People in Eau Claire have been wrestling with esthetics from the beginning. The community was originally set off as the Town of Clearwater in 1855. A sturdy name. Reflective of the branch of the Chippewa River that flowed by. A year later citizens gathered on a March day and renamed the town Eau Claire. Same meaning, much artier.
Today there is still a vital push-pull between the modest and the lofty in Eau Claire. Some there believe it's at the heart of what is transforming this solid Wisconsin city into one of the most fertile music spots in the country.
"The Chippewa Valley has long been a place where factory workers mingled with university students and academics," says Eau Claire writer and musician Michael Perry. "Perhaps this has something to do with the do-it-yourself ethos. Musician, carpenter or both, you're just trying to learn your craft and do your job." Perry says ground zero for the melding of these two worlds is the venerable Joynt Bar.
Reclaiming music making as a lunch-bucket pursuit instead of an act of precious creativity goes a long way toward describing the music scene in Eau Claire. That, and a sense of family fitting hand-in-work-glove with a sense of place. In an age of turf wars and competition among musical artists, the idea of family among musicians in Eau Claire cannot be understated.
Case in point:
A week after a December appearance on David Letterman, Eau Claire flannel mystic Justin Vernon performed with his band Bon Iver at the Barrymore Theatre, the hottest ticket of the past winter. It was Bon Iver's first show in Wisconsin after several months touring overseas.
A music critic for a national publication couldn't get a seat. He was told by Bon Iver's manager that seats normally provided to the press were set aside "for friends and family coming down from Eau Claire."
"There's a lot of them," he added.
What kind of manager would turn away national press in favor of seating homies? He's the darkly handsome 21-year-old owner of Amble Down Records, the management company that handles Bon Iver and a growing list of bands - including the Wars of 1812 and the Daredevil Christopher Wright, both appearing with North Carolina's Bowerbirds at the UW Memorial Union Rathskeller on March 27.
Kyle Frenette remembers the music that pulled his world into focus in 2005, when he was a senior at "Chi Hi," Chippewa Falls High School. It was Halloween, Alaska's self-titled album. "This record was encouraging to me as a person and as a young musician," he says. "It was perfect and the quintessential backdrop for a Wisconsin autumn or winter."
That both Frenette and Vernon connect music with the distinct flavors of Wisconsin's seasons might be a coincidence. But it's a cool one. Bon Iver's hugely emotive For Emma, Forever Ago was conceived in a deer shack during a long Wisconsin winter. Whatever the muse, Vernon says Frenette has it going on: "He doesn't care what the 'right' thing to do is by others' standards. He does what is right for us."
Frenette created Amble Down Records when he was 19. He says the notion lived in his head all through high school while he and his friends played in bands in Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire. "We loved the idea of uniting the area's best bands and musicians under one moniker to promote a Midwestern music scene made up of kids producing their own quality, independent records and the community they inhabited."
In February 2007, when Frenette was a freshman in college in Minneapolis, the notion took flight. The label started as a bedroom project, literally, with nothing more than Frenette, his laptop and a few boxes of records. "I took a small chunk of my student loans to fund the first three projects."
Amble Down branched out from record production into band management when Frenette and Vernon joined together to work on Bon Iver later in 2007.
Amble Down now produces, promotes and markets eight bands. Last month the label celebrated its second anniversary by throwing a multi-bill blowout at Eau Claire's Grand Little Theater. It sold out.
For all the common DNA that splashes around in the Amble Down gene pool, Vernon advises against trying to assign an "Eau Claire sound" to their work.
"There isn't a 'sound,'" he says. "I think that's important to note. The bands here do what they want. They aren't trying to get famous. They're trying to make music."
A sampling of the label's catalog bears proof of high production value and musical diversity. There's the Gentle Guest, who throw down a Tin Punk Alley groove that includes a barking trombone on a long leash.
The Cloud Hymn, true to its name, is precision acoustic pop with astral keys and starlit vocals by Tani Alyssa. Cranes and Crows flap in time to balanced, woody instrumentals and nice, reedy singing by Paul Brandt.
Meridene, one of the harder-rocking groups on the label, crunches electric guitars and weaves lyrics that are high bred without being high brow. Think Decemberists without the annoying grad school degrees. The Wars of 1812 wage a Supertramp throwback driven with casual ease by Mei-Ling Anderson's delicate bass lines.
There may not be an Eau Claire sound, but many of the Amble Down bands do share one distinctive trait: intense vocal harmonies. Perhaps no other group demonstrates this more than the highly stylized Daredevil Christopher Wright, led by Sunde brothers Jason and Jon.
Now comes the real family part of Amble Down: when everyone gets happily into everyone else's business.
The Gentle Guest's Eric Rykal has engineered seven of the 10 official releases Amble Down has produced in the last two years, including tracks for, among others, Cranes and Crows and the Cloud Hymn. Bon Iver guitarist Mike Royce plays guitar for the Gentle Guest, which also features Meridene's Trevor Ives. The Cloud Hymn's Paul Brandt has played on tracks for Meridene. And Justin Vernon mixed nine of the 11 songs on the Daredevil Christopher Wright's latest CD.
There's more, but you get the idea.
"I think we all take a great deal of pride in what our little music scene has accomplished," says Rykal. "Amble Down is important because of this great family of musicians we have here in Eau Claire." Rykal gives credit to his old friend and high school bandmate Frenette. "Kyle may be the biggest reason for the family this label has come to represent, and he knows more about the music industry than people twice his age."
Frenette throws it back to Rykal and the rest. "We're all influenced by each other," he says, consistent with the unyielding humility one encounters when speaking to Amble Down players.
"In my mind Eau Claire provides this quiet landscape for artists," reflects Frenette. "Being a big fish in a small pond can be really encouraging for people, which can help you grow a lot. I think people embrace that status wholeheartedly."
Plus, says Frenette, the world outside of Eau Claire is changing in ways that give cities like L.A. a diminishing advantage. "The way the business works, with the Internet, it's very possible to do all the things larger record labels have always done anywhere."
A few days after the Bon Iver show at the Barrymore, Mike Perry had the opportunity to look out over 1,500 of his neighbors from a spot onstage at the State Theater in Eau Claire. It was Bon Iver's welcome-home show, and Perry opened the night, at the band's request, by reading some custom-built prose. He calls the experience "a heartfelt honor."
"This 'scene' didn't just happen," says Perry, who considers himself one of the "old guys." "This thing we're seeing now radiates from much hard work and forethought; much - not all, but much of it - coming from young people who decided to replace complaint with hustle."
In practical terms, Perry relates to the "buy local" formula of art in his county, a place where he can perform live music, make records, participate in readings, cut videos or get a theater rented within a few miles of his farm. "I can walk into the Joynt or Racy D'Lene's Coffee Lounge or Just Local Foods and within 20 minutes - and a couple of emails - line up everyone I need. No muss, no hoo-hah, just git 'er done."
As for the Joynt Bar, after 37 years, is it really still the place to meet? Perry has a fast answer that brushes even more color into the family portrait of the Amble Down story.
"As soon as Justin packed his van after his homecoming gig at the State, he went straight to the Joynt. Among other things, it's where his parents met. It truly is a nexus."