We thought we might die.
That was in our most dramatic moment, of course. But at 3 a.m., as my friends and I were packed with all of our possessions into my small SUV that was being pummeled with barreling wind and rain, we weren’t sure how things would go.
We watched a grey tent fly into the road in front of us, loosed from its stakes and flipping end-over-end like a tumbleweed.
A severe thunderstorm warning, complete with a tornado, had descended upon the campground for the inaugural Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival.
Campground security staff had swept across the grounds around 2 a.m., driving golf carts at breakneck speed down dirt paths, yelling at campers to abandon their tents and take shelter in their cars.
As we searched for a weather radio station (no luck — instead, we listened to some static and then classical music courtesy of Wisconsin Public Radio), we took a moment to laugh.
“If I die, this is how I’d like to go,” one of my friends joked.
Though I’m thankful, in the light of the morning, preparing to make breakfast s’mores, that we made it through the night (we got to go back in our tent around 3:30 a.m.), I did agree that yesterday would have been a solid final day on the planet.
I ate a chili cheese dog. I bought a “flower crown” made of eucalyptus. And I got to see some wonderful musical performances, including standout shows from folk trio The Lone Bellow, singer-songwriter The Tallest Man on Earth and rock group The National.
The first day of the inaugural Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival kicked off at lunchtime. My friends and I rolled out of the campground around then, packed onto a shuttle bus with dozens of other festival-goers. The yellow school bus bopped down a two-lane country road for five minutes or so before spitting us out at the entrance to Eaux Claires.
Patrons ooh’d and ahh’d as we walked underneath the festival’s first art installation, “Hottea” by street artist Eric Rieger, a ceiling of multicolored yarn waving in the breeze.
The first act I caught was The Lone Bellow, a Brooklyn-based folk trio. Their performance set an incredibly high bar for the rest of the day’s acts. Their soaring harmonies were executed so perfectly that I had several of those, “Wow, these guys sound just like they do on their album” moments. But the fact of the matter was, they sounded better than the album. They were the perfect blend of on-point technical execution and live performance passion.
Next up was Sturgill Simpson, the festival’s lone country act. He turned out a solid retro-country set that evoked some of the genre’s greats. Simpson is often compared to Waylon Jennings, and the parallel seemed justified as he kept the crowd swaying and stomping through his hour-long set on the fest’s Flambeaux stage.
After taking a short break to procure my eucalyptus crown, festival merchandise (the line took 45 minutes — Eaux Claires visitors were very serious about picking out fest fashion) and gourmet mac ‘n’ cheese with rosemary chicken and kale, I settled in on a shady hill to listen to The Staves, an English folk-rock trio.
The sisters turned out a killer performance, their vocals blending beautifully, and their English-accent pronunciations of “Eau Claire” lilting in an immeasurably charming way. The crowd didn’t seem to mind standing on hot concrete during their set, they were so taken by the trio’s soft-and-searing affect.
Rock band Spoon, equipped with an age-defying frontman in Britt Daniel and a band of men with impressively floppy bangs, opened their show with the first track from their newest album, “They Want My Soul.” Their performance, as a whole, was a straightforward, high-energy rock show. Highlights included hits “The Way We Get By,” “Inside Out,” “I Turn My Camera On” and their new single, “Do You.”
Next up was my runner-up for the best show of the day.
The Tallest Man on Earth performed a breathtakingly gorgeous set on Friday evening as the sun began to set, beads of sweat dripping off his nose. When he flung his guitar, which was often, flecks would also fly off his arms.
He grinned, spun, bounced and laid down on the stage with his guitar during an hour-long set that prompted raised arms, swaying and singing along from a rapt crowd, especially on a pair of his most popular tunes, “The Dreamer” and “The Gardener.”
For “The Gardener,” a track from his 2010 album, “Shallow Grave,” he delivered a sped-up soul and horn-infused version that seemed to wash an energy over the crowd, imbuing them with good vibes to roll into the evening’s headlining performance from The National.
The National was, hands down, the highlight of the day (aside from surviving the tornado, that is). Their in-your-face, plaintive and emotional rock soared over the entire festival grounds, a sea of Eaux Claires attendees singing along to “I Need My Girl,” “I Should Live in Salt” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”
Surprise appearances peppered The National’s set. Festival curator Justin Vernon appeared on stage twice to roars of approval from the crowd. Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, who will perform at the festival on Saturday, also joined the band for a song.
And performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson appeared for a tune, bringing the band cans of beer and a bottle of wine which The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger swigged from.
Kjartansson contributed a verse to “Sorrow” and, after doing so, took to frolicking around the stage, waving a scarf in the air.
“This is a f---ing sad song, stop dancing!” Berninger chastised him.
I have to admit, I was with Ragnar in that moment. Though The National’s set was a devastatingly beautiful, compelling, emotional end to a hot, sweaty ecstatic day.