THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 5
ELLNORA OPENING NIGHT PARTY — JONNY LANG, SAM BUSH/DEL MCCOUREY, FIONA BOYES, THE LEE BOYS, STEPANE WREMBEL
As in years past, opening night of ELLNORA 2013 was a complete blowout. Music fans young and old packed into the Krannert Center’s lobby to listen, mingle, and play. In addition to the busy bar, lovely patio seating out front, and cozy armchairs and couches at the Intermezzo café, there was also a bunch of great activities for the young and young at heart: Hair chalking (to add a bit of color where before there wasn’t any), airbrush paint tattooing (scrubs right off!), and a wonderful arts & crafts project decorating large cutout guitars with colorful glued-on lids and knick-knacks. Expectedly, in front of every stage, there was dancing. As I surveyed the wide variety of people swaying and tapping their feet (and occasional others dancing with wild abandon), I couldn’t help but think Krannert director Mike Ross’s vision for the center and the festival as a community meeting place — as a pubic square. All public squares need a least one huge party every few years. Certainly we had ours.
Five bands played: Fiona Boyes Trio, Stephane Wrembel and his Band, The Lee Boys, Sam Bush and Del McCoury, and Johnny Lang. Each was unique and inspiring. Roosevelt Collier of the Lee Boys particularly impressed me. I’m a big fan of the pedal-steel guitar, but have never heard it played in quite the way that he did. Under his hands, the pedal steel became a kind of slide-guitar hybrid and the blues screamed forth. I also thought Jonny Lang is a kind of wonder of nature. His abilities both vocally and as a guitarist somehow defy musical gravity.
I was most looking forward to seeing Del McCoury and Sam Bush play. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the environment was best suited to their set. Situated as it is off to the side and near the bar and one of the lobby entrances, Stage 5 (as it was designated) is not really designed to handle audiences much larger than a hundred or so. Several hundred patrons crowded around the small stage and we all strained to hear the acoustic instruments over the lobby chatter. As one near the back of the crowd, I was disappointed that I couldn’t hear the two bluegrass legends better and that so many seemed to be getting frustrated and leaving the area.
The other unexpected disappointment was the fact that I kept on seeing EMTs on the premises attending to injured patrons — the steps on the outdoor pavilion can be difficult to navigate, I suppose. It was sad to see a few folks’ evening ruined by unfortunate accidents.
That said and overall, Opening Night was a great way to begin a wonderful weekend of music. I look forward to it every time ELLNORA comes around. — Jon Stone
MORE ON SAM BUSH/DEL MCCOURY DUO
After arriving in time to catch the trail-end of an impressive set by the Lee Boys, I settled in for Sam Bush and Del McCoury. Both absolute legends — McCoury having played with OG picker Bill Monroe, and Bush being one of the foremost stars of the newgrass revival. Bush has an easygoing stage presence and fiery, virtuosic mandolin skills (as McCoury stated "one of the best in the world"), and McCoury's treble howl was the perfect, tuneful counterpoint. They hit the requisite classics early in the show, including numerous songs written or made famous by Monroe ("Bluegrass Stomp", "Roll On Buddy") and threw in a cover of U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" for good measure. Another highlight was the second to last number, where Bush switched to fiddle and McCoury picked up his banjo for an instrumental workout. And while watching these two masters at their peak was enthralling, I can't forgive the eagerness of far too many audience members to talk over the proceedings, not recognizing greatness in front of them. — Ben Valocchi
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 6
Andreas Aase, from small town Norway, adapted traditional Norwegian fiddle tunes, to the Bouzouki. Actually, it's a guitar, strung like a bouzouki and tuned like a fiddle. Magnificient. I was surprised to hear some music that, to my ears, seemed to resemble Celtic or Appalachian tunes. — Jeff Zolitor
Derek Gripper, from Capetown, South Africa, plays a guitar, tuned like an African kora, a traditional string and gourd instrument. Derek interpreted the music of Toumani Diabaté, Ali Farka Touré, and Ballaké Sissoke, all Malian musicians. Rather than calling his work a cover of an original piece, he referred to the adaptation to guitar, and the music he plays as interpretation of the original. He says that, as a trained classical guitar played, nobody ever says that the covers the work of Bach — they interpret it. Bach was a great composer, and so are Toumani Diabaté, Ali Farka Touré, and Ballaké Sissoke.
At this show I was expecting to hear a bouzouki and a kora, and I wasn't dissappointed. — Jeff Zolitor
CINDY CASHDOLLAR/LUTHER DICKINSON
Her next appearance was Friday, again on Stage 5, where she took on the job of interviewing two unique performers at the festival, Andreas Aase and Derek Gripper, who both adapt other instruments to guitar. In the case of Aase, it is fiddle tunes of Norway, and in Gripper’s case it is kora music of West Africa. The result is a beautiful blend of authentic music coming from non-traditional instruments. Cashdollar, in the role of expert and interviewer, brought out the subtleties of adapting music to different instruments. Her manner was easy-going but her questions were pointed and the audience learned much from the exchange.
After a break for the festival keynote address, Cindy Cashdollar sat in with Luther Dickinson and the Wandering, at the Sonic Garden stage. This set most closely resembled the origins of slide guitar in America, two guitars playing the deep Delta, country blues of Mississippi. It’s a territory that Dickinson knows well, and a style that Cashdollar has perfected. — Jeff Zolitor
If you were hoping for a performance within the vein of Spiritualized or Spaceman 3 from J. Spaceman on Friday night in the gorgous Foellinger Great Hall, you would have left this show extremely disappointed. That's not to say J. Spaceman didn't put together an enthralling and utterly mindnumbing show.
Walking down the stairs and into the theatre, and strolling down the aisle, the stage set up was simply perfect for a performance of this nature. One stool. One guitar. One performer. A single set of amps nearby.
The show started a few minutes after the designated 6:15 p.m. start time, but throughout the show, time really didn't mean anything to me, as I felt completely engulfed in a wall of sound churned out by Jason Pierce on stage. It was, without a doubt, an experiemental homage to some of his work throughout this career. Along the lines of the guitar tones and riffs you will find in Spiritualized tracks. However, these loops and progressions Spaceman went through couldn't be considered "tracks" or "songs" by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, it was completely expected, and moreover, brilliant.
Some might call it self-indulgent for Spaceman to get up there on stage and zone out for an extended period of time with the types of riffs and loops he was playing, but for the majority of the set, Spaceman put together some ear-splitting sounds that were completely hypnotizing and put me in a trance. There were some hiccups in the set, one of which appeared to be a harmonica/microphone combination that didn't seem to work out, as Spaceman seemed to go back to that multiple times without a great result. Another being his set time, which went about twenty minutes past the supposed hour long set time. About fifteen minutes prior to the end of the set, the lights were completely turned off in the entire theatre for about a minute, and randomly turned on again, leaving a single spotlight on Spaceman.
It was pretty fitting that the show was completed with a single spotlight, even if that wasn't supposed to happen. It was an assault of noise. — Patrick Singer
JOHN SCOFIELD ÜBERJAM BAND
John Scofield and his band rocked the Colwell Playhouse Theatre Friday night at Ellnora. And when I say rocked, I mean they turned the theatre into a frickin’ spaceship cruising the far reaches of the trippy-drippy-jazz-funk-dub-jam galaxy.
I arrived to Krannet a bit after the performance started. So, unlike most concerts I attend, I was asked to wait outside the theatre doors until the first song was over. I was cool with that. But then, after waiting outside the Playhouse doors for about five minutes, I realized that this is John Scofiled I’m waiting for. The guy doesn’t play three-minute long pop songs. This opening jam could have lasted ten minutes! When it was finally time to file into the theatre, I was too excited to even bother finding the right seat.
The band began their second song, “Snap Crackle Pop” off the Überjam record. It’s a slick, jam-y tune with a funky electronic foundation. The guitar sounds almost melancholy over energetic percussion parts. The band went on to play “Ideofunk,” also off the Überjam record. Sco gave a shout out to the late, great Curtis Mayfield, praising his message of moving on up to levels of higher consciousness. However short, it was a beautiful tribute. They followed with the song “Curtis Knew”.
The last few songs were phenomenal. The band took the energy to great heights with the upbeat, funky “Cracked Ice”. The audience heard stellar solos from Sco and guitarist Avi Bortnick. Then they poured sweet, soulful emotion into the air with “Dub Dub”. This song was by far my favorite of the performance. The band was bathed in pink lights and the rhythm and melodies were unlike any other in the set. It completely stood out.
The group broke out the silly, ultra funky “I Brake 4 Monster Bootie” to wrap up the show. Generous jams were dispersed throughout the song, providing everyone with one last fix before the house lights came up. This was one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. The ambiance and venue were incredible, the musicians were top shelf, and the music was just the epitome of good craft. Oh, and Sco made some awesome mouth shapes while layin’ down the solos. — Liz Faermark
It seems any time I see a seasoned music veteran, rock 'n roll hall of famer, or generally old rock star, the weathering lifestyles they've lived have rendered them within a few wrinkles of death or dead altogether. But when you hear that one is coming to town, you don't say "eh, that's a bit pricy and I didn't love their recent album, I'll just go check 'em out next time they're in town". No — you fucking don't say that. You go, regardless of your preconceived notion that they're going to collapse on stage. When given the opportunity to see B.B. King last year, I jumped all over it. It's an opportunity to watch the master of his craft, a pioneer of music, etc. masdurbatory etc. B.B. was as smooth as ever on the axe, but bound to his chair the entirety of his set. After the show I went to wait by his bus to try to get a handshake, but was pushed aside by a posse of black-clad muscle pushing a blanketed wheelchair concealing the 87-year old hall of famer up onto the motorized ramp. As one of his right hands shouted "NO PHOTOS" repeatedly to the crowd, I couldn't help but feel incredibly bummed out about that whole "everybody dies" thing and that "getting old is a bitch" other thing. That's the blues.
Buddy Guy blew me away beyond all expectations. He walked on stage to headliner-worthy roars, gave a wave, and went to work on the crowd. In classic blues form, he actively heckled and joked with the crowd throughout the show. At a point in about the middle of the show, he descended the stage and starting strolling up the aisle, through the audience. Then all of the sudden he stopped playing. "Everybody stop, quiet...I broke a fuckin' gi-tar string" he said, back up band not missing a beat. Once his guitar tech brought him a new axe, Buddy continued up the aisle, out the back door, through the lobby (still playing), back in through the other back door, down the other aisle (still playing), and back to the front of the crowd. The thing about this show I enjoyed most was the incredible humility and personality of Buddy.
This is a guy who could play for crowds $250 a ticket wherever he wanted, but that's not the kind of way he wants to perform, not the people he relates to. 77 years old and he makes an entire lap around to every seat in the auditorium, stopping to sit next to us from time to time. I could see it in people's faces; their smartphone backlights lit their dumb faces especially well, but people were having these incredible, memorable experiences that they'll tell their friends about and probably remember for a time to come. We go to these shows to have fun and the youthful Buddy made damn sure we did just that.
Buddy primarily stuck with the classic strat/twin combo. He laid down a few songs on acoustic mid-way through the show that were sweet and scrumptious funky blues. I won't go into too much song detail because I an certain whatever words in my vocabularly I could possibly use would be insignificant and unworthy. I defer you to the vast library of YouTube bootlegs for that matter. He's been playing with the same back up band for several years and they are sharp as a tack behind him. Overall, the show was fucking outstanding and if you ever have an opportunity, I implore you to make the drive to see him. — Sean O'Connor
BUKE AND GASE
We walked into the Sonic Garden at Ellnora now knowing what to expect. I had a drink in my hand; my lovely companion had a drink and a slice of cheesecake in hers. I was pleasantly surprised to see such a classy setup, with an atmospherically-lit tent, chandeliers, and a full-service bar. We got there in time to snag a couple of chairs and watch Buddy Guy play guitar with his ass (I kid you not) on the two TVs they had set up there, streaming the non-free shows. This is a very nice touch (an aside: how cool of a world would it be where people went to bars and watched rock and blues bands shred on stage instead of sporting events? Instead of cheering at touchdowns, we'd all roar with testosteroned joy when some septuagenarian played a killer lick with his buttocks. A man can dream, (can't he?), and something I'd be inclined to head back to Ellnora for (I like free stuff).
Having been briefed on Buke and Gase by this very publication, I had as much of an idea of what to expect as someone who had never heard of a band until a week ago could have. I'd watched some of the YouTube videos of them playing live, and I had checked out some of their studio recordings on their website. I was looking forward to hearing the interplay of Aron Sanchez's plodding gase with Arone Dyer's sparkly buke and her voice. I was also curious what kind of crowd they would draw. I expected them to snag some of the people coming out of the Buddy Guy concert, and as we were sitting there waiting for the show to start I overheard a couple at the table next to ours trying to decide whether to stay for Buke and Gase or go to the other free show to hear post-rockers El Ten Eleven. I had no idea of the demographics of Buke and Gase fans, so I wanted to find out.
Well, Buke and Gase took the stage and started doing what they do, and I was impressed right away by the unconventionality of their songwriting. Their songs don't have much discernible structure, and they are masters of dissonance: I don't know if I heard a major chord once during the whole show. I don't know if it's that their homemade instruments are so different that my ears weren't used to hearing them, or that they are so adept at putting together weird chords and notes and progressions, but what they were playing was definitely stretching my ears and my brain.
Dyer's vocal ability was another highlight. In their records, what typically is front and center in the mix is Dyer's buke: it's bright, it's all over the place, and it drives the melody. But live, at least last night, Dyer was using her voice as another instrument, creating just as much atmosphere and propelling the songs forward just as much as the duo's playing. I couldn't really understand what she was singing; the sound was too muddy (more on that in a bit), but it didn't matter so much because of how she was using it to flesh out the sound. I always love it when one or two people can create the sound of a much bigger band on stage, and Buke and Gase definitely did that last night.
I was also struck at how virtuosic of a musician Sanchez is. Listening to recordings, you definitely are aware of the low-end rumble that provides the backbone and sonic structure to Buke and Gase's music, but being able to see Sanchez do it live, playing complex bass runs then almost immediately and/or simultaneously laying down some fuzzy guitar on his instrument's guitar strings, was quite impressive. That's probably the reason that of the two, Dyer had more stage presence: what Sanchez was doing was so damn hard that it took all of his concentration.
As their set stretched on, I found myself wishing they'd change some stuff up just a bit. Dyer was running her buke through effects that added a sinister buzz to it, and Sanchez's gase had some sort of fuzzy distortion effect added to it as well. Sanchez was playing a big bass drum with his foot, and with all that low end and fuzziness, the mix was quite muddy. I don't know if this was the fault of the soundboard, or if this is just how the pair likes their sound to be, but I was hoping that, for a few songs at least, they'd drop the effects and let us hear how they sounded clean. The buke is a pretty instrument to listen to (it's a 6-stringed baritone ukulele), and it would pair quite well undistorted with Dyer's voice. But alas, they didn't oblige; every song, while definitely different in chord structure and vocals, sounded disappointingly similar in tone. After the show my companion agreed: it would have been nice for them to change it up a bit.
As for the crowd, there was a nice mix of younger student types and older hep cats there. Three-quarters of the way through the show Dyer cutely reminded the crowd that there was room up front (there was a big space right in front of the stage with no seats), and a crowd of probably 30 or 40 twentysomethings just as adorably obliged her and came to sit down, cross-legged, right in front of the stage. Some of them were even familiar enough with Buke and Gase's music to request some songs near the end of their show (one of these requests was turned down because it must've been so deep in their catalogue they weren't prepared to play it!). So yeah, good crowd.
Good crowd, free show, interesting music, booze, cheesecake, good weather; I mean, how can you nitpick when the night had so much going for it? Thanks Ellnora, thanks Buke and Gase, and thanks citizens of Champaign-Urbana for a fun evening. — David Kierski
EL TEN ELEVEN
There's no doubt in my mind that many of the concertgoers spilling from Buddy Guy's performance initially stopped by El Ten Eleven's set to witness the first doubleneck to grace the confines of the KCPA lobby in my memory. As guitarist Kristian Dunn promised in our interview, the band did indeed "just kind of go for it", delivering an uptempo and surprisingly danceable set that kept a significant portion of the festival's older attendees hooked in and dancing.
El Ten Eleven's looping acumen is truly a glory to behold from a technical standpoint, as Dunn worked with his own guitar lines and drummer Tim Fogarty's beats (being fed into the same pedal) to create soundscapes that would normally be impossible for a single guitarist and drummer. Particularly awesome were some passages that featured Dunn setting up loops that involved tapping independently on his two guitar necks, setting up harmonized sixteenth-note lines. While the group's propensity for inserting electronic breakdowns into their songs initially rubbed me the wrong way, this was rectified when midway through the set, they broke into a cover of Joy Division's "Disorder", which I thought was actually greatly enhanced by the outro. While I eventually wandered outside in time for the impressive finale of the Buke and Gase set, I have no doubt that El Ten Eleven kept it going until late. — Ben Valocchi
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 7
DAN ZANES AND FRIENDS
Four years ago, I took my kids to see Dan Zanes for the first time. We knew of him because we had seen him on the Disney Channel a few times and went expecting a morning of mild day-care level entertainment. We were all pleasantly surprised by Dan Zanes and his band who, after a single song, had us all on our feet dancing and singing along.
We’ve been back every year since. Even though my oldest is now ten, he was the first to head down to the edge of the stage Saturday morning when Zanes said we were going to have a “wild dance party.” He was later even invited on stage to help lead a sing-along. Zanes played his standard mixture of old and new tunes, always with an eye toward past tradition, but also with a keen ear for new traditions of diversity and care for one another. It was inspiring to see him again and even better to listen to my kids sing his tunes on the drive home. — Jon Stone
DAN ZANES/STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d never seen a Buster Keaton film until last Saturday. What a treat, though, that my first experience with the silent film master also included Dan Zanes and Collin Brooks’ live performance of an accompanying musical score. The recent trend of contemporary musicians composing and performing music for silent films has become one with considerable traction. ELLNORA has featured several similar performances including Marc Ribot’s and Lee Renaldo’s scores for Chaplin and Keaton films in 2011, but indie favorite Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) recently performed a score for a Chaplin film as well.
Zanes and Brooks offered appropriately upbeat acoustic music for Keaton’s masterpiece. The film, of course, is hilarious and Zanes accomplished well the task fusing music to the action on the screen. Having the musicians on stage, however, was also a reminder of the art and work of soundtracking, something that has become largely invisible in our contemporary media experience. — Jon Stone
KAKI KING/DON ROSS
Don Ross gave an effervescent performance, displaying flashy techniques and an acumen for banter to match. "Dracula and Friends part 2" featured a loping minor-key bassline, while a cover of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" proved especially impressive. While many of his between-song stories were hilarious, especially one about his high school New Wave band, he did burn at least four songs worth of time joking and telling stories — four more songs he could have played.
Kaki King is undeniably technically impressive, if not as flashy as Don Ross. Her peformance was entirely acoustic and a fantastic display of fingerpicking prowess. The reason Kaki appeals to me is her ability to infuse her guitar theatrics and extended techniques with melody and pop sensibility, which was evident on material from recent full-length Glow, with the opener "Great Round Burn" spilling out as a cascade of notes, constantly shifting. King stated "It's really nice to know that I'm at a guitar festival and playing to my people," before breaking out a fan-fretted baritone for the centerpiece "Doing the Wrong Thing". There was also a false bridge for "Bowen Island", a and something called a "low ninety-six" (a magnetic modification to an acoustic guitar) for a stunning version of "Goby". While this was an unfortunately short show, I can't complain about the Cindy Cashdollar sit-in on the closing "Fences". — Ben Valocchi
HENRDIX ELECTRIC LADYLAND PROJECT
I’ve always thought that seeing an artist who was truly passionate about their craft is an all around great experience, for both the musician and their audience. Watching The Hendrix Electric Ladyland Project, I could instantly see the hard work and dedication between the entire band, in fact, I would say it was electrifying. The smooth sounds of Jazz along with the sweet tones of funkadelic rock music is definitely something that everyone should experience live. The show was great and they played a little something for everyone, they even played some songs that weren’t so popular unless you were a real Hendrix fan. Needless to say, it was an amazing show and a fabulous performance and I encourage anyone who’s into jazz or Jimi Hendrix to see what the buzz is all about. — Taylor Polydore
Saturday found Cashdollar sitting in with Kaki King in the Foellinger Great Hall. King’s style and wizardry takes the form of musical short stories, and her mastery of the instrument is apparent from the first note. The sound environment created by King is one of harmonic percussion mixed with original musical themes played with power and skill. The musical landscape was enhanced with the addition of Cashdollar’s ethereal slide, and the result was breathtaking.
Topping off the fabulous festival, late on Saturday night, Cindy Cashdollar’s took to Stage 5 again, this time with Sisters Euclid, a gritty and eclectic roots project put together by Kevin Breit, a Toronto based multi-instrumentalist. Cashdollar accompanied the band with her beautiful Bill Asher lap steel guitar and wrapped up her forth appearance at Krannert with the song “Reverend Hammer and Nails” a bluesy, upbeat Breit composition that seemed the perfect place for her to close out her residency and set the standard for the next Ellnora Artist-in-Residence. — Jeff Zolitor
In her Grammy winning song, "Passionate Kisses", Lucinda Williams wants, “a full house and a rock and roll band” and she certainly had that Saturday night in the final headlining performance of ELLNORA 2013. Williams, and a band that included Stuart Mathis, longtime lead guitar player for The Wallflowers, played the sold out performance to a very receptive audience.
A singer-songwriter of the highest order, Williams comes from a literary background. Miller Williams, Lucinda’s father, is a literature professor at the University of Arkansas. President Clinton read one of his poems, Of History and Hope, at his second inaugural.
Williams’ lyrics are simple and plain, yet weave desire, love, loss and redemption seamlessly through a chord structure at home in either the rock, pop or country genres, and she effortlessly blurs the boundaries, creating a workspace all her own. In recognition of her talent, she was named Time Magazine’s Songwriter of the Year in 2002.
Lucinda Williams took the stage wearing a big Gibson J-45 Sunburst guitar and put it to use on the first four songs of her set. She then picked up a Fender Telecaster and rocked the house. Her set included "Passionate Kisses", "Can’t Let Go", "Righteously", "Joy", her tribute to Birney Imes’s book of juke joint photographs, 2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten, and ended with a rare festival encore of Neil Young’s, "Rockin’ in the Free World".
The exhausted, smiling faces of the audience as they filtered out of the Tryon Festival Theater were indication enough that they had just witnessed something very special. — Jeff Zolitor
Photos courtesy of Sean O'Connor, Chris Davies and Monica Inglot.