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ISSUE 120 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/27/2006

Bluegrass band engages crowd

By Jean Mullins
News Editor

Friday, October 27, 2006

For the second annual Lutefest in 2005, planners found the main act to be unexpectedly popular. In a time when the reigning popular music among college-age students is the typical indie-pop band (i.e. The Bravery and Motion City Soundtrack, the Fall Concert picks for 2005 and 2006, respectively, and Rooney, the 2006 Lutefest headliner), Pause organizers chose the bluegrass band Nickel Creek to much enthusiasm from students.

Students present for Nickel Creek’s genre brother, Pert’ Near Sandstone, in the Pause Tuesday, Oct. 10, must have been the same that cheered at Lutefest in 2005.

Pert’ Near Sandstone, hailing from the Twin Cities, has all the components of a real bluegrass band: fiddle and guitar player Ryan Young, vocalist and guitarist J. Lenz, Kevin Kniebel on banjo and vocals, Nate Sipe on mandolin and Jeff Swanner on bass.

The band opened with their original song “Fly Around,” an energetic piece with classic roots. Immediately the crowd responded to the music: There was not a still foot in the audience.

After the first song, Kniebel announced to the audience that he was an alumnus of St. Olaf (class of 2000), explaining that when he was on campus, old Ytterboe Hall had been where Buntrock (and the Pause) now stand. Lenz joked that Kniebel had received a degree in “banjo studies.”

Another song written by the band, “Paddling Down First Avenue,” followed. It began with the bass, guitar and mandolin; Kniebel’s vocals and Young’s fiddle joined in later. The song, a story within a tune, was reminiscent of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” with a lower but energetic tone.

In the tradition of bluegrass music, many of the songs the band played, both original and standard, told stories to twangy tunes. Some of the songs, Kniebel explained, were 100 years old.

The band was no stranger to contemporary works, however. They wowed the audience with bluegrass versions of popular songs from the last 20 years, including Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and Guns ’n’ Roses’s “Welcome to the Jungle.” In each case, the songs were only recognizable from the lyrics, so thoroughly had the band adopted them to their style of play. At the end of “Karma Police,” Young provided the “noisebox,” recreating the end of the song as recorded on the album.

The band played with good variation, performing a medley of songs from “across the pond” but “bringing them closer to punk music.” The medley showed off the band’s craftsmanship with fancy fingerwork by Sipe on the mandolin and tight transitions between songs.

Alo included in the set list were several waltzes. The band encouraged the audience to dance along and many obliged. The waltzes opened up the audience even more to the band’s sound and after the waltzes, a group of audience members continued to dance in front of the stage to other types of songs.

At one point during the concert, Sipe put down his mandolin and picked up a fiddle. He and Young performed a duet lullaby that, while beautiful, seemed to lull the crowd: It was not at the same energy level as the music the crowd had become accustomed to listening and dancing to all night.

When the rest of the band rejoined Sipe and Young on stage, Pert’ Near Sandstone brought back the energy through a fantastic version of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.” This proved to be a crowd favorite and after the song Lenz commented, “That was trippy.”

Indeed, throughout the show, part of the band’s charm was its interaction with the audience. The band repeatedly thanked the crowd for foregoing homework to come hear them on a Tuesday night. In fact, it seemed as though the group was surprised to face such an enthusiastic crowd at all. Kniebel joked about going to St. Olaf; at one point, after telling the audience “Karma Police” was from the “two-o-hundreds,” he joked that this was his “St. Olaf education at work.”

The band also entertainingly bantered with each other throughout the performance. Once, between songs, Kniebel began to tune his banjo. As seconds became minutes, Lenz started to heckle Kniebel and told the audience banjo player jokes.

Pert’ Near Sandstone played not only with great musicianship and obvious talent, but also enthusiasm. Unlike some bands, they had great appreciation for their audience, not only thanking them for coming but also joking around so that the audience was more intimately connected with the members of the band. The mix of the present and the popular with the traditional made for an exciting and varied show.

Pert’ Near Sandstone plays next at Pizza Luce in Minneapolis with Trampled by Turtles on Oct. 28.

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