Eaux Claires IV | 6-7 July
June marked the beginning of the unraveling of what was going to be, on paper, one of the most glorious summers of live music I could imagine. Expectations are a bitch; sometimes it’s hard to find the right balance between soaking in the anticipation and distancing yourself from attachment to the outcome. Even if now is all that exists, the imaginary past and future still weigh on it. It was right around the solstice that my wife and I realized we didn’t have a viable option for taking care of our new puppy, Special Agent Cooper, during Eaux Claires weekend. He was too young and un-vaccinated and house-unbroken. I was playing pressman for the fourth straight year. Jen had little choice but to stay home with the pup.
I honestly love going to shows alone; don’t get me wrong. It’s just that a special crew had formed around Eaux Claires; it had become kind of a sacred thing. I’ve basically given up on traveling to all other (non-Phish) festivals, because I don’t really have any friends who are into it any more, and besides, once you’ve been to Eaux Claires, the rest become a lot less appealing. And one by one, the rest of my lil’ crew dropped out of EXCIV. As if Radiohead’s two Chicago shows being scheduled the same two nights as Eaux Claires weren’t bad enough, I would also be missing Janelle Monáe at Summerfest (with B~Free opening!!!), basically the only headliner I was excited about. The omens for the summer were not good and getting worse every day.
The kicker was the “two-bedroom apartment” I’d booked to stay in at the University. Since I was going alone, I might as well rough it in campus housing, what the hell. It turned out to be a freshman dorm pod the size of my bathroom, which shared a “living space” with three other pods. I have a tent that’s more luxurious. I am quite unashamedly too old for this shit. I wore crocs in the shower and tried not to touch the curtain. What the fuck was I doing here.
You’ve all heard the story by now. (Maybe you even read my review of the fest!) I walked through the gates as they opened, grabbed a schedule and pawed through it, and surprise! absolutely no surprises. Even a supposed sure thing like Sufjan Stevens was not a sure thing after all. Did this discourage me? Only a little, in the sense that I knew there was a collective sense of disappointment amongst people who give a shit about things like celebrities and enhancing other people’s FOMO on social media and whatnot. In terms of potential musical excellence, the lineup looked fire-emoji to me. Time to mentally prepare for Swamp Dogg; let’s get this party started!
Besides, I wasn’t really alone, here. I drove up to Eau Claire with a local celebrity pal and his gal, slyly guaranteeing that laughter and edification would bookend the weekend. And I ran into plenty of other buddies over the course of the two days. Buddies on the Eaux Claires wavelength, especially by the fourth year, are practically family. But yeah, for the most part, I was a crew of one, and as it turned out, that was as it needed to be.
The truth is that I get almost no alone time these days. And while I was technically surrounded by thousands of people for most of the weekend, there’s a particular aloneness that can be achieved in a crowd. It’s a deeper aloneness even than when it’s just you and your dogs and cats in your otherwise empty house. You know that at no moment will anyone be demanding anything of you. Your focus, your every move, is determined by you alone.
It’s tempting at this point to say “I needed that”, but that’s silly. We don’t know what we need any more than we know what we have ever needed. It behooves us to believe that whatever has happened is exactly what we needed, and leave it at that. If this somehow results in unhappiness, you’re doing it wrong. Me, everywhere I turn, needy creatures, and a frustrated lonerist never had it so good. EXCIV was a last hurrah in a lot of ways, but we’re getting a little too abstract and narcissistic here. The transcendence sprung from community, and music.
The music, and the group consciousness, and my personal relationship with all of it—these are inseparable factors, of course, in any live music experience. What I needed, was to see no fewer than seven separate performances by Julien Baker, whom I’d been admiring for a long time without having a chance to see her play, whose music I don’t dare listen to at work for fear of a breakdown. Here, in the open air, surrounded by strangers, I could sob at will; I was Ed Norton in the arms of Meat Loaf.
What I needed was the Andrew Broder mixtape, the wildest dance party of the weekend (at three in the afternoon), during which the maestro of Fog remixed Native chants, folk, hip-hop, as well as whatever genre his own material is, in real time, while Iron Boy danced in full regalia amongst an enthusiastic crowd—and Broder’s “Thass wassup” commentary as each jam concluded. He remains the most bafflingly unsung hero of the upper Midwest.
What I needed was Anïas Mitchell singing one of her many ingenious songs, “Now You Know”, backed by the Eaux Claires Women’s Choir. And then later on, to stumble onto her debuting a bunch of new material backed by a who’s-who of Eaux Claires regulars, calling themselves Pirates. And to COMPOSE THE TWEET: “Anïas Mitchell rules”, only to be watching another unknown band a half hour later and turn my head and discover that she’s standing right next to me. At which point I of course turned into a mannequin.
What I needed was Matt Berninger stalking that gazebo-stage like an animal, his eyes pleading with us as we all did our best to sing “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” at the end of probably the best National performance I’ve ever seen.
What I needed was to sing along with Vernon and his rotating cast of People’s Mixtapers as they performed “I Shall Be Released”, the best non-Juniper-Tar version I’ve ever enjoyed. And later on in that set, to sob my way through Tom Petty’s “It’ll All Work Out”, as led by Phoebe Bridgers, a captivating singer/songwriter I’d never heard of prior to this weekend. It wasn’t like closure; it’s just that that song has meant a lot to me over the years and it continues to acquire new layers of meaning.
What I needed, finally, was to be reminded of a very basic truth that sounds sad but it’s really not: Most things you care deeply about, no one else gives a shit. I needed to be here because this was IT. That hacked-up ECIV sculpture should’ve tipped me off that this was the end, but I didn’t want to believe it. I’ve been doing these festivals most of my adult life and I’d finally found the one that I’d been looking for ever since Bonnaroo and I stopped relating to each other. I know they say Eaux Claires will return in 2020, more focus on the city, that sounds great and I wish Justin and his people all the success, however they define it. But even the founders of the festival have only their own perspectives regarding why it was so special. They weren’t out there dancing on the turf with that magnificent sound system blasting, the bass pulsing through their bones. They probably never went to Lollapalooza or Summer Camp or Pitchfork where it’s too crowded or too sketchy or too quiet or too hot or too dusty, where you have to put in effort to have a good time. Vernon and co. are in it for the ideals and the spirit and all the intangible stuff, and me too! But I unabashedly love dancing on a field of grass. And now it’s gonna be cramped quarters and lines to get in and chatterboxes and dipshits holding their phones in the air blocking people’s view and trying to squirm through a sea of bodies to get a glass of water. Lots of ‘why bother’. Lots of feeling left out. At Eaux Claires anybody could catch anything. Now the “exc” is gonna stand for “exclusivity”, playing into its own stereotype, rather than flying in the face of it like we were used to. And if, by chance, I’m overreacting, if I’m overdramatizing, if I’m dreading, consider that maybe I’m trying to swing myself back into balance where expectations are concerned. Maybe that’s the best course of action for all of us. We’ve got plenty of time.