Last July, I drove three hours to meet my brother in Eau Claire, Wisconsin for the inaugural Eaux Claires festival. Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, and Michael Brown — the festival’s co-creators — were explicit about their desire to challenge the festival format, one typically designed to gather bands like vendors hawking wares at a marketplace in such a way that explicitly and implicitly pits them against one another, reinforcing genre differences and emphasizing the consumption of music more than its creation and enjoyment.
To those ends, Eaux Claires creators and designers set out to dissolve some of the barriers that typically separate the people who make art from the people who witness it. Festival goers were encouraged to engage with art installations, to experience performance in three interactive and innovative domes, and to journal about their experiences in field guides that were distributed upon admission. Likewise, performers were encouraged to jettison the sorts of festival behaviors expected of rock stars, to collaborate, to take risks, and to be fans of each other. Given my pet theory that covers are such a specific musical pleasure precisely because they become sonic artifacts that merge the roles of making and enjoying art, I expected the creators’ interest in similar mergers to create a fertile ground for covers and collaborations that changed songs in some of the same way covers do.