Ben’s Back: Ben Shaw Gracing the Valley Once Again

Artist Focus, Live Shows

I really didn’t know who Ben Shaw was. I came across his 2016 release, Feet to the Fire, last year and dug it from the very beginning. I thought to myself, “Who is this new guy in the Eau Claire music scene?!” As I listened more, I could tell this was no beginner, no young buck just starting to do this music thing. There is grit in his voice and experience in his lyrics.

Well, apparently, I missed it when Ben was helping shape Eau Claire music as a part of The Embellishment, among his other projects, to my chagrin. Thankfully, I’ve finally experienced Ben Shaw’s music for myself. I listened to Feet to the Fire quite a bit over the last year and was privileged to hear Ben play as a part of last year’s Sounds Like Summer event at Phoenix Park. That experience cemented my fandom.

This summer, Ben’s back for a more extended visit back home. I was able to catch up with him recently and gather some of his thoughts about his career and his tour in the upper Midwest.

What drives/inspires your songwriting?

As to inspiration, probably a bit of healthy narcissism in that when I look back, once a song is complete, it is almost always written about some sort of personal experience, spiritual longing, emotional catharsis, or a lovely muse whose attention I am seeking.

As to what drives my songwriting I would have to say the song drives me. It is an organic process, which begins with me noodling on the guitar or a piano. At some point I make a mistake that catches my ear or I discover a new lick that resonates internally. At that point the song dictates, usually a melody comes up first in my head, then I hear vowels in the melody, and lastly words that correspond with those vowels begin to form. Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes 20 years. The one thing that is always certain is my heart knows when the song is complete.


Describe the relationship between your previous musical “life” and/or following in Eau Claire with your newer musical pursuits/following?

I haven’t noticed too much of a disconnect. My new stuff is a more mature, possibly mellower version of my old stuff – vocal/emotion-centered with multi-layered metaphorical lyrics but with fewer jamout sections. I definitely (became) a better songwriter once I discovered the art of using a bridge in songs (hahaha). There are fewer people singing along to the new stuff but that is more from lack of exposure. Fortunately, they can hear the old favorites when I reunite with The Embellishment at Grenfest this year. In all honesty, the Eau Claire music scene faithful have always been supportive of whatever I’ve done starting with solo gigs at the Cabin to my various bands: Lawnmower, Ala Balik, the Tree Huggers, and the Embellishment.


Do you have any new releases in the works?

I have over an album’s worth of songs written but am not sure if I will record them as an album or release single by single. It depends if the album is a cohesive statement. I’m not a fan of albums that are a non-flowing collection of singles. I have 1 track in the can and another in progress. I also have been collaborating on 3 separate projects with some excellent songwriters (Bonnie Piesse, Evan Brau, and Jeff Lipinski, respectively) that should release early next year.


Who are your most significant musical/artistic influences?

For recording production influences my tops are the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Grandaddy, and Bon Iver. Musically, I’d say the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, Radiohead, and again, the Beatles. As far as songwriting goes, the list is numerous, but my tops are Procul Harum, Roger Waters, Dylan, Beethoven, Tom Waits, Handel, and most of the classic Outlaw Country writers (Willie, Waylon, Merle, Kris, and Hanks I & II).


What are you looking forward to the most this time around in Wisconsin?

A cup of coffee at Racy’s, sipping a “Slit Spritzer” in the barber chair at the Joynt, seeing my first Packers practice, and, most importantly, playing more shows in the EC area with my sidekicks Eric Thompson, Adam Nussbaum, and Paul Brandt, all of whom are phenomenal musicians and great people. Last year was a whirlwind of a week of rehearsals yet we only played 2 shows. We were just hitting our stride and having so much fun playing together. Everyone in the band, myself included, wanted to play more. So this year, I made sure to have more gigs for us. We will play 7 shows this year (4 in various Eau Claire locations, 1 in Menomonie, and two in the Twin Cities).

Ben Shaw and band are playing the following dates over the course of the next week or so here in the Valley:

Thursday, August 10, 8pm at The Mousetrap (21+; with The Rattlenecks)
Thursday, August 17, 6:30pm at Phoenix Park as a part of Volume One’s Sound Like Summer
Thursday, August 17, 10:00pm at The Firehouse (21+)
Saturday, August 19, 2pm as a part of Grenfest 2 (email for more information)

If you’re not familiar with Ben’s sound, take a listen…

Cracked Foundations: My Eaux Claires Troix Story

Live Shows, Music and Healing

Integrity is powerful thing. While, in many cases, we have reduced it to a measure of consistency in thought, behavior, speech, etc., it means more than that. It has to do with wholeness, with the pieces of a whole being held together securely. The foundation of a building begins to lose its integrity (or, practically, disintegrate) when it cracks, its constituency (brick and mortar) begins to disintegrate, and it can no longer support the weight of the building resting on it. At the start, brick and mortar were securely connected to one another. There were no cracks and no giving way. But, as the foundation begins to compromise… one crack leads to another and another and another until eventually the walls of the foundation begin to bow. Before long, the building as a whole begins to fall apart and is headed toward demolition.

My first Eaux Claires experience, in a true and deep sense, shook my soul, my very foundation. If I’ve had a conversation with you about it, you know how deeply it impacted me. Quite literally, I took weeks to recover emotionally. Beach House’s Space Song haunted me on a regular basis and Bon Iver’s 22 (Over Soon) was a continual invitation into not only the rest of 22, A Million, but right back into the emotion I felt during those two days. I was overwhelmed with an awe of the God-given creativity I experienced that weekend and I felt as though I was a part of something very special.

Last Christmas, my beautiful and generous wife bought me a ticket for the third edition of the festival, and I couldn’t wait to hear about the lineup and start dreaming about what this year’s experience would be. When the lineup was announced, I was very excited to say the least. I mean, Paul Simon with yMusic! Sylvan Esso! Music for the Long Emergency! Now, while I was very much looking forward to the event, I was also trying very hard to temper my expectations. After all, Eaux Claires Deux was an emotional and spiritual event for me. I shouldn’t expect that to happen every year, right?

Well, I was wrong about that. Troix was emotionally and spiritually moving, just as Deux had been. However, the emotional and spiritual dynamics were quite different this time around for me. For this attendee, this year’s festival was a combination of joy and sorrow. I didn’t expect the sorrow, and it was the reason I actually  left the festival early on Day Two. It was a sorrow borne out of what I saw as extreme inconsistency, or compromised integrity, in several aspects of the festival.

Before I dive too deeply into that subject, let me reaffirm, there certainly was joy. Sylvan Esso. Sylvan freaking Esso. The Durham duo was incredible and they created such vibrant energy in the crowd… it was impossible to stand still during their set. It didn’t hurt that Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn looked like they were genuinely feeling it that night as well. I thought Perfume Genius was pretty incredible as well. Mike Hadreas and band came across as this eclectic blend of provocation, expression, and straight out fun as well. I also really enjoyed Collections of Colonies of Bees and Zebulon Pike. Collections was one of the first acts to play on Day Two and they were tight. Incredible creativity and craftsmanship. I need more. And Zebulon Pike… let me tell you, it did this old heart good to witness four guys about his age rocking like those guys rocked. The Minneapolis instrumental metal outfit were able to blend passion and precision in their performance in ways I don’t often see.

While these performances were great, the most poignant moment of the festival for me occurred early on Day Two, when s*t*a*r*g*a*z*e welcomed Minneapolis rapper Astronautalis to the stage. The day before, we learned of the acquittal of the police officer who killed Philando Castille. I hadn’t heard of the verdict until it was announced by Broder as he began his set on Friday afternoon (more on that in a bit). When Astronautalis took the mic, he was flowing on about how blessed he was to be a part of the day, to experience the beautiful sunshine, and on and on. But then his words told the story of his mixed emotions. Yeah, he was grateful and should feel happy about the moment, but he kept “thinking ’bout Philando.” It was a beautiful, soul-bearing moment in which he could not help but feel the weight of injustice. And my heart resonated with his. It was broken as well.

My recollection of that incredibly emotive, connecting moment leads me right into parts of the Troix experience with which I struggled terribly. As noted, the Philando Castille situation colored the festival. I first heard the verdict just as Broder was starting his set. Before the music began, the he mentioned what happened and encouraged the audience toward love and peace, which was beautiful. But then he said (this is verbatim to the best of my recollection), “Rest in peace, Philando. And rest in piss to the motherf*cker who (killed him).” This statement struck me as wildly inconsistent with his previous words about “peace” and “love.” For me, I found this kind of inconsistency to be a virtual theme running throughout the festival, and it ate at me throughout the weekend.

Another example of this inconsistency (or compromised integrity) was the festival being presented as an “All Ages” event. The Eaux Claires website states, “All ages are welcome, children ten and under are free.” “All ages” is also printed on the ticket. This would lead me, and likely others, to think the event is family-friendly. Now, I remember, during last year’s festival, seeing kids there and wondering if it was a good thing for them to be exposed to some of the lyrical content flowing from the artists. This year, that tension was palpable for me, and it began from the very onset. The first set on Friday saw Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, and friends playing what they called “People Mixtape” on a small stage. Now, creatively, it was a fun set and I really enjoyed it. However, one of the very first songs had Vernon repeating “I don’t want to f*ck it up” over and over again. As I stood there listening, just in front of me was a young girl, maybe 7-8 years old. As the father of an 8 year old, I would not want my son listening to that. This little girl stood there trying hard to protect herself from what she was hearing, hands clasped tightly over her ears. My heart sank a little bit in that moment.

And then there was the Spank Rock set on Day Two. In the months preceding the festival, I spent time trying to get to know the artists’ music so I would know whose shows I wanted to make sure I did not miss. Spank Rock and Danny Brown were two I quickly determined I wanted to miss. It wasn’t because of the music. I thought the few songs I listened to were funky, fun, and creative, musically speaking. But the lyrical content was just gross. The songs I previewed were sexually explicit, graphic, and unfortunately vivid, and some degraded women. So, I determined that I would be glad to miss those two sets.

However, when the time for Spank Rock’s set arrived, I decided to give it a chance. I thought maybe he would show some restraint in what had been billed as an “All Ages” context. Such was not the case. What made it worse was seeing children mixed in with the crowd while Spank Rock’s sexually explicit lyrics poured over their little ears, minds, and hearts. Now, we can debate on whether or not such lyrics should even be shared at all in a public forum, but I would suggest what is not debatable is that kids should not be exposed to such things. In fact, according to psychologist Dan Allender (in his book, The Wounded Heart), such exposure is tantamount to sexual abuse. My heart was broken for these kids. I walked away from the stage and tried unsuccessfully (more on that later) to escape the barrage of graphic language and content, and process what I was feeling about the whole Spank Rock experience. Again, the divide between the “All Ages” concept and the inundation of vivid sexual content for children’s ears screamed of the aforementioned compromised integrity.

Spank Rock’s lyrics are not only sexually explicit, but they are also blatantly misogynistic. He consistently refers to women as “b*tches.” Now, I don’t know if some folks are numb to this or if they simply choose ignorance, but this is wrong. Women are not dogs. Women are beautiful, powerful beings created in the very image of God and they are not to be demeaned in such ways. And several of the artists featured at this year’s Eaux Claires use that term when referring to women. It’s not okay. It wasn’t okay with Donald Trump referred to a woman as a “b*tch” in that infamous Billy Bush video, and it’s not okay for a rapper to do it either.

For me, this was perhaps the most glaring inconsistency I experienced at this year’s Eaux Claires. The vibe last year, for me, was one of connection, celebration, and respect. Empowering people to be who they are seemed to be part of that vibe. Women being seen as equals to men and being celebrated for who they are… this felt like an inherent part of the Eaux Claires ethos. But then we have artists take the stage and refer to women as dogs… There is no respect there. There is only misogyny (which was being funneled into the ears of little girls and little boys).

I mentioned earlier about not being able to escape the Spank Rock experience. There was a reason for that. When I was previewing music for the 2016 edition of Eaux Claires, I had similar concerns about Vince Staples’ lyrics as I did about Spank Rock (and Danny Brown) for this year. So, when Staples’ set was to begin, I simply walked up the hill and was able to escape, while enjoying other music (last year, the grounds were basically set up into two sections, a lower section housing the two big stages and a couple of smaller ones and an upper section with three other stages, separated by a walking path through the woods). This year, the planners reconfigured the grounds so that everything was on one level.

Now, I understand the idea was for the festival to be more of a shared experience. Admittedly, there were times in which the two separate sections felt fairly disconnected from one another. And I understand there were complaints about two popular acts playing in the same time slot (i.e. Beach House and Nathaniel Rateliff on Day Two last year). So, I understand why they made the adjustments and was optimistic about it going into the weekend. The organizers were explicit about wanting attendees to experience more of the festival “together,” and having all sets originate from the “lower” section was an effort to facilitate that togetherness.

However, for me, that change greatly hindered the overall experience. Yes, more of us attendees experienced the festival “together,” so that goal was achieved. However, the main grounds were significantly more crowded, obviously. I found the more densely populated main section a little overwhelming and at times I felt little claustrophobic. I know this was probably great from the perspective of the artists. After all, they had more people at their sets than they would have had in years past. But, for me, it made the whole weekend much less enjoyable. I felt as though, in an effort to bring people together, I was being forced into a shared experience, which is always going to hinder said experience.

In fact, this forced togetherness along with all of these perceived inconsistencies in mind, led me to feeling very alone amid the 20,000 or so people who were there. Whereas in 2016, I felt deep connection with what was happening, the music, and my fellow attendees, this year I felt isolated and as if I didn’t belong there. In fact, by Saturday evening, I was even feeling a bit depressed. Halfway through Feist’s performance, I walked over to stage known as The Creek, sat down in one of the plastic chairs, and found myself longing for home.

This was a far cry from what I had experienced on the Saturday evening of last year’s Eaux Claires. I still remember vividly how incredible Lucius was that night, how I was captivated by that performance, and how I couldn’t keep myself from moving. I was floating on the proverbial Cloud Nine. I can still feel how deeply I was stirred as I walked away from the festival to the tune of Beach House’s Space Song. But Saturday night felt much different for me this time around.

As I sat there with my head in my hands, I seriously contemplated going home early. Paul Simon and yMusic was one of the sets I was most excited about and they had not played yet, so I really wanted to hang on and be there for that. However, I was also aware that to get to Paul Simon I had to wait through Danny Brown’s set, and I had similar concerns about his lyrical content as I’d had about Spank Rock. And I couldn’t escape the things he would say. There was no upper section for me to retreat to. Eventually, after a moment of prayer, I decided to go home.

To say I was disappointed in my 2017 Eaux Claires experience would obviously be a major understatement. I would never have dreamt that I would actually leave early, especially after the way last year’s festival rocked me. But I did. And as I walked away, I wondered if this would be my last Eaux Claires, a thought which saddened me deeply.

After several days of reflection, my heart and mind settled a bit, and I decided not to make any rash decisions about next year. I still think Eaux Claires is not only special, but it has the potential to be deeply and positively impactful for attendees. For that to happen, in my unsolicited opinion, there has to be more consistency, more integrity. If we are about love, peace, and creativity, then the content coming from the artists ought to line up with those ideals.

Eaux Claires Troix lacked integrity, from my perspective, just as a cracked foundation has lost its integrity. The desire was to connect people in shared experience, but that connection felt forced to me. Crack. Women are to be respected and valued, but our artists call them “b*tches” from the stage. Crack. Our tickets state the event is “All Ages,” but there is profanity, the degradation of women, and sexually explicit lyrics flowing through the speakers. Crack. Unless these cracks are filled and the foundation restored, I don’t know how long Eaux Claires will retain its uniqueness and its potential to create significant positive change both for its attendees and for the Chippewa Valley.

Intergenerational Rocking with Project 86

Live Shows

Who do I belong to?

Not horrors

Not wretches


Who do I belong to?



I have a shirt bearing these lyrics. It’s a new shirt. New to me at least. I picked it up November 19 at a Project 86 show at the Red Sea Club in Minneapolis. I found it digging through a box of $10 shirts and I knew it was for me. Why? Well, first of all, it was one of the two shirts in the bin that would actually fit me. Second, I love the meaning in these words. They resonate deeply with me. And, it’s lyrics like these that drew me to Project 86 in the first place.

This was my third time seeing the Orange County stalwarts live, and it could well be the last. P86 is in the midst of their 20th anniversary tour, and who knows how much longer those guys will be melting faces. Just like the first two times, I was accompanied by my brother, the man who first introduced me to these guys over 15 years ago. However, we had a newbie on this adventure with us: my seven year old son, Joshua.

Joshua fell in love with P86 several years ago and they are still, generally speaking, his “go to” when we are riding around town. I still recall, when he was five years old, him belting out “Light ’em up! Light ’em up!” (from P86 anthem, Illuminate) in his carseat as we coasted down River Prairie Drive.  When the reality set in that he was going to see his favorite band with his favorite uncle in his favorite city in an Ethiopian club/restaurant (Joshua is from Ethiopia), he was beyond excited.

Before I get into the show itself, a word about Red Sea. We arrived around 5pm and had supper in their restaurant. We really enjoyed the feel of the place. It had a chill atmosphere with a blend of jazz and Ethiopian pop blessing our ears. And the food was great. But the highlight, by far, was when our server found out that Joshua was Ethiopian. Both of their faces lit up. It was beautiful watching my son, who lives in pasty Eau Claire, enjoy being in the midst of “his” people. He felt at home and it melted this daddy’s heart.


From what we understood, the doors for the show were to open at 6pm with the show starting at 6:30. I hadn’t read anything about opening acts, but I assumed there would be one or two. Well, we walked into the club a little before 6pm and a band was already playing. So, we went in and listened. After a bit, we learned that there were a total of SEVEN bands playing before P86 and they weren’t going on until after 9pm, which led to a MUCH later night than I expected for this old man and his little boy. Regardless, we had a great time, taking several breaks and walking around Cedar Avenue, including a stop at a Hong Kong bakery/cafe. The entire experience was rich and truly unforgettable.

Now, onto Project 86. All night, we tried hard to stay close to the stage, so Joshua would have a good view of the band. In fact, when their show began, there was nothing between Joshua and the stage. And he was ready to rock. We were close enough to, in my bro’s words, get hit by Andrew Schwab’s spit and sweat (which actually happened). When the guys hit the stage, they started out with the intense, morose, and gentle lead-in to their song, PS. That first movement lasts a while, and Schwab hadn’t arrived yet. In the midst of that, Joshua turned to me and said, “This is boring.” I encouraged him to be patient… and that was the last time he was close to being bored that night.

Halfway through that first song, the crowd started to mobilize. I had forgotten about the “mosh pit” aspect of P86 shows. Soon, I found myself leaning over my boy to protect him from the violent dancing happening around us. I was pushed off balance a couple of times, but was able to effectively shield Joshua. In fact, he was oblivious. He was enthralled, with his head bobbing the whole time. The bass player came up to him a couple of times mid-song and touched his shoulder, making sure he was okay. This only served to Super Glue Joshua’s eyes, ears, mind, and heart to what was happening onstage. Later, Joshua asked me why I was leaning over him… he had no idea. He was rocking.


The truth is… I couldn’t blame those folks for moving. My first experience with Project 86 was their Drawing Black Lines album about 15 years ago or so and that’s when they hooked me. But, when they really got me was the first time I went to see them live at Club 3 Degrees in Minneapolis about eight years ago. I was standing toward the back of the venue and I found that I could not keep my body from moving. I was compelled. And the concert seemed to have its very own culture. I felt like, for that snapshot in time, I was a part of a community, a movement. That’s when they got me for good. So, I can’t blame the kids for thrashing about.

Regardless, I moved Joshua around to the side of the stage where we were clear of the craziness and still had the band right in front of us. We were so close that I had to move my head several times to ensure I didn’t get clocked by the bass player. We could see it all going down. Better yet, we were experiencing it all together, father and son. It was beyond special. Every once and a while, I would tap on Joshua’s shoulder and ask if he was okay, to which he would give a thumbs-up in response. And we continued to rock.

I truly enjoyed the set list for the show. As advertised, they played a bunch of older songs in celebration of their 20 years and, we rocked out to EVERY last one of those songs. The list was heavy on Drawing Black Lines, including crowd favorites Chimes, Stein’s Theme, and Me Against Me (which was the fitting show-closer and the namesake for a recent TS10 playlist). We were also treated to Sincerely, Ichabod, Hollow Again, and The Spy Hunter. But the highlight of the show, for certain, came when the band returned to the stage for their obligatory encore.

When the first notes of hammered dulcimer hit our ear drums, Joshua turned and looked at me with a great big smile. It was his all-time favorite, Fall Goliath Fall. He’d been wearing sound-reducing headphones all night to protect those little ears, but I didn’t want anything getting in between him and that performance. So, off the headphones came. And, my little Ethio-Sconnie boy rocked his little heart out (see the video below).

This video doesn’t exist

When the show ended, we had a chance to connect with the bass player and thank him for his connection with Joshua and Joshua got the opportunity to give Schwab a high five. As the three of us walked out of the club, we did so with hearts full and floating. It was a truly beautiful night and experiencing it with my son and my brother made it exponentially better.

But why? Is it just the matter of shared experience? I mean, I share experiences with my son on a regular basis. And, we’ve hung out with Uncle Josh (yes, he’s a “Joshua” too) numerous times. But the x-factor in this experience was Project 86.

If you pay much attention to Tomme Suab, you know that Project 86 is a TS favorite. They’ve been featured on the TS10 more than just about anyone else. Their intensity, honesty, and hard-driving vibe has spoken to me for years. And, as I mentioned above, something in me shifted that first time I saw them live. Now, my son and I, along with Uncle Josh, have experienced that shift together. While my son cannot understand yet all the elements of Project 86’s music that connect with me so deeply, he certainly “gets” some of it. For right now, it’s a lot about their intensity and loudness. But, as time goes on and his mind and heart are ready to talk about it, we’ll get into the lyrics more and discuss the deep and sometimes painful themes that live in their songs.

For now, however, we’ll have that night at the Red Sea, and that is more than enough for the moment.

The Eaux Claires Impact: Connection and Belonging

Live Shows, Music and Healing

On Saturday, August 13, 2016, around 11pm, I walked away from my first experience with Eaux Claires (EXC). In that moment, I was already fully aware that something had shifted in me. I was different. As I began walking toward the exit, I was serenaded by Beach House’s The Space Song, a dreamy ballad which has been running through my head and heart ever since. When I think of it or hear it, I am immediately, inwardly, transported back to that moment. And, I remember how a music festival utterly wrecked me.

Now,  let me be clear, I don’t mean “I got messed up” at the festival. I’ve never been to other local music festivals (i.e. Country Jam and Rock Fest), but I understand there’s a pretty serious party vibe at each of them. I did not sense that vibe at Eaux Claires. No, I didn’t get high or drunk. I was wrecked emotionally, deeply and personally impacted by what I experienced that weekend.

When I arrived at Foster Farms around noon on Day One (Friday, August 12), I could immediately sense there was something special in the air. I couldn’t define it and didn’t really want to. Even before the music began, I was glad I was there and I felt, in a sense, I belonged there. That sense of belonging only increased over the course of those two days. Now, I could offer a play-by-play of every show I saw, every piece of art I witnessed, and every nuance of the overall experience, but I’m not going to do that. But I will say that everything I experienced at Eaux Claires only served to bolster that feeling of belonging.

That feeling was affirmed further during Phil Cook’s set on Saturday. While I certainly enjoyed his music, my heart deeply resonated with a simple statement he made in between songs: “Music is sacred.” I responded with a holler and clapping, which could otherwise have been translated as my “Amen.” There is something transcendent about music, from its primary role in corporate worship for many religious groups to the fact it is an integral part of every cultural group in the world (at least as far as I’m aware). Music, and art in general, is special. There is something holy in creative self-expression.

If you’ve read much of what I’ve written on Tomme Suab, you know how I feel about the importance of art. I believe God created everything and that he wired that creative DNA into each of us. So, when we are engaging in creative expression, or appreciating someone else’s art, there is something “sacred” happening. There is a connection with the Divine, in a very real sense. Regardless of what the creators and contributors of Eaux Claires may believe about these things, they created a Mecca, at least for me, of that connection, that sacred dynamic. And being there in the middle of that, being saturated by it for two days, moved me. I felt as though I belonged there, even as if I was meant to be there.

Along with the sense of belonging, another dynamic I witnessed that weekend was the intentionality and purposefulness interwoven throughout every part of the festival (at least my experience of it). It was clear to me this was not intended to simply be a music festival. It certainly wasn’t meant to be a pretense for partying. It was a holistic experience, purposefully incorporating various genres of music and multiple other art forms (seemingly including the food options as well, which featured various ethnic and fusion cuisines). And there was an intentional connection with nature, which, in my mind, is the ultimate creative expression from the ultimate Creator. There also seemed to be a continual, purposeful flow between shows, performances, exhibits, and art installations (a flow which included shows starting when scheduled for the most part). The attention to detail inherent in the planning of such an experience was impressive.


Lighted trees on the path between venues

I mentioned the multiple genres of music represented at Eaux Claires. Now, I’m not much for categorizing musicians by genre or style. I hate the idea of boxing artists into a certain mold. But certainly, there were some highly identifiable styles there from southern folk/rock to hip hop to experimental orchestral to punk (and everything in between and around these). And on the surface, it may seem as though having such diverse styles on the same bill would be awkward or clunky. It wasn’t. I can’t really explain it, other than to say there was that unifying belongingness grounded in the creative expression connections mentioned above. That’s not to say that I connected with everything I heard in those two days. It really isn’t about that. It’s about how these diverse artists from diverse backgrounds playing diverse music were able to, somehow, collectively come together to inspire and challenge everyone in attendance (including other artists).

And maybe that collaborative diversity was the most compelling part of my Eaux Claires experience. As I come to understand more of Jesus and his message, I am beginning to recognize how important the idea of reconciliation is. I am beginning to comprehend how important it is to honor and celebrate our differences while learning to work with each other to create good things. At Eaux Claires, I got to experience that dynamic on a small scale, but it spoke to me in a large way.


The calm before the Shara Nova storm

Now, without giving you a rundown of everything I witnessed those two days, I would like to highlight several pieces of the Eaux Claires puzzle which illustrate some of what I’m sharing here. First off, the musical aspect of my experience kicked off with My Brightest Diamond, which is driven and fronted by the dynamic Shara Nova, whose performance that afternoon set the stage for the entire weekend. She was passionate, emotive, and precise. Fittingly, her music is hard to classify, with its mixture of poignant lyrics, operatic sensibilities, punk edge, and various other musical influences. I walked away from her performance shaken (in a good way) and inspired. I was grateful to have a chance to meet her the next day after we both rocked out to EX EYE. She came across as genuine and dynamic, just as she was on stage the previous day.


A picture with Shara Nova of My Brightest Diamond

And then there was the James Blake experience. Before the Friday of the festival, I didn’t know any of Blake’s music. But, when a friend of mine suggested Blake was one of the artists he was most looking forward to seeing, I decided to check out his set. I’m glad I did. I was captivated by the electronic soulfulness Blake brought that night. While his performance was amazing in and of itself, it was (perhaps divinely) integrated with a nature experience neither he nor the EXC planners could have planned: rain. For some, standing out in a field while the rain is coming down (without a jacket, umbrella, or poncho) may sound miserable. It was anything but that for me on that Friday night. As Blake played and sang, the rain came down and the combination created something almost ethereal. While a dry James Blake set would have been great, there was something about the falling drops that made it that much more special and captivating.

Another of the great surprises of the weekend for me was the Banks venue. It was the only indoor venue (a large tent) at the festival, and each attendee was issued a set of wireless headphones upon entry. At first, I thought that was a little strange, but after witnessing a portion of one of the sets there, I got it. On the first evening, I was walking around sampling various sets and wandered into the tent to catch a little of Sarah Neufield’s set. It’s really hard to describe with any kind of justice what I experienced there. Basically, the musicians stood inside a stage with three walls surrounding them. The walls were somewhat transparent, so you could see the artists to an extent. However, when they were playing, the screens were filled with lights and graphics that moved and changed with the flow of the music. I was fairly mesmerized. It was a tremendous and gorgeous blend of visual stimuli with creative experimental music. I came back to the Banks the next day to catch Catsax. The video below is a small piece of their show (which again, does not do justice to the experience).

But, perhaps the greatest example of the continuity, connection, and expression of Eaux Claires 2016 was Bon Iver’s set itself. Of course, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon is one of the driving forces behind the festival. And perhaps it is fitting that his set on Friday night typified much of what made EXC great. To represent this part of the weekend well in any sense, I need to start with the lead-up to Bon Iver’s set.

James Blake played on the Flambeaux stage across the field from where Vernon would be playing (Lake Eaux Lune). As mentioned above, his set was captivating, and it ended with an incredible loop-creating session that built upon itself repeatedly, frame after frame, until it reached its emotive crescendo. As soon as his set was complete, someone immediately began playing baroque music on the organ housed in the lighted cage pictured below.


Lighted organ cage

When the organ stopped, there was a short silence as everyone moved into position for the Bon Iver show. And then, after a brief introduction by Michael Perry, it began. As had been announced in the days leading up to EXC, Vernon debuted his new album, 22, A Million, that night, starting with track one and playing straight through with limited interruptions. The huge screens on and around the stage told the stories of the songs in glitchy, blurry, and colorful abstractions, which was completely fitting for the music being played. I will not attempt to describe the new songs; you need to check them out for yourself. But, the performance that night was amazing, beautiful, and inspiring, bringing together collaboration, diverse influences, visual stimuli, and the magical blend of poignant artistry and immense talent. I’ve liked Bon Iver for some time; but I became a fan that night. Note: To catch something of the flavor, check out the video below, which captures most of the performance.

There are so many more dynamics of my Eaux Claires experience I could share… like hearing a heavy metal band with saxophones (EX EYE), like being drawn into the tribal rhythms and visual theatrics of Jon Mueller, like the infectious catchiness of Lucius, like the creative orchestral work of yMusic and Eighth Blackbird, like the experimental hip hop of Shabazz Palaces… I could go on and on. But, I won’t. What I will do, however, is tell you that my life was impacted deeply by this experience. It marked me to the point in which I couldn’t think of much else for days afterward. In fact, it’s just been within the last week that listening to The Space Song by Beach House no longer stirs up a bit of mourning (that the festival is over). Nonetheless, I am different after Eaux Claires 2016, and to say I am grateful for the experience feels like a significant understatement.


The Emotive, Provocative Music of Field Report

Artist Focus, Live Shows, Music and Healing, Poignant Songs, TS10


I’m spending some time with Field Report’s new album, Marigolden, this morning. This is a new relationship and I’m just becoming acquainted with the album, but I think we’re going to be good friends. It is rich, full, provocative, and emotive. And Christopher Porterfield’s odd analogies and word pictures are ever present.

I will never forget the first time I heard Field Report. In February of 2013, Kalispell, Shane Leonard’s project, was set to play a backstage concert at the State Theater here in Eau Claire. I was super excited about this show, as Shane’s music and friendship has played a central role in the beginning of my personal passion for and investment in locally-rooted music. As the day of the concert approached, Field Report was added to the show as the headliner. I was actually pretty disappointed. I didn’t know who they were and I wanted Shane to have the longest set that night. Thankfully, I was in for a very pleasant surprise that night.

From the time Porterfield and the rest of the band took the stage, they owned it. And, it wasn’t about showmanship. It was about the honesty and vulnerability of their music. As my wife said after the show, Porterfield has a lot to say, and he has no problem saying it. And these things he has to say are filled with passion, pain, suffering, and emotion. He also has a creative and descriptive way of saying them. The first time I heard him sing “pound that pussy (as in, “full of puss,” to be clear), bloody cyst off with a weather-treated two by four”(parentheses mine), that image grabbed a spot in my brain and it’s still there. I’m not sure why that 2X4 has to be weather-treated, or why it is the best prescription for that nasty cyst. However, that imagery has obviously stuck with me, even impacted me.

Those lyrics are from Chico the American, from Field Report’s debut, self-titled album, which is featured on this week’s TS10. After hearing them play at the State that night, I began listening to that album non-stop. It is home to so many poignant songs. Some are quite painful just to listen to… Porterfield’s lyrics are transparently honest and vulnerable. He has no problem baring his shortcomings for the listener, letting us in to his complex emotional world. That kind of vulnerability is, in my mind, Field Report’s biggest draw. I have been challenged, provoked, and saddened by what he has to share.

As much as I have fallen in love with that first record and songs like Fergus Falls, I Am Not Waiting Anymore, Taking Alcatraz, and Chico the American, I am really excited about the new album, Marigolden. As I listen this morning, I am again drawn into the gritty vulnerability. The lyrics and musical moods are still emotive, still painful, still brutally honest. Porterfield’s creative word and image choices are still there. And yet, it feels like there is a musical progression from the Field Report album. The music feels a little richer, deeper. While I  cannot comment on the technical reasons why this may be, I can definitively say that the band seems to have brought something of themselves to this album that wasn’t there on the first one. I am eager to become better acquainted with what lies in Marigolden.

The future seems to be very bright for Field Report. Marigolden has been met with much critical acclaim. They already have a national following that is continually growing. Just this morning, the band announced that they will be touring with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in Europe beginning in January, which is no small thing.

As their popularity grows, the likelihood of them playing small, local venues continues to ebb. That’s why YOU should get out and see them this Friday night at House of Rock. Aero Flynn and another band (TBD) will be supporting them. The show starts at 9:30 and is only $10 in advance. You can purchase tickets here. If you can make it out, you will NOT regret it!


picard: A Mixture of Discontent and Melodic, Driving Rock

Album Releases, Artist Focus, Live Shows

picard is a project initiated by Jason Ulwelling in 2011 that has grown into a full-blown collaborative effort (including Brad Hanson and Eric Giardina, and various other influences and musicians), resulting in the release of the band’s first album (appropriately entitled “#1”) earlier this year. Style-wise, it’s hard to classify picard as anything more specific than “rock.” Some of their songs are edgy/harder. I can easily hear some grunge influence in several of the songs, as well as elements of epic rock story-telling (especially in “Ed”), like you might hear in classics like Queen or Led Zeppelin. Now, I’m not ready to draw too many comparisons between picard and hall of famers like them, but I truly appreciate what I have heard thus far from this band.

The first track on “#1,” a passionate, pleading song called “Distending,” houses the declaration “I’m holding out for something bigger than myself…” In that statement is what I believe to be the essence of the lyrical, melodic, and instrumental themes throughout picard’s first album. There is this discontent, this longing for more, this longing for deep connection, for something better, something bigger. This theme is one of the reasons that I was drawn to this project.

“Ed” may be my favorite song on the album. I have always enjoyed that epic feel in music, especially when it involves distinct “movements.” “Ed” is not a rowdy song at all, but it is intense, with methodical, driving guitars and intricate, nimble-fingered bass rifts. Probably my favorite part though is how the driving guitar transitions into a quiet segment of the song that is haunted by a gentle chimes. These musical elements combined with the story-telling therein portrays an intense, compelling, and emotive discontent.

While “Ed” is likely my favorite song, the track that drew me into picard initially was “October,” their first release. “October,” for the emotionally engaged listener, can be a pretty painful song to take in. There is such intense longing in the lyrics. The protagonist so desperately wants to be with someone. He is longing for intimate, deep connection with that person. However, obstacles continually appear (“These walls are getting higher”). The frustration rooted in this deep longing climax with a plea for explanation: “Why aren’t you here like you said you would be? You said you would… Tell me are any of these promises any good?” There is so much pain in these lyrics and the music/instrumentation fit the mood and tell the story so well… This is one of the main reasons I enjoy this band like I do is their ability to draw me in emotionally and help me feel what they are feeling. This is a gift and a dynamic that can be healing for both the artist and the listener.

picard is a breath of fresh air for me. Eau Claire has its share of punk and hardcore bands full of all the requisite angst anyone could want. We have many gifted indie rock musicians producing creative, quirky, and provocative stuff. But, we don’t have many melodic, driving, edgy rock bands. picard is that kind of band, without foregoing the angst of the punk/hardcore scene or the creativity of the indie rock community. They are a unique and healthy blend of all those various elements.

If you would like to experience picard’s music, “#1″is available on their website, among other outlets. You can also stream some of their music on their Facebook page. Furthermore, they are playing live this Saturday night at 10pm at House of Rock, along with Letters From Earth and Kids With Boats ($6 cover).

Coming of Age: Thoughts on Adelyn Rose’s “Ordinary Fantasy” and Album Release Show

Album Releases, Artist Focus, Live Shows

I make no bones about the fact that I am a big Adelyn Rose fan. I love their style, the fullness of their sound, the uniqueness of Addie Strei’s vocals, and the incredible percussion talent that is Dave Power. The first time I talked to Addie and Dave back in August of 2012, their debut album, Mezzanine, had only been out for a few months. Even though I, and many others, thoroughly enjoyed that album, Addie and Dave were quick to mention that the songs there were not really indicative of who they were as a band anymore and they expressed their deep desire to record their newer songs.

In Mezzanine and in the first few AdRo live performances I heard, I consistently heard great potential, deep creativity, rich instrumentation and textures, and emotionally intense moods and lyrics. They were, in my eyes, a diamond in the rough. The production value on Mezzanine was a little inconsistent throughout the album and some of the harmonies were a little loose. In their live shows, I couldn’t help but notice what seemed like a bit of insecurity or anxiety from time to time. They felt a little like a teenager trying to find out who they are. Nonetheless, I loved what I heard from them… and longed to hear them go deeper, stand more confidently, and record a truer representation of the creativity and talent that resides in them.

AdRo’s new album, “Ordinary Fantasy,” is an answer to those longings. What I hear on this album warms my heart. That’s not because of heart-felt lyrics or sappy sweet melodies. It is because, when I listen to this record, I hear a clear progression of the band and their sound. And, it is so, so good. I expected the emotiveness, intensity, textures, and instrumentation that I mentioned before. What I also got was higher production value, a fuller sound, and tight musicianship and vocals. The album is unpredictable and highlights what I consider the band’s greatest strengths: creative songwriting, unique vocals (lead and background), and incredible percussion.

My favorite song on the album is probably “It Means Shadow.” It moves and rocks. It is a riff and drums driven tune that should be playing on the radio. I also really enjoy the emotive “Press” and “The Wire.” “The Wire” is one of those songs that starts out quiet (yet intense) and builds louder and more raucous. I love that dynamic, and especially in that song. The album closes with what sounds like a declaration of independence in “Structured Hostility,” another song that builds steadily in intensity throughout, climaxing in Addie’s powerful declaration, “I’m done,” repeated several times. This album is packed full of mood and emotion: tenderness, edginess, sorrow, intensity…


I got to hear these songs as well as the other songs on the album live at House of Rock on Water Street last night at Adelyn Rose’s Album Release Show. They were so good. This was likely my favorite performance of theirs, not because of precision or showmanship (those things were there). I was enthralled by their poise and their confidence. I have always been a fan of Addie’s, but I felt like she was hesitant to be the front-person she can be. That was not the case last night. She totally looked like the face of the band, standing, playing, and singing with boldness and conviction.

And, Dave Power was… Dave Power. In fact, toward the end of last night’s show, there was a moment in which Dave’s drumming caught my attention and stirred me deeply. I’ve had spiritual experiences while listening to music many times over the years. Such a moment may come while listening to poignant lyrics (like those on Matthew Perryman Jones’s “Land of the Living”). Or, perhaps while taking in an epic classic, like Skynyrd’s “Freebird” (especially the guitar barrage at the end of the song). Last night, I had another such experience while listening to Dave play the drums. In that moment, his talent and passion were so apparent that I got caught up in what he was doing and I could see the God-given ability pouring out through the sticks. It was a breathtaking moment.

After becoming acquainted with “Ordinary Fantasy” over the last couple of weeks and experiencing the band live last night, I feel like I have seen something of a coming of age for Adelyn Rose. Their talent, creativity, and potential have always been evident to me. Now, the missing pieces are coming together. The teenager has become an adult and now has a clearer vision of who they are. Addie, Dave, Hannah Hebl, Leo Strei,  and Jaime Hanson should be very proud of what they have accomplished together. I still think the best is yet to come for Adelyn Rose, but “Ordinary Fantasy” represents a huge step forward for them, and I would not be surprised in the least if it gains traction outside of the Chippewa Valley.

Walking Out on We Are the Willows

Artist Focus, Live Shows, Poignant Songs


We Are the Willows

A little more than a week ago, I had the great pleasure of attending a We Are the Willows show at The Cabin. I had been looking forward to it for some time. I love the band and I love the venue. I was not disappointed in any way with what I experienced… even though I left the concert before it was over (more on that in a moment). I expected to enjoy the band’s unique instrumentation, excellent musicianship, and Peter Miller’s soaring vocals. I certainly got all that, but I got two surprises as well. Those two surprises made the night for me.

The first surprise came right at the beginning of the show. LOTT (WATW’s violinist/backing vocalist, Leah Ottman), opened the show with a set of her original work. It was just her voice, her violin, and some recorded instrumentation, yet her performance filled the room. It was intense, emotive, creative… all the elements I crave in music. She is a gifted songwriter, vocalist, and violinist. I got chills several times during her set. I want to hear more.


The second surprise came toward the end of We Are the Willows’ set. They were excellent, just as they were when I saw them in November of last year. But, I was a little more clued in this time around. As I mentioned in my previous post about the band, their new album is focused on the content of over 300 letters sent by Miller’s grandfather to his grandmother when he was in the military, serving overseas. Knowing that going into this show, I was able to listen more attentively, and hear some of the love and deep intimacy in the songs as they played them. I was captivated.

In between a couple of songs, Miller shared a story about spending some time with his grandfather, who was suffering from dementia. There was a lamppost just outside the window of the room where they met, which his grandfather consistently thought was a tree, and he would talk about how awkward the tree was and that it needed to be “analyzed.” One day, as they were looking out the window, discussing that tree, Miller’s grandmother walked between them and the window and caught the grandfather’s attention. He then turned to Miller and said (after 66 years of marriage and while suffering from dementia): “I’d like to analyze that!” That story still strikes me. It’s funny, of course, but it speaks to something deeper. There was a deep, intimate connection between Miller’s grandparents. That connection was evident in the songs sang that night and in this story, as well as other anecdotes Miller shared.

As the evening grew late, and the band’s set continued, I found myself longing to be with my wife. This was so to the point that I actually left before the concert was over, for the sole purpose of going home to be with her. Now, I have an extraordinary wife, and it is my privilege to spend my days with her. But, there was an additional dynamic in play that night. Miller’s words and music had affected me deeply. They drew me back home to my wife.

So, to Miller and the rest of the band, I personally apologize for leaving early. At the same time, I want to thank you for such personal and intimate songs. And, thank you for playing them with the passion and musicianship they warrant.

The Tip of the (Hannah Connolly) Iceberg

Artist Focus, Live Shows


In the last week or so, I have become really familiar with Hannah Connolly’s “Flying EP.” There is a sweet sadness that permeates the five song collection. I have found myself totally drawn in to the sadness in her songs. They are stories of intense heartbreak, loss, and hope. I wrote about these things at some length for the upcoming issue of Volume One, so I won’t spend time repeating myself here.

However, I had the opportunity to hear Connolly play live again last week at the Volume One Gallery as a part of V1’s Jingle Jams series. And, I walked away even more drawn into her music. The audience got to hear the five songs from her EP, as well as some other originals and a couple of covers. One of those covers was “Jolene,” the classic Dolly Parton song. Connolly and her accompanist, J.T. Viele, were great all night, but there was something different about their performance of that particular song. There was an intensity, a desperation, an edginess that grabbed a hold of me. I found myself wanting more of that.

The rest of the evening was filled with sweet but sad melodies, pretty guitar work, Connolly’s beautiful and distinctive vocals, and the incredible vocal and instrumental color that Viele added to the entire performance. That is what you can expect from Connolly’s EP and live shows. However, I walked away from that show after hearing that rendition of “Jolene” thinking we might only be seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the kind of art that Connolly can produce. I personally can’t wait to hear what comes next for her.