Sunday, July 15, 2018

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Will Eaux Claires' secretive strategy pay off?

Official lineup remains mystery, but some acts will be revealed Wednesday

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    Eaux Claires Music Festival in 2017.

    Staff file photo

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    A pedestrian's shadow is cast over the Eaux Claires mural on the side of The Fire House on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 in downtown Eau Claire.

    Staff file photo

If you’re talking about the 2018 Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival at all this year, you’re talking about its lineup — or, rather, the lack of one.

Festival organizers for the event spearheaded by Eau Claire native and Grammy Award-winning artist Justin Vernon have said they won’t release a full lineup until the day of the festival — and it’s got the event’s entire fan base talking.

Vernon said Wednesday in an emailed statement he chose not to advertise because he wants the festival to “create magic.” 

“Looking back on my life, the things that always inspired and changed me were things that took me off guard or surprised me,” he said. 

He acknowledged the idea angered some people, which he has accepted, but he thinks in the end it will create more of a connected experience for those who attend the festival.

“We are striving to do something different yet inclusive for everyone open to a non-traditional festival experience,” Vernon said. “We want to build a yearly celebration in a village, a making of our own, that we can renew ourselves in order to be better people. For once, I just wanted folks, including myself, to be surprised.” 

Eaux Claires’ creative director Michael Brown said they will release “a portion of the lineup” on Wednesday. But he knows the mystery lineup had people talking — he said he has heard the rumors and has been reading some of the theories online.

People have come up with some good ideas about why they aren’t releasing it, he said, ranging from “the lineup must not be very good” to “they must not want to make any money.”

While it gives him a chuckle, he said the real reason is much more simple.

“The truth of the matter is, we didn’t release the lineup because we think it’d be fun to go all in on the idea of it (the festival), rather than, ‘I’ll just see this band and leave,’” Brown said. “If you have an audience that has already opened their minds that everything is fair game, then you’ve created this awesome environment for people to really expand their horizons and challenge themselves.”

The anticipation is almost over. The fourth installment of Eaux Claires returns Friday and Saturday to the festival grounds located at Foster Farms, 3443 Crescent Ave., in the town of Union.

Though Brown can’t give more details on the lineup, he said planning this year’s festival was a creative challenge for himself and his whole team.

“Our goal is to tinker and explore, which in certain ways is refreshing in that each year you give yourself goals and new ways to change it,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a headache because you’re constantly trying to one-up yourself, make change or make something different.”

As things come together, though, he said he’s pretty excited to see how fans respond to what they have in store this year — and they did, indeed, go all in.

Setting the stage(s)

We may not know the artists, but we do know a bit about where they will be performing.

Brown was practically giddy talking about the creative team’s idea for a stage in-the-round, something he has seen done in arenas but not so much at outdoor festivals.

Instead of the typical stage setup, a stage in-the-round offers a 360-degree experience for crowds to get completely around the stage on all sides.

“It’s a total risk because we’re creating something that doesn’t usually happen (outside), but I think it’ll provide an intimate and unique experience,” Brown said. “Hopefully it’ll also encourage people to not stand in one place for the whole show.”

To create the stage, they worked with Hudson, N.Y.,-based artist Erlend Neumann, who created the “Source” sculpture for the 2017 Eaux Claires festival.

Brown said they will keep the traditional main stage, but “the more exciting projects will happen on the stage in-the-round this year.”

Response to this type of staging will dictate what they do in future years, he said. Even he isn’t sure how it’ll go, but if it works, he’s got an idea for what lies ahead.

“If all goes well and it’s not a technical disaster ... we can push it further and that gives us motivation to push all stages further,” he said.

In previous years, they have also challenged the stage format by placing smaller stages throughout the festival grounds. Those held smaller acts as well as pop-up shows where festival attendees who had downloaded the Eaux Claires app on their smartphone would get notifications when an artist collaboration was happening — usually just a few minutes in advance.

Those little extras were some of St. Paul resident Sarah Peterson’s favorite parts of the festival, which she has attended the past three years and plans to attend again this weekend.

“Those little surprise performances and the collaboration between artists, it’s a chance you would not normally get to see some of these artists collaborating,” Peterson said.

She also enjoyed the idea of seeing a show in the middle of the woods, but added for some of the more popular acts, it might not be the best fit.

She recalled wanting to see Frances and the Lights on such a stage last year.

“Because so many people were there and all trying to see someone like him, that was kind of hard because everyone wanted to see him and you can’t see anything with all those people,” she said.

Overall, though, she likes the way the festival has evolved over the years. It’s one of the reasons she keeps coming back.

“The idea is really fun and different,” she said. “As risky as it is, they do a great job with it and I love that they change it up every year.”

Emphasis on art

Another thing the Eaux Claires festival intentionally highlights is artists, with artwork being a staple, both in the main staging area and throughout the rest of the grounds.

This year, Brown said that art is much larger than previous years. The number of installations has gone down to 18 (in the past, it’s been around 25), but — like the festival itself — quantity isn’t as important to Brown and his team as is content.

“Rather than adding more projects, we’re putting more attention on a number of larger products,” he said. “There is a lot more emphasis on performance-related installations.”

Perhaps the largest one is a music box village created by New Orleans Airlift, an artist group that formed out of Hurricane Katrina. Brown thinks this one will be the most interactive.

“It is a display of not only artistry, but how you can create community out of rubble and take normally discarded items and turn them into something incredibly appealing,” he said.

The festival did an open call for art submissions through March and received around 260 entries, Brown said. When choosing artists, it was important for him to work with regional artists, especially those who might not have the ability to do such large art projects as Eaux Claires allows, and those with connections to the festival.

“This year almost half of the artists were previous attendees who happened to be artists and are now participating,” he said. “That was important for me. This isn’t an us-versus-them environment. I want it to feel like we’re all in this together.”

Because, above and beyond all else the Eaux Claires festival is, Brown wants that “togetherness” at its core.

Cultivating community

Rather than becoming bigger each year, Brown said his goal with each festival has been to create an experience he — as an avid concertgoer himself — would want to attend.

“Our goal is not to expand crowd sizes, and that’s not how we gauge success,” he said. “We gauge success by how our closest fans respond to the experience.”

For the most part, that response is positive.

Eau Claire comedian Cullen Ryan has been attending the Eaux Claires festival each year and usually can be found volunteering at Neaux Violence, a tent that represents Vernon’s 2 A Million campaign. The organization aims to create equal rights for women and partner with local organizations that provide services to domestic violence victims.

What he most enjoys about the festival is the same thing Brown aims to create.

“It feels like a community you didn’t know was missing, it’s all just right there,” Ryan said. “It’s an incredible experience every time.”

He also respects the musicians behind the festival — Vernon and co-founder Aaron Dessner of the band The National — for taking calculated risks organizers of other festivals might not be willing to take.

Though he admitted to being frustrated when he heard they weren’t going to release the lineup in advance, he said he quickly got on board.

“So much of the stuff we get thrown at us or is sold to us is commercialized and a lot safer than this (festival),” Ryan said. “It’s kind of exciting that such a well-respected group of musicians would take a chance like this.”

He remembers the feeling when he heard John Prine was going to be at last year’s festival, and how excited that made him. 

While he doesn’t have an artist he loves to anticipate this year, he was open to the idea that might add more to the experience.

“I don’t get to have that anticipatory feeling, but, who knows, the surprise might be even better,” he said. “I don’t think it’s possible for me to be disappointed by this festival.”

Peterson, who makes the short travel from the Twin Cities for the festival, said not releasing a lineup did impact her decision to buy a ticket — she hasn’t yet, but did book a hotel room for the area in her name, noting those usually filled up quick.

“It’s tough because it isn’t a cheap ticket, and it’s not like I feel like I’m going to be disapointed, but I would feel more confident buying a ticket knowing some of the lineup,” she said. “But I think for a lot of people it’s more about the experience and the art exhibits they have. That’s what makes it so great.” 

Of course, the lineup isn’t entirely a secret. Acts such as Frances and the Lights and newcomers Wye Oak of Baltimore, Md., tweeted in April confirmation they will be attending this year’s Eaux Claires festival. Vernon himself tweeted on Jan. 25, “What NTL planning this year for ExC is insanely out of normal bounds,” so we can safely assume The National will be there. 

Another fan theory is that artists who are featured on mixtapes Vernon released in connection with the festival will be there. Some of those are: Phil Cook, an Eaux Claires regular; Sharon Van Etten; Moses Sumney; Patty Smith; folk artist Julien Baker and others.

We don’t have much longer to see which of these theories are true or not, but Brown said that’s not the point. He hopes people see Eaux Claires as an experience like no other music festival they’ve been to. With each passing year, they are pushing away, intentionally, from the standard festival model. 

“As we were making year one, I was like ‘yeah, we were pushing it,’” Brown said. “Looking back, I would almost say that was a creative failure now because it so closely represented a normal music festival.”

If the ideas he’s shared are any indication of what Eaux Claires IV has to bring, Brown doesn’t have to worry about “normal” being used to describe this year’s festival one little bit.

Contact reporter: 715-833-9214, katy.macek@ecpc.com, @KatherineMacek on Twitter


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