Going back to roots: Annual bluegrass festival this weekend

val0403riverfalls bluegrass fest-Pert Near SandstoneNate Sipe, of the Twin Cities-based band Pert Near Sandstone, liked folk music before it was cool. But he didn’t begin that way, and neither did his band mates.
“It all kind of started in the garage rock day,” said Sipe, who now plays fiddle and mandolin for Pert Near Sandstone. “All of our personal heroes and idols … were the guitar players in whatever rock band happened to be popular in the day.”
Sipe began taking guitar lessons, and his teacher told him if he wanted to really learn rock music, he had to start with the blues. The sounds caught his year and eventually, his heart.
“I started to realize, hey, it’s all basically folk music. It’s all basically roots music.”
As an idealistic youth, he was also drawn to the idea that this was the “people’s music.”
So he started to learn and play more, dabbling in a few trios and duets.
But why the mandolin?
“I got into playing mandolin because I was doing quite a bit of traveling after high school,” he said.
A mandolin is smaller and more portable than a guitar. Plus it’s less common, and he could find his place in nearly any roots ensemble.
“When I found the mandolin, I feel like I discovered my kindred instrument,” he said.
He enjoyed sharing the music with others. And with the release of the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” in 2000, he said folk music began to receive more attention and become more popular. He had fun watching the music he loved being discovered by more people.
In 2004 he rejoined a group of high school friends who had been playing together in a living room and had one gig under their belt. He brought a repertoire of traditional music, and it was a good match.
The group became Pert Near Sandstone.
Sipe says the band has honed a unique voice for itself.
“We’re obviously called a bluegrass band pretty often, but any traditional bluegrass band is going to deny that,” he said. “We call this modern string band music.”
It lives somewhere between bluegrass and old-time music and the acoustic folk rock recently popularized by bands like Mumford & Sons. Sipe says the music is more hard driving than a lot of traditional groups but a little mellower than some of the younger acoustic rock bands.
Since its inception, Pert Near Sandstone’s popularity has has grown significantly. The band has played in venues, such as First Avenue, the Cedar Cultural Center and the Historic Orpheum Theater. It has toured nationally and played with the likes of Del McCoury, WILCO and Yonder Mountain Stringband.
Next week Pert Near Sandstone will release its fifth studio album, “The Hardest Part of Leaving,” at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. But this weekend the band is returning to the River Falls Bluegrass Festival in River Falls, Wis. as one of the headliners, along with national act the Rambling Rooks.
Pert has played the River Falls Festival more than once, and Sipe say the band always enjoys it.
“To me it’s kind of the ideal roots music festival,” he said.
Even though he has played in large venues, he enjoys smaller shows. In some ways, he said, the band prefers a smaller, roadhouse feel to a large, acoustically perfect opera house.
“In a roadhouse, it’s just nothing but a good time,” he said. “We still look for those situations.”
He said the intimate feeling of Junior’s Bar & Restaurant — where the band will play in River Falls from 9:30-11 p.m. Saturday — makes it “one of the coolest venues.”
The band may even give audiences a preview of some music from the CD being released next week.
Pert Near Sandstone’s Concert is one of only a few events with an admission charge at the River Falls festival. The Rambling Rooks concert on Friday and the beer and wine tasting event are the other activities with a cost for admission.
Tickets for the concerts cost $30 each or $40 for a weekend pass.
The beer and wine tasting costs $15 in advance or $20 at the door and features a variety of domestic and international wines, as well as selections from various craft breweries. It will also include food, such as specialty cheeses and chips and guacamole, and there will be live music. This is the first year the festival is offering the beer and wine tasting.
In its fourth year, the festival also has many free activities, including a flatpick guitar championship that draws contestants from around the country and a singer/songwriter competition. There’s even “attic treasures” appraisal event.
“We’ve got something for about every age group,” said Chris Blasius, president of the River Falls Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the festival.
For a complete schedule and more information, go to riverfallsbluegrass.com.

Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]