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Eaux Claires Music Fest: The Art of Inspiring 22,000 Beating Hearts

Mark and I just got home from a kid-free weekend at the Eaux Claires Music Fest (pronounced Oh Claire, see below). We camped deep in the woods with thousands of other people from all over the country. We all survived the storms that roared through on Friday night. We rode on school buses orchestrated magnificently so that we simply had to hop on at point A, then hop off at point B, no heavy thinking necessary. We talked to friendly and glowingly happy people about shoemaking, neighborhood development, yoga, and how great and beautiful it all was. We wandered the grounds, finding secret trails through the woods and to the river, where we swam naked while nobody noticed under a blazing hot sun. We used the Art Installation Legend in the guidebook sometimes, but mostly just experienced. We ate the best BBQ ribs I've ever had, twice. And we danced our asses off. The music was so good, but it was just the excuse. 

The charming little 5.5" x 3.5" bound event booklet included grounding local information alongside esoteric aesthetic indulgences, like these glyphs on the right: Each circle includes the first letters of the names of the bands that played, in the order they appeared on stage over the two days, from Aero Flynn to YMusic.

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The gathering is the project of Justin Vernon, who grew up in Eau Claire, WI, and got famous with two excellent Bon Iver albums (for pronunciation, see above). He told Spin Magazine that the Eaux Claires festival was
...planned to be something like a hometown block party, just with 20,000 people. “I’ve always wanted to throw a big party with everything I would want at a place, and assumed other people want the same people there,” said the 35-year-old of the lineup. “It’s self-centered, but at the same time we got the opportunity to do it, so here we are.”

I love that! I can't help but think about The Party in the Park, a block party I just helped produce with some other visionary and neighborhood-loving types. We aimed to turn Reynolds Park into a lovely place where people wanted to hang out, and we trusted the neighborhood to shine in its unique way. Granted, our little event was a one-porta-potty-affair, but still, I think the instincts and indulgences were similar.

Coming down from an event like Eaux Claires, a time and space away from regular life, gives pause for reflection. Along with others, I am grasping for a way to describe the effect the complex experience had on me. It was profound. 

I'm curious about other people's experiences, so I've been searching via hashtags. [I'm somewhere in the middle of the general populace when it comes to hashtags:  I know what they are! But I know I don't use them to their potential. Trying, though].  

These individual comments create the collective sense of the thing. With the #eauxclaires and #eauxclaireswi indexes, I'm noticing the commentary is not so much about the music. For example:

every day i wake up to the fact that any given experience can completely change the way i see this life i'm given. 
- @christiangideon reflecting on #eauxclaires 

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Vision + Potential + Collaboration = A Transformative/Uplifting/Inspiring Experience.   

It didn't feel contrived.

In the poetic phrasing of Michael Perry, another local hero known for his many books, his own band, and his deeply resonant voice, there was "a confluence of 22,000 beating hearts" on the banks of the Chippewa and Eau Claire Rivers July 17-18. 

Justin Vernon curated the confluence, but again and again the Creative Director Michael Brown was thanked. I love the way Brown explains what he does:

I am a storyteller - a creative director of experiences, a design director of environments.

It was so clearly a gorgeously ambitious vision realized. Down to every detail...the carved wood signs throughout the campground; the light installations set deep in the woods; the open-air coffee bar with a vase of wild flowers atop an old-timey piano, available for the playing; etc... 

It is so modern, this idea to design the experience so fully, to make all 22,000 of us stars in a grand and beautifully staged production. 

The art of it is to send those 22,000 beating hearts back into their separate lives feeling that it was done for the good.  

I feel good. I think I'm better for having been there. My cup is filled up. I am more confident in my own creative ambitions, and more clear about the power of creative collaboration. 

And so proud of all the things going on around us, in spite of all the shit. Bon Iver played the final, closing set of the event and Justin Vernon said something to that effect, and then:  

“It's good to be humbled by things. It's good to be inspired by things. Holy cow. We'll see what happens after this.”-quoted in The Leader-Telegram

So what next? Look around. There is a lot happening! And also, ignore most of it so you still have the sense to swim (in the river), watch the sun set (over the lake), and listen to the music.

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