It’s a Monday night in downtown Eau Claire, and the Lakely — the chic eatery and bar attached to the city’s newest hotel, the Oxbow — might be the most swinging little scene in Northwest Wisconsin. A row of college students sits at the back tables, penciling in notations on sheet music while waiting for their turn on stage, where University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire professor Michael Shults directs a young pickup band through a round of solos. A server swings a tray of craft cocktails through the crowd as the room sways to the beat. And when versatile young drummer Cami Mennitte Pereyra tosses out a particularly tasty fill, the students look up from their homework and holler toward the stage.
On a wall nearby, a crocheted replica of a deer head, complete with antlers, watches over the proceedings with its expressionless, beady eyes. It used to hang in the main recording studio of its owner, Justin Vernon, frontman of the globally acclaimed experimental folk project Bon Iver. When he wrapped his most recent album, 22, A Million, he brought the deer here to help decorate the new space. It’s just one of the many ways Vernon, one of the Oxbow’s owners, has left his imprint on his hometown.
The scene is a perfect encapsulation of an Eau Claire at a crossroads. The city has always had a rich musical heritage. Greats like Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, John Lee Hooker and Charles Mingus all stopped on their way through town to play at the Joynt, a bar that today is frequented by students from the university’s revered jazz-studies program. And now that the city has birthed a Grammy-winning artist who has risen to such mainstream success that he’s been spoofed on Saturday Night Live, the cultural scene here is exploding.
Although Vernon isn’t at the Lakely this particular evening, his influence is everywhere. It’s in the incredible sound system that could easily accommodate a band of Bon Iver’s stature, despite the fact that the room only seats 150. It’s in the staircase leading to the Oxbow’s guest quarters, which are inscribed with the title of Bon Iver drummer S. Carey’s debut album, All We Grow. And it’s in the rooms themselves, where 22, A Million is nestled beside a turntable, a hipster take on the typical bedside bible.
At every turn across town, there’s music from artists who live right here, blaring over the loudspeakers that perk up sleepy, shop-laden Main Street, through the PAs in the city’s bars and jumping on stage at the Lakely. In fact, visiting Eau Claire is not unlike stepping into your very own Bon Iver song, complete with vintage shops full of flannel shirts and Chippewa boots.
Since ascending to worldwide fame on the strength of his breakout debut, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, and the Grammy-winning Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Vernon has poured a significant amount of his time and royalties back into his hometown, where he still resides. His studio, April Base, is just down the road in neighboring Fall Creek, and his annual Eaux Claires festival returns for its third installment in June, with a lineup that includes Chance the Rapper and Paul Simon.
“I just know this place so well,” Vernon said, seated onstage at the Lakely last fall. “And I think every place should take care of itself. It just feels really good to have that be a part of your job — to be a mirror of our little culture here, just trying to make everyone feel better. And a great way to do that is with art and experience, to give people a reason to hoot and holler.”
Like a true Northerner, he speaks with great humility about his little festival in the woods. But in reality, Eaux Claires routinely draws some 20,000 music fans to the Chippewa Valley, flooding the area with tourism revenue. Last year, the downtown brunch spots were so overwhelmed with hungry visitors that lines streamed down the block, a scene more common in a metropolis like Manhattan than a river town with a population of 67,000.
For his next civic endeavor, Vernon is one of several big players turning their attention toward the completion of the $50-million Confluence Arts Center. The massive riverfront structure is scheduled to open next spring and will contain three performance spaces, with the largest room rivaling the size of Minneapolis’s First Avenue.
In the meantime, the once-deserted downtown area seems to be sprouting up like a fresh patch of wildflower on the riverbank. No longer simply a place people pass through on their way somewhere else, Eau Claire is establishing itself as a destination.