The 2018 edition of the Eaux Claires festival, the four year-old, artsy two-day fest curated by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner (pictured), came with a unique, potentially exciting concept for anyone tired of the same played-out fest tropes: no lineup would be announced until festival-goers took to the field in Eau Claires, Wisconsin. In interviews and on social media, the organizers promised that the audience would not be disappointed. Coming on the heels of last year’s fest, which featured an extraordinarily diverse lineup with arena-sized acts including Chance the Rapper and Paul Simon, as well as cultier faves like Wilco and John Prine and a palpable inter-artist energy, it was quite the guarantee.
Sadly, it over-promised and under-delivered. Though Eaux Claires IV was full of one-off musical collaborations and unique sets, the lack of any true large-scale surprises on the lineup gave the whole gotcha element more of an air of “meh” than of “wow.” Further, those smaller acts who took risks (encouraged by the festival’s laid back vibe) sometimes did so at the expense of fans, many of whom wandered around through the tiny back-woods stages looking for something to grasp onto.
That said, there was one absolutely incredible highlight: The National’s broody, penultimate set, which was performed on a uniquely-designed platform in-the-round with three satellite side-stages hosting musicians jamming along on drums, guitar, percussion, and more. Though the stage was in use all weekend, The National was the only act who embraced the in-the-round setup for a truly immersive set, with singer Matt Berninger fully exploring the space and, sometimes, the audience.
High points included a slew of sit-ins from other performers — among them: breakout singer-songwriter Julien Baker, who delivered her song “Appointments” from one of those side-stages while the National accompanied her from 20 yards away.
Other festival highlights included Chicago rapper Noname, whose jazzy band nodded to laid-back 90s backpack hip-hop as she channeled Lauryn Hill; a full-on political set from Pussy Riot, who unsurprisingly used their main stage slot to rally concertgoers to become more active; and the Vernon-Dessner side project Big Red Machine, which essentially was a stand-in for a proper Bon Iver set, and featured many of the fest’s other performers jamming along.
But — without any big-name drop-ins, including heavily-rumored artists like Patti Smith, Sufjan Stevens, and Arcade Fire — some of the decisions, especially scheduling-wise, made no sense and erred on the outer edge of pretentiousness. First-night mai -stage closers Mouse On Mars were beautifully cacophonous but impossible for the small crowd to connect to, while art-rock stalwarts Low and Dirty Projectors were relegated to a tiny mid-woods second stage, where they unleashed bash-heavy lullabies and a full acoustic set of new songs, respectively, to crowds far too large for the space (and, in the latter’s case, were drowned out by a surprise karaoke set from Francis and the Lights, who sang along to both his own “Friends” and Kanye West’s “Lift Yourself”).
Alternately, there were long lulls of nothing happening at all in the main field, suggesting that, perhaps, the organizers could not actually fill the time, leaving wandering fest-goers scratching their heads. Many smaller artists chose the fest to debut whole sets of new material — a bold move, but especially so with attendees who were discovering bands for the first time. As one concertgoer tweeted: “I love that every band has said, ‘this is our first time playing together.’ So happy I paid to watch you practice.”
Had there been fewer of those moments, such banter might have been seen as charming and given the whole experience an air of specialness. Certainly parts of the festival had that built in, including a totally-hidden DJ stage, an immersive, interactive percussion installation, and the setting itself — an idyllic and intimate field-and-forest patch of land alongside the Chippewa River. But with the lack of a proper headliner, Eaux Claires’ misses carried over to the feel of the festival as a whole — an experiment with enormous potential, but whose engineers, this time, had not found the right formula.