Music Leads a Revival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin | Midwest Living

Music Leads a Revival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin

Music and art are reviving the old lumber town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with a little help from a hometown icon.

On the Grammy stage in 2012, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver wore his ambivalence on his sleeves. Specifically, a baggy brown suit that looked more math professor than red-carpet rock star. “I’m a little bit uncomfortable up here,” he said while accepting the award for Best New Artist. He acknowledged all artists that will never get Grammy accolades. Then he gave a shout-out to a city most in the crowd had never heard of: Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

After a run of international tours and collaborations with artists like Kanye West, the indie-rock hero has doubled down on the city that raised him. “Some people feel they were born in the wrong place. I feel I was born in the right one,” Justin says. He still lives in Eau Claire. And his success has added fuel to the creative fire in this outdoor gateway 90 miles east of Minneapolis.

Art and music in Eau Claire

Three years ago, Justin launched Eaux Claires with fellow musician Aaron Dessner of The National. The two-day music-and-art festival has turned the city of 68,000 into a summer destination for some of the nation’s top indie musicians. An art trail through the woods, massive interactive installations and surprise appearances by major artists on multiple stages set it apart from similar fests. Last year, folk legends Paul Simon and John Prine, plus headliners Chance the Rapper and Wilco, drew tens of thousands to 60 acres on Foster Farms. This year, Justin has said the lineup will remain a secret until you arrive. Eaux Claires is now one of six annual music festivals in the growing city, which pegs its rich musical heritage on Justin’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Downtown Revival

Standing on the roof of Ramone’s, Blayne Midthun points to all the life around his new ice cream shop: street sculptures, chefs opening trendy restaurants, two boutique hotels. And a $60 million performing arts center opens this fall. Beside it, Phoenix Park replaced a brownfield site with green space, water access, paths and an amphitheater at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers. “This all used to be an industrial dump,” Blayne says. “Come down here five years ago, and there would be nothing going on.”

But tonight, families are streaming into Phoenix Park for a Thursday concert series. A few blocks away, a separate sold-out crowd has shut down the street. Many attendees traveled from out of state for the third annual Eaux Claires fest, starting tomorrow. Gathered outside The Oxbow—a hyper-hip independent hotel that opened in 2016—they erupt when one of the hotel’s owners takes the stage. It’s Justin, electric guitar in hand, with The Shouting Matches, a group he formed before Bon Iver existed. Tonight, he’s just a proud local cranking out rowdy blues rock with a band of longtime friends from Wisconsin.

Oxbeaux Pre-Party

Fans crowd outside Justin Vernon's hotel for the Oxbeaux pre-party before the 2017 Eaux Claires fest.

Summer Festival Lineup

Blue Ox June 14–16 Americana-bluegrass festival, launched 2015. Past artists: Drive-By Truckers, Del McCoury, Béla Fleck. 

Eaux Claires IV July 6–7 Indie-folk music and art fest, started 2015. Past artists: Bon Iver, The National, Sufjan Stevens, Feist. 

Country Jam USA July 19–21 Country music fest, launched 1990. Past artists: Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, The Band Perry. 

Two Ways to Stay

Pick between a pair of stylish hotels that opened downtown in 2016.

Oxbow Hotel

Woodsy Romantic: The Oxbow Hotel It’s all local at the artsy hotel owned by Justin Vernon and friends. You can book a river float via the front desk or play Kubb on The Lakely restaurant patio. Then peruse the vinyl library and unwind with your in-room turntable.

Chic Urbanite

The Informalist

Chic Urbanite: The Lismore Hotel Mod rooms coexist with Dive rooftop bar, ECDC coffee shop and The Informalist. Chef Amy Huo delivers Wisconsin-sourced trout plates or pizzas made with spent grain from a local brewery. 

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon

Justin Vernon

In 2006, Justin Vernon retreated to a Wisconsin cabin for the winter to write For Emma, Forever Ago, the debut album for Bon Iver. At 37, the Grammy winner recently opened a studio in Eau Claire and helps produce other artists.

Beyond the Music

Lakes in Eau Claire

Paddle the Water
Choose from still water to Class II rapids, with 300-some lakes and two big rivers nearby.

Bike Trails in Eau Claire

Bike the Trails
More than 30 miles of bike paths weave through the city and connect Eau Claire to Chippewa Falls.

Tour the Brewery
Head 10 miles north to Chippewa Falls to visit Leinenkugel’s, one of the oldest U.S. breweries.

Find the Art
Downtown, walk among 35 street sculptures that change in May (and buy one if you like).

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