The ELLNORA Guitar Festival, held Sept. 14–16, is a mecca for all manner of string players as well as voracious music fans who enjoy a wide array of genres, including bluegrass, folk, flamenco, classical, jazz, blues, alternative rock, pop and experimental music.
The event takes place every other year on the campus of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in its Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, which is named after the art patrons Ellnora and Herman Krannert.
As is typical for this fest, the roster included an intelligent mix of crossover artists and string players coming from various traditions. The programming also included an instrument “petting zoo” and a guitar-pick jewelry-making session with a screen-printing demonstration that resulted in free posters for anyone attending.
The festival layout featured six indoor stages, as well as a large lobby area that held two of those stages (and was the site of many free concerts).
Opening night featured a concert by jazz/funk trio Soulive on lobby Stage 6. Soulive—Eric Krasno (guitars), Neal Evans (Hammond B-3 organ) and his brother Alan Evans (drums)—released a series of albums on Blue Note in the early 2000s and has retained a devoted fan base, as evidenced by the enormous crowd at this show.
Soulive delivered unconventional interpretations as well as songs from its own catalog, which includes more than a dozen albums. The trio managed to lace its blues-based funk with a version of The Beatles’ “Revolution,” clearly identifying it as the blues song it was and is.
Soon after, fans were shaking their booties to a rendition of the Allman Brothers Band’s “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed,” a Dickey Betts composition famous for its lengthy, complex arrangement. (The classic version on the Allmans’ At Fillmore East is 13 minutes long.) Krasno, flanked by his cohorts and sporting a snazzy short-brimmed hat, was more than capable of taking a song that originally included two guitarists (Betts and the late Duane Allman) and getting anyone with a long memory to forget the original, his Gibson ES filling in all the melodic blanks while the rest of the band provided a typical, magnetic Soulive groove.
This all-ages crowd (which seemed to rove the whole night long) knew how to dance to this particular hippie-era vibe.
Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” came shining through (something of an echo of the James Jones Trio’s earlier visit to Hendrix on that same stage with “The Wind Cries Mary”). Indeed, Soulive was very much alive, and the standing-room-only crowd let them know it, begging for—but not getting—an encore.
Preceding Soulive was Kansas City native and guitar phenom Samantha Fish, who offered songs from her latest album, Chills & Fever (Ruf). Her vocals were subordinate to some meaty guitar solos and an ensemble that included a hearty horn section. Her set went long, and as her band ended on lobby Stage 5, astute listeners could hear Soulive helping Fish and company on one of her many blues numbers.
The following day, guitar fans were treated to the memorable lecture/demo “An Illinois Legend: Letritia Kandle and Her Grand Letar.” University of Illinois archivist Scott Schwartz and collector/historian Paul Warnik discussed the life and impact of Kandle, while T.C. Furlong provided a demonstration of her incredible, one-of-a-kind instrument.
Held in the Foellinger Great Hall, this free event was a celebration of Chicagoan Kandle’s creation in 1937 of the Grand Letar, a 26-string, five-necked instrument weighing 400 pounds. It has a one-piece fretboard with three six-string and two four-string necks. Along with a discussion about exactly how the Grand Letar was assembled and amplified, the multimedia presentation included a projection of a DownBeat article on Kandle from October 1937.
Appearing twice, once for a brief set and lecture about its ongoing Pat Metheny project in the club-style Studio Theatre on Friday, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet played in the Foellinger on Saturday, performing not only the 27-minute Metheny composition On The Road To The Sun, but also a delicious medley of music by Brazilian icons Hermeto Pascoal, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Baden Powell.
The quartet’s set was preceded by a stunning piece performed by classical guitarist Alberta Khoury (who also appeared later that night in her own complete performance).
Other highlights included performances by mandolin wiz and former child prodigy Sierra Hull (now 25), dazzling flamenco guitarist Vicente Amigo, roots-music duo Shovels & Rope and Ronnie Baker Brooks’ blues band.
Also impressive were the shows by Reinhardt family member/guitarist Lulo Reinhardt, the amazing duo of Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge, and jazz guitarist Rez Abassi’s “cine-concert,” in which he led a quartet through a performance of his new score for Franz Osten’s 1929 silent film A Throw of Dice, which depicts the love-triangle saga of India’s epic The Mahabharata.
Another standout at this year’s ELLNORA (in two appearances) was folk musician Janis Ian, who rose to fame as a teenager, thanks to her 1967 hit “Society’s Child,” and who later reached an even wider audience with the Grammy-winning 1975 hit “At Seventeen.”
In a free talk on Sept. 15, followed by a concert the next day (both in the Colwell Playhouse), Ian spoke candidly and movingly about her life and career as a artist growing up in and around New York City. She also answered questions, always with one of her guitars in her lap. Her stories were riveting, filled with sad and humorous anecdotes, her comments about the music business full of insight, and her devotion to social causes inspiring.
Ian’s heartfelt performance was a sold-out lovefest, as the legend mixed banter and storytelling with fine renditions of many of her compositions, including “Society’s Child.” Ian’s voice and guitar playing were perfectly suited for Colwell’s mid-sized auditorium acoustics. A tip of the hat to the ELLNORA organizers for inviting her. DB