[The Eau Claire, Wisconsin, festival that took place this past weekend required proof of vaccination or negative test results to enter. What resulted was a whole lot of safe fun.]
“The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round.”
For some reason that was my first thought as I reflected on my elementary days while spotting the big blue bus that came slowing to a stop in front of the hotel, brakes screeching. Before long, thoughts of tie-dying T-shirts in Ms. Hernandez’ art class would be surprisingly if not pleasantly drowned out by “Heartshaped Box” courtesy of Nirvana. It was soon clear that this ain’t no kiddo school bus.
I shelled out my $30 to the burly ponytailed man in an overcreased camo hat (Steve) in exchange for my green paper wristband, which allowed me come-and-go access all weekend. What a deal.
Wide-eyed and eager for something I’d been devoid of for ages, I got a brief and bumpy introduction to the surrounding Eau Claire, Wisconsin, countryside en route to the hallowed Blue Ox Music Festival grounds.
The sprawling Pines Music Park is home to several music festivals and events throughout the (average) year, with Blue Ox being hosted by local bluegrass favorites, Pert Near Sandstone. The festival has been going strong for what would’ve been seven years had 2020 behaved, but in 2021 with protocols in place, the festival was a full go.
The lineup included some of the very best in the bluegrass, Americana, folk, and roots world, with top acts such as Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Sam Bush Band, Infamous Stringdusters, Shakey Graves, and many more gracing the three-night/three-stage celebration.
On arrival at the Pines Gate, I soon made my way out and among the tall skinny Wisconsin pine trees that welcomed excitable patrons. Naturally, the trees were pruned to perfection until about 20-30 feet up to make room for heavy machinery, shelter, and flying light-up hula hoops.
Aligned by the dozens were campers, vehicles, and tents between the pine and sloping ground that led to the festival gateway. Down the trail I meandered amidst the welcoming wafts of fresh pine, grill smoke, and pot smoke, and in the near distance a soundcheck was underway.
With curious eyes, I entered the beating heart of this wooded wonderland.
While donning Music Mecca’s new ‘Will Work For Records’ T-shirt and a pair of my dad’s old sunglasses, I admired the familiar sights I hadn’t seen in so long. Smiling sunkist faces whizzed by in every direction, and rows of various vendors lined the perimeter. Symmetrical rows of charming creamsicle-colored human waste chambers stood proud near the entrance, ready to take on the masses for the weekend. At the opposite end of the gate was the Main Stage, standing tall by a peaceful pond, and across the grassy bowl maybe 100 yards away was the Side Stage, nestled next to a beer cabin and deck.
Every shade of flesh broiled under the summer sun, but that was of no matter as the feel was nothing but sheer elation and delight. The perils of the “regular” world we lived in, especially these days, simply did not exist in this time and place: and that’s what makes music festivals as a whole so important for so many. They are about living in the moment and basking in the shared joy around you.
And when I think “music festival,” my main focus and curiosity is about the artists, and who’s playing when and where. While this is the draw and the focal point, I tend to overlook everything else that makes a festival, a festival. Havens like these offer so much more than music.
For the careers and successes of drawers, painters, jewelry makers, soap makers, candle makers, woodworkers, and crafty creators like these, gatherings like Blue Ox are critical. An array of these kinds of unique vendors and others offered treasures, information, and mindfulness to all indulging in the magical weekend. Extracurriculars included the Soul Sanctuary which offered yoga, meditation, Shamanic drumming & healing ceremonies, and much more, along with Music Workshops offering casual “seminars” with musicians teaching others about bluegrass instruments, culture, and so on.
Before long, the inaugural act of the weekend, Arkansauce, hit the Side Stage, guns blazing. I tried to savor those first few songs, knowing good and well how fleeting this all would be. As they closed their fiery first set, the emcee on the Main Stage officially welcomed the crowd.
“It’s great to see ya, it’s great to smell ya, now let’s have some fun!” He says amidst the roaring applause.
Nashville’s own Kyle Tuttle and his band would proceed to christen the Main Stage with his lightning quick banjo pickin’ alongside his stellar band.
Perhaps the most ideal spot within Center Ox was stage-left about 50 yards out where strings of semi-communal hammocks strung awaiting butts and backs, and was where I found myself to indulge in much of Tuttle’s set.
“Y’all come to party or what?” Tuttle asks.
“I’ll write you a sick note at the merch table if anyone needs it for tomorrow,” Tuttle proceeded to tell the crowd. He also mentioned he had pizza cutters as merch, which was an amazing and genius item to sling. I wanted to get one but then wondered if the Flight Lords would allow such savory weaponry high in the skies.
I felt Tuttle would make for a great voiceover artist in addition to his banjo and bluegrass career. He has a very animated and humorous tone in his between-song banter that made for an enhanced listening experience. It’s always an added bonus when a performer knows how to make concert goers laugh and smile- in fact I’d say it’s a pretty crucial aspect.
Within minutes of writing in my notebook, I felt as though I had superglue on my fingers. After a reluctant sniff, I soon learned it was tree sap. Ya can’t be among thousands of Wisconsin pine trees and not literally feel their presence. Whether you’re pickin’ or perusin’ in the pines, they will make their presence known.
Walls of gigantic iridescent bubbles materialized via what looked like two huge fishing poles, as small children jumped and skipped through them, while more chairs and tents began to fill the expansive grassy bowl. At this point, it was a decent, not overwhelming crowd. There was room to roam.
After securing my first batch of beer-battered Wisconsin cheese curds courtesy of Dairyland Curd, a man commented on my shirt.
“What kind of work will you do for records?” He asked in earnest.
“Oh, well-,” he quickly continued.
“I’ve got 70 trees that I need cut down, and I’ve got too many records to count.” He said.
“So you’re asking me if I’ll help you cut down 70 trees, and you’ll pay me in records?” I asked.
The man was 100% serious, and I continued to explain my position covering the festival and the truth and jest behind the shirt. I also gave it some thought.
I talked to the middle-aged man for a bit who was a regular at regional festivals like these, who would go on to tell me he was a pro snowboarder from 1989-1993, and utterly gushed about Charlie Parr. (who would be taking the Main Stage the following day)
After some good back and forth conversation with a true blue Wisconsite and a belly full of curd, I soon handed the remaining few curds off to a passing patron, and off I roamed.
Among the rapidly expanding crowd were a lot of infants and toddlers, heads bopping in the arms of their presumed parents with looks of confusion, joy, and indifference. Another key component of these festivals is the family friendliness and span of age and lifestyle. One of few situations where twentysomethings on psychedelics can peacefully and stealthily co-exist with toddlers and elders.
And then Lillie Mae happened.
While amidst the first several throngs of fans in the front rows, it was then that the festival and music really struck me. The words that kept flashing in my head throughout her set were captivating, hypnotizing, entrancing- I was in awe of her and her stellar band.
Maybe it was her shimmering silver dress, maybe it was the intermittent “oos”, “ahhs,” or “mms” but wow. There was something palpable about her genre-be-damned performance. With her alleged “brother” on lead and alleged “sister” on mandolin with a Nashville cowboy on skins, they played into the twilight of the night.
And then came the fiddle. (also the name of my horror screenplay) Sweet Jesus the fiddle.
Blazing hot fire came from that stage- talking white hot, blue hot, you name the color, it was emanating from their instruments. And likely takes the skill of tying their shoe to them, too. It was a frantic yet formed instrumental with Lillie slicing her fiddle and utilizing it as if it’s an extension of physical body. She also got me thinking of Native Americans, and the Hank Sr. song, “Settin’ The Woods On Fire.” It’s just amazing what music makes you do and think. The power is real.
Nightfall At The Ox
The surrounding pines began to illuminate in a many-colored pattern as the punishing sun finally decided to set, and amidst a glowing and magical atmosphere, the night acts were ready to begin under a rising, semi-full moon.
A big theme for the festival was remembering those within the direct music community that were lost, namely Max Graham of The Kind Country Band and Jeff Austin, formerly of Yonder Mountain String Band.
Graham’s sister led an extremely strong and heartfelt monologue preceding Kind Country Band’s set talking about the life of her brother, mental health, and reaching out for help when you need it. Graham’s widow and the band’s somber faces said everything, and before long, the band would play in Graham’s honor.
The man leading the vocal charge for Kind Country, John Sullivan, had a voice like none other I heard that weekend. From the get go, he delivered with a big booming baritone voice that beckoned to that of a Chris Stapleton, perhaps with a bit more of a blues edge. His long straight waist-length hair repeatedly fell in face, as he’d soon fling it back while delivering ferocious vocal wails. He maintained a very casual and poised demeanor, with anything but a causal vocal delivery.
Following the electric performance of Horseshoes and Hand Grenades on the Main Stage, The Infamous Stringdusters would follow, and remind many why they are some of the very best to do what they do.
I couldn’t remember hearing a band that sounded so tight, to the point where I wondered what cheat codes they entered prior to taking the stage or at what southern dirt road junction they sold their soul. Fiddle maestro Jeremy Garrett was a standout of the set (and a two-time interviewee on Music Mecca) and it was the band’s cover the Grateful Dead’s “Jack Straw” that really captivated me personally. This would not be the last Grateful Dead cover of the weekend. (go figure)
After the Dusters barn burnin’ set, the moon hung high above the pines while I awaited Steve and the Right Way shuttle back at the gate. It was my first time back into a high capacity music festival in a long time (even before Covid), and reminded me of just how special these gatherings are. I was smitten with the vibrant scene, kind festival goers, and immense talent, and felt a feeling of hope that these unique shared human connections we took for granted would never go away again.
I also got the feeling things were just getting started in The Pines.