Going home with Bon Iver: Dispatches from Eau Claire – Part 2

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“Things are sweeter when they’re lost.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Two things I thought about as I made the drive from the Minneapolis airport to my hometown of Eau Claire, WI, on my assignment to listen to the new Bon Iver album ’22, A Million’: First, how overwhelmingly green this part of the country is. Living in Los Angeles for the past 16 years, it’s easy to forget that beneath all the stucco and concrete there’s a desert. Here, the abundance of trees and overgrown grass everywhere were a shock to my system, even though I grew up here.

The second thought came as I crossed the St. Croix River from Minnesota into Wisconsin. I was reminded of my dad’s twisted sense of humor. Back in the 1970s, the bridge that crossed the St. Croix was worse for the wear, looking ramshackle and possibly unsafe. To keep us quiet for a brief moment during the many road trips into Minneapolis, my dad would tell my brother, sister, and me that the bridge would collapse under us unless we held our breath for the entire ride over. I distinctly recall the glee in my dad’s eyes reflected in the rearview mirror as he watched us trying our best, all of us turning blue in the face for the two-minute trip over the bridge.

No wonder I’m such a mess.

After the hour-and-a-half car ride from the airport, I pulled into Eau Claire and headed towards downtown. Bon Iver’s label had arranged for me and 30 or so radio and music journalists to attend the press event and album listening party later that night at the Lismore Hotel. It’s a relatively new hotel that Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon had a hand in bringing to the city. My parents had stayed there a month earlier – they now live in Madison – and had told me it was swank, but I couldn’t even imagine.

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Indeed, the downtown I had known growing up had been left-for-dead by the new malls south of town. It was left a ghost town of run-down bars, fleabag motels, homeless shelters, and abandoned buildings.

So I couldn’t believe my eyes as I drove in: new modern structures, thriving businesses, condo and apartment buildings everywhere. Where once there was graffiti and garbage, tree-lined bike paths run along the river, leading to the beautiful new Phoenix Park.

Beautiful. That was never a word I could have imagined applying to downtown Eau Claire. It’s a complete goddamn makeover.

I quickly parked my car and walked the streets. One of the first things I noticed were the loudspeakers on every corner playing music. Now, they’d always been there, but the music had changed. Gone was the spooky type of low-frequency Muzak that created a particularly unsettling soundtrack as you wandered the abandoned downtown streets in the 80s. The music being blasted today was upbeat and compelling. I realized it was the work of J.E. Sunde, a local Eau Claire musician whose work I was familiar with through his band, The Daredevil Christopher Wright. Yeah, that’s different. And so are the young, hip, professional-looking people heading in and out of businesses and keeping the sidewalks busy in a way I’d never experienced before.

And there was art everywhere: paintings on the sides of buildings, unusual sculptures everywhere I turned. Local businesses offered organic coffee, locally made crafts, signature cocktails. The shops seemed to be everywhere and thriving. There was even a new independent record store, aptly named Revival Records, full of new and used vinyl. It’s the first record store in town since the legendary Union Records & Tapes shuttered in the mid-2000s (the impact Union Records had on my musical acumen cannot be overstated).

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This whole scene was mind blowing and hard to comprehend. I wondered how much of this revitalization could be directly or indirectly linked to Vernon.

The locals told me his influence is significant. He not only brought attention to the city through his active recording studio, April Base, and his creating and curating the Eaux Claires Music Festival (which in its first two years has featured The National, Sturgill Simpson, Spoon, Charles Bradley, James Blake, Beach House, and even Bruce Hornsby), but Vernon has invested in the revitalization of Eau Claire. Along with his friend Zach Halmstead, one of the principals in the Eau Claire-based software company JAMF (which is management software for Apple and is rumored to stand for Just Apple Mother Fucker), Vernon is one of the major investors in the Confluence Arts Center, a multi-million dollar project that will bring a new theater and performing arts space to downtown.

Eaux Claires Festival photo credit: Kyle Frenette
Eaux Claires Festival. Photo credit: Kyle Frenette (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I met locals who seem energized by these changes to the city, which have happened in the last five years. There was always something modest about Eau Claire and its people, but now there is real excitement about what’s possible and a surge of creative energy. The local music scene is going full steam. One local store had a rack of CDs featuring only the music of Eau Claire artists and it was a surprising number of releases.

I got the impression people are working hard to support each other and focusing on locally made. An old friend, John Shimmick, who recently opened a vintage clothing store called Good & Sturdy Vintage (which, if it existed in Silverlake, would sell out in less than 2 hours), mentioned that Justin Vernon was personally supportive of the new venture and encouraged him to set up a pop-up backstage at the Eaux Claires Festival.

Vernon is almost finished with another downtown hotel, The Oxbow. It’s a renovation of the former Green Tree Inn, a notable fleabag inn best known for hookers and trucker speed (neither of which I ever imbibed in, for the record), The Oxbow will also have a restaurant, live music, craft cocktails and all manner of recreational activities, including kayaking!.

Tonight The Oxbow will serve as the location for our listening party for Bon Iver’s album ’22, A Million’. Then we’ll talk about the reason we all appreciated Vernon in the first place: the music.