Rock Solid Foundation

Local string-thumpers Pert Near Sandstone are bringing old-time music to new audiences, and burning down the barn while they’re at it.

Kevin Kniebel, left, and J. Lenz, right, of Pert Near Sandstone perform Friday night during the band's Cedar Cultural Center performance.  Pert Near Sandstone is a modern Bluegrass band from the Twin Cities.

Kevin Kniebel, left, and J. Lenz, right, of Pert Near Sandstone perform Friday night during the band’s Cedar Cultural Center performance. Pert Near Sandstone is a modern Bluegrass band from the Twin Cities.

Samuel Linder


The Cedar Cultural CenterâÄôs cavernous dance floor was filled to the rafters with the West BankâÄôs finest on Friday evening; the variety of plaid shirts alone spanned at least five decades. A familiar scene for many Twin Cities concert-goers and a scene with a well rehearsed script: Hipsters sip beer, unimpressed and unmoving. However, something strange and magical happened when the headlining act came on stage âÄîeveryone started dancing like their skinny little pants were on fire.

For Pert Near Sandstone, a modern Bluegrass band from Minneapolis and St. Paul, this type of magic is simply a side effect of innovating on the old-time music that they love.

âÄúWe enjoy the traditions and community of American string music, and we love playing it on stage together,âÄù mandolin/fiddle player Nate Snipe told A&E before FridayâÄôs sold-out show. âÄúComing from different musical backgrounds âÄî ska, rock, jazz, etc. âÄî we each bring our own style to the table, and each inform the overall sound differently.âÄù

It is that smooth amalgamation of new and old that helps bring a sense of true invention to SandstoneâÄôs music, and helps bring their brand of traditional plucking to a wider audience.

Pert Near should not be confused with some of the other alt-country and pop bluegrass outfits rushing the airwaves right now (see: The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons), however. Their tunes are traditional to the core and fall more in line with the conventions of American string music than modern pop.

âÄúI think the popularity of [bands such as the Avett Brothers] has certainly helped introduce parts of the Bluegrass world to new audiences, Snipe said, âÄúbut we are on a completely different end of the spectrum.âÄù

âÄúYeah, I think our sound made the Avett Brothers famous,âÄù bassist Adam Kiesling quipped.

As proof of their technical prowess and traditional chops, Pert Near won the coveted Northwest String Summit Festival prize for Best String Band in 2011. That victory in Oregon and the release of their new album âÄúParadise HopâÄù (recorded at Wild Sound Studio in Northeast Minneapolis) has fueled a rapid rise in popularity here and elsewhere.

âÄúItâÄôs amazing what the Internet can do for a touring band like us, where weâÄôll show up in a small town someplace far away and people weâÄôve never seen will be singing along,âÄù banjo player and singer Kevin Kniebel marveled.

Pert Near Sandstone made four albums prior to âÄúParadise Hop,âÄù but their newest release is their tightest and most original.

âÄúWe really took the time in-studio to focus our sound, create a feeling that was very deliberate and intentional,âÄù Kniebel said.

 That deliberation is evident in the sonic depth and resonance of the album, the intense layering of acoustic instruments that creates their dusty sound. At the same time, the band members have been maturing as song writers, fine-tuning their tightrope walk between past and present, between bluegrass chord changes and introspective modern lyrics.

The balancing act seems easy enough as Pert Near takes the stage on a Friday night, after stellar sets by ColoradoâÄôs Head for the Hills and the legendary cowboy raconteur Pop Wagner. With just a single microphone at the front of the stage to capture their three-part harmonies, the band moves in a sort of synchronized dance, ducking in and out as they all take turns weaving vocals through the maelstrom of flurrying picks. The band is all movement and joy, and the audience canâÄôt help but join in the revelry.

Beer certainly abounds, but there are a lot more gulps than sips, and it only seems to speed the collective flailing limbs. The gentlemen from Pert Near Sandstone drink it all in, and keep playing faster. Their picks arenâÄôt slowing down for anything, new or old.