[Blue Ox came to a close on Saturday August 21st with headliners including Leftover Salmon, Shakey Graves, Sam Bush, & a second set by festival hosts Pert Near Sandstone.]
“It’s been genuinely a really powerful experience. That we’re all here, we’re all doing it, and everything is happening as well as it is. Everyone’s smiling and having a good time. It’s going smooth, and there have been bumps along the way, but we addressed them.”
Mandolin and fiddle playing founding member of Pert Near Sandstone Nate Sipe explained to me how it feels to be executing such a festival amidst such difficult times.
“Now that it’s Saturday, we’re kind of on the coast. It’s been awesome. I wasn’t going to use the word, but it’s been ‘ohwahsome.” (say it fast)
I stumbled upon their treeside practice backstage prior to their set that night, and figured they’d be thrilled to have a curious New York (Upstate) gentleman interrupt and ask them questions. I asked Sipe what makes Blue Ox and/or Eau Claire so special.
“I think it’s a combination of a vision that we have that we shared with the Bischel Family, who owns and operates the grounds here. And along with the amazing music community we have in the Upper Midwest. It wouldn’t be a thing at all if not for the people that come to hear the music and bring their energy. They help us with ideas and developments on making this a pretty friggin’ awesome experience.” (“ohwahsome” the bandmates say)
And pretty friggin’ awesome it was. As a first-timer experiencing the unique gathering, I was smitten. The power of kind, hospitable creatives working together to build such a visceral and sensory experience is an amazing feat of accomplishment. It’s something to be very proud of, whether you’re slinging donuts at Holy Donuts, teaching children ceramics at The Potter’s Shed, blowing bubbles, or preparing to hit the Main Stage to the legions of happy people. It’s a collective effort to create such an experience, and Blue Ox was on the mark. Even just the way it’s spaced out and the blueprint of the whole situation was impressive.
Finally, I asked him how the festival has grown and evolved since its inception in 2015: “Yeah it’s definitely been growing and building. We’re fine-tuning things. We’re polling the audience, we’re polling the artists, what’s working what’s not, and we’re receptive of that and putting the effort in to make a better event every year. And I think every year it gets a little better, a little easier. This past year there has been an exception of course. Even from Year 1 it developed its own legs and its own momentum. It’s been growing incrementally. We also don’t want it to outgrow its britches too fast. It’s paced very well. Ohwahsomely well.”
I cut the recorder mid-laughter eruption following that last sentiment.
I let my hair down a bit more this time around, as I brought some beers to the campgrounds (you couldn’t/weren’t supposed to bring them into Center Ox) and indulged early afternoon to some Backwoods Stage music courtesy of Dig Deep.
But this wasn’t quite like every other bluegrass act I’d seen thus far.
No, these guys looked like they could pass as a Slayer cover band. At least the banjo player did. (guitar player too) From the jump, they injected a ferocity behind their strings and picked like their hands were on fire. The banjo player banged his head, his long frizzy hair whipping the mic and mic stand. They had a very metal-meets-bluegrass vibe that ruled, and it was all but confirmed when they unleashed one of the greatest hard rock tunes of all time, Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.” I mean come on.
It was a real crowd-pleaser, and my beer definitely did not get drunk slow. The Backwoods crowd was raging and going strong, and it was a great way to start (for me) the Saturday afternoon sets.
Afterwards, I caught the guitar player and asked him what it was like to be performing at the festival. “Incredible. And everybody’s just super thirsty. It’s just so good.” Then I asked about their metal style of bluegrass and who might’ve influenced it: “100% The .357 String Band. Pretty much bit their style completely. Split Lip Rayfield. Any of the kind of edgier bluegrass stuff.”
After a couple quick Leinenkugel’s on a more temperate day, I moseyed through the winding backwoods trails on my way to catch Leftover Salmon. And because I didn’t have a campsite and couldn’t bring my precious beers inside, I hid them by a log under some leaves at the Woodchuck and Honey Bee campground junction and would intermittently sneak out to indulge.
I had talked to singer and guitarist Vince Herman at the beginning of 2020 to discuss his and fellow founding-member and co-front man Drew Emmitt’s tour for their 30 Years Under The Big Top boxset among other things, so I was hoping to catch him at some point.
Leftover Salmon’s set was full of funk, groove, and plenty of their signature Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass style. It was also chock full of surprising covers too, like Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” which actually is the opening track of their newest album, Brand New Good Old Days.
But another perhaps more surprising cover was the Guns N’ Roses classic, “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Emmitt dialed in on the iconic intro on his mandolin and it was off to the races after that. And there was some “Whole Lotta Love” Zeppelin nod somewhere along the lines later on if memory serves.
I also realized it seemed Charley Crockett had bailed, or something went down, as LS did two sets, one being in Crocket’s assigned time slot, so said the print program.
After LS threw down a double dose of fun, I hopped in back to chat with Emmitt who was nearby sipping a Corona. I wanted to ask about the G N’ R cover, but before I could get to it a few lovely ladies approached him and (rightfully) swayed his attention. I bid him adieu, and out I went to brace for Shakey Graves, who I really wasn’t too familiar with.
But I soon would be.
Not only did Shakey wildly impress with his one-man-band status, he was an absolute pro at talking to the crowd between songs, and telling stories that strung his songs together. His showmanship was on point, and it was clear this dude has done this a thousand times. The bone-chilling tones on his electric guitar and his unique picking was awe-inspiring, and his vocals were strong, and his lyrics endearing. He was funny as hell and the crowd could not get enough.
As the sun started to go down, I thought it best to eat a pulled pork sandwich, or rather, a Sloppy John at the BBQ Cabin. And when that wasn’t enough to fulfill my gluttonous desires, I poked around and pondered what else might serenade my taste buds. At this point, Sipe and the Pert Near crew had taken the Main Stage for the second night, and just as I stood in line at Dairyland Curd to order some Loaded Tots, didn’t I hear, “If you like to gamble / I tell ya I’m your man…”
No way. No. Way.
Yes, Pert Near busted out “Ace of Spades” on the big stage, and I came running, literally. Okay maybe a healthy jog. I was amped up. I wondered if the two bands were in cahoots. Either way, hearing that tune twice and delivered in bluegrass fashion was a major highlight for me. While the next song (and all their songs) were top shelf with the energy never ceasing, I had to investigate this Loaded Tots situation further.
With the full/full-ish moon hung high yet again above the illuminated pines, Sam Bush would take the stage to close things out on the Main Stage, but not before The Torch Sisters twirled, flipped, and spun batons of fire in unison in a controlled area in front of it. People circled and watched, as did Bush while setting up and soundchecking. It was a mesmerizing display, and fun way to prepare for the final act.
The masses were ready for Bush and company, as the bowl filled like eager, jamgrass-loving sardines. Anticipation filled the crowd, and before long, Bush, in his green Dead Kennedys ‘Erase Racism’ shirt, hit the first note, and was off and running. They were a perfect and powerful closer of such a festival, and Bush’s out of this world mandolin prowess and bold, relatable lyrics struck each and every ear.
And the classic rock covers kept on comin’ with Bush and company busting out the Allman Brothers classic, “Whippin’ Post.” It was a rendition for the ages that surely had Gregg smiling from The Great Beyond. The band hammered through a number of barn burnin’ tunes that kept the crowd hoping he’d play forever, but alas, as all good things do, the magic in the pines would soon come to an end.
It was three beautiful days of living in the moment with like-minded peers, enjoying frosty beers, and letting the music be your guide. Considering the exhaustive hardships we’ve all been facing for far too long, Blue Ox scratched the itches of many, and did so in a safe and successful way. With so much divisiveness among us on a day-to-day basis, this Eau Claire oasis was just what the doctor ordered to feel a positive human connection again.
If this lengthy trilogy of an article series was a Yelp review, it would be 10/10 stars. Or 5/5 stars. Whatever number system they have, Blue Ox is the highest amount.