"We can't fuck up the first song," said The National's Matt Berninger as they restarted 'Don't Swallow he Cap'. He was standing in Eau Claire, Wisconsin singing songs about marriage and commitment. His trademark train wreck of a performance suddenly felt new towards us: the crowd of people who took a chance on this event like co-curator Aaron Dessner up there on guitar. It's true that you have to start things off with a bang, and Eaux Claires felt more like a family than another random spectacle in the saturated music festival world we've been nurtured by in America. The festival's spirit remains difficult to pin down, but what's certain is that it gave us a renewed appreciation for music, friends, artists, and a larger culture that Dessner and Justin Vernon invited us into. Berninger still rages on about being "Graceless", which is something we could hardly classify the weekend as. The camping was navigable, the security reasonable, the showers were fucking free, the sound was loud and crisp, the shuttle service efficient, and they didn't oversell it.

But music and camaraderie are the key takeaways, and Eaux Claires had an attitude that was intentional and specific. Sufjan Stevens, The National, and Bon Iver had noted botches on stage, but each addressed them casually and humanly. They didn't just grab the most convenient roster of touring bands because Eaux Claires' roster was mostly a combination of Vernon's and Dessner's friends across the music industry. We channeled the interconnected emotions of Stevens and Vernon and cried in between their sets as conduits between the confluence of love and friendship behind us; and the music in front of us.

Charles Bradley's set on Saturday afternoon was another fine example of unabashed emotionality. His Extraordinaires ingeniously introduce him multiple times during their shows. As such, each song is celebrated with an ongoing dialogue between crowd and artist that's manifested in various whoops, cheers, and the simple exclamation "I LOVE YOU!" It was wonderfully fitting that the sun was bearing on us while Bradley was up there "putting the flame on." I felt the same connection as we all sang along to The Tallest Man On Earth's 'Love is All' from all the way across the venue grounds the night before.

Amidst so many strong feelings, Colin Stetson offered a different blend of genres that was easily the largest showcase of virtuosic talent over the weekend. He breathed deeply into his giant bass saxophone and created a drone underneath his signature miked keys. With bass and percussion, he added yet another layer in real time: tiny wisps of melody that went from calm and psychedelic to pulverizing and a little bit frightening. It was only one instrument making these tones, and Stetson was visibly exhausted after each piece. Hours later, Bon Iver's employment of Colin's skills remained marvellous. On 'Holocene', my group and I recalled the song's earthly associations as the saxophone lines whizzed off into oblivion.

Although Vernon's presence and ethic were essential, it was Sufjan who coolly grabbed Eaux Claires by the heartstrings and blew the other acts out of the water. Like The National, he made a few mistakes remembering lyrics which gave him a personality that hit close to home as he pulled out songs from Carrie & Lowell. He is a "man with a heart that offends," but he's also unraveling a story that anyone with pain in their lives can understand and commiserate with. As such, the peak of joy that came with the addition of The No B.S. Brass Band for 'Come On Feel The Illinoise' was all the more incredible compared to the (still) breathtaking performance of 'Fourth of July'. The Illinois cuts also gave us a reinvigorated sense of the land we were standing on; and a hope that they'll be putting on another one next year.