Pert Near Sandstone, Back Room at Colectivo, Milwaukee, WI, May 5, 2022
Interview and Show Review: The Road to Blue Ox Music Festival Runs Through Milwaukee with Pert Near Sandstone
The Blue Ox Music Festival is about a month away! The bluegrass and Americana-focused festival will be held Thursday, June 23, through Saturday, June 25, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The venue will be The Pines Music Campground.
Minneapolis-based Pert Near Sandstone is the host band for Blue Ox. Being host is something they take quite seriously. In addition to playing sets on Friday and Saturday night, members of the band will be actively greeting and engaging with the visiting talent and the audience, performing emcee duties, and basically handling much of the backstage activity at the festival.
Pert Near Sandstone has been performing this spring on their “Road to Blue Ox Music Festival Tour 2022.” Their road included a stop in Milwaukee earlier this month with a performance at the Back Room at Colectivo Coffee.
Pert Near Sandstone currently consists of founding guitarist J Lenz, Kevin Kniebel on banjo, Justin Bruhn on upright bass, Nate Sipe on the mandolin and fiddle, and fiddler Matt Cartier, who is also the band’s clog dancer!
Bluegrass jam band Armchair Boogie opened for Pert Near Sandstone. Founded in Stevens Point, Wisconsin in 2015 and now hailing from Madison, Wisconsin, the band consists of Augie Dougherty (banjo, vocals), Ben Majeska (guitar, vocals), Eli Frieders (bass), and Denzel Connor (drums).
Armchair Boogie has been quickly generating their following with a number of Midwest and national festival appearances and playing with the likes of The Infamous Stringdusters, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades and have jammed with many other string bands. Armchair Boogie is also one of the bands scheduled to appear at Blue Ox 2022.
The venue was packed with an SRO crowd who showed their enthusiasm when Armchair Boogie walked out on stage. The band quickly won the crowd with their songs and jams combining a unique mix of bluegrass wizardry and funky beats, with a little bit of honky tonk tossed in for good measure.
Pert Near Sandstone launched into their set with “20 Cups of Coffee,” the kind of frenetic song one would expect where the refrain is ’20 cups of coffee in the morning.’ From the fingers flying across the strings, one would think the band is pretty caffeinated all day long!
The members of the band shy away from calling themselves simply another bluegrass band. They have developed a reputation for their diverse approach to stringed music. This was quite evident throughout the set.
Also prominent during the show were the talents of the individual members of the band. Most of the band’s music is collaboratively produced and not just attributable to one or two members.
Pert Near Sandstone has produced eight albums over their history to continuing kudos from media and their fans.
Several of the songs from their 2020 release, Rising Tide, were included in the set’s playlist.
The band’s fiddling was showcased in each song and was especially front and center in “Water’s High and Rising.”
The tempo slowed significantly for the sweet ballad “Appalachian Girl.” Nate Sipe’s mandolin prominently backed up the wistful vocals of J Lenz.
The crowd was literally hopping throughout the show with the electrified pace of the music.
For their finale, Pert Near joined with the members of Armchair Boogie and mingled with the audience in an extended floor jam playing “All Night Long.” As Justin Bruhn and Nate Sipe mentioned during our interview, below, the band is all about immersing itself in the experience of their music and their fans.
Prior to the show, I had an opportunity to sit down with Justin Bruhn and Nate Sipe to talk about the band, Blue Ox Music Festival, and all of what Blue Ox means to them and their community. Here’s our discussion, edited somewhat for content and clarity.
Americana Highways: What sets Pert Near Sandstone apart from other bluegrass bands?
Justin Bruhn: Our approach is pretty non-traditional. We are not strictly a bluegrass band. We play old time music and mix it up with traditional tunes. We are all songwriters in our own right and we all share that load. Our songs do not necessarily fit into a specific mold.
Plus, we also have a clog dancer on stage with us! That is pretty atypical and not something you see often in a live stage show. We try to keep things loose.
What we lack in terms of professionalism we make up for in affability like down-to-earthiness, you know. And humor. We love to build rapport with audiences and do that by cracking wise and being self-deprecating.
AH: You guys have been co-sponsoring Blue Ox for how long now? How did you get started with the festival?
JB: Well, since its inception in 2015. We co-curated the first year with the festival owners and co-curate the bill every year. We do almost all of the back of house production. We line all that up and do all of the artist relations at the festival. We play host in regard to when people arrive at the festival. We try to greet them. I emcee. That’s kind of where we fit into the overall structure. It’s been a great run. We feel really lucky.
Nate Sipe: Mark Bischel is the festival owner. Mark and his family started the hugely successful Country Jam USA festival in Eau Claire in the early 1990’s. Eventually they approached us about having a stage there and we were just like ‘why don’t we do our own festival on the campgrounds.’ That’s all kind of how it started. Mark does a lot of promotion and organizing. He helps with the billing and curating of the bill. He’s part of the family that owns the grounds.
AH: How do you feel about this year’s line up in comparison to prior years?
JB: As enthusiastic as in all prior years!
NS: I think one thing that puts Blue Ox on the map is our line-up. This year is no exception to what we’ve been building and the direction that Blue Ox will keep going.
Every year there are always surprises for us even as a band. Our manager Mark Gehring does all the talent buying for the festival. He does a really great job of finding acts that are kind of up-and-coming, who happen to be on tour or have new releases, as well as some headliners. He is able to get acts from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival occurring the prior weekend and from other events in the country. It’s always been great.
AH: Looking at your lineup, there are all the great acts I would normally expect at a bluegrass-Americana-oriented festival. One exception this year, though, is that you have Samantha Fish and her band. I think she is just absolutely amazing and will be a great addition. But isn’t a slightly different approach to include her contemporary blues at Blue Ox?
JB: We always tend to have someone who doesn’t exactly fit into the Americana strings genre or mold. But we are fans of all genres of music. So, whenever we can sneak in a rock or a blues act, we are all about it.
NS: Eclectic roots music is the identity that we have grown for the festival. Like Justin said, we have a broad range of influences. We also cater to our audience and listen to what they want. Not just bluegrass. Even for someone like myself loves old time bluegrass, you don’t necessarily want 3 days of only that. We like to mix it up.
AH: So, what does Blue Ox mean to you guys?
JB: It represents an opportunity to build a musical experience where we can bring people from our region together and introduce them to acts they may not have heard, to enthusiastically enjoy acts everyone knows and loves, and to bring our lifestyle and our lives to the region.
NS: I always struggle to have an eloquent synopsis of what this means to me personally. But what I think is it’s really about the experience. It’s about having a place for the community of our friends and our family of musicians. Being able to offer the experience of bringing together people who we know and love who are touring around the country and the world. Bringing this quality of festival in our home region.
JB: And to foster a sense of togetherness and building a family. This is an opportunity for us to help people out and help out musical acts like Armchair Boogie. We’ve had them on the bill in previous years and they have just continued to grow. We like to think that we are a part of helping other bands grow and better themselves.
And then there is the musical discovery portion of it. Every year for me it’s like, sweet, there is a new artist that I don’t know or that someone has brought to the table and that I get to know and love. I love that part of Blue Ox.
NS: To me, it’s less about us and the festival and more about, like pushing the snowball down the hill. Leading it all to the next chapter, whatever that is. Blue Ox won’t last forever—nothing lasts forever but we are adding to the life with a little music.
Fully immersive and joyful experience. Three days. Outside. Lots of happy people.
AH: I’m looking forward to 3 days of no sleep.
JB: That’s kind of how it is.
NS: You hit the first night really heavily and then you have some regret and get some sleep when you can. A little more water. A little more energy drink.
AH: Pert Near Sandstone is on the bill playing on Friday and Saturday night. Are you going to be playing or sitting in with other bands throughout the weekend?
JB: It’s always possible.
NS: We don’t always do that because we will be in the back meeting and greeting. It will be kind of an all-hands-on deck experience with helping run the festival. Also, we really enjoy just being out in front and listening to the music that we’ve worked so hard to help produce.
JB: I love going out into the campground and just roaming around. Swinging by picking circles and just saying hi to everybody
NS: We used to be on the Backwoods Stage every Saturday night of the festival. We used to do a Pert Near Sandstone and Friends jam session. That was always really fun, but we always felt like we were taking away an opportunity for other musicians to play.
JB: (Laughing) Now we don’t have one more thing! By the time Saturday night came around, it was like we were always dragging ass out to the Backwoods Stage. It was always fun but we’re glad now to let someone else take that over.
NS: Two sets of us is enough for people to hear! We try to get as many other musicians up on stage as possible to do their thing. We’re really glad to help provide that experience.
There’s still time to join the Blue Ox community!
Tickets are still available for Blue Ox and can be ordered here. Americana Highways will be at the festival and will bring stories, interviews, reviews, and lots of pictures to our readers! Stay tuned!
Pert Near Sandstone
Back Room at Colectivo, 5/5/2022
20 Cups of Coffee
Cheek to Cheek
Stuck in My Mind
Water’s High and Rising
Kings and Clowns
Hell I’d Pay