The festival’s hottest day—and its last—also featured strong winds that threatened to pause events, but Blue Ox has experienced worse weather in the past, and attendees weren’t phased by tents flipping over, hats blowing off and other screwball visuals. Perhaps it was the fact that by day three people’s energy levels had waned, or that sets had grown mellow, but the day settled into a relaxed feel, as if people had gotten a taste of summer and knew those long, lazy days would soon be the rule not the exception.
Reflecting that loose spirit, Keller and the Keels earned the “good spirit award” when they jumped on stage early—practically moments after pulling into the campground—to begin filling the gap created when The SteelDrivers cancelled at the last minute. (Other bands also picked up the slack, rounding out their 60 minute sets to 75.) Between original songs, they played an array of covers, including Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” Ryan Adams’ “Cold Roses,” and—Keller Williams joked—“an old time traditional bluegrass” number from the Butthole Surfers, aka “Pepper.” Festival ambassadors Pert Near Sandstone performed once more, beginning with their new single, a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Good Times,” and joking around with the audience about their tendency towards somber songwriting.
For a weekend given over to loud sounds and frenetic energy, Punch Brothers played before an enthralled audience all too happy to quietly listen. The band brought a level of sophistication to the stage between their suits (temperatures notwithstanding), and whiskey neats served in glasses. They opened with “Dark Days,” because, as mandolinist Chris Thile told the crowd, “Dark notes for dark times.” They moved through an array of hits, including “Rye Whiskey,” “This Girl,” “Julep,” each earning louder and louder responses from the crowd, before they closed with “Flippen.” Drive-By Truckers presented a much different energy, and went about melting the crowd’s collective face off with howling electric guitars and a set list culled from their vast repertoire. They oscillated between songs from their new album, American Band, and other classics like “Sinkhole” (off Decoration Day) and “Gravity’s Gone” (off A Blessing and a Curse).
Unlike other festivals where attendees are split between campers and concertgoers venturing in and out each day, the vast majority of the Blue Ox crowd camps for the weekend in Whispering Pines, the grounds bordering the festival stages. The result is a sleepaway camp feel that makes the music a punctuative backdrop, as people wander to and from their tent throughout the course of the day. For those tasked with getting back to their cars to get back to town, though, the dark roads to the parking lot make for difficult travel. A few lights thrown up here and there would suffice to take the edge off the encompassing darkness, but no such safety precautions existed this year. The festival has some growing to do, as any event that wants to establish itself as a presence over a fad must face after its first few successful years. That’s one area where organizers can certainly improve. The line-up, too (as the Day Two recap argued) would benefit from greater diversity. Blue Ox’s first three years have skewed heavily towards white male music, and while that’s certainly good to showcase, there’s a lot happening in the roots scene worth hearing. No matter the bumps, Blue Ox has shown it’s here to stay, and watching its cooperative spirit grow in years to come will be an exciting endeavor for attendees new and old.