT they had hot showers with changing stations and sinks for brushing your teeth—so civilized and rejuvenating—to keep things from getting too gritty. Oh! and there were TOTALLY gluten free options at this festival! All the food I tried was super tasty, so bonus points, Eaux Claires, for being dietarily conscientious…even if it did mean I mostly lived on Kind Bars for 2 days.

Oh, and you know, it only had the best lineup of any festival all summer, featuring a healthy mix of artists well into their musical prime with exciting (often local) up & comers from all genres. The best part was the level of collaboration between artists, giving attendees a unique experience and offering creative enrichment and excitement for the musicians themselves.

Ok, so you may be wondering, what were my favorite bits?

Well, I won’t lie to you, Beach House, Lucius, Jenny Lewis, Bruce Horsby & Phosphorescent all gave predictably great performances. Tickle Torture almost tore the roof off The Kills with a spectacular performance and shocked the audience with a (somewhat) indecent moment that inspired EVERY GUY I WAS WITH to give me WAY more information than I ever needed/wanted to know about the comparative size of their genitals (for the record, this was NOT one of my favorite bits, but the Tickle Torture show totally was). Erykah Badu asserted her goddess status and managed to appease an increasingly anxious audience after arriving 40 minutes late. And although I didn’t love all of the Day of the Dead performances, Matt Berninger’s surprise appearance for The National’s rendition of “Morning Dew” made up for every issue I had.

MVP, however go a select few artists. Mavis Staples should be named a national treasure—every second that woman was on stage she killed it with her tremendous voice and fierce attitude. I have never wanted to befriend a performer as much as her. Also her cover of “Slippery People” with Lucius was one of the best performances of the weekend. Collaborative props go to yMusic and The Staves, however, for one of the most intriguing sets of the weekend, offering a striking bridge of classical and contemporary music. Shout out also to Moses Sumney, who was charming behind the mic and delivered a dynamic and endlessly impressive set. His was one of the few where I truly felt the Eaux Claires magic. I kept glancing around, wondering why more people weren’t swarming The Kills to see him, and feeling grateful for a more intimate musical moment. This is one artist to watch in the coming months, btw.

Naturally, Bon Iver’s performance of the new record was spectacular, and I must say that as a non-diehard fan I was deeply impressed. Many people have remarked upon the urgency and energy of the set and I thought every second was stupendous. I don’t want to pass too much judgement on the album yet—it will undoubtedly sound very different recorded—but I liked what I heard all the same.

All that said, the weekend for me was all about one person, and that person is James Blake.

I had never seen James Blake live. Truth be told, I’ve never listened to all of his stuff either, but I’ve never heard something I didn’t like. Of all the featured artists, his was one of the few “unmissable” acts on my list. I stood for over 2 hours in the pouring rain, suffered a loudmouthed, spatially unaware, frat-boy-turned-Wall-Street-playboy, and missed out on several sets for this show. It did not disappoint. Maybe it was the lack of laptops, maybe the rain pouring down and creating the perfect atmosphere for his opening track, “Life Round Here,” or maybe it was just the music itself and Blake’s easy-going nature, but this was easily the best set I saw all weekend. Usually the best test for an artist’s impact is seeing what I listen to after a show. In the wake of this festival, featuring many exemplary performers (and many of my favorite artists), I have been utterly devoted to Blake’s catalogue (sorry, Justin Vernon). I love him. ‘Nuff said.

In all honesty, the Blake concert alone made it worth all the hassle and emotional strain, but the multitude of other incredible performances, attractions and generally interesting people did make this, as my friend would say, a truly magical weekend. I’m already waiting anxiously for tickets to next year.

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