Batten Down the Hatches at Blue Ox Music Festival

by Jun 15, 2016Music, Reviews

We were incredibly excited to be able to return this year to the 2nd Annual Blue Ox Music Festival , located at the Whispering Pines Campground just outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. 

As many of you may have heard, last year’s Blue Ox turned into essentially a mud pit after the festival received a record amount of rainfall. What you probably didn’t hear was a lot of complaining, even though the ground in front of the stage would put you knee-deep in mud. Instead, you heard about the amazing lineup, the beautiful location and the wonderful bonding experiences everyone had at this first-time festival in Wisconsin. 

For 2016, the producers of Blue Ox Music Festival were not discouraged by last year’s rainfall. Instead, they kicked it up to a new level by booking one of the most impressive lineups of the Spring festivals, building a bigger main stage, and even adding a campground stage for late night sets. Even the weather kicked it up a notch, by blowing in one of the most outrageous storms I’ve ever seen come through a festival. 

Let’s talk about why this festival is so incredibly special that even 70 mph winds can’t keep us away, and why everyone seems to be already planning their trip to Eau Claire in 2017. 

The B’s of Blue Ox



Beautiful Backdrop

Finding the perfect location for a music festival can be a daunting task, and sometimes it means festival creators sacrifice beauty for the convenience of the location.  Sometimes, however, it means asking the festival attendees to go a little out of their way to get to the beautiful location. 

Perhaps Whispering Pines Campground isn’t in the most easy-to-access location (although it’s still just 1.5 hours from Minneapolis, MN, 3 hours from Madison, WI and about 5 hours from Chicago, IL), and that’s okay. Knowing that you have to travel a bit to get to this beautiful location makes it even more special.  The campgrounds are full of hammock-hanging shade trees, the background to the main stage is simply breathtaking at sunset, and the glistening pond creates a strong epicenter for the entire festival (not to mention the chorus of frogs that resonates throughout the night).


Blossoming Bluegrass Festival

I have a pretty strong feeling that Blue Ox is going to be around for years, and it is pretty obvious that Pert Near Sandstone and the festival creators feel the same way.  They started strong in 2015, pulling in most of the top names in the new-grass genre and throwing a well-organized and laid-out festival.  They didn’t fall apart at the seams when a huge storm rolled in both years, keeping everyone safe and taking care of the grounds as best as they could to keep the festival rolling forward.

They set standards that are unusual for a small festival in their premier year… and their second year was even more impressive.  They took measures in 2016 to improve the festival with a larger main stage (necessary to accommodate the Flecktones large grand piano), added a third stage in the wooded campground area for late night music and somehow managed to get Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to come to Eau Claire, WI on their two-week reunion tour. 

This festival is clearly put on by professionals who take pride in their work and intend for the festivarians to have a damn good time, no matter which way the wind blows.

Battening Down leads to Bonding

For those that attended the inaugural Blue Ox Music Festival in 2015, the ongoing understanding was that the weather couldn’t be worse this year.  2015 brought in record-breaking rain that turned some parts of the festival grounds into a literal mud pit. That didn’t stop the festival attendees from embracing the mud, dancing barefoot and enjoying the natural spa-treatment that Mother Nature brought to the Whispering Pines Campgrounds.

While many may have packed their rain boots this year, the forecast was calling for low-rain and high-temperatures. However, that all changed when the tail-end of a large storm blew through the campground on Friday afternoon. With enough notice, the festival managers were able to send warnings through the campground that the stages were shutting down and campers should take cover in their cars or campers. The storms blew in 70 mph winds and buckets of rain, tearing down tents and unfortunately taking out several large trees; but, luckily nobody was seriously injured.

The result, however, seemed to be the same both years:  attendees bonded as they rallied together to protect themselves and their belongings. Everyone reached out to their neighbors, ensuring everyone was safe and sound; and in the stages down-time, everyone had a chance to chat under their canopies and get to know their fellow campers. Gosh darnit, those mid-westerners sure are really nice people.

Best in Bluegrass

We’ve seen a lot of stellar lineups at festivals thus far this Spring 2016, but nothing so far has come close to the caliber of bluegrass professionals that graced the Blue Ox stages last weekend. When you start your festival with a Thursday night closing set with Leftover Salmon playing Pasta on the Mountain, you start to wonder if you blew your wad too early in the game.  Then Friday rolls around, and you treat your festival attendees to main stage acts by Charlie Parr, The Wood Brothers (with a guest appearance by Paul Hoffman), Sam Bush and his band, and Greensky Bluegrass (who played Riding out the Storm and Take Cover to fans who just endured an intense afternoon rain storm with 70 mph winds that blew down trees and shut down the Saloon stage for the rest of the day) – just to name a few. 

When you wake up on Saturday morning, you begin to think what could possibly be better than what you’ve seen already – and then you realize that Del McCoury  is going to grace the stage with his boys, the Travelin’ McCoury’s, and that they’ve invited the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to play a few tunes with them as well. (Did your jaw just drop? Yes, that really happened). But it didn’t stop there, because Bela Fleck and the Flecktones just put together a 2-week reunion tour this year (first time they have played together in over 4 years) and picked Blue Ox 2016 as one of their stops along the way. So, try to imagine that after you watched Bela Fleck tear apart his electric banjo and Victor Wooten do things to his bass that should be illegal (not to mention Futureman’s insane percussion playing on his Drumitar and Howard Levy’s unique ability to play like 5 instruments at once), you still have a Railroad Earth  set to close out the main stage!

All of this happened and more!  Multiple stellar sets by festival-creators Pert Near Sandstone were peppered throughout the festival, and the stages were also graced with the Jeff Austin BandSierra Hull , Head for the Hills, the Big Wu, and yes, there was even more. The campers were then treated to additional music on the campground stage after the main stage closed.

While every night was exceptional, Saturday night’s closing set was most impressive with Pert Near taking the stage with Horseshoes and Handgrenades  and special appearances by Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten, Tim Carbone and Andy Goessling.)  Shewww…now that’s a damn good lineup.

Here’s how it went down:

(Click on the image below to view an expanded gallery)