We don’t talk about Bon Iver’s name enough. A homonym of “bon hiver,” or “good winter” in French, the words recall a wooden Wisconsin cabin, probably with the chimney puffing and snowbanks heaped outside. But this Friday and Saturday in that very state, the average high temperature was much hotter: the heat reached around 90 degrees, plus humidity. Far from the icy grip of winter, a July audience enjoyed a rare Bon Iver set from musician Justin Vernon. The occasion? None other than the inaugural Eaux Claires festival, which Vernon founded and co-curated with the National’s Aaron Dessner. It kicked off on Friday; read a recap here. Eaux Claires’s second and final day of music featured extra genre-blurring excitement, a fun Indigo Girls set, and Vernon’s first Bon Iver performance since 2012….
[Sufjan] Stevens also shared some of his personal feelings about the show: “Great to be here and have this view…beautiful and happy faces. It’s a picture of abundance.” He looked out from stage. “I never play festivals — I have such a fear of crowds — agoraphobia, social anxiety. The last two days have been proving all my fears wrong. It’s been like a 48-hour episode of My Little Pony.”…
– Billboard, July 19
Things went so well at the inaugural Eaux Claires Music & Art Festival this past weekend, the event’s headliner and ringleader Justin Vernon cried…
Set on lush green bluffs above a scenic bend in the Chippewa River, Eaux Claires felt like a turned corner. Not only has the Upper Midwest finally landed a hip rock fest that can contend on a national level, it landed one that seemed uniquely Upper Midwestern.
Vernon is the guy whose willpower made Eaux Claires a reality, and whose star power attracted 22,000 festivalgoers to the woodsy farmland town of 65,000. The Grammy-winning singer/songwriter of Bon Iver fame and Eau Claire heritage — he famously recorded his first album in a hunting cabin north of town — dreamed up the festival more than two years ago and finished it off just before midnight Saturday.
Performing with the Big Dipper glowing brightly overhead and fans listening reverentially at his feet — it seriously felt more like a church service than the finale of a big summer rock fest — Vernon’s first Bon Iver performance in more than three years summed up the festival: inspired, collaborative, warmly spirited, a tad mushy at times and surprisingly flawless considering the untried aspects of it all.
“I’m deeply humbled,” Vernon said, wiping away tears in the fest’s waning minutes…
– Star Tribune, July 20
Which is to say: as amazing as it was to see the National on Friday night, you could feel the hometown pride swelling for Vernon and this event he’d brought to where he came from. The return of Bon Iver is a moment, and it didn’t occur at Radio City Music Hall or whatever — it happened here, where Bon Iver began in a cabin. To someone seeing Bon Iver for the first time, the show was stunning. Vernon spent much of the set posted behind keyboards, sometimes with a guitar, headphones on. He offered up fleshed out, pulsing renditions of previously sparse songs; he brought out deep cuts alongside “Calgary” and “Holocene” and “Skinny Love” and “Flume.” Friends came onstage throughout. Bryce and Aaron Dessner replicated their intertwined guitarwork for Bon Iver’s soundscapes. Colin Stetson did Colin Stetson things with his saxophone. The Staves provided ethereal, soul-crushingly beautiful backup vocals for many songs. Including, well, two new Bon Iver songs. Vernon’s been walking around saying he doesn’t know what’s up with Bon Iver for the future. But he seemed overwhelmed — “humbled” is the word he favored repeatedly — by the experience of seeing Eaux Claires come to fruition, and then at home as Bon Iver closing it all down. The new songs were great — both had heavier electronic elements to them than he’s toyed with in the past, the first rolling along a simple synth oscillation that persisted throughout the song, the second anchored by a big, throbbing beat and synth pattern. It’s promising stuff. Hopefully it’s not the last we hear of them…
– Stereogum, July 19
“I’d like to see this thing blossom,” he says, “and break down the barriers of what it is and what festivals are. That it becomes a thing where there’s a winter version that we could do. Maybe a spring and fall version. Maybe Eaux Claires can stand for something more than this thing you buy a ticket for, that you walk in and walk out and it’s over. Maybe it can mean more in this day and age when shit is fucked up everywhere.”
– Justin Vernon in The Guardian, July 18
from the family scrapbooks
I’m exhausted after seeing The Staves. Their beauty and the heat hang together, turning the memory of their set into a kind of hazy mirage.
I ride back into town on the bumpy shuttle bus.
Trudge back home.
Open the back garden gate. Sweaty and spent. Burnt.
There is a sense I’ve just awoken from a dream. But no, because the garden is here, lush and overgrown and abandoned, not carefully kept as it would have been if she was here, and it’s not a dream because she’s still dead. She’s still dead.
I drag out the heavy hose and water. The leaves murmur above. The sun dapples my face. I am in my mid-twenties…
Bits of her are in me. Others aren’t. Is enough?
I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I’m faking everything, and no one has noticed.
I keep thinking about the farm. Their farm. Our farm? … It is the fate of farmland to be turned into tacky sprawly subdivisions. I know that. I grew up listening to conversations about that.
And yet. Somehow, in this place and time, that feels like giving up. Especially when two miles away, the land is churning, thriving, sparkling with creativity and joy and art and magic. The thought of too-wide streets with no sidewalks attached… The thought of a young family assembling a patio set on a freshly-poured square of concrete… The thought of domestication fills me with revulsion.
As I realize I control less and less, I’m crazy to control more and more.
Literally half my family died this year. Decisions have to be made about how to carry on their legacy. I don’t know if that piece of woodsy prairie can be part of it or not. There are no easy answers.
Only one thing seems certain. Whatever happens, I’m going to have to give up something more, still.
All remains suspended in mid-air, and breathless.
I’m so tired – in so many ways – that I toy with the idea of skipping the big Bon Iver reunion show scheduled to close out Saturday night. The idea of being out in a field under the stars with twenty thousand people I don’t know fills me with an ache of loneliness.
But ultimately I roll over in bed the next morning, and I text my best friend:
You want to see Bon Iver tonight at 10?
It doesn’t take her very long to answer.
Sure! I’ll be there at 8:30.
Still laying down, I run my hand through my hair, and sigh.
I watch the branches outside my bedroom window. They are green and yellow in the morning sunlight. They toss about with joy in the breeze.