The Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin presented its first of hopefully many years of great bluegrass, roots, and Americana music to the North Woods June 11th through June 13th. This is the first festival of its kind in the area, and the nearly 3,500 people in attendance showed just how thirsty it was for a celebration like this. Tucked away in a beautifully woodsy campground, this festival brought the perfect blend of well-known artists and up and coming artists, all with immense talent and an entertaining stage presence.
QRO got to Blue Ox on its second day, kicking it off with Minnesota natives Tin Can Gin, whose high-energy show was a great start to the day. They had the traditional bluegrass style, with a mix of serious lyrics, and some fun, silly lyrics. Adding in a few reggae infused tunes and an awesome bluegrass cover of Blind Melon’s “No Rain”, this band won over the crowd.
Greg Brown and Bo Ramsey performed on the main stage with a slightly slower and bluesy set. Brown’s deep, gritty voice was quite the contrast to the other acts of the day, although not unwelcome. Bo Ramsey’s classic blues/country guitar style and Brown’s simple, clever lyrics paired very well together and drew in a nice sized crowd. Brown’s hilarious, positive outlook on life was entertaining and came with some excellent stories, told through his songwriting and banter with the audience.
Pokey LaFarge was the runaway hit of the festival, and a breath of fresh air to an otherwise pretty similar sounding lineup. Hard to peg, his sound is a blend of old blues – reminiscent of Blind Willie McTell – country, and jazz. With a seven-piece band, he had everything from banjo to a horn section. His banjo player occasionally played a washboard with cowbells, call bells and other makeshift percussion pieces attached to it, making for a unique addition. LaFarge ended his set with a stroll through the crowd, delighting the audience and putting the cherry on top of this memorable performance.
The Saloon, the side stage for the festival, hosted the up and coming artists between main stage sets. Pistol Whippin’ Party Penguins and Kind Country were two of the featured acts on Friday, and were great bluegrass bands, with tight harmonies and uptempo tunes that got the crowd fired up for the main stage artists. This stage was a great showcase of the local talent, with many of the artists being native to Wisconsin.
Sam Bush Band brought a huge crowd to the main stage as the sun was setting. Playing a more electric set than most groups at the fest, they had a great time jamming and stretching out their tunes, feeding off of the energy from the crowd.
The last two acts of the day absolutely tore the house down! Pert Near Sandstone were the hosts of the whole festival, and had a blast doing it! This was another band that had a washboard (definitely a trend throughout the weekend) as part of their percussion, and it complemented their sound perfectly. Fast paced and fun to watch, the last group of the day, Greensky Bluegrass, played through their set and then some, jamming and featuring different guest artists along the way – a great end to a great day.
Saturday started off rainy and muddy, but that didn’t stop festivalgoers from enjoying themselves. There was a definite “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude about the weather, and many people ended up going barefoot! Henhouse Prowlers, the first band of QRO’s day, had just returned from a trip to Africa, and brought a few songs they’d learned there with them, adding their bluegrass touch.
Portland natives, Horse Feathers, played to a slightly smaller crowd, but certainly didn’t disappoint the people in attendance with their fast paced songs and excellent songwriting. They played mostly songs off of their newest album, So It Is With Us, while throwing in a few older tunes.
Wisconsin natives, Dead Horses, rocked The Saloon in the early afternoon. It’s a fun change to have a female lead singer in a bluegrass band, and she definitely stood her own with all of the boys. The group was so in sync and that made for a carefree and fun performance that caught a lot of attention from festivalgoers.
QRO closed out the day with a much-anticipated performance by Nashville based Justin Townes Earle. Earle played an excellent hour-long set, with his setlist spanning from early tunes all the way up to his recently released album, Absent Fathers. Earle brought a guitar/pedal steel player with him, but the sound felt much louder than a two-piece band, something he’s always been good at. He charmed the audience with the re-telling of conversations he’d had recently with his wife, while fixing the pickup in his guitar (“My wife tells me I’m very hard on things…”). Before closing out his set with one of his more popular songs, “Harlem River Blues”, he delighted the crowd with an awesome, soulful cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”.