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The (re)making of Eau(x) Claire(s)

Montgomery Sheridan

In the spring of 1999, trumpet icon Wynton Marsalis stood on the Jazz at Lincoln Center stage in New York City.

“The next band is from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Am I pronouncing that right?”

Bruce Herring, Eau Claire Memorial’s music director at the time, recounts the story.

“We’re calling them the $25,000 band,” Marsalis went on. “Because their community kicked in to get them here.”

That was the first year one of Herring’s bands would compete at the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival.

The Jazz 1 band was featured on the front page of the local paper and the community covered their trip to NYC.

Among those young musicians was an 18-year-old Justin Vernon, who would go on to become the internationally renowned artist behind Bon Iver. (Fun fact: Vernon was not the only Justin who played guitar in that Jazz 1 band.)

Ten years later, Herring’s sixth Memorial Jazz 1 band was invited to Essentially Ellington. It was their first back-to-back invitation and Herring worried about not being able to pay for it. So he called Vernon and proposed a benefit concert. The Jazz 1 band would play some standards and a couple Bon Iver arrangements with Vernon at the helm.

The budding indie rock star was more than happy to help out. He even had the performance recorded, set up iTunes sales, and printed 1,000 CDs for Memorial to sell.

Three years later, Bon Iver took home a pair of Grammys.

But for Vernon, being able to give back to the community that supported him is more important than any awards.

In 2015, Vernon, Aaron Dessner of The National and creative director Michael Brown founded the Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival (EXC). The event has shined a light on the area each summer since.

Today, the 36-year-old Vernon’s efforts and accolades have become a catalyst for entrepreneurs, city officials, university leaders, small-business owners, and community members to begin to change the face of this small Wisconsin city.

My girlfriend and I have attended all three Eaux Claires. First as fans, then I was a member of the press, and this year she was an official artist. We arrived in town a few days early to install her stage design. The festival put us up in brand new University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire downtown dorms.

As we drove into Eau Claire it had the familiar feel of any old small Midwestern town. But as I took a closer look I began to spot signs of something special in the making — a cool record store, a boutique hotel, a park along the river, an impressive culture and entertainment magazine, plus plenty of loose dirt and hulking construction cranes.

And there is no denying the magic of the festival. Amid a sea of cookie-cutter weekend affairs, Eaux Claires offers an invigorating change of pace. There is heart and humility. Collaboration and experimentation are the name of the game. Art installations, literature, and a sense of community set Eaux Claires apart.

Not to mention the natural beauty of the Chippewa Valley.

Strong roots

Eau Claire Memorial’s appearances at Essentially Ellington are a testament to the rich tradition of jazz in the Chippewa Valley.

Herring says that Dominic Spera, who led the UW-Eau Claire jazz program from 1968 to 1976, elevated the genre’s standing.

“Spera had a commanding presence. He came from New York City and quickly made the program a powerhouse.

“My friends and I would go down to those jazz band concerts and they were almost like rock shows. There wasn’t a mosh pit, but Gantner Hall was packed and people were really excited,” recalls Herring.

At the same time that Chicago transplant Chuck LaPaglia was booking premier national acts at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, another Chicago transplant — Bill Nolte — was doing the same at his bar, The Joynt, in Eau Claire, as noted in a recent story for Noisey by Green Bay native Katie Bain.

In his days as a high school music teacher, Herring heard plenty of garage bands. He considers the 8-piece Mount Vernon to be the best among them.

Members of Vernon’s high school band included Trever Hagen, Phil and Brad Cook, and Joe Westerlund, all of whom perform regularly at Eaux Claires.

“The founding musicians of Eaux Claires are really just one high school generation that grew up together and branched out to different cities or different projects, but stayed close and still work on music together,” says EXC creative director Michael Brown.

“The festival stems from a desire for all of them to come back together and work on something collaboratively. That was the seed of the original idea.

“Beyond that, Justin has decided to keep his roots in the community. His role with Bon Iver is like an ambassador and a way to give back to the community, so the festival is a realization of that,” adds Brown.

Made in the Land of Wheat and Maize | Justin Vernon from Red Wing Heritage on Vimeo.

Eau Claire was founded in 1856. It grew up a sawmill town on the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. In the 20th century it became a heavy manufacturing city, but most factories closed in the 1990s.

Milwaukee-based musician Christopher Porterfield (Field Report) was a student at UW-Eau Claire in the early 2000s.

“It was another blue-collar town trying to figure out who they were once the industry changed,” recalls Porterfield.

“A lot of people came from the jazz program at the university, so there was a high level of musicianship that I think kind of helped everyone up their game.”

Nick Meyer is the editor and publisher of Volume One, a local culture and entertainment magazine. He grew up in the Eau Claire area, attended UW-Eau Claire, played in bands, booked shows at the Stone’s Throw, and founded the magazine in 2002.

“There’s always been surprising talent here. Part of that is the really good music culture in the schools. There’s always been a great DIY sense too, basement punk scenes, living room shows, college houses, and then bars doing their thing. Definitely above average per capita venues for music,” says Meyer.

In addition to venues, Eau Claire boasts an inordinate number of orchestral ensembles for a city of its size, plus high enrollment in youth music programs.

Another factor that has helped shape Eau Claire is the music destination 90 miles up the road.

“The Minneapolis scene has borrowed heavily from the Eau Claire scene for a very long time,” claims Meyer.

“When I booked at Stone’s Throw I would take the biggest pick to click bands from Minneapolis and put them on with a couple popular local bands,” Meyer adds.

“There was a cross-pollination that was happening between Minneapolis and Eau Claire bands that I think brought another level of cosmopolitan sophistication here,” says Porterfield, who played in Vernon’s second notable band, DeYarmond Edison.

In 2008, Vernon and his brother Nate bought a piece of property in Fall Creek, a small village southeast of Eau Claire. It sits just three miles from their childhood home.

With the help of friends — including Milwaukee’s Daniel Spack of Volcano Choir and Collection of Colonies of Bees — Vernon transformed the ranch house into April Base Studios, an intimate and well-equipped recording complex.

April Base is not a commercial studio, but rather a place for Vernon’s friends, acquaintances, and hand-picked local acts to record.

Most of the folks who’ve been to April Base are either from Wisconsin or Minnesota. However, Sufjan Stevens (Brooklyn), The Tallest Man on Earth (Sweden), and The Staves (England) have all recorded in April Base’s isolated and cozy confines.

More than music

Eaux Claires can be understood as an extension of April Base — a chance for the public to experience what Vernon and his collaborators are up to at the hallowed recording space.

Artwork can be spotted in videos shot at April Base and Vernon has described it as “kind of like an art space.”

Since its inception, EXC has incorporated art installations alongside its music programming.

NYC-based artist Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels returned to EXC this year after being invited to the festival last year.

“I haven’t been interested in doing a music festival until this one. The synchronicity of how I was asked and the way it all came about just felt like the right thing to say ‘yes’ to,” says Fels.

“One of the things I particularly like about this festival is how family-oriented people are in how they relate to one another. It really feels like a community,” adds Fels.

Eaux Claires also features an artist village. Potter David Caradori, whose gallery and studio is down the road from the festival grounds, has been at EXC each year.

“The Eaux Claires fest is my demographic because it’s more of an international crowd. I had a couple from Australia buy one of my most expensive pieces,” says Caradori.

“Honestly, the Eaux Claires festival might be the only thing the community has ever done for me that has been extremely beneficial monetarily.”

Of all the art installations at Eaux Claires this summer, the 'Moms Booth' — produced by Andy DuCett — received the most attention. It was a booth where you could grab sunscreen and advice from a real mom, some of whom had raised EXC musicians and artists.

The fact that the 'Moms Booth' was on the cover of the local paper the day after EXC kicked-off is telling. While the music and art lineups may push experimentalism and risk-taking, the Eau Claire community is still fairly traditional.

Michael Perry is a New York Times bestseller and a dad who drives a 14-year-old minivan around the Chippewa Valley. He is the official festival narrator and produces the EXC’s literature program.

Perry grew up on a farm about 40 minutes north of Eau Claire. A child bookworm, Perry’s gateway to the arts was UW-Eau Claire in the 1980s.

“That’s when I started to see Eau Claire as a place where the university arts culture lived right next door to the culture I was more familiar with, which was punching the clock, pulling shifts, blue collar stuff,” says Perry.

Smart friends

When the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is in session, the population of the city increases by about one-sixth. Its impact on the community and on Eaux Claires can not be understated.

“You can literally say that if the university weren’t involved we would not have a festival,” says Michael Brown.

About 100 university students from UWEC and other UW schools work and volunteer at the festival each year. Brown’s assistant, Janesville native Trace Richolson, started with the festival doing video and lighting in a geodesic dome.  

“Michael liked the work I did and decided to hire me as an intern for the second year,” says Richolson, who was in charge of all artist management this year and will be graduating from UWEC in December.

“We pride ourselves at the university on being one of the top student production crews. We do around 15,000 events per year, ranging from a simple meeting to touring productions.

“The festival is definitely the largest event we do. It is such a blast. I absolutely love every part of my job, even when that means standing in the pouring rain trying to save some equipment,” adds Richolson.

UWEC has taken the lead on a major development project in downtown Eau Claire — the Confluence Arts Center and Haymarket Landing.

The project includes a three-theater complex, a plaza and mixed-use student housing next door (where my girlfriend and I stayed). The UWEC theater department will relocate there when the Center opens in fall 2018.

The project, which was championed by Vernon and others, has not been without criticism. Corporate leaders and residents questioned the use of public funds at heated public meetings in 2014. Referenda votes were eventually held and local spending was approved.

UWEC’s private fundraising foundation exceeded their expectations for the Confluence Project, with many donations coming from alums in their 30s and 40s who see it as an investment in the future of their community.

Art drives commerce

The Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. plant was a major employer in the Eau Claire area in the 20th century. When they closed their doors in 1992 it meant 1,300 out-of-work residents. It also presented an opportunity for Eau Claire to do things a little differently.

“When the factories closed in the 90s we began an effort to diversify,” says Mike Schatz, Eau Claire’s Economic Development Director.

“In the early 2000s we started pushing the creative economy, working with local artists, musicians and others to provide the amenities people would want if they lived in our community.

“We also focused on entrepreneurs as a source of growing business and new jobs rather than always being tied to corporations,” adds Schatz.

The former site of the Uniroyal tire plant has since been turned into a multi-use hub for small-businesses and artists called Banbury Place. One of their former tenants is Ambient Inks, a design and print shop founded by Aaron Brice and Tim Brunner in 2009. Ambient Inks designs and handles merchandising for Eaux Claires.

“It’s definitely our busiest time of year. If you factor in all the relationships that spiral out of the festival it probably makes up like 25 to 40 per cent of our business,” says Brice.

“I’m a huge believer that art drives commerce, but you have to actually support it and not just give it a little bit of face time,” says Michael Brown.

“When we started we were a little more niched out, but as we’ve grown we’ve taken more of a look at economic development, health and entrepreneurship,” says Nick Meyer of Volume One.

In 2015, on the eve of the inaugural EXC, Volume One published a themed issue designating Eau Claire the “Music Capital of the North.”

The extensive multimedia issue represents the communities attempt at harnessing the momentum of the music scene to fuel economic and cultural development.

Music Capital of the North - Eau Claire, WI - 30 Second Song Sampler from Volume One on Vimeo.

Show and prove

The first two Eaux Claires festivals each brought in about $5 million of positive economic impact. This year’s edition surpassed the original projection of $6.8 million.

“We estimate there was an $8 million impact, with 90% of attendees coming from a 50 mile radius, many from international origins,” says Linda John, Executive Director of Visit Eau Claire.

“Our city is becoming an international destination for four to seven days during the festival. We believe the $8 million is conservative because people traveling that far are spending more time and money,” adds John.

Eaux Claires is not the only festival that happens in the Chippewa Valley. It takes place on Foster Farms, which has been home to the Country Jam music festival since 1990.

The Blue Ox festival — founded the same year as EXC — also takes place at Foster Farms and the Whispering Pines campground.

In nearby Cadot, Country Fest and Rock Fest each draw about 20,000 fans.

“All of them certainly have an economic impact on the weekend they are held, but Eaux Claires has a much bigger cultural impact,” says Meyer.

Despite the obvious benefits to the area, not everyone is happy about Eaux Claires, or any of the festivals that take place at Foster Farms.

Residents of the Town of Union, which surrounds Foster Farms, have complained about the festivals. They have even tried to shut them down.

“The people that live out there are inconvenienced in numerous ways and they’re legitimate. But the thing is, when you’re part of a community it shouldn’t just be about me, it should be about everybody,” says Caradori.

“Country Jam impacts my business almost in a negative way, but I would never say to the community ‘I don’t want this because it screws up my business for a week,’” adds Caradori.

“There’s a growing sense of apathy for some people in the community like, ‘Oh, all this stuff is going on, but we’re not doing anything directly with it,’” says Michael Brown.

“And it really just comes down to the pick yourself up by the bootstraps gumption to get out there and do it.”  

New digs

Justin Vernon isn’t the only successful young local to invest in his community. Zach Halmstad — an entrepreneur and jazz piano player — has built the global software company JAMF, which has offices all over the world, including one in downtown Eau Claire that employs 200 people.

Halmstad has also invested in two downtown hotel projects. He poured $20 million into renovating an old Ramada Inn that is now The Lismore Hotel. Along with Vernon, Meyer and Ben Richgruber — Executive Director of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center — the group turned an old motel into the independent Oxbow Hotel.

The Oxbow is emblematic of a reimagined Eau Claire. It features in-room record players, a vinyl library, free bike and kayak rentals, and a restaurant — The Lakely — which uses locally-sourced ingredients and has a jazz-focused venue.

“The Lakely is a nice reflection of Justin,” says Herring. “It’s classy without trying too hard. It’s not pretentious and it’s intimate, like a lot of the great jazz clubs in New York City.”

The Oxbow was the center of Prex Claires, a series of events that took place in downtown Eau Claire on the eve of this year’s festival. OXBEAUX featured performances from local band Idle Empress, Minneapolis outfit Dem Yuut, Field Report, and another of Vernon’s projects, The Shouting Matches.

The Oxbox was one of 13 venues that featured an array of local and regional bands.

“We’re finally seeing something that we’ve encouraged the past two years but hadn’t happened yet, which is the community taking part. We want that idea to permeate through and inspire the community,” says Michael Brown.

Brown is a Nashville native and self-described “Justin Vernon import” who moved to Eau Claire for the first two years of the festival.

“From when I arrived in Eau Claire to where I see it now, there has been massive amounts of change. I see a beginning more importantly in a change of attitude, in what people realize can happen.”

“Twenty per cent of Eau Claire comes downtown each day to work, but we didn’t have housing and entertainment and both hotels had fallen into disrepair,” says Schatz.

“Through the Redevelopment Authority we’ve put a lot of effort into creating new sites along the riverfront that developers have turned into mixed-use buildings with housing on the upper floors. We have probably brought over 400 new units and about 800 people downtown,” adds Schatz.

Established businesses stand to benefit from this increase in tenancy. Such as Jane Wolf of Silver Feather, a store that sells Native American products.

Wolf has been on South Barstow in downtown for thirty years. I spoke with her the day of Prex Claires. She said she would stay open later in hopes that visitors might wander over.

“I’ve been amazed to learn how far people will come for a music festival, even from Europe,” says Wolf.

“But then my son is going to Paris to hear Jimmy Buffet and he’s already heard him in the States. So I guess it’s not as crazy that someone from France might come here to see Bon Iver.”

Wolf’s next door neighbor, Billy Siegel of Revival Records, says Eaux Claires is his favorite time of year.

“We’ve had people from Australia, England and Japan come in, so it’s really fun just to mingle with these guys who are so excited about the festival,” exclaims Siegel.

Customers from Los Angeles, Virginia and Boston came in while I spoke with Siegel’s friend Ryan Miller.

“I moved here in ‘98 and have been involved with the music scene ever since. It was dirty, underground, lots of dark rock venues,” says Miller.

“It’s grown so much and feels brighter now. Anyone can play anywhere and any kind of music and that extends to the arts. The arts are starting to get bigger and blending, so you have artists doing installations with music,” adds Miller.

Across the bridge from Revival Records sits Phoenix Park. It is located at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers on the site of a former brownfield and has been drawing people downtown since 2005.

Phoenix Park is the home of Volume One’s 'Sounds Like Summer' music series, which was also a part of Prex Claires and regularly draws 2,000 people.

Attendees of last year’s Eaux Claires will find a familiar sight across from the Grand Theatre along the Chippewa River. Italian artist Edoardo Tresoldi graciously donated his massive sculpture 'Baroque' to the community. Another EXC mural is scheduled to be installed at the Confluence Center.

“We’re going to donate other art to the community in the hope that we have a footprint that starts growing, so that it becomes this thing where you’re walking down the street and even if people didn’t come to the festival they can see benefits of it. Hopefully it’ll be a little bit of a motivational push to keep developing,” says Brown.

As much as Vernon supports his hometown, he doesn’t hesitant to offer constructive criticism. Having traveled the world, Vernon sees plenty of room for improvement in Eau Claire.

In an interview with Volume One in 2015, Vernon mentioned that he would like to see more creativity in the business culture to break the corporate stronghold in the area.

While Eaux Claires has held a firm commitment to not take on any corporate sponsors, Brown can imagine working with certain partners to support art projects that would be incorporated into the community. Or the projects could be directly supported from the community.

“It is possible that one third of the art here could all be experimental stuff that is crowdsourced from people in the community with the goal of then being relocated into the community after the festival,” says Brown.

There was one sour note amidst all of the good news I heard during my time in Eau Claire. The House of Rock, the city’s main mid-size venue for almost twenty years, will be closing its doors later this month.

Porterfield has fond memories of playing the House of Rock. Ryan Miller remembers seeing Vernon perform there on a Tuesday night for 15 people.

The venerable Water Street club’s closing is a sign of the times, not just because the vibe of the city seems to have moved from Water Street to downtown.

For years, the House of Rock stuck to the “tired formula of stage + band + beer,” Meyer writes in Volume One.

“A bit more creativity, and a focus on the experience, may be required.

“The world is evolving and it’s changing the way people consume music and interact with their communities. Now there are recording studios that are having ticketed shows and there are a lot more diverse ways to experience music than there were 15 years ago,” says Meyer.

“Immediately people were jumping into their entrepreneurship modes of ‘What can we do to fix it? What spaces are available? Who's got the ability to pool together to start something?’ And that's what you want, you want that attitude to be in the community of 'We can fix it and come out better.'”

Amplify the signal

As part of Prex Claires, the 'Baroque' sculpture hosted its first performances. On the same day at the same site, Visit Eau Claire was presented a check for $18,200 from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism to promote EXC and the city.         

“The festival is literally creating a worldwide media focus for Eau Claire and it’s really hard to quantify the value that has generated,” says Linda John.

“It’s been putting us on the map for things like students choosing Eau Claire for university, people moving to town, relocating their families and starting businesses. We’ve heard all these sorts of anecdotes over the last few years,” adds John.

“In some ways I think what’s happening is the structural amplification of some of the energy we were putting out 15 years ago,” says Porterfield.

“There's always been a lot of creative people and stuff happening. But now there's suddenly an influx of infrastructure to support some of that stuff. And then the signal gets amplified and people come from beyond the Chippewa Valley.”

While events took place on the eve of previous Eaux Claires — at the campground in 2015 and at the Lismore Hotel in 2016 — Prex Claires was the most extensive sampling of the city offered to festival-goers.

Prex Claires was produced by Volume One, the Brewing Projekt, Downtown Eau Claire Inc., and Blugold Radio 99.9 FM, a college radio station launched by Scott Morfitt last summer.

“We’ve really seen a sense of place developing,” says Kyran Hamill of Downtown Eau Claire Inc. and the City of Eau Claire.

“Just being proud of who we are and what we’re doing. That’s been a major driver for us. The festival is a great reflection of that and it’s a great way to introduce people to the city,” adds Hamill.

But not everyone is dedicated to staying in Eau Claire. Lauren Anderson, an Eau Claire native and the frontwoman of Idle Empress, moved to Minneapolis a couple weeks after her band performed at OXBEAUX.

For Anderson, the move wasn’t a matter of loyalty or pride, but rather of convenience.

“I play in quite a few Minneapolis bands. Also my sister lives there and I have a lot of family there, so it made sense,” says Anderson.

When I spoke with Anderson, I mentioned the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's front page story describing Eau Claire as the new “it” city for “artsy millennials.”

“I think if you come here during the festival it seems like that. And it's starting to become that, but growing up here I found that while the music community itself is supportive, the community as a whole is not necessarily very artsy,” notes Anderson.

“There are some specific people that really carry the whole thing on their shoulders.”

Eau Claire may not yet have the infrastructure, attractions and amenities that creatives in their 20s desire, but it seems to be moving in the right direction.

For those seeking a slightly slower pace and a budding culture scene, Eau Claire appears to fit the bill.

“It is totally at its core a traditional Wisconsin town, so progress has been a little slow for that reason. But I definitely see it being exponential,” says Brice of Ambient Inks.

“There's a lot more people taking risks. I think all it takes is seeing like-minded people doing stuff like the festival or starting businesses. I think the older generation is starting to embrace the progress and trust the younger generation to take the lead.

“We've always kind of felt like the underdog, being between Minneapolis and Madison. We were always that medium-sized town off the freeway and that's kind of it. We weren't really anything more than that and now we're becoming a destination.”

Full circle

One of my favorite Bon Iver performances is an appearance on The Colbert Report from 2011.

In the clip for “Skinny Love,” Vernon sits center stage with an old guitar. His eight band members form a semicircle behind him. Vernon sings the first few lines by himself as his Wisconsin tattoo peeks through his shirt. As the song progresses the band starts to sing, clap and stomp along.

I find this to be the perfect metaphor for what’s been going on in Eau Claire.

As much as locals want to downplay the impact Bon Iver has had on the city’s current cultural and economic revival, there is no escaping its importance.  

I don’t blame Eau Clairians for being tired of hearing about Justin Vernon. As you have learned, he did not emerge out of nowhere and he is not the only one sticking his neck out for Eau Claire.

But let’s be honest, if Vernon hadn’t walked into his dad’s hunting cabin ten years ago with a bunch of hodge-podge recording equipment and came out with a masterpiece, this wouldn’t be a story.

There’s a reason I stayed up late in my tent last summer writing a review of Bon Iver’s '22, A Million' just hours after it was debuted live at Eaux Claires.

The image on this clip of “Skinny Love” is flipped horizontally for some reason. But aren’t all recordings of live performances a distortion?

Nothing can replicate the experience of being there.

We'll see you next summer.