By Jonathon Howe –
I can tell it’s going to be a hot one as I roll up to the Prairie Gate at The Pines Music Park in Eau Claire, WI. The sun is beating down on a blue awning that stands over the check in table for press members.
Everything about the scene is new for your narrator. I’ve never been to a music festival. I’ve never been to Eau Claire. I most certainly have never been considered important enough to be greeted at the front gate by the festival’s publicist. But that is exactly how things are here on a steamy Thursday afternoon in mid-August. Karen is the first to meet me, thanking me for coming and helping me get started with check in. After checking my proof of vaccination and driver’s license, I set off behind a woman in a small, white golf cart, who will lead me to the campground that I’ll be staying in for the next few nights.
As I trundle along across the rolling fields that have been repurposed as a parking lot, I catch glimpses of campers, RVs, and buses that have carried the faithful to this musical ritual. Our course takes us across the ground of The Pines Music Park, and I’m greeted by a sea of colorful tents and parked cars. My car slows to a crawl next to the site that I’ve reserved. I’m positioned in the Quiet Camping Reserved area, near the “Soul Sanctuary,” and just across the way from the main stage.
It doesn’t take me long to set up my tent. Years of experience in Boy Scouts, coupled with the fact that my tent is a self-building design mean that my base camp is set up in minutes. Just as I’ve unloaded my sleeping bag, pad, and backpack into the tent, I notice jerky movement on the other side of my campsite. The woman at the neighboring site is struggling to erect a collapsible awning. With mild trepidation, I offer my assistance. She thanks me, and together we wage war against the stubborn canopy. After a protracted, 15-minute ordeal, the awning stands in resolute defeat.
My tent-neighbor’s name is Joan. She’s travelled all the way up from Ames, IA to attend the festival. She has the look and constitution of a seasoned festival veteran. Her space is bedecked with strings of lights, camping equipment, and a small plastic terrarium that is home to her pet caterpillar, Junior. As I timidly go about, introducing myself to the rest of my tent neighbors (that’s what I’ve decided to call everyone sharing my camping area), I quickly come to the realization that I am by far the least interesting of the lot of them. Jane, who is down the hill from me and a bit to the west, is situated in a self-made trailer that is a borg of lacquered wood and chrome finish. Johnny is another festival-goer from the neighboring campsite, accompanied by his loyal, yet free-spirited dog, Keith Richards. It is immediately apparent that Keith Richards is the master of this campground, patrolling about people’s tents and collecting tribute (food) from his subjects. Another thing that I’ve noticed is that many of the folks in attendance are regulars, and that has a funny way of bringing you together with people you already know. I found myself being reintroduced to Rob Brault (pronounced “bro”), an old English professor of mine from my college days at Winona State University. He’s equal parts music enthusiast and survivalist; a man who takes yearly trips to the boundary waters, builds his own canoes, and – as I have now learned – frequents music festivals all over the Driftless area. As we stand, catching up on our respective lives since my time WSU, he in his utility kilt and I in my sweat-soaked khakis, I can feel the discomfort of being in this strange, new environment melting away.
As my next-door tent-neighbor, Joan has assumed the role as my guide to Blue Ox. She’s given me a few recommendations of bands I should make a priority of seeing. Charlie Parr is one who I already know of, but I haven’t heard of The High 48s or Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. I make a mental note to circle those bands on my schedule. Having identified a few highlights to look forward to, I decide that it’s finally time to surrender myself to the tantalizing smells that have been wafting of from the food vendors on the other side of the main stage area. The collection of trailers is ringed around a tall, tented canopy that looms over a dozen or so picnic tables. As I make a pass through the gala of good smells, my eyes lock onto the menu of Unami Bites. Chicken and Chorizo Wonton Tacos? I instantly place an order, and a few minutes later I’m indelicately plowing through an indescribable vortex of sweet and savory ecstasy. My lips tingle dangerously from the spiciness of my short-lived meal, so I decide to finish off with a chocolate malt from Olson’s Ice Cream, based in the Chippewa Valley. I’ll maintain that there is no better way to beat the heat on a sweltering, Mid-August day. By the time the dust has settled from my late lunch, it’s nearly time for the opening act, which will take place on the side stage across the green from the main stage.
Arkansauce has the honor of opening the musical festivities once the clock strikes 5:00 PM. They do so with gusto, welcoming the amicable opening crowd with a lively set of foot-stomping bluegrass tunes. As a viewer who has come on my own, I have trouble working up the nerve to expose myself as the poor dancer that I am. However, that doesn’t stop the crowd from strutting their stuff, whether it’s two-stepping, line dancing, or simply jumping up and down. I find myself getting exhausted just watching. Still, I’m not the only stationary spectator in the house. Hundreds recline in lawn chairs and on blankets, enjoying the sweet nectar of in-person bluegrass in their own way. Arkansauce finishes their set, then the Kyle Tuttle Band takes the main stage. After another short set on the side stage by Arkansauce, Lillie Mae rolls onto the main stage. Each group brings their own unique sound and draws a different crowd. Then comes Horseshoes and Hand Grenades. If you thought the crowd was live before they came on, you’d have a hard time processing the undulating frenzy that they inspired. It’s too much for me. A combination of dehydration and bombastically rowdy music planted the seed of a headache that I would end up nursing well into the wee hours of morning. And yet, I can’t bring myself to regret a single second of the wild jubilee spawned from squealing fiddles, clucking banjoes, and pulsing bass.
The next morning, I am up at 8:30 AM, which by my standards is sleeping in. Joan invites me under her canopy for coffee, handing me a tin cup filled with a fancy blend that I can’t pronounce. We sip and sit in amiable, groggy silence for a while before eventually exchanging our plans for the day. I’ll be trekking back out to the Prairie Gate at 11:00 to meet my dad and sister, who are here as my plus-ones. In the interim, I’ve decided to check out an Akashic meditation program in the Soul Sanctuary before hunting for fabled exhibits of “Art in the Pines” and locating other important part of the festival, such as the “Potluck Music Workshop.” Joan has plans to tend to Junior, before visiting a few friends that are spread out across other campsites. I promise to introduce her to my sister, whom she has already decided is amazing. With a day bursting with activities ahead of me, I set out to expand my horizons.
PART 2 – COMING APRIL ’22