Eaux Claires, Saturday, after sunset. The ticket stand was close to abandoned; the workers were joking around as I paid cash for a second ticket. The murmur of the crowd echoed in the valley. Walking down into the field, parts of the path were so dark I couldn’t see my hands.
“Here?” I asked my friend. Close enough to see, far enough away to watch.
She took off her sweater and spread it across the grass. People around us sat, then stood, then sat again. Some were laughing. A few were smoking. The heat had finally broken. Muggy, expectant starlight now.
The crowd shrieked itself into ecstasy as a figure took the stage. It was festival narrator and beautifully talented local author Michael Perry, lit up from behind like a rock star. “Good to see you here. Everybody’s gathered round for…” and his voice sharpened: “vespers.”
Perry offered a brief meditation on the nature of neighbors, of the valley, of music. “And so here we are, cradled by a river in a sanctuary of sound, craving consecration, exultation, on bended knee, seeking benediction.” About halfway through, electronic noises began spattering away behind his baseball cap. New Bon Iver backup singers The Staves listened, their arms around each other. Everything felt tuned to a higher pitch. In more ways than one, the stage was set.
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
On a cold March night, I found a video of The Staves and Justin Vernon singing Make It Holy.
It was early in the month: the time of year when spring seems both impossibly near and far. My mother and I were living at my grandmother’s farm, sleeping in my dead grandfather’s bed. There was nowhere else to put us.
Her family owns a woods, and like a girl in a fairytale, she disappears between the trees. Leaves murmur above her. Sun dapples her face. Brittle twigs snap beneath her feet.
She is in her mid-twenties, tall and fine-boned and long. Her eyes are piercing. They have a touch of skepticism in the corners. She has a sharp tongue, and a crippling insecurity. She is oblivious to her own strength.