Blue Ox Music Festival 2023 Review: A Fun & Inviting Family Reunion In Wisconsin
The festival took place last weekend in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
The ninth annual Blue Ox Music Festival was held this past weekend in Eau Claire, Wisconsin at the scenic Pines Music Park. Though having lived in the Twin Cities for the past several years, this was my first time attending Blue Ox, but almost immediately upon arriving on site, I knew this would not be my last.
An exceptionally-run three days of music left me mightily impressed with the quality of performance and execution by the event organizers. Host band Pert Near Sandstone has created something special in a cozy enclave of Wisconsin and the fact the event sold out is evidence of the reputation it has established over the years.
There was a welcoming atmosphere and it was clear from the well-curated campsites and abundance of attendees wearing Blue Ox gear from previous years that many have made Blue Ox a yearly tradition. This being my first time, it felt like crashing a family reunion, but then the family turns out to be fun and inviting.
There are three stages at Blue Ox and music is performed almost non-stop. The central concert area houses the Main Stage and a secondary Saloon Stage that volleyed performances all weekend long. A smaller Backwoods Stage is tucked deep into the woodsy campgrounds providing an intimate performance space.
Thursday, June 22
One of the first acts I heard perform at Blue Ox was Minneapolis-based string band Buffalo Galaxy. Their breezy, exceedingly drawn-out cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song” put me at ease as I got acquainted with the grounds.
Eau Claire’s own Them Coulee Boys performed as the sun was setting behind the Main Stage. The sincerity of singer/guitarist Soren Staff and eccentricities of banjoist Beau Janke (who by the end of the set was wearing only shorts) make for an inviting blend of fun and heartfelt Americana. There was a feeling like everyone on site was focused on the band when they performed a gorgeously fitting rendition of their original “Sunset Sermons.”
Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country was one of the acts I was looking forward to seeing for the first time. There was plenty of country and plenty of cosmic within the young guitarist’s set. Drawing a large crowd, Donato dazzled with twangy guitar runs and a tight band consisting of keyboardist Nathan Aronowitz, drummer Will Clark and switching between electric and acoustic upright bass Will McGee. The group was funkier than expected, with groovy psychedelia exemplified by the original “Dance In The Desert” and an instrumental cover of “Ghost Riders In The Sky.”
“Carry Me Away” off 2019’s Rising Sun launched The Infamous Stringdusters’ performance on Thursday and by the time they ended with “Means To An End” from 2022’s Toward The Fray, the five-piece, bluegrass outfit presented a solid opening night headlining set. Between those songs, The Dusters dug into additional Toward The Fray cuts, including “Pearl Of Carolina,” “When Will I Ride Again (Tragic 2)” and the title track. They also played older tunes like “Well, Well” and “Night On The River.” The Dusters’ recently released Flatt & Scruggs tribute EP was represented by “Blue Ridge Cabin Home,” alongside fellow covers, “Touch Of Grey” by the Grateful Dead and “Big River” by Johnny Cash.
Over on the Saloon Stage, Salt Lake City-based string band Pixie & The Partygrass Boys caught my attention with their sweet harmonies and fast picking. I caught myself instantly singing along to their truth-setting original “There’s No Friends On A Powder Day.”
Friday, June 23
Friday was hot. Sunny and thankfully dry, but it was hot. Blue Ox’s abundant water filling stations were in constant demand but always readily available throughout the scorcher of a day. Making sure to get to Pines Music Park early to catch guitar phenom Yasmin Williams meant for a long day under the relentless Midwestern sun. Williams put on a clinic, almost literally, as she frequently took time to give demonstrations and instructions regarding her outside-the-box approach to playing guitar.
Leading off with an untitled original, Williams worked in several songs from her excellent 2021 album Urban Driftwood while incorporating a kalimba, tap shoes and a hammer akin to what is used with a dulcimer to create her signature sounds. Utilizing limited pedals or effects, Williams wowed with a performance of “Doc’s Guitar” which she recorded for the recent Doc Watson 100th birthday tribute album and an instrumental take on Post Malone’s “Sunflower.” Later that afternoon I was able to get some shelter from the sun in a tent while interviewing Williams for the The JamBase Podcast
Loose and, from their own admission, only lightly rehearsed, Kyle Tuttle and Rainbow Girls settled into their Main Stage performance. The well-matched collaborators exuded enjoyment, playing Rock, Paper, Scissors and engaging in hilarious banter. Most memorable was the head-to-toe tie-dyed dressed Tuttle serenading the Rainbow Girls who were seated on sofas and easy chairs onstage on a sweet performance of “Rainbow Connection” affectionately dubbed “Rainbow Girls Connection.”
Fresh off mayoral duties at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s 50th anniversary in Colorado, jamgrass veteran Sam Bush and his band played a golden hour Main Stage set on Friday evening. Having gone several years since last seeing Bush perform, it was exhilarating to see the passion and excitement he still brings to the stage. After his set, Bush joined Pert Near Sandstone during what would end up being the host band’s lone headlining set of the weekend.
Phish bassist Mike Gordon and his solo band were the final Main Stage performers on Saturday at Blue Ox. The impact of new keyboardist/vocalist Rachel Eckroth (who is filling in for Robert Walter while he tours with Roger Waters) was immediate and her presence on stage felt like a new coat of paint applied to Gordon’s songs, freshening and enhancing them with many positive results.
“Say Something” kicked off Gordon’s set which would later feature the Phish favorite “Meat.” Eckroth took the lead on “Circling,” a song she recently recorded with Donny McCaslin. The Gordon original, “Pure Energy” from his recently released solo album Flying Games showed high potential in the live setting and could be a candidate for the bassist’s other band.
Saturday, June 24
Saturday’s initial run on the Main Stage was a delightful succession of performers. I made it on-site to catch Big Richard, a Colorado-based group made up of four accomplished musicians, Bonnie Sims (mandolin), Dr. Joy Adams (cello), Emma Rose (bass/guitar) and Eve Panning (fiddle). A fun take on Brittney Spears’ “Toxic” helped grab the attention of the crowd along with their engaging harmonies and musicianship.
Another Blue Ox staple artist, Charlie Parr drove over from Minnesota and showed off a new band during his enthralling set. Backed by drummer JT Bates, bassist Liz Draper and keyboardist Nicholas David, Parr worked through interesting arrangements of “1922 Blues,” “817 Oakland Avenue,” “Dog” and ended his set with a cover of The Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon.”
Mandolin ace Sierra Hull was next to take the Main Stage. Given her mastery of the mandolin, it is easy to overlook Hull’s talents as a vocalist and songwriter. Along with showcasing new songs from an upcoming album, Hull and her bandmates also incorporated choice covers like Del McCoury’s “I Feel the Blues Moving In,” Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and a standout take on Bela Fleck’s “Stomping Grounds.”
The outstanding Main Stage run continued with Texas-based singer-songwriter Charley Crockett. Retro and authentic, Crockett’s brand of country music fit well among the day’s other performers. Unfortunately, a few songs into Crockett’s set, storms rolled in causing the cancellation of the remainder of his set and a lengthy pause on performances.
Rainy conditions have happened before at Blue Ox and the response from the organizers was swift and smart. As the storms and heavy rain began to let up, it was announced that Pert Near Sandstone would forgo their Main Stage set and instead headliners The Avett Brothers would take the stage earlier than originally scheduled, followed by the Kitchen Dwellers capping the fest with a Saloon Stage set.
The Avett Brothers played the role of final night headliners with ease. Opening with “Satan Pulls the Strings,” from the jump their well-formulated show drew big cheers from the fully reassembled faithful that braved the rain to see the headliners. The set included favorites such as “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” “I Wish I Was” and my personal favorite “Murder In The City.”
The Avetts covered “Groundhog,” which was the last of several Doc Watson covers I saw over the weekend. Standby staples “I and Love and You,” “Ain’t No Man” and an encore of “Talk on Indolence” and “No Hard Feelings” brought an end to The Avetts dynamic headlining performance.
After meeting them on Thursday on the concert grounds, I made a point to make it over to the Backwoods Stage to catch contest winners The Spine Stealers. Hauntingly gorgeous harmonies paired with pedal steel guitar made for a memorable first-time experience with the freshly formed group.
I’ve been attending music festivals for over two decades and left Blue Ox with few if any, complaints. The fest’s first sell-out in nine years was nonetheless not overcrowded and its family-friendly environment was welcoming to all. The homespun atmosphere could be felt by the Local Lyons Club members working the concessions and local firefighters driving around the campgrounds with pull tabs.
Food and drink selections – particularly an impressive array of local craft beers – were plentiful and tasty. Facilities were regularly serviced, campgrounds were clean and spacious and everyone working was friendly and helpful.
Next year it won’t feel like crashing a family reunion, instead, it will be like continuing to join in on a new musical tradition.