Local music: Nearer to an old-time string band

It might seem familiar, but Pert Near Sandstone's traditional sound is part of what sets it apart.

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Bluegrass quintet Pert Near Sandstone practiced at Fulton Brewery in Minneapolis.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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They're an all-male acoustic quintet from Minnesota with a clunky name and a roster of hard-plucking string pickers. The guys have a few beards and pairs of sandals between them.

But as Pert Near Sandstone tunes up for its first-ever headlining set Friday at First Avenue, it's about time everybody stops comparing it to a band playing Minneapolis' premier rock club on Wednesday, Trampled by Turtles. Heck, I'm even breaking our weekly quota on Cabooze-graduating roots groups to stress the differences between the two acts (look for a feature on TBT in Sunday's paper).

For starters, the Trampled guys still have to consume beer out of bottles and cans at their rehearsals. On Sunday, Pert Near's members were pretty nearly drinking straight out of the brew kettles at Fulton Brewery's tap room, a godsend of a rehearsal space that came courtesy of clogger and washboard player Andy Lambert being the brother-in-law of Fulton's co-owner.

Then there's Lambert himself, a limber dancer who taps and slaps along at Pert Near's gigs, guaranteeing that the group stands out from just about any band.

"We still do great when we tour without Andy, but we always notice the difference," said banjo player Kevin Kniebel. "When he's there, it's instantaneous. The whole room wants to dance."

Most of all, the thing that separates Pert Near Sandstone from Trampled and a lot of the other string bands catering to rock fans nowadays is Pert Near's faithfulness to old-time bluegrass and folk music.

Even the dozen original songs on the group's latest album, "Paradise Hop," sound like they could've been written by coal miners or hobos in the 1920s. Never mind their modern references to collapsing interstate bridges and the like. Even their wild version of "I Am the Walrus" from 2010's "Minnesota Beatle Project, Vol. 2" album -- which became a calling card of sorts locally -- sounded like an old-timey barn-dance number.

"We really embrace being stewards to traditional string-band music, because we have so much fun with it," said Kniebel. "There's plenty of eclectic variety between the ragtime, jug-band blues, fiddle music and the string-band stuff."

Added guitarist J Lenz, "And just having multiple original songwriters guarantees we always have a lot of variety and freshness."

Pert Near formed as an informal living-room jam session in 2004 when Kniebel and Lenz -- two of the group's three singer/songwriters -- were living in a house in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood. Kniebel was going through a personal rough patch, and Lenz said his suggested remedy was "just play music as much as possible to take your mind off things."

They recruited two childhood pals from the Brooklyn Park area to join in: fiddler Ryan Young, who later left to join TBT, and songwriter Nate Sipe, who plays mandolin and now fiddle, too. This ragtag group of friends came up with their peculiar band name on the fly just before their first public gig. The moniker, which has nothing to do with the town of Sandstone, is based on the band's genesis near the (sandstone-lined) bluffs of the Mississippi River.

Said Sipe, "Somebody else suggested the name means 'almost rock,' which sounds better than the real story."

Sipe and the band's bassist for the past two years, Adam Kiesling, are the real bluegrass/folk traditionalists in the group. Both have been collecting old-time records since they were kids (Sipe specifically credits Minneapolis public libraries for getting him hooked). The rest of the members came to the music more through the Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia ex-rockers route.

Pert Near played mostly to rock fans early on. They grew from regular gigs at the Hexagon and Viking bars to the Turf Club and then the Cabooze and Cedar Cultural Center, both of which sold out following the November release of "Paradise Hop." The guys head west on a tour next week and have a mix of old-timey festivals lined up.

"It's cool that we've been attracting different generations to our music," said Sipe. "We get to play to older 'A Prairie Home Companion' fans, and to kids in college or kids from jam-band festivals. There's something magical about the appeal of American roots music."

Although Kiesling is the first to cry foul when the band veers from tradition -- as when Sipe added a verse about "chasing tail" to the old public-domain song "All Night Long" for the new record -- he admits a big reason for Pert Near's success is its ability to tastefully update those old-school sounds.

"You generally don't get to headline First Avenue by playing just traditional old-time music," he rightfully pointed out.

Bloody awesome

Following in the earplug-demanding tradition of local duos the Birthday Suits and Gay Witch Abortion, the metallic fuzz-bleeding twosome Bloodnstuff comes storming out of the gate this week with a debut album that once again makes the case for the littlest bands in town often being the biggest, sonically speaking.

Guitarist Ed Holmberg and drummer Dylan Gouret, both formerly of the artier (and wimpier) Economy Team, were already a standout at First Ave's Best New Bands showcase in January, and their self-titled collection shows why. Tracks range from the thundering, hazy Queens of the Stone Age-like anthem "Bloodnstuff" -- you can go ahead and call them a metal band with a namesake song like that -- to the slower and moodier "It's Fun to Be a Kid," where Holmberg bellows like Ozzy Osbourne and manhandles his guitar like Kim Thayil of Soundgarden.

Proof that these guys can keep up with the larger noise-making ensembles in town, their release party Friday at the Triple Rock will feature Marijuana Deathsquads and the Stnnng for openers (10 p.m., $7). Bloodnstuff is also on the just-announced lineup for the free Lyn-Lake Street Festival May 20, along with Kid Dakota, Halloween, Alaska, Omaur Bliss and Mayda.

Random mix

Winona will hold its own not-so-little answer to South by Southwest on April 19-21, the third annual Mid West Music Fest (MWMF), with performers including Greg Brown, Kimya Dawson, Tapes n' Tapes, Charlie Parr, the 4onthefloor, Rogue Valley, Ben Weaver, Saturday's First Ave headliners Caroline Smith & the Good Night Sleeps and dozens more, all performing in various venues downtown along the river. Details at www.Midwest musicfest. org. ... Another of the MWMF's performers, Toki Wright, dropped a new mixtape last week titled "Faders" and featuring such guests as Talib Kweli, Sage Francis and I Self Devine. Look for it on Wright's Bandcamp page. ...

Chris Koza (of Rogue Valley), Chastity Brown, Ellis, Alison Scott, Kevin Bowe, members of the Farewell Circuit, Ari Herstand, Joe Horton (No Bird Sing), Gabriel Douglas (4onthefloor), and more will perform at the Varsity Theater on Thursday to fight the proposed state amendment that would ban gay marriage. A $20 donation at MNUnited.org/April12 will get you in, or cover at the door will be $25 (6-10 p.m.). ...

Douglas had one of the better quips at Nick and Eddie restaurant's farewell bash Sunday, where he lamented missing Zoo Animal's set. "The one time a band ever went on on time here," he cracked. Curtiss A, Pink Mink, the Magnolias and many more musicians were also on hand to bid adieu to the Loring Park hangout, which might live on elsewhere. The operators of Cafe Maude (also great music supporters) will take over the space. ...

The Current's morning show will mark its third anniversary with a live broadcast from the Red Stag Supperclub on April 13, with nonmusical appearances by Slug and John Munson (both dads of young kids, so they're used to getting up early). ... Munson's old band Semisonic will reunite this summer for a charity block party, the OLL Blast, May 19 at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic School in Mound. Tickets ($25) are on sale through Ticketfly.com and at the Electric Fetus. ...

Minneapolis' Electric Fetus is also the only place to get a wristband for Trampled by Turtles' promotional show Tuesday at 7th Street Entry. They will be given out at the store Tuesday starting at 9 a.m. with a purchase of the band's new album, "Stars and Satellites," out that morning and already one of my favorite albums of the year. TBT's gig Wednesday in the main room is long since sold out. ... Best lemonade-making news of the week: Yeti Records is shutting its doors on Nicollet Avenue, but owners Jake and Lisa Luck have plans to stay in business as a mobile operation -- sort of a musical food truck. Love it.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

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