Give them local beer and music and the people will come to Eau Claire—just as they did last Thursday during OXBEAUX, the official “Prex Claires” event before the big, third-annual Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin last weekend. The smaller event at Eau Claire’s new Oxbow Hotel featured four bands with local ties, Surly beer, and just under 2,000 attendees.
That made OXBEAUX a more intimate atmosphere in contrast to the 20,000 guests of Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival. Visitors and bands alike clearly felt at home, with chilled-out tunes floating through the area minus the pressure of Eaux Claires’ international crowd.
Still, tickets to OXBEAUX sold out in under 30 minutes, which prompted event staff to expand the concert to a block party. This also sold out. Despite that, the area never seemed overcrowded, leaving plenty of space for folks to get down however they pleased. The stretch of concrete in the outdoor courtyards of the hotel consisted of three main areas—including two parking lots for food and drink. Guests couldn’t bring alcohol into the music area, putting a bit of a damper on some visitors’ music enjoyment. I overheard one man laugh, “It’s not like I don’t drink out here every other weekend.” Oh, Wisconsin.
Guests seemed largely local, judging by the hoops and hollers when the Current’s Brian Oake asked who was from the area. Moreover, the number of people unbothered by lukewarm beer and wearing faded “Eau Claire Marathon” and “good times, Great Lakes” T-shirts was a dead giveaway. These people take an obscene amount of pride in their city—on the indie map thanks to five new music festivals since 1987—and it was alive and kickin’ Thursday night.
The festival got underway with Eau Claire folk-rock trio Idle Empress. With the sun blazing in her eyes, local singer Lauren Anderson mystified the crowd with fervent lyrics that work off her chocolate-smooth voice in just the right way. The band was relatable and endearing, fostering a relationship as only a hometown performance can. Anderson could even be found chatting with fans later on, chanting, “Gotta go, gotta go,” in a singsongy voice as she pranced in the bathroom line. The band had true Midwest charm.
DEM YUUT, a quartet from Minneapolis, came crashing in next. The boisterous tunes and fleeting moments of impulsive intensity were in stark contrast to Idle Empress. As the layered beats flowed, I couldn’t help but feel this might be better enjoyed in a contemplative state alone in my bedroom. Folksy Milwaukee-based Field Report followed with music that twinkled like the background to a summer romance film. While the group had concertgoers of all ages swaying, it was Justin Vernon’s band the Shouting Matches that owned the night.
Another local group, the Shouting Matches offers a different side of Vernon that I didn’t know I needed. Vernon dropped the falsetto voice he’s known for as Grammy-winning Bon Iver and gave the crowd a folk-rock show worthy of dancing without demanding the recognition many of his other projects beg for. The group’s northern roots show, creating an easy, visibly fun performance for both the band and attendees.
That wasn’t all for the town’s music scene, as just about every other venue in town had live performances and OXBEAUX after-parties. There’s a reason Eau Claire calls itself “the music capital of the North,” and they sure showed it on Thursday in proper preparation for the main event.