Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, started off small in size but not in spirit yesterday. Now in its third year, the predominantly bluegrass festival (with roots, old time, Americana, and other facets of the do-it-yourself musical attitude thrown in for seasoning) only boasted six bands on its first day, but those who played made sure to kick things off with verve. Jeff Austin Band took the stage first, opening in the late afternoon just as the sun gave the warm June day a bit more bite. In between covers of the roving “Reuben’s Train” and the jaunty “Red Haired Boy,” Austin told the crowd, “I can’t stop dancing.” They echoed his sentiment in kind. The main stage also saw sets from The Travelin’ McCourys—who covered Junior Parker and Roger Creager before closing with “Old Bud”—and then a superjam from Grateful Ball, the band composed of Jeff Austin Band and Travelin’ McCourys. Bringing the first two mainstage sets together for a packed performance at dusk gave the mellifluous festival a rock edge, even though there were no electric instruments to be heard. Sam Bush Band concluded the schedule’s primary performances with a rousing set, including a rendition of “Transcendental Meditation Blues.” “We did not bring the rain this year,” he laughed.
Plagued by bad weather in the past, Blue Ox experienced a warm, sunny day, and attendees were all too happy to leave their tents and RVs—at a campsite which not only surrounds but practically envelopes the festival staging area—to greet old friends, dance and enjoy the merrymaking. If that sounds hyperbolically idyllic, it’s not: Blue Ox is a different kind of festival. It isn’t nearly as big as Telluride Bluegrass Festival, as lauded as MerleFest or as diverse as Pickathon, but the spirit that creators Pert Near Sandstone, a Minneapolis old time band who will also perform at the event, have curated relies on the same spirit of generosity and community that tends to imbue such musical styles with a sense of camaraderie rather than competition. Being so young, Blue Ox has a lot to offer fans who want something more intimate, though how long it will stay that way remains a question. Ticket sales this year purportedly rose by 30% and even though yesterday started late in the day and many attendees had not yet arrived, the festival grounds were already filled with fans ready to have fun.
In between the four main stage performances, hometown band Them Coulee Boys and Portland-based Fruition each played two 30-minute sets to keep the crowds entertained while bands shifted on the mainstage. Each brought a slightly nuanced flavor to the festival. Fruition infused their set with electric guitar to add a psychedelic feel while Them Coulees covered Don McLean’s “American Pie” and gave it a folksy twist. Their limited sets, while a good idea in theory, in reality cut things short. The bands raised the energy and drew big crowds, who were then left hanging when things needed to keep moving. A quirk, but a small one in an overall convivial day.