A Memory and a History Lesson
Long before Pert Near Sandstone were so big that they had their own dang music festival, they opened for some country band the Cabooze that I can’t remember for the life of me.
I remember the show itself well, partially because I was one of the only people there, and partially because as I walked in they were playing one of my favorite old-time songs, “Sail Away Ladies.” I knew it from Uncle Dave Macon’s 1927 version (who doesn’t?). After their set, bassist Kevin Kniebel informed me that they had picked it up from Uncle Bunt Steven’s version on Harry Smith’s American Anthology of Folk Music.
If you love Pert Near Sandstone and Trampled by Turtles but haven’t listened to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, you’re doing it wrong. The 1950s collection contains eight full albums of the most influential early folk, blues, and country. It’s the real deal, American music at its very core. Without it, the folk revival doesn’t happen, Bob Dylan doesn’t happen, and the still fairly widespread popularity of old time-influenced bands like Pert certainly doesn’t happen.
The Advantages of Being Pert
What makes Pert Near Sandstone different than bands like Trampled by Turtles is that their music is more immersed in, and informed by, songs like those on Harry Smith’s Anthology. This gives them more of an authentic Americana foundation and sound.
Pert Near Sandstone also has the advantage of having multiple strong singers and songwriters in mandolin/fiddle player Nate Sipe, banjo player Kevin Kneibel, and guitarist J Lenz. They shared the spotlight equally on Saturday, each singing around one microphone, just like they did when I first saw them at the Cabooze. That setup gives their music, and especially their soaring bluegrass harmonies, an extra intimacy. Not having drums to get in the way helps their sound as well.
The crowd was typical for an Americana show: there was a lot of flannel, a lot of Grain Belt, and a lot of excessively tipsy, middle-aged white folks. There was a surprising amount of dancing going on, mostly of the drunken hoedown persuasion. Needless to say, I’m sure Pert’s closing anthem “20 Cups of Coffee (One for Every Beer I Had Last Night)” hit home for most of the crowd the next day. Other highlights from the setlist included timely (or would it be place-ly?) “Paddlin’ Down First Avenue” and the always fun “Ain’t Gonna Take No Rest Until I Die.”
On Having a Kid in a Kia
Openers The Lowest Pair and Kind Country warmed up the crowd with their respective takes on Americana. The Lowest Pair, banjo duo Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee, look and sound like some street musicians I heard in Kansas City a few years ago. That’s a compliment, as their harmonies and musicianship were both tight and endearing, and their classy-meets-thrift-store look was cool. Their material ranged from sultry ballads to dizzyingly fast, bluegrass-tinged stompers.
Kind Country, essentially an updated old-time string band with a drummer, relied almost exclusively on the pop/rock flavored bluegrass of their original material. Sometimes they even got a little funky. Not surprisingly, my favorite moment of their set was their cover of a song from the aforementioned Anthology of American Folk Music, Clarence Ashley’s classic “The Cuckoo.” The crowd really got into their closing version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the two obvious storylines from the show. Kind Country’s lead singer Max Graham had quite an evening on Friday: his wife delivered their first child on the road in their Kia (which reminds me of an inappropriate joke from Mallrats, but I digress). Equally important, Pert Near Sandstone featured dueling cloggers throughout their set. For those who don’t know, clogging is when folks dance around in big, cloppity wooden shoes. It was…a sight to behold. The percussive element actually adds a unique sound to their songs.
Whisper Words of Wisdom
As Benjamin Franklin once said, there’s nothing like a solid evening of Americana to warm your heart on a cold November night. At least I think he said that. Anyway, Pert Near Sandstone and their friends put on a fun show at First Avenue. They may not have played “Sail Away Ladies,” but the spirit of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music still lives on in their songs.
Now go out and buy it.