For the second year in a row, the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival will light up the not-so-sleepy Chippewa Valley this weekend for a two-day event featuring over 60 artists, art installations and earnest celebrations of Wisconsin.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner co-curated the lineup, which includes performances from James Blake, Vince Staples, Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers and yMusic with The Staves among others on Friday. Lisa Hannigan and Aaron Dessner will debut their new album "At Swim," which is out Aug. 19.
Perhaps most notably, Bon Iver will be performing new music Friday night, reversing course on Vernon’s announcement in 2012 that he planned to walk away from the band. The self-titled 2011 debut received the Best New Artist Grammy award in 2012.
Last month, the group published a 22-second clip titled #22days exactly 22 days before this Friday, leading to rumblings that Bon Iver will perform a new album in its entirety.
Saturday’s performances include Erykah Badu, Jenny Lewis, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Beach House, Har Mar Superstar and Mavis Staples, in addition to a rare performance by Dessner's Grateful Dead tribute band Day of the Dead.
While the Chippewa Valley is no stranger to large music events, Eaux Claires, the plural French words for "clear waters," has put the area on the map, Visit Eau Claire Executive Director Linda John said.
Last year’s inaugural festival saw more than 25,000 attendees, bringing in about $6.8 million from visitors over two days, John said.
That’s more than the new Blue Ox bluegrass music festival in the area, which brought in about $1.5 million. The long-standing three-day Country Jam event brings in about $10 million per year and two other multi-day music events bring in about $7 to $9 million, John estimates.
“(Eaux Claires is) taking it to a different level,” she said. “Eau Claire was no longer going to be a secret.”
“People outside of the region are awakening to it for the very first time,” Meyer said.
Eau Claire is in a phase of development and reinvention, similar to where Madison was a few years ago, Meyer said, calling it a “mini-Madison.”
About 365 hotel rooms have been added to the market this year, according to John, which is about a 16 percent inventory increase. Meyer's Oxbow Hotel project, in collaboration with Zach Halmstad, Vernon and Eaux Claires' creative director Michael Brown, is replacing an undesirable downtown motel and will bring in a farm-to-table restaurant and a live-music lounge. Halmstad's project, The Lismore, is a boutique hotel already on the market.
While the University of Eau Claire and other major businesses have driven the post-industrial city's economy, music has been a driving force.
Eau Claire’s new $80 million Confluence Center, a major performance venue and collaboration between city and university, is underway, not to mention two music festivals added in 2015.
National outlets have noticed the valley’s cultural assertion too. In July, Time Magazine highlighted Eau Claire as part of its “Reasons to Celebrate America” series, and gives credit to music as a key turning point in the city’s changes.
“Therein lies the new paradigm for towns in turnaround mode,” author Steve Koepp wrote. "Instead of chasing smokestacks, why not build a place where young people want to live and work?”
Meyer, who grew up in the Eau Claire area, said he has seen more young people choosing to make their life back in the Chippewa Valley. He described a generation of young people who have grown up in a very different city than the one in which he spent his childhood years.
“Their (cultural) needs are starting to be met,” Meyer said.
With any type of major change, there can be pushback. A major concern with the increase in festivals, John said, is where does it end?
“When you live right there, clearly there’s going to be an impact from your day-to-day life,” John said, giving changing traffic patterns and neighbors’ access to their own properties as examples.
“There’s a give and take,” she continued. “And that’s what our area is so good at,” describing Eau Claire’s personality as humble with a “dash of shyness” but also unpretentious, hard working and willing to collaborate.
Meyer said to preserve the area’s identity requires a balancing act. Not only are the music scenesters tuned to the musical goings-on but now the more mainstream community, business and local government stakeholders are taking notice.
But he doesn’t think the character of the area will be infringed upon anytime soon.
“I think we have a ways to go before you’re remotely in a danger zone,” Meyer said.