Blue Ox Music Festival 2022—An Appreciation
Blue Ox Music Festival made its 8th appearance this summer in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Spanning Thursday, June 23, to Saturday night, June 25, 2022, Blue Ox Music Festival provided a packed three days of Americana, Bluegrass and Folk music along with camping, crafts, and lots of family activities.
Blue Ox is staged at The Pines Music Park in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Set in the northern area of Wisconsin’s famous Driftless Region, an area untouched by glaciers sweeping through much of the state during the Ice Age. “The Pines” is duly named and consists of rolling hills within a forest of old growth pine trees. Most of the attendees were camping, in varying levels of comfort from tents to trailers to extremely large and decked out RVs and motor homes.
The festival was definitely a family friendly event. Joe Mailander of The Okee Dokee Brothers complimented the crowd of folks with their kids saying, “it’s good you’re all indoctrinating your kids early into this music.”
Overall, the camping areas included family camping and quiet camping areas with a midnight curfew on noise. Open fields were available for larger camping set-ups, RVs and motor homes. For those attendees who wanted to continue partying into the wee hours, there were plenty of camping areas around the Woods Stage in the north area of The Pines, where music continued all three nights until 2 in the morning.
The Organization of the Festival
The festival organizers ran a tight ship dealing with all the major and minor details from performance scheduling, people movement, placement of numerous hydration stations and the cleanest porta potties we have ever seen.
The Main Stage and Saloon Stage were at opposite ends of a field in the bowl area where attendees arranged their chairs, blankets and shade tents. The Main Stage abutted a small lake around which lots of colored lights illuminated the trees at night.
Performers also appeared on the Backwoods Stage, north of main bowl area and nestled in a grove between the trees. Here many of the newer, less well-known bands played before appreciative crowds. One festival goer mentioned that the newer bands will first appear on the Backwoods Stage, and then ‘graduate’ to the Saloon and Main Stages in later years as their followings increase.
The scheduling was spot on and ensured there was no dead air between performances. Sets ranged from 30 to 90 minutes. When one set ended on the Main Stage, a new set immediately started up on the Saloon Stage and vice versa, with the standing crowd then migrating from one stage to another. This permitted an efficient set up and sound check to get the dormant stage ready for the next act.
Many of the attendees we talked with noted this type of set up was rare among music festivals. One person remarked that it appeared Blue Ox took the best of other festivals and left the worst out (he was particularly thankful for the clean porta potties).
Beverage and goods vendors lined the walkways surrounding the bowl concert area allowing a stream of people to move around without disturbing those seated in bowl area.
Ticket sales were capped at 5,000 attendees. A healthy number that was still intended to preserve the intimacy of the festival while conveying the overall feeling of being in a small community of like-minded music lovers.
Over 40 different acts performed at Blue Ox 2022 on 3 stages. Moving the crowds around the various stages and keeping those in the audience entertained, fed, hydrated, and happy was a monumental undertaking—a task brilliantly accomplished by the festival’s organizers.
Blue Ox brands itself as largely a Bluegrass and stringed instrument festival. But it was so much more than that. The organizers did a great job of diversifying the band list to include entertainers spanning a broad range of roots music. As Nate Sipe of Pert Near Sandstone, co-founders of Blue Ox, mentioned to me, the festival is based around eclectic roots music. As Nate said, “Even for someone like myself who loves old time bluegrass, you don’t necessarily want 3 days of only that.”
In addition to Bluegrass traditionalists like Bela Fleck and My Bluegrass Heart and Del McCoury Band, contemporary blues music was amply represented by Samantha Fish and Cedric Burnside. Railroad Earth brought their seamless blend of Americana and folk with a jam band feel. Up and coming band Humbird brought their aesthetic folk music to the crowd. Bluegrass with a distinct bit of country was added by Ryan Necci and the Buffalo Gospel.
Bluegrass was well represented by Pert Near Sandstone, Them Coulee Boys, Chicken Wire Empire and many others. More on the diversity of music as we dive into the daily highlights below.
Let’s talk about pedigrees! Grammy winners appearing included Bela Fleck, Cedric Burnside, Del McCoury Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, and The Okee Dokee Brothers. Too many national and regional awards to count among all of the performers, including Samantha Fish with a truckload of blues album and musician of the year awards, and Del McCoury as the most awarded International Bluegrass Music Association entertainer of all time.
As much as Blue Ox highlights the heavyweights in the industry, the festival also gives audiences the opportunity to hear music from up-and-coming artists who are just beginning to make their name and hone their craft.
Thursday—Day 1 Highlights
A sunny, warm day starting out. A great morning for the 3-1/2 hour drive from Milwaukee, which gave me the opportunity to listen to the Blue Ox 2022 playlist on Spotify and preview some of the music I would be enjoying.
Justin Bruhn, bassist for Pert Near Sandstone, shared much of the emcee duties with Jerrika Mighelle, an Eau Claire-based singer-songwriter.
Bruhn formally opened Blue Ox Festival by introducing Armchair Boogie on the Main Stage. Launching into the set with their unique blend of Bluegrass, funkiness and honky tonk, Armchair Boogie quickly warmed the crowd up for what was to come.
Local Eau Claire favorites, Them Coulee Boys, were up next on the Main Stage. Hard driving throughout the set, the pace mellowed a bit for the ballad “I Won’t Be Defined .” Written by Soren Staff during a time of personal suffering, the song represented a poignant plea to the audience to reach out and help those in need.
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades was up next on the Main Stage. A Bluegrass standard regularly appearing at festivals like Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Delfest, and High Sierra Music Festival, the band has released 5 albums in their 10-year history. Songs from their most recent release, Miles in Blue, were prominently featured in their set list. Tunes such as “Chippewa River Home,” highlighted the band’s impeccable picking skills and tight harmonies.
Surprise of the Day
The Humor that can be found in Bluegrass. It seems like Bluegrass artists tend to be self-deprecating. They typically don’t take themselves too seriously while on the road to having a great time playing fun music.
For many bands, that humor can start with the band’s name. Exhibit 1 on Blue Ox Day 1 is the Pistol Whippin’ Party Penguins. Hailing from Minneapolis, the Party Penguins craft a blend of Bluegrass, Americana and folk into their creative songs and tight 4-part harmonies. While not widely known (yet), the band has released 4 albums. The Penguins played two afternoon sets on the Saloon Stage.
The band’s playfulness was evident in the song “Chains”: “It’s an open road mama just as far as the eye can see/I’m tryin’ to be good mama, but Pert Near Sandstone always picks on me/you think these chains gonna keep me from doin’ all those things that I do/until the day that I die, I’ll keep kickin’ and fightin’ and cussin’ and that chain’s gonna break and I’m gonna wish I hadn’t done the things that I’ve done.”
The weekend held lots of opportunity for humor, from sly, subtle hints to laugh out loud silly lyrics.
Friday—Day 2 Highlights
Another hot sunny day greeted those attending the festival. The crowds really began rolling in around mid-day for the upcoming bands.
Humbird opened the day on the Saloon Stage bringing their aesthetic folk music to the festival. Hailing from Minneapolis, Humbird is the project of singer-songwriter Siri Undlin. Backed by a talented group of artists including Adelyn Strei on keyboards and sax, Pete Quirsfeld on drums, and Pat Keen on upright and electric bass, Undlin wooed the crowd with her tales of love and hopefulness. Many of the songs from Humbird’s set came from the band’s second release, Still Life, released in the fall of 2021 and addressing the trials and tribulations of life in the South Minneapolis neighborhood where George Floyd was murdered and the aftermath of that horror.
William Elliott Whitmore was a last-minute substitution for Riddy Arman, who had to withdraw from the festival. A singer-songwriter soloist from rural Iowa with 6 albums to his credit, Whitmore’s songs were gritty and rustic, which he attributed to his life on the family farm. Introducing one of his signature songs, “MK Ultra Blues,” Whitmore promised a song about the government, the economy, war and an alternative history of the development of LSD!
Milwaukee-based Ryan Necci & The Buffalo Gospel was up next on the Saloon Stage. I caught up with Necci prior to the set and asked about the musical evolution of his band. He told me he has always loved county and would continue to play country-influenced songs. But he said the band also ventures into Americana and blues. Then he promised me that their set “would be a little weird!”
The Buffalo Gospel was scheduled to play two sets on the Saloon Stage, but the first was cut short by an unexpected audio glitch, which was quickly corrected. This was the only hitch witnessed in an otherwise flawless festival.
All of Necci’s songs are based on his experiences, heartbreaks, and personal demons. This was obvious in his many solos as the expression of his internal passion was clearly evident on his face and in his motions. While I wouldn’t necessarily characterize the band’s set as weird, it was certainly energetic with Necci jumping and twisting around the stage along with his bandmates.
During the early afternoon, I wandered through the woods to the Backwoods Stage. Nestled in the trees with a clearing in front of the stage, the Backwoods Stage is a little hidden gem of Blue Ox. I caught the set of Maygen & The Birdwatcher. Founded by Maygen Lacey and Noah Neumann, the Minneapolis-based group has been playing to wide acclaim. Their debut album, “Moonshine,” earned Album of the Year and Americana Artist of the Year awards at the 2021 Midwest Country Music awards.
Given the sunshine and afternoon heat, MBW’s fans were spread out under the shade of the surrounding trees where they enjoyed Maygen and Noah’s diverse music styles and Americana-tinged roots music. A couple songs penned by Maygen Lacey, “Heard Me” and “No Joe,” focused on specific shortcomings in potential suitors and boyfriends.
Cedric Burnside was next on the Main Stage and brought one of the most unique styles to Blue Ox of all the performers. Hailing from the North Mississippi Hill Country, Burnside offers a style of blues that differed significantly from the more traditional Chicago, Delta or Texas blues influences. Burnside avoids traditional blues chords and instead blends a combination of discordant guitar notes with his distinctive voice—at times lilting and smooth and at other times, staccato-like and puncturing the air.
Burnside’s set included a number of songs from his newest album, I Be Trying, including “Step In,” “You Really Love Me,” and “Bird Without a Feather.” Nominated twice before, Burnside won his first Grammy award with the 2022 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues album for I Be Trying. Unlikely to be his last!
To see Samantha Fish in person is like witnessing a force of nature. Fish is an incredibly talented artist who sings and plays with the soul, spirit, and experience of someone far beyond her years.
Samantha Fish launched her set on the Main Stage on her electric cigar box guitar with the song, “Bulletproof.” Many of the songs in her set were from her 2021 release, Faster. Samantha Fish’s music pushes the edges of modern blues into an evolved sound that is uniquely hers. Fish always includes incredibly talented artists in her band, with the current configuration including Ron Johnson on bass, Matt Wade on keyboards, and the absolutely electric Sarah Tomek on drums.
Fish’s set well represented the scope of her performing prowess from hard driving rock and roll songs like “So-Called Lover” to the slightly more sedate ballad “All the Words.” She also offered up an excellent cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.”
Toward the end of the set, Samantha mentioned that Blue Ox was the final stop on her spring tour. Two comments about that. First, if she was at all weary and road tired, it certainly didn’t show during the set. Fish and her supporting band brought all of the energy her audiences can expect.
The second comment is that she never takes much time off in her grueling tour schedule. Her hiatus lasted less than 2 weeks before she embarked on her July European tour kicking off in Spain. Her schedule is packed through the end of 2022. And when she’s not on tour, you can rest assured she’ll be working on her next album.
Pert Near Sandstone started off Friday evening on the Main Stage with its first of two sets, the second coming on Saturday night.
Pert Near also distinguishes itself with the clog and toe-tapping talents of one of its fiddlers, Matt Cartier. How many shows can you say you’ve seen with a clog dancer!
Old Crow Medicine Show was next up on the Main Stage. Listening to albums, singles and releases is the way most people will enjoy the music of their favorite artists. However, for most bands you need to see them live to truly appreciate their artistry. This is especially true for Old Crow Medicine Show.
Behind leader Ketch Secor, Old Crow packs a tightly knit and highly kinetic energy into their performances. Although their sets likely result from tons of preparation and rehearsal, Old Crow’s shows feel highly spontaneous and just plain fun. OCMS performed a number of songs off their current release, Paint This Town, including “Painkiller,” and “Glorytown,” as well as older hits like “Down Home Girl” and “Methamphetamine.”
Old Crow Medicine Show is never afraid to take a position on current issues and devote parts of each show to issues that are troubling to them and to society. Prior shows have included tributes to those in the medical field treating us all through Covid, combined with pleas for people to get vaccinated. During this set, Ketch Secor recounted the sorrow and harm that many people are suffering, including those in the Ukraine. This led to a poignant moment with a song performed by OCMS in the native Ukrainian language.
Ketch Secor also talked about how the band has toured the country seeing flags flying at half mast for the mass shootings that seem to occur weekly. Secor said they aren’t politicians—only singers and travelers who see the hurt and sadness being felt by so many, which led to his plea for common sense gun control and served as a transition into the song, “We’re All in This Together.”
And, of course, Old Crow closed out their set with “Wagon Wheel,”—definitely a crowd favorite!
Chicken Wire Empire closed out the day’s schedule on the Saloon Stage. The crowd greeting the group from Milwaukee as if they were long lost cousins. CWE reciprocated as it blasted its own blend of Bluegrass, aggressive jams and even a soulful a cappella ballad for its fans.
Surprise of the Day
Well, let’s call it two surprises of the day. First up was the voice of Mae Simpson appearing on the Saloon Stage With a voice like a cross between Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Joan Jett, and with a volume and dynamic range rivaling Adele, Mae Simpson doesn’t just command a stage, she crushes it. Her band’s performance was quite memorable and powerful and included some eccentric elements, including a wonderful Brian Snowman Powers on saxophone.
Earlier in the evening, Simpson popped on stage joining Pert Near Sandstone for a couple of songs.
The second surprise was an audible smack across the face in the form of Texas country bluesman Paul Cauthen. Cauthen closed out the Main Stage on Friday night. From the instant he took the stage, one could tell this talent offered an entirely different take on Blue Ox’s line-up.
Cauthen has a rich, deep, resonant tenor voice that he’s dubbed Big Velvet (inspiring a song he sang by the same name). Describing himself as a country singer, his music defies classification. Heavily influenced by country, but with a background comfortable in gospel, his songs still reach across roots genres. With a broad rimmed cowboy hat and heavy sunglasses, he successfully hid his face for much of the set as he gyrated and moved across the stage crooning his songs.
Almost without exception, everyone I talked to about surprises of Day 2 agreed with the choice of Paul Cauthen.
Saturday—Day 3 Highlights
The day opened to showers and thunderstorms with lightning and thunder. Fortunately, the storms swept away some of the heat and brought in some gentle breezes to make the day a bit more tolerable. Many of the clouds were clearing out by early afternoon bringing back some sunshine.
Before the bands started up on the Main and Saloon Stage, I had an opportunity to walk through the family camping area. The fourth stage of Blue Ox, the Family Stage, played hosted events appealing to the younger crowd, like face painting, a talent show, and family yoga. On Saturday morning, that meant arts and crafts with kids making macaroni necklaces and popsicle stick figurines.
Many of the people I encountered in the family camping area commented on the great acoustics. They were able to enjoy the music from the Main and Saloon Stages easily without having to venture down until later in the day.
The Okee Dokey Brothers were Saturday’s first offering on the Main Stage. Personifying the humor in Bluegrass, they pleased the crowd with their sardonic “Campin’,” an ode to the campers in the crowd: “Well the skeeters are fightin’ and the kids are bitin’/It’s perfect weather with rain AND lightnin’/The porridge is slop, the flapjacks flopped/I’m telling dad jokes and I can’t stop!
Virtually every one of The Okee Dokey Brothers’ songs had the crowd laughing and dancing.
Good Morning Bedlam played two afternoon sets on the Saloon Stage. The folk band can almost be described as an acrobatic folk band, given the release of the kinetic energy from their performances. The band, featuring husband and wife Issak Elker (guitar/vocals) and Victoria Elker (upright bass/vocals), and childhood friend Sophia Mae (fiddle/vocals), play together like a tight unit. They weave amazing vocals and harmonies anticipating each other’s every moves.
Many of the songs from their sets were from their 2022 release Lulu and reflect a mix of soulful ballad (in the title track) with mind-blowing fiddling, picking, and dancing around the stage (with songs like “I Am Sad”). Lead vocals during the sets alternated between Issak Elker and Victoria Elker, with Victoria taking the lead on “Salt.” Songs from their sets included “Blessed Boy,” a sweet ballad written by Issak as an ode to his grandfather, who lived his life perhaps believing he hadn’t lived up to his potential.
Their set ended with “Sticks & Stones,” a song scheduled for an August release that encourages one to let go, just because you have to.
Sam Bush Band opened the evening on the Main Stage. A child of the ‘50’s, playing mandolin since the ‘60’s, Sam Bush is a legend in Bluegrass as one of the progenitors of the progressive New Grass movement. After early influences from country artists such as the great Flatt & Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, and Roy Acuff, Sam Bush set off in a different direction musically with progressive Bluegrass.
Sam Bush opened with a Tom Petty tribute in “Won’t Back Down,” which led into a cover of Flatt & Scruggs’ “My Little Girl in Tennessee.”
Much of Sam Bush’s set included extended jams, akin to the music of the Grateful Dead, which leads to the suspicion that songs may never be played exactly the same from show to show. A trait of jam bands that contributes to a rabid fanbase.
Bela Fleck My Bluegrass Heart presented the grand finale of Blue Ox 2022 on the Main Stage. With his fall 2021 release My Bluegrass Heart, 15-time Grammy winner Bela Fleck picked up his 16th Grammy for the 2022 Best Bluegrass Album.
Bela Fleck represents pure picking virtuosity. A refined grace and matchless skill—personified.
Fleck identifies My Bluegrass Heart as a truly collaborative project. Contributors and co-writers on the album consist of a veritable Who’s Who of modern Bluegrass: Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, Billy Strings, Chris Thile, David Grisham, Jerry Douglas, Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle.
His My Bluegrass Heart touring band included Sierra Hull on mandolin, bassist Mark Schatz, guitarist and flat picker Bryan Sutton, fiddler Michael Cleveland and Justin Moses on mandolin and banjo.
Most of the set was instrumental but there were a couple of sweet songs featuring Sierra Hull. Bryan Sutton sang a solo about the woes of today’s society and the seeming inability of people to talk and reach a common ground.
Bela Fleck and Sierra Hull performed a duet version of the shimmering and ethereal “Psalm 136.”
Bela Fleck is known for his inventiveness and experimentation. That was evident during one of the songs from My Bluegrass Heart where Fleck was turning the tuning knobs on his banjo while playing in order to get a specific sliding sound.
Bela Fleck provided his own moment of humor. Chiding Bryan Sutton for being 15 minutes late to a practice, Fleck told the crowd he would cue the guitarist when he was to join the song. Moments came during the song when the guitarist motioned whether he should join, but Bela just shook his head. Fleck queued up solos by fiddler Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull on mandolin, Justin Moses on dobro, and tap dances by bassist Mark Schatz, but no opportunity for Sutton to join. Finally, Bela gave the high sign to Bryan Sutton for what turned out to be the last few chords of the song. The crowd loved the impromptu humor!
The set was scheduled to end at midnight. However, perhaps true to the concept that Bluegrass players are happiest when they are jamming, Bela Fleck My Bluegrass Heart extended well past their time.
They brought the house down.
Surprise of the Day
Del McCoury was my surprise of the day. Call that based on my unfortunate lack of experience with his music prior to the festival. Quite simply, Del McCoury represents Bluegrass royalty.
Grace and a sense of being a true gentleman. That was truly evident the moment Del McCoury walked on the stage with sons Ronnie and Rob, and Alan Bertram on bass and Jason Carter on fiddle, a line-up that hasn’t changed in almost 30 years. Now in his sixth decade of performing, McCoury charmed the crowd with his banter, stories of the road and musical talent. Quite a spry octogenarian who looks and plays like the energizer bunny—he’ll go on and on doing what he loves best.
Del is famously known for not having a specific setlist. This was quite evident when, about 5 songs into his set, he began calling out to the audience for requests. At one point, he said “I suspect y’all want some of my murder songs. I could sing 14 of them right now.”
The requests came flying. With a request for “Doc Hollow,” Del said that he hadn’t sung that since the ‘60’s. Then, with a knowing wink, he launched right into it without skipping a beat.
His charm and warmth, his mastery of the guitar and his wonderful melodic voice will be among the legacies Del McCoury will bestow on the world of Bluegrass.
The People of Blue Ox
Looking out at the mass of faces at Blue Ox, virtually all ages were represented from children exposed to their first live music (many with hearing protection) to tweens and teens; from 20-somethings all the way to folks aging like fine wines.
Between sets on all three days, I took the opportunity to chat with folks to get their impressions of the festival, the music and, sometimes, life in general.
One group in the family camping area was more than willing to share their views and experiences. Todd from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin said this was his third Blue Ox. The music, of course, his old friends who attend and the new friends he makes are his motivations for returning year after year. His tent neighbor, Pat, has been to most of the Blue Ox festivals since 2015. He complimented the organization and the location. Another in this group, Mark from Fond du Lac, said he has been to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for over 20 years. For him, the location of Blue Ox will be key in the future as many of the Telluride headliners also come to Eau Claire and the location is much closer.
I met Kristin and Kate in the lodge. Friends from Minneapolis, this was their first time at Blue Ox, and both admitted they were not necessarily fans of Bluegrass. But they both said they were blown away by their experiences. For Kristin, the beauty of the location overwhelmed her. She also thought everyone was so kind and was actually surprised by that. Both Kate and Kristin felt the festival was very inclusive from the perspective of the fans as well as the performers.
Kiah and her fiancé, Noah, both from Eau Claire, were attending their first Blue Ox. Noah said he’s lived in Eau Claire all his life and couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t been to Blue Ox before. He said he was a fan of many of the Bluegrass bands appearing, but had no experience with the bands appearing on the Saloon Stage. In particular, Good Morning Bedlam was a new treat for him. They also loved Mae Simpson with Kiah relating how Mae sat and talked with them that morning “just like normal people!”
Both Kiah and Noah plan to come every single year. Kiah said that, after they get married, they were looking forward to bringing their kids someday. Noah also mentioned the inclusiveness of the festival and family friendliness as key points.
Irene from Minneapolis was at her third Blue Ox. For her, the energy and the vibe of the people kept bringing her back.
Universally, the folks who I talked with continued to mention the music, the energy and inclusiveness of the people attending, the location and the physical beauty of the park among their top reasons for attending.
As with any summary of a festival, unfortunately the highlights above only scratched the surface of the immense talent showcased at Blue Ox 2022. Having witnessed one Blue Ox, I’ll be making plans to return in the future and to bring my own family members to this memorable event.
Special thanks to Karen Wells Verlander and Hannah Hegl for their help and generosity in making this visit successful.