In the minds of a festival-goer, January and February could be considered “messenger months”–8 weeks filled with announcements and leaks detailing the lineups, dates, and ticket information of the year’s upcoming music festivals. Mainstay festivals such as Coachella and Bonnaroo have already released their featured artists, while other festivals such as Washington’s own Sasquatch or Chicago’s Pitchfork have followed suit. One up-and-coming festival, the Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival, is spreading its secrets to its fans in an unusual way.
The Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival had its inaugural session last summer in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Organized and orchestrated by Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner, songwriter and guitar player for The National, the festival was a huge success. Featuring headlining acts by Bon Iver (in their first show in over three years), The National, Sufjan Stevens, and Spoon, the festival was attended by over 22,000 people, and was well received by critics.
I was fortunate enough to attend the inaugural festival, and it stands as my top experience of 2015. Standout sets included the chillingly beautiful harmonies performed under sweltering heat by English trio The Staves, a heart-pounding act by Sylvan Esso, and a wonderfully balanced set at dusk by Sufjan Stevens. Bon Iver’s festival-closing performance will hold dearest to my heart, though, as it was the culmination of a long wait to see my favorite band perform live.
Besides the sublime individual performances that occurred over the two-day event, the biggest takeaway from the experience was the overall vibe of the festival. Eaux Claires featured a large attendance and high-profile artists, yet had an intimacy and solely-for-the-music energy usually only found in small, local festivals. The commercialism evident in huge festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza was nonexistent at Vernon and Dessner’s creation.
This focus on intimacy has carried over into preparation for 2016′s Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival. As an attendee of last year’s festival, I was eligible for their Early Bird ticket special back in October, and was able to purchase tickets. A few days ago, I, along with other Early Bird purchasers, was sent a package from festival organizers. The package included an old-school tape, aptly titled “DEUX”. An accompanying letter describes it as “a mixtape with b-sides, demos, home recordings, and spontaneous contributions from some of the artists featured in the year two lineup”.
The mixtape provides clues on a number of artists who may perform this year, most notably being a track titled “Untitled 2″ by Fall Creek Boys Choir, alluding to the collaboration between Justin Vernon and English electronic singer-songwriter James Blake. An old b-side by Bon Iver titled “Haven, Mass” also appears on the mixtape, suggesting Bon Iver may reclaim the stage. Other songs link Aaron Dessner and his brother Bryce Dessner, Bruce Hornsby, Phil Cook, Jon Hopkins, and Nathaniel Rateliff to the festival. Arcade Fire members Richard Reed Perry and Sarah Neufeld are also featured on the mixtape, possibly suggesting a headlining spot for the acclaimed band. A skit-like track titled “Good Music” teases a connection with Kanye West, founder of record label GOOD Music, Inc. Last year, a hopeful minority of attendees hoped that Kanye would make a surprise appearance at Eaux Claires. Justin Vernon has collaborated with the rapper on his last three projects, and while the idea of Kanye traveling to a small Wisconsin city to perform remains improbable, the connection seems to be not fully coincidental.
These performance mysteries will become clear soon, as the full lineup is set to be released on Thursday, February 11th. Regardless of how significantly the mixtape will end up previewing this year’s acts, the idea demonstrates the uniqueness of this growing festival. What kind of festival announcement is more exciting than one that includes two hours of exclusive music?