90 miles east of Minneapolis and situated along the Chippewa River, Eau Claire is a lush green slice of Wisconsin dairyland with a picturesque downtown. Water Street runs parallel with the Chippewa, with shops like Disc Golf 365 specializing in Frisbees and breakfast champion The Nucleus, known for its delicious eats and long waits. For drinks, The Joynt offers $2 wells, and its dusty walls are adorned in black and white photographs featuring musicians who performed on its tiny stage (now occupied by a pool table) from ’74 to ’89: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Duke Ellington, John Lee Hooker and Loudon Wainwright III to name a few.
Eau Claire is also home to the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire Blugolds (an unconventional color-based mascot for this quirky town of roughly 65,000 inhabitants). In the summer, though, the town is fairly calm — few students hang around to flood Water St. or float down its river. But the local population saw a spike of 22,000 or so on July 17 and 18 during the inaugural Eaux Claires music festival, which commandeered two grassy, riverside fields at the outskirts of town. Two modest men from two huge bands curated the festival: guitarist for The National Aaron Dessner and Eau Claire local legend Justin Vernon of the Grammy-award winning band Bon Iver.
“There is a very rich musical history here but it’s never exactly been put on display or talked about. We’re not trying to make it a big hooray, like, ‘Look how cool Eau Claire is!’ I just think it’s a way to signify or celebrate the attitude around here,” Vernon toldInterview Magazine.
The word confluence was brought up and passed around frequently during the weekend. Festival narrator Michael Perry, with his razor-sharp baritone, mentioned the confluence of rivers in one of his two welcoming speeches, and Vernon dropped the word in between songs as his band closed out the final night. (Vernon himself is an outspoken supporter of the E.C. community art initiative the Confluence Project, which received $15 million in funding the same week as the festival.)
Mergers and collaborations were in abundance during the festival, where artists hopped on stage with one another and the No BS! Brass Band paraded hourly around the festival grounds, offering musical accompaniment whenever needed.
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