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Eaux Claires 2016: Return to the River

Driving up to the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival early last Friday morning my girlfriend and I shared an anxious excitement. We were ecstatic to be heading back to the banks of the Chippewa River to camp, dance, sing and discover with like-minded music lovers. But we wondered how the festival could match or top last year’s near-perfect inaugural outing.

Founded by Eau Claire-native Justin Vernon, the frontman of Grammy-winning indie-folk group Bon Iver, and co-curated by The National’s Aaron Dessner, the 2015 edition of the festival was unlike anything we’ve experienced. An inspiring spirit of collaboration and exploration characterized the festival, with an eclectic lineup of musicians that included Sylvan Esso, Lizzo, The National, Doomtree, Poliça, Field Report, Sufjan Stevens, and the first Bon Iver performance in years.

The Big Eaux
The Big Eaux

The overwhelming sense of community and love that we felt at Eaux Claires 2015 compelled us to buy advance tickets for this year’s edition before the lineup was announced. Once it was released we shared a brief moment of disappointment before our faith in the festival model won out. In the field manuals we received this year the opening message spoke to this sentiment:

“From the earliest days we decided we would not stick strictly to the hits. We expect some discomfort, some flops. Some Wha…? But we also expect that split-second everlasting image, that ever-bursting moment.”

And so it was. Another enchanted weekend of frolicking around Foster Farms with thousands of old and new friends. Of ducking down a path to follow a light, a melody, a mood. Of watching raindrops break mid air as the bass shakes them loose. Of being united with complete strangers during a moment of magic. Of listening, together.

The 2016 Eaux Claires festival was anchored by the only live performance of a 59-track Grateful Dead tribute album to benefit the Red Hot Organization, an international HIV and AIDS charity. Of course, not all 59 tracks were performed during the Day of the Dead’s 90-minute set. But the festival featured a dozen Day of the Dead contributors, plus the project’s curators Aaron and Bryce Dessner and their bandmates in The National.

Other lineup highlights included the debut of Bon Iver’s forthcoming album 22, A Million, neo-soul icon Erykah Badu’s first Midwest performance in almost a decade, British electro-soul artist James Blake, legendary R&B/gospel singer Mavis Staples backed by Lucius, bass heavy West Coast rapper Vince Staples showing off the raw power of The Flambeaux stage sound system, Japanese rocker Cornelius performing his touchstone 1997 album Fantasma, and Bruce Hornsby performing his multi-platinum 1986 album The Way It Is.

Beach House (photo by Scotify)
Beach House (photo by Scotify)

Unlike most major festivals, the Eaux Claires experience is not just about the big names and exclusive performances. This year they added additional stages, 24 art installations, including a literature listening cabin and a baroque pipe organ near the main stages. Sean Carey, Bon Iver’s drummer, curated a pop-up stage in the woods. Sam Amidon led a “Guitarkestra” that paraded the grounds on Friday, teaching attendees the words to the final track on the new Bon Iver album, in anticipation of a sing-along later that night.

Organizers learned from the shortfalls of the first year and executed a more efficient festival this time around. There were additional food and beverage options, more portable toilets, more water refill stations, and more shuttle buses. There was no dramatic tornado scare like last year, but the rain stopped right before Bon Iver took the stage, fueling the notion that Justin Vernon curates the weather at Eaux Claires.

Given Vernon’s frequent collaborations with hip-hop superstar Kanye West, rumors of a surprise appearance hung over Eaux Claires 2015, but “Yeezus” never materialized. This year there were actual hints that hip-hop sensation Chance the Rapper would make an appearance during Francis and the Lights’ festival closing set on Saturday night. My girlfriend and I were there to witness this “ever-bursting moment,” which I’ll discuss further in my takeaways from Eaux Claires 2016.

The shadow of Sylvan Esso

It is difficult to describe Sylvan Esso’s 2015 performance at Eaux Claires, so I’ll quote my girlfriend’s Instagram post.

“This is what a sweaty, messy gigantic lovefest looks like; a thousand hearts beating as one. The music, the lights, the bodies and the movement, creating a cyclical to and fro exchange of energy in it most primal form.”

That early evening set on July 18, 2015, may have been the single most enjoyable concert experience of my life. The euphoric crowd did not let up for one moment. In return, Amelia Meath, vocalist and badass dancer, and Nick Sanborn, production wizard and charming hype man, gave it their all. Sanborn, who grew up in Middleton and moved to Milwaukee at 18, had a grandma in attendance, who was seeing him play for the first time.

Sylvan Esso at Eaux Claires 2015 (photo by Kristina Rolander)
Sylvan Esso at Eaux Claires 2015 (photo by Kristina Rolander)

By the end of the set the security guards, surly and weary from a dangerous mosh pit earlier in the day, were gleefully coordinating efforts to douse the pulsing crowd with water. It was as if the The Dells stage was hit with an explosion of pure energy and joy. It took us all a while to come down from that high.

When we arrived at the Whispering Pines campground this year the first thing we heard was Sylvan Esso’s music echoing through the woods. A fellow camper was playing it on their boombox. With Sanborn performing in Rosenau/Sanborn and Meath in Phil Cook’s “Southland Revue,” my girlfriend and I were praying for a Sylvan Esso pop-up performance.

We spotted the lively Meath all over the festival grounds throughout the weekend. From my vantage point during Vince Staples set I could see Meath dancing with a friend on the side of the stage. At one point Sanborn, who was vibing out pretty hard himself, came over to give Meath a hug and a kiss. As rain fell and the bass shook our souls, I imagined Sanborn stepping behind the DJ table and Meath grabbing the microphone to perform one of their bangers, with Staples adding an impromptu verse.

Alas, there was no Sylvan Esso pop-up performance, at least not that we know of. There was, however, two days of forward-thinking, genre-defying, awe-inspiring music performed for an open-minded, receptive, and grateful audience.  

Bon Iver debuts new album

It’s rare for a record to debut in front of thousands of people. Playing new material live is always a risk, as the audience has no familiarity and no emotional attachment to the music. But that’s what Justin Vernon chose to do on the first night of Eaux Claires 2016. After all, it’s a festival built on taking risks and trusting the audience.

Bon Iver (photo by David Szymanski)
Bon Iver (photo by David Szymanski)

Friday night’s performance of 22, A Million is evidence that Bon Iver is moving further into experimental electronic territory, while maintaining the lush, expansive sound and cryptic poetry of its previous work.

Backing Bon Iver was a band that featured “The Sad Sax of Shit,” a collection of eight horn players that included Milwaukee-native, Minneapolis-based musician Nelson Devereaux, who also played the festival with Har Mar Superstar and his band CATSAX. I spoke with Devereaux on the phone about his experience at Eaux Claires 2016.

WiG: How did you get involved with the Bon Iver set?

ND: That started over a year ago. I did some saxophone recording on the new record with a bunch of people. That developed into Justin wanting to play the new stuff and have saxophones on it to reproduce that performance.

WiG: How did you feel about being part of the debut of a new record, given that it can be risky to play new material live?

ND: I felt great about it. We had a lot of time to get into that music and experiment with how we were going to portray it. The risk factor I think was almost all on the technological side of the music. There were some effects they were doing that are pretty new. Of course, I can only speak from the saxophone perspective. But the band sounded great. It was definitely a special thing.

The Banks

When Devereaux played his CATSAX set it was on the upper portion of the festival grounds inside of a tent called The Banks. The venue existed last year but we spent hardly any time in it due to the sweltering heat.

This year they added air-condition and expanded the space, allowing more than two hundred people to surround the thrust stage, which was cloaked with high-quality transparent screens. The screens were used to project artist Nick Cointea’s analog video in front of the performers. Upon walking in we were handed headphones that provided a more intimate audio experience, though the music could be heard without them.

Inside The Banks (photo by Joey Grihalva)
Inside The Banks (photo by Joey Grihalva)

I was able to catch the ephemeral improvised guitar loop and synthesizer collaboration of  Rosenau/Sanborn, the rapturous symphony of yMusic (who performed three Sujfan Stevens songs), and the foot-stomping indie-rock (complete with homemade instruments) of Buke and Gase inside The Banks. Cointea’s gorgeous, psychedelic projections heightened the experience ten-fold, making it one of the most unique aspects of the festival. Devereaux describes what it was like to perform at The Banks.

ND: I was trying to interact in a way with those screens; with my proximity, being a little bit more expressive with my movements. I think all of us took it as an excuse to really just go; no holding back, try different stuff, be more bombastic, because you were kind of hidden in a way.  

Chance the Rapper’s surprise appearance

Besides The Banks, the other part of the 2015 festival we overlooked that became a highlight of this year was Francis and the Lights. I vividly remember walking past his late night set on the first day of Eaux Claires 2015. He was in a cherry picker spazzing out sixty feet in the air. We were so tired at that point that we didn’t give the singer a chance.

A month before the festival Francis dropped a video for his song “Friends,” featuring two prominent cohorts: Bon Iver and Kanye West. Allegedly the song was inspired by Chance the Rapper’s “Summer Friends,” on which Francis contributes vocals. The festival field manual includes short poetic artist bios. Francis’ reads, “Francis, fresh off a Chance. Spinning. Singing, Spinning.”

This hint, plus the fact that Chance the Rapper headlined nearby Summer Set festival the night before and Tweeted from Eau Claire the morning of Francis’ set, made it seem all but a sure thing. My girlfriend and I skipped half of Beach House’s set to secure a (nearly) front row spot for the festival finale.

Francis emerged onstage looking as anxiously excited as we were heading to the festival. Like Bon Iver, he used his set to debut a new album, Farewell, Starlite! Chance the Rapper appearance aside, Francis’ set was one of the most inspired and energetic performances of the weekend. His Phil Collins-esque voice, matched with infectious electro-pop music and magnetic dance moves was mesmerizing. I immediately became a fan.

Chance the Rapper, Francis and the Lights, and Bon Iver (photo by David Szymanski)
Chance the Rapper, Francis and the Lights, and Bon Iver (photo by David Szymanski)

We could see Chance the Rapper and the Social Experiment when they arrived for Francis’ set, so we weren’t as bewildered as the rest of the crowd when they took the stage during the encore. One of the members of the Social Experiment, Nate Fox, was actually running the laptop that played Francis and the Lights’ instrumentals. Also, a few hours later Chance announced via Twitter that Francis would be the opener on his upcoming tour.

During Francis’ encore The Social Experiment formed a line at the rear of the stage, throwing their hands in the air and stepping from side-to-side. It brought to mind a church scene, complimenting Chance’s gospel-infused brand of hip-hop. Like the baroque pipe organ, it also illustrated the subtext of the festival, that music is our religion.

After Chance and Francis performed “Summer Friends,” Justin Vernon appeared. They performed the song “Friends.” When the three of them did the choreographed dance from the video — Chance standing in for fellow Chicagoan Kanye West in this case — the crowd was instantly filled with a holy spirit.

A singular festival

After returning home from the festival I caught up with Mark Waldoch, a Milwaukee musician and guitar tech for Volcano Choir, another Justin Vernon project. Waldoch was a part of the “Guitarkestra” and performed his own pop-up show in the woods.

There’s no other festival like it. Eaux Claires has so much awesome weird shit happening that everyone will have a different, crazy, unique experience, no matter who you are, even if you’re a performer,” says Waldoch.

“I feel like a kid at the end of summer having to go back to school. Just like, “Awww, the weekend was so great. I don’t want to go back to my life!” But on the other hand it’s also intensely, stupifyingly inspiring for me to go out and make music now. It had the same effect last year. I had this explosion of creative energy, which was always there but it’s easier to manifest after being at the festival.”

Mark Waldoch plays the Milwaukee Fringe Festival at 4 p.m. this Saturday at Pere Marquette Park, and opens for Kalispell at Anodyne on September 14.

Below is my full interview with Mark Waldoch, followed by my full interview with Nelson Devereaux.

WiG: You were doing some work at the festival this year with Shawn (Stephany), right?

Mark Waldoch
Mark Waldoch

MW: Yeah. Bon Iver’s manager Kyle contacted me a couple weeks in advance to see if I wanted to be in Sam Amidon’s “Guitarkestra.” This year they had more of a job to do, whereas last year they got together and paraded the grounds randomly. It was only on Friday this year and the job was to teach people the new Bon Iver song, the one that was printed in the back of the orange field manuals. Fender donated twenty acoustic guitars to Bon Iver, that were all strung “Nashville” style. It was part Sam’s idea but mostly Justin’s idea, as far as I know.

WiG: Did you get to see some of the set up on Thursday before the festival started?

MW: Not really. I had to leave here at 6 a.m. to be there by like 10:30 a.m. for a quick rehearsal and to get the guitars. There were so many little things that happened like we didn’t have guitar straps, so we had to go to the local store and buy ten guitar straps. The rehearsal was out of the university. Because a lot of those bands are kind of put together at the last second.

WiG: Is the university like the home base for that stuff?

MW: Not normally, but I think they asked and so that helped. I know William Tyler’s band rehearsed there. But a lot of people just sit with an acoustic in their trailer and practice. I saw Lucius practicing with Mavis Staples by the tree line and also inside their trailer I could hear them practicing.

WiG: You went last year, right?

MW: Yeah. I’m Chris Rosenau from Volcano Choir’s guitar tech and we went up last year.  Essentially only as his tech, but this year he didn’t need as much help. But I wanted to come,  so I said I’ll come as your tech again and I’ll just be there to help you if you need anything. I help him set up a little bit, but I was doing that “Guitarkestra” stuff this year, so that made it so I couldn’t help him as much, but he did fine. He’s pretty self-sufficient. But I wouldn’t be there at all if it wasn’t for him.

WiG: How was your experience this year compared to last year?

MW: Last year I went certainly more as a spectator and this year I was more of a participant.  I watched just as much stuff this year though. I just did more this year. The artists have an area where they meet and check in and everything that’s separate from the festival. You go in there and park your car and then you get on a bus that takes you to the backstage area.

On the morning of Day Two I was on the bus sitting with Sean Carey. He had this whole stage set up in the woods where he had performed and I had seen him perform on Friday. We’re not like close but we’re certainly more than acquaintances. And I really thought it was a cool fucking idea. You know, you’re out in the woods, you can hear the other stages in the distance but it’s not like ruining it. It’s this really beautiful and serene area.  

And I was just like, “That’s the perfect place to play a show.” And he was like, “Do you want to do one?” And I was like, “Really?” And he was like, “Yeah, I got a spot today at five if you want to do it.” And I’m like, “Fuck yeah I wanna do it.” So it was this spontaneous thing.

WiG: Did that stage have a name?

MW: It was like Sean Carey’s stage, pop-up thing. I mean it was pretty loose. I think it was sort of an area for random fun to happen. I got a five o’clock spot on Saturday, that’s pretty fucking rad. He did like several sets up there. I mean other than his Bon Iver set, he didn’t do anything but that the whole weekend.

WiG: He plays with Bon Iver?

MW: Yeah Sean Carey is the drummer in Bon Iver. I mean, there’s two drummers now. He does his own music too. He’s got two solo records. He was one of the first members of Bon Iver. He’s the only original member besides Justin that still plays in the band.

WiG: We made it to that stage Friday night and there was this weird EDM thing with guys on laptops in painter suites in front of the stage and one guy in a painter suite like conducting them on stage.

MW: There’s so many different little things at the festival that you can never see it all. That’s really the only problem, though it’s not really a problem. It’s like if you try to plan out everything you want to do, it’s impossible to do half of it still. There’s so much awesome weird shit happening that everyone will have a different, crazy, unique experience, no matter who you are, even if you’re a performer.

WiG: And with all the art added this year too.

MW: Yeah there was art last year but there was three times as much this year. I think they were able to organize it a little bit better because they were able to know what to expect.

WiG: One of my very few suggestions for next year is that they make the grounds open on Thursday as well as the campground. Because the campground is already open on Thursday but the grounds should be open just for exploring the art and maybe have some pop-up music performances.

MW: Yeah that would be great. Just like more in between time. Because there’s so much stuff I would have liked to see but I didn’t have time in between all the music that I wanted to see. There was a lot of great little moments though. It was so much fun.

WiG: On paper the line up wasn’t as exciting to us as last year…

MW: But I felt like this year was way more interesting.

WiG: Yeah the experience still delivered.

MW: I love The National and Spoon and Sufjan Stevens and a lot of that music, but the lineup this year was way more exciting to me. Because a lot of those bands have records that I listen to all the time, but like Senyawa and Deafhaven and LNZNDRF, those pair of guys from The National, I got to hang out with Scott a little bit, you know all those other little side projects that normally never get to see the light of day for that many people, like that fucking kicked ass.

My Volcano Choir friends, my family, if you will, those guys had individual sets. And because I was doing the “Guitarkestra” I wasn’t able to see all of them, but the fact that they were able to present what they’re doing solo to such a receptive audience is just fucking great.

WiG: Have you been to some of the big weekend music festivals like Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo?

MW: Yeah definitely. None of them are like this. Not a single one. If you’re going to make a festival happen you have to organize mass crowds, but at Eaux Claires you never feel like you’re cattle being herded. At every other festival you’re literally bumping into the fence. At Eaux Claires even the port-o-potties are nicer. The crowd in general isn’t as drunk and they’re quieter. Think about that? How many thousands of people were listening to Bon Iver and you could still hear a pin drop. When has that ever happened in the history of ever? Certainly in the history of music festivals.

WiG: I’ve only been to Osheaga in Montreal and there were some wooded paths, but you go down them and it’s the Camel cigarettes Wifi Zone or whatever.

MW: At Eaux Claires there’s some corporate sponsorship but it’s way more local-centric. It’s local before anything corporate. You’re not being hit in the face with it everywhere you walk. At other festivals it’s on every stage and behind the bands, some gaudy banner of some crap that somebody paid for. Even on the TV screens by the stages, at the big festivals they’re flashing garbage for this corporate sponsor and that, but it’s not like that at Eaux Claires. It’s fucking wonderful. A lot of positivity. A lot of hopefulness.

WiG: I was really blown away by The Banks this year. I didn’t spend much time in them last year because it was so hot in there. But this year with the air conditioning and the visual artist Nick Cointea doing his thing, that was incredible.

MW: Yeah that was pretty good stuff.

WiG: What’d you think of Roseneau/Sanborn’s set?

MW: Well, because I was doing the “Guitarkestra” I had to miss the end of it. But I got there to help him load in and set up and watch the beginning. It was great. I saw their set at Acme the day before. Nick was playing a lot of keys and manipulating them as well. I think they sent each other musical ideas and had a concept of what stuff Chris would loop and then it would go to Nick.

If I understand it right, it goes through an Ableton Live type program and then he’s manipulating it with different instruments. Like in a lesser form of what he does for Sylvan Esso, where he’ll take Amelia’s vocals and then process them through stuff and then they go back out into the room. He was kind of doing that a little bit with Chris’ guitar as well, but obviously it wasn’t all set to a rhythm track that they had made. It was set to improvisation and spontaneity. Couple of brilliant dudes. I mean, for real. It’s incredible. Chris went on a short tour opening for Made of Oak and I got to see Nick’s process up close and it was pretty cool.

I really loved Andy Fitzpatrick in The Banks. He goes by the name Noxroy. I was pretty blown away by his set there. I see him play mostly as a guitarist in Volcano Choir and he’s also now in Bon Iver. I just hadn’t heard him do an electronic set on his own like that before and it was really cool.

I feel like a kid at the end of summer having to go back to school. Just like “Awww, the weekend was so great. I don’t want to go back to my life!” But on the other hand it’s also intensely, stupefyingly inspiring for me to go out and make music now. It had the same effect last year. I had this explosion of creative energy, which was always there but now it’s easier to manifest after being at the festival.

A funny thing happened on the drive home. I’m not going to say who it was but I was listening to this compilation in the car of all these different songs after having spent an entire weekend listening to some of the cream of the crop of creativity in music today, all in the same place. Then I’m listening to this compilation CD and I was just thinking, “Nobody’s trying hard enough. This stuff sucks.” I like rock and roll, I like simple stuff too. But after you hear what people can do and what people choose to do with music, it’s like people could just try harder,  myself included.

WiG: It seems like what they’ve done with this festival is create a platform for musicians to try new ideas because they have a receptive audience. And to do it in a festival format is pretty incredible.

MW: I don’t know if you saw the band Alpha Consumer. They’re like a rock trio, but they’re so incredibly creative. Their live show, it was early in the day but you wouldn’t know it. They were just so awesome. Their guitar player Jeremy Ylvisaker,  I met him when he was in the band The Cloak Ox because they were on tour with Volcano Choir on the West Coast. He plays with everybody in Minneapolis.

He’s like the hottest gunslinger on guitar in that city as far as I know. He toured with Andrew Bird for a while. He’s played on everybody’s record up there. Everybody from Mark Mallman to Har Mar and all those kinds of people. He’s on the level of guitar playing that very few people are anymore. He can do the stuff Prince can do. That’s not an exaggeration, he really can. He’s not Prince, but as far as a guitarist, he almost is. To see people like that is just incredible. And he has this little kid with the same haircut, it was like a miniature twin.

Another great moment was after I found out I was playing that set in the woods. I figured I had some time so I found a guitar and a strap. I looked at the schedule and I was like, “Okay, I got Mavis Staples and then Phil Cook. This day can’t really get any better.” I’m watching Phil Cook and he’s got Bruce Hornsby coming out. But before that Mavis played and I was watching her and I saw the two girls from Lucius and I was like, “Oh yeah, you’re singing with her.” And they’re just so giggly and happy to be there. It was just so much happiness.

Then Bruce Hornsby comes up and he’s just like fucking cool grandpa. He’s performing in front of thousands of people and he’s wearing sweatpants and some slipper type shoes. He just like does not give a fuck. And he doesn’t have to. He’s fucking Bruce Hornsby. I didn’t even spark up a conversation with him I was just looking at him and nodding and he said to me, “I can’t believe how much fun I’m having, this is such a great, positive experience.” And then Mavis starts mentioning his name on stage to the audience and he’s like, “And look, she’s even plugging my record for me.” It was just the coolest thing. And apparently he had written a song for her back in the eighties. It was pretty nuts.

It’s just amazing that these guys dreamed up this scenario where they can do all this shit. Very few people like Justin and Aaron who are in the position to do something like this actually do it.

Did you hear about that festival in Berlin? It sounds really intriguing to me. I just read about it in a Pitchfork article. I could have it all wrong but it sounds really cool where all the different artists show up and they rehearse whatever it is they’re going to perform for that festival. And then the people who come to the event, I don’t think they’re calling it a festival, it’s like a concert event, but the audience gets taken to different rooms and they have no idea who they’re going to be seeing for that performance. They have no idea what they’re going to be hearing, they’re just like randomly taken to different rooms. But they know all the people that are going to be involved. They just don’t know who or what they are going to see and when.  So it’s just like a mind-blowingly cool idea. I mean a bunch of them will probably just get super baked and play some random shit, but it’ll be a fun experience. It’s fun for the artist to do that once in awhile, not just run through the motions.

That’s another cool thing about Bon Iver. They premiered their whole new record, but then they didn’t come back and play everything everybody wants to hear. They played a couple of old songs but they played inventive, new versions of them.

WiG: I don’t know if Erykah got the message about the vibe of the festival, but she was also doing like different drum pad stuff to intro her classics.

MW: What a badass. She totally had that like punk-rock mentality. Like, “I’ll get out there when I feel like it. I know I’m supposed to go on at a certain time, but whatever.”

You should talk to this guy too. (Mark is pointing to Milwaukee musician Daniel Spack, who is walking by our table at Colectivo in Bay View). He was there all weekend too. Everyone’s got their own story of what happened at Eaux Claires because everybody is somewhere else. Everybody’s paths cross but there were things that I didn’t get to see that other people got to see that you got to see.  Like I really would have liked to go to that Dwarfcraft Tripolith instrument thing, because I’m a fan of their guitar pedal company out of Eau Claire. Some really creative stuff. There’s all kinds of stuff that I didn’t get to see but I tried to. That’s why you can’t get too drunk at this festival. The festival is about maintaining and seeing and experiencing.

I know without a doubt that my personal music experience of playing that show in the woods I’ll remember as one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life. Because the spontaneity of it got my adrenaline going. Then there was a hundred people in the woods and they’re the perfect audience. They’re just relaxing, taking a little break from everything else. But they’re also 100% receptive of everything you’re doing and super grateful for it. You don’t ever have to pay me if every show I play is like that. I wasn’t paid for that but I loved it. I was rewarded in so many other like real ways.

WiG: I think you spoke to what makes the festival so special, that everybody does have a different experience.

MW: Yeah. And the fact that they take care of people and the artists. You don’t have to buy bottles of water for like $5 or $10 a pop. Just bring a bottle in and refill it. It’s meant for you to be there all day.

WiG: Do you know about how long Justin and Aaron have been dreaming this up?

MW: For the first festival…I honestly don’t know but I want to say I first heard about it in 2013. I’m sure the seeds of it were at least two years before that if not more. There’s a music festival called Boston Calling and a lot of the logistical things come from that, because Aaron started that festival.

WiG: I remember clicking on one of the ticket links for Eaux Claires and the URL default said something about Boston Calling.

MW: Yeah I think that’s the name of the company.

Below is the full interview with Nelson Devereaux.

WiG: I saw you around the festival quite a bit.

ND: Yeah I made the rounds.

WiG: I missed the CATSAX set because I had to write a review of the Bon Iver album performance for 88nine Radio Milwaukee, but how did the CATSAX set go?

Nelson Devereaux
Nelson Devereaux

ND: It was insane. I walked away feeling really good about that performance. I think people really liked it. It was cool because people were sitting down in that tent. I had come for maybe three different other performances there just to get the vibe and to see what I could do with that environment. A lot of people were standing during those shows. For CATSAX people were sitting down for whatever reason. And it was full of people. I brought some friends onstage, some of the other saxophone players who played on the Bon Iver performance with me, and a trumpet player friend of mine.

WiG: Did you alter your performance in any way to match what was happening in that space?

ND: When I went to visit it before we played I wanted to see how the audiences were reacting to that kind of environment. The main thing was that there were these projection screens that sort of boxed in the artists as they were performing. They were a little translucent so I was trying to kind of interact in a way with those screens; with my proximity, with my body being close to the screens so that maybe the audience could see me a little better at certain points in the performance. I was being a little bit more expressive with my movements on stage. It ended up being really cool. And we were working with a visual artist that I was introduced to via Michael Brown, who is the creative director. And he was kind of improvising visuals during that set.

WiG: Do you know the artist’s name?

ND: His name is Nick Ciontea. He’s really cool. I don’t know much about his work though, we only had a very brief conversation right before I went on stage. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to prepare or anything. So that was super rad and it got my mind thinking about what I can do for different CATSAX shows. We have some newer fragments of songs that we did, because a lot of the set is improvised. But we’re starting to get to the point where I can kind of sense what we’re going into and then I have a couple sing songs that I play with guitar, which is a new thing for me. I thought we covered a vast musical landscape that set.

WiG: I thought that was a very interesting and engaging space. The visuals that the artist did were fantastic. But I could see the space being somewhat awkward or giving you that feeling that you’re boxed in as a performer, having that barrier between you and the audience.

ND: I think all of us took it as an excuse to really just go; no holding back, try different stuff, be more bombastic, because you were kind of hidden in a way. I heard from the audience that the vibe was cool but some people wished that they could have seen us better.

WiG: How did you get involved in the Bon Iver set?

ND: That started over a year ago. I did some saxophone recording on the new record with a bunch of people. Then that developed into Justin wanting to play the new stuff and have all the saxophones on it to kind of reproduce that performance. It was definitely a special thing.

WiG: Was it true to the recording of the album, the festival performance?

ND: I would say it borrows a lot of the elements from it. We were reproducing tracks that were done with lots of different people. Of the eight of us onstage not all had recorded on that record.

WiG: There were eight horn players in what Justin called “The Sad Sax of Shit”?

ND: Yeah that’s the name he gave us. I guess that’s what he’s calling us now. I dig that.

WiG: What was your feeling about being part of the debut of new material, given that it’s sort of risky to play new material live?

ND: I felt great about it. We had a lot of time to get into that music and experiment with how we were going to portray it. The risk factor I think was almost all on the technological side of the music. There were some effects they were doing that are pretty new. But for us we feel very comfortable in there doing it. Of course, I can only speak from the saxophone perspective. But the band sounded great too.

WiG: I really enjoyed it. I gave it a solid review despite the inherent difficulties of judging an album based on one listen, especially one listen with thousands of people in a festival setting.

ND: Right. It was an interesting way to do that. To just debut an album before it was officially announced.

WiG: How long have you been playing with Har Mar Superstar?

ND: I started playing in that band in early March of this year. I’ve played with Har Mar more than I’ve played with any other band this year. We played SXSW followed by a month-long US tour, followed by an almost month-long European tour. So it’s been a lot. We’re going out again in October for another month.

WiG: What do you like about that band?

ND: Har Mar is like a celebrity. It’s crazy to have someone who’s so well-connected leading a band. The types of people and artists he brings to shows that are in the mainstream is kind of insane. You never know who will be hanging around a Har Mar show. You really never know.

But then musically speaking, playing pop music and soul music has always been interesting to me and developing it into a well rounded show. Jake and I, we’re the horns, we’ve developed dance moves. We’re playing micro chords on the keyboard and auxiliary percussion and singing and playing our instruments. It’s an opportunity for us to try new stuff too.

Sean (Har Mar Superstar) is really free with the way that he approaches that music as long as we can package it well. He’s a super chill dude. And the band is full of really cool people too. It’s not always the same band, due to proximity and people living in places like Denver. The guitar player lives in like four different places around the U.S. and South America. It gives us an opportunity to sort of mess with the parts a little bit and change them up and play with different people.

Audiences are very receptive to that music too. It’s really cool to have that energy. I feed off that when I’m playing. So yeah, I’m just getting ready for that tour and there’s a lot of really exciting stuff that’s going to happen soon. 2016 has been the craziest year in so many ways.

Nelson Devereaux will be on tour with Har Mar Superstar this October and November and can regularly be found playing all over the Twin Cities.


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