Blue Ox Festival Pert Near Perfect
Words and Photos by Tom Wickstrom
In just its 3rd year, the Blue Ox Music Festival has blossomed into one of the premier music festivals in the country. Hosted by Pert Near Sandstone and located at Whispering Pines Campground just outside Eau Claire Wisconsin, Blue Ox boasted a lineup that many considered one of the best for the summer festival season. What started out as an idea to add a Bluegrass Stage to their already successful Country Jam, but quickly gained momentum and grew into the idea of having its own festival. There were 2 stages used for all the main performances:Main Stage & Saloon Stage. An additional stage was set up in the woods for all the late night picking & jamming.
Opening the festival on the Saloon Stage were Them Coulee Boys, a local band from the area. They delivered a straight forward energetic set of music reminiscent of the Avett Brothers. Fruition was the other band that performed on the Saloon Stage. They took everyone on a musical journey jumping smoothly from one genre to another. Their 2 “tweener” sets were definitely highlights for me at the festival. The Jeff Austin Band kicked things off on the Main Stage and were followed by the Traveling McCoury’s. Both bands offered up lively sets of bluegrass and then returned later as a combined unit to present The Grateful Ball: a bluegrass tribute to the music of the Grateful Dead. It put the crowd in a mellow groove as they danced in place and set the stage for the final performance of the night: The Sam Bush Band. Sam leads the audience down a bluegrass musical path with many potholes of country, rock & blues along the way that makes the ride bumpy yet satisfying and elevated everyone to the ultimate musical ecstasy.
Friday’s lineup was stellar from top to bottom. The Saloon Stage once again started things off with Laska. The backbone of Laska are songwriting sisters Hannah, Becca & Mookie Morton hailing locally from Eau Claire. With beautiful harmonies & raw emotion, they set the bar early for what would be a great day of music. Colter Wall followed Laska’s 1st tweener set as the first act on the Main Stage. Colter, armed with just a guitar and his raw baritone voice, sang songs steeped in tradition with a nod to the old school country set forth by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and many others, but with a sound all his own. Split Lip Rayfield then blasted all with their high energy punkgrass style of music highlighted by Jeff Eaton on his homemade gas-tank bass. Trout Steak Revival from Colorado was up next on the Saloon Stage and was followed by Dead Man Winter on the Main Stage. Dave Simonett, who is also in acoustic band Trampled By Turtles, gets to show off his rock star alter ego in the electric rock band Dead Man Winter and show his versatility as a musician. Son Volt came next and played a treasure chest of 20+ years of their Alt-Country tunes. I have been a fan ever since they formed but this was my first time seeing them live and I can’t wait to catch them again. Dead Horses & White Iron Band were the remaining 2 bands on the Saloon Stage. I had recently seen Dead Horses open for Elephant Revival in Ohio, so I was well aware of their folk-y Americana sound and was not disappointed. The White Iron Band then followed them with a carefree foot-stomping set of music.
The rest of the evening on the main stage was somewhat of a blur as Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, The Infamous Stringdusters, host band Pert Near Sandstone & Greensky Bluegrass all performed inspiring sets of music that kept everyone dancing, sweating & exhausted by the end of the evening. I still had some energy left so I then caught Them Coulee Boys & Kind Country as they played late night back in the woods.
I felt a little lazy when I got up Saturday morning. The weather forecast was calling for hot, humid, low 90’s, gusty winds and the possibilty of hail & thunderstorms. I secured my campsite and headed to the stage for another day of music. Once again, the Saloon Stage was a showcase for up & coming bands and Joseph Huber, Evergreen Grass Band, Henhouse Prowlers & Rumpke Mountain Boys all delivered great performances. Rumpke fired everyone up with their “Trassgrass” style of music into a dancing frenzy. They never create a setlist ahead of time but make it up as they go along and decide on the spur of the moment and reactions from the crowd. The Main Stage Saturday bands were also top notch starting with Billy Strings. Billy is an unbelieveable picking guitar player who takes listeners on a musical adventure steeped in the past and tradition but incorporating all the different types of music he listened to when he was growing up to create a vibrant energetic sound moving to the future. He’s only 25 but shows a maturity in how he approaches things that you rarely see in people his age. Willie Watson then did a stripped down solo performance that was thoroughly enjoyable but gave the audience a slight breather before Keller & the Keels followed. Consisting of a blend of Keller Williams originals and select cover songs, Keller & the Keels led the crowd quirky set featuring Larry Keel’s blistering guitar licks and Jenny Keel’s bass beats & Keller Williams on mandolin. The Punch Brothers followed with a set of music blending elements of classical & bluegrass music together to form a unique subtle sound that was both mellow but energizing at the same time. Chris Thile’s mandolin work and all the other band members’ musicianship really stood out.
Pert Near Sandstone came next and delivered yet another rousing set of music. Their harmonies are precise and they are so animated and look like they’re having so much fun. Matt Cartier’s clogging enhances their their sound by adding a percussive beat in the background. The Drive By Truckers then kicked it into a hard rock gear with a raucus set of songs that knocked you upside the head. They have never shied away from politics in their songs and address many issues we seem to be facing today anf this set was no different as they spoke out on race & human rights. Finally, it was time for the last remaining act, Raillroad Earth to close out the night. After the Drive By Truckers rowdy set, it was nice to slow the pace a little and enjoy the mellow grooves that Railroad Earth set forth. Everyone danced for joy. I had to leave halfway through their set to get back to Ohio for another obligation. I heard there was an epic jam on the back woods stage featuring members of Pert Near Sandstone,Railroad Earth, Rumpke Mountain Boys & more til early in the morning.
Blue Ox was an amazing festival and well worth the 10 hour drive from Columbus, Ohio. With an exceptional lineup of bluegrass & americana acts, Blue Ox stepped up to the plate and hit a homerun on the festival field. My calendar is already marked for next year. I can’t wait!