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The Spirit of the Eaux Claires Music Festival

In just a few days, the gates to the Henry Maier Festival Park on Milwaukee’s lakefront will swing open and welcome the hundreds of thousands of concert goers who descend on the city each year for Summerfest.

It’s easily the city’s - and the state’s - most popular music festival. But just last weekend, western Wisconsin played host to the third edition of a music festival that is also making a name for itself. Eaux Claires is the creation of musician Justin Vernon, better known as the front man of Bon Iver.

And while a handful of acts - most notably, Paul Simon - are featured at both Eaux Claires and Summerfest, the spirit of the two festivals couldn’t be more different. Lake Effect contributor Edyn Herbert was at Eaux Claires and went in search of what makes the festival distinctive. 

In the festival program handed out to attendees, the curators make it very clear on the first page what the point of Eaux Claires is because really, why do we need another festival? If you ask any of the artists in attendance, they’ll quickly tell you - it’s not just any festival. Justin Vernon explains that “EauxClaires was founded on the ethos of encouraging and enabling artists to collaborate and perform within and outside of their primary musical projects.”


During Chance the Rappers' set, he stopped the show to make sure the crowd knew exactly how he felt. “You guys know how much I love Bonnaroo, this could be just as big. I love this festival, I hope you realize how special this is.”

Despite the big names present this year, the stripped down essence of the festival is attracting acts through the very simple idea of inviting friends to come jam – and those friends come from all over. Both Milwaukee-based band Collections of Colonies of Bees and Paris-based band This Is The Kit have connections to the festivals Curators.

Even more is the Milwaukee music scene paralleled with the spirit of Eaux Claires. Chris Rosenau of Collections of Colonies of Bees says “Yea, it’s the same. So, we play with other people from up here and we know other people from up here and it’s totally a family situation. It’s just everybody having a good time, supporting one another, doing what they can for one another, I mean it’s the same in Milwaukee and up here.”

What might be one of the most distinguishing features of the festival is the equal recognition of art to music, and more impressively, the emphasis each puts on the other. Milwaukee stage-designer Kristina Rolander loves Eaux Claires because “I feel like when I put art in a gallery it kind of just sits there and it’s not activated and the audience that I want to see it doesn’t necessarily see it or engage with it. So, being an installation artist and kind of putting your headspace into more of a stage… the installation part of my brain, that made sense to me.”

Rolander’s work can be enjoyed at Company Brewing or Cactus Club while Collections of Colonies of Bees will be performing at the Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party on July 1st with, in the true spirit of Eaux Claires, “a bunch of other cool bands from Milwaukee that we’re all friends with.”