Blue Ox Music Festival 2023

Show Review: Blue Ox Music Festival 2023

Show Reviews

Blue Ox Music Festival 2023, The Pines Music Park, Eau Claire, Wisconsin June 22-24, 2023

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Blue Ox Music Festival 2023 Works its Magic Amidst the Pines


Blue Ox Music Festival made its 9th appearance this summer in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Spanning Thursday, June 22, to Saturday night, June 24, 2023, Blue Ox Music Festival packed in three days of Americana, Bluegrass and Folk music along with camping, crafts, and lots of family activities.

The Pines Music Park in Eau Claire, Wisconsin provided the setting for Blue Ox. The main areas of festival were held within an open grassy bowl area surrounded by stands of old growth pine trees. The setting provided great opportunities for family, individual and RV camping within the shade of the majestic pines.

As the images accompanying this review will attest, the crowd at Blue Ox included all ages, from toddlers and infants to well-seasoned music veterans. The festival afforded attractions and activities designed to entertain all ages from the family stage offering face painting and kids activities to the Backwoods Stage, which hosted music continuing into the wee hours of the morning.

The festival continued its well-earned reputation for tight, efficient organization. All major and minor details were anticipated and addressed from performance scheduling and the timing of Main Stage and Saloon Stage acts to minimize dead air during the day, to abundant and necessary hydration stations, as well as dealing with often huge backstage changes, including balancing a reported 6 tour buses and 2 semi-trailers for The Avett Brothers.

In order to preserve the intimacy of the festival, Blue Ox capped its ticket sales at 5,000 attendees. For the first time in its history, Blue Ox was a sell-out over a month before the festival.

Blue Ox brings a beautiful mixture of well-established performers as well as new and emerging musical acts. Bluegrass and Americana veterans included Sam Bush, Charlie Parr, The Infamous Stringdusters, Sierra Hull, Phish co-founder Mike Gordon, and The Avett Brothers. New and emerging artists included Sprig of That, Long Mama, Sicard Hollow, and Stillhouse Junkies. Many of the acts were repeat Blue Ox performers.

All of the acts were well diversified and spanned a broad range of roots music. As Nate Sipe of Pert Near Sandstone, co-founders of Blue Ox, mentioned to me at Blue Ox 2022, the festival is based around eclectic roots music spanning beyond Bluegrass.

Blue Ox 2023 was especially memorable for the strength of performances by women. The line-up included acts comprised solely of women, such as six-piece, all-female The Foxgloves, Big Richard, the Rainbow Girls, and The Spine Stealers, as well as bands fronted by women performers, like Mama Said String Band, Long Mama, and Pixie and the Partygrass Boys. Bluegrass legend, Sierra Hull, was supported by a talented group. Strong individual performances were provided by Yasmin Williams, in her Blue Ox debut, as well as local singer-songwriter, Jerrika Mighelle, who was also co-emcee of the festival along with Pert Near Sandstone’s Justin Bruhn.

During The Foxgloves’ set on Saturday, founder Steph Snow commented that, when the band first appeared at Blue Ox a few years prior, they were the first all-female band booked for the festival. She exclaimed “we’re making progress!” To which an audience member responded: “It’s about time!”

The highlights of Blue Ox 2023 were innumerable.

The festival officially kicked off on Thursday afternoon with the opening by the Minneapolis-based string quartet Buffalo Galaxy.

Nashville-based The Infamous Stringdusters were the headliners Thursday night, preceded by an aggressive, fast-paced jamming by Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country. Local Eau Claire favorites, Them Coulee Boys, as well as modern folk artists, The Lowest Pair also performed on the Main Stage.

One of the surprises of the first day of Blue Ox was Pixie & the Partygrass Boys. Hailing from Salt Lake City, this group of self-professed ski bums provided an energetic and rollicking set of original songs, including a few dedicated to the pleasures of skiing in fresh powder!

Minneapolis-based The Last Revel, closed out the night on the Saloon Stage, offering their tight harmonies and blend of folk, strings and indie rock.

Friday’s Main Stage opener was acoustic finger-style guitarist, Yasmin Williams. Yasmin’s performance was like a breath of fresh air. Her music is light and melodic at times, alternating between different styles and genres, blending a bit of smooth jazz into her picking.

Louisville-based Mama Said Stringband was a Friday surprise. This Bluegrass quartet provided a range of high energy original music that’s been described as musically bizarre and yet dreamy and whimsical.

The Main Stage performances were solid all afternoon long and into the evening. Joshua Ray Walker provided his honky tonk mix of country rock and R&B rhythms. Banjo wizard, Kyle Tuttle, was joined onstage by the Rainbow Girls, for a set of jamming Bluegrass with acoustic vocals.

Bluegrass mainstays Horseshoes & Hand Grenades graced the Main Stage, followed by Sam Bush Band. As 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.

Blue Ox co-organizers, Pert Near Sandstone followed Sam Bush Friday evening on the Main Stage with what was to be its first of two sets, the second coming on Saturday night. Pert Near represents a traditional, yet kind of a non-traditional band. They readily embrace traditional Bluegrass into their music, but typically mix up their performances with blues, R&B, and historical roots influences. Pert Near also distinguishes itself with a clog and toe-tapping accompaniment.

Weather during the festival was sunny and hot, with occasional cooling breezes sweeping through the bowl area between the stages. Saturday morning was no exception, although Saturday night’s music was halted for a couple of hours by an anticipated rainstorm. That contributed to an interruption in Charley Crockett’s set and Pert Near Sandstone’s surrender of a spot to allow The Avett Brothers to perform at 9:00 pm instead of 10:30 pm.

The crowd was treated Saturday to a performance by the Wild Goose Chase Cloggers. The Cloggers are a non-profit dance group from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with the mission of highlighting Appalachian style clogging.

Saturday afternoon Main Stage performers started with Big Richard providing their female-empowering messages of strength and perseverance. They were followed by traditional acoustic blues and folk master, Charlie Parr, who sang his songs inspired by his life and times.

Mandolin prodigy, Sierra Hull, graced the stage next and brought her own unique and beguiling blend of original music and loving covers of traditional classics.

For this reviewer, Charley Crockett was a huge surprise. With his most recent release, Man From Waco, there is the distinct feeling of being transported back to the old West when he strides on stage. Crockett has called himself both a traditional folk singer as well as a bluesman. His styling, however, heavily represented that of a honky tonk Western balladeer. He was a joy to watch and experience, although his set, unfortunately, was cut short.

The Avett Brothers highlighted the Main Stage Saturday night. After the rain interruption, the crowd roared when The Avett Brothers took the stage. The band was simply fantastic as they wowed the crowd with their blend of eclectic Americana. Their songs were intensely personal and heartfelt.

Blue Ox’s Backwoods Stage can perhaps be called a “waiting in the wings for prime time” stage. The Backwoods Stage provides the perfect venue for intimate, in-your-face performances by new and upcoming artists who will, perhaps, be featured on the Main or Saloon Stages in future years. Highlights of the Backwoods Stage included performances by the brilliant Milwaukee-based band, Long Mama, fronted by singer-songwriter Kat Wodtke, which debuted their first album late in 2022. Blue Ox also hosts an annual virtual band competition, with the winning entry being The Spine Stealers.

For those folks who just couldn’t get enough music, the Backwoods Stage continued performances beginning around 11:30 pm until 2:00 am. The late night performers included The Milbillies, Adam Gruel & The Space Burritos, and Wugrass featuring Chris Castino and Chicken Wire Empire. Sadly, after long days chasing the notes and folks around the Main Stage grounds, this tired reviewer did not make the late night sessions.

As with any summary, the highlights above only scratched the surface of the talent showcased at Blue Ox 2023.

Blue Ox Music Festival is simply a joy to experience. Perhaps it can best be described as bringing a community of like-minded music lovers together in peace and harmony for a long continuous experience of exceptional music.

Once one edition is over, one can’t wait to see what joys the next Blue Ox Music Festival will bring.

Find more about the festival here:

Enjoy last year’s coverage here: Blue Ox Music Festival 2022—An Appreciation

Written and photographed by Brooke Billick


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