Smile Politely

An overview of ELLNORA: The Guitar Festival 2017

ELLNORA: The Guitar Festival is upon us. First of all, how amazing is it that we have a first rate guitar festival put on in our town every other year? Krannert has a knack for bringing shows to town that I, for one, feel like I hardly deserve. It’s like I have no business having this kind of access to this kind of talent. Talent that for the most part I often would not be aware of, if not for Krannert’s cultural curation delivering it to me on a silver platter.

Embracing artists of wildly diverse genres, ELLNORA truly is a celebration of the diverse character of the guitar. In the hands of classical guitarists Alberta Khoury or Jiji, it takes on the character of a full ensemble of string musicians. In the hands of bluesmen Ronnie Baker Brooks or James Jones, it’s pure attitude. In the hands of Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge, it’s halcyon tranquility sonified. It can be plucked with the utmost delicacy, shredded to bits beneath a flurry of notes, or (perhaps most commonly) strummed clumsily, and yet — all of this we call playing the guitar.

The festival kicks off this Thursday night and runs through Saturday night. It seems cruel to only discuss a few of these artists, as the lineup is truly incredible. Many of the artists I was not familiar with, but as I YouTubed my way through samples of their playing, I inevitably would find myself staring, slackjawed. I defy you to watch Sierra Hull (pictured above) shred the mandolin into tiny little, beautiful, bluegrassy pieces and not be awestruck.

James Jones was the next one that I found myself having hard time comprehending as a real person. Watching a portion of his performance from 2015 ELLNORA, I found myself struggling to understand how someone who appeared so young could play blues guitar that convincingly. I heard the sounds of true Chicago Blues, I saw a Chicago Bulls hat, and concluded that we must have a dyed in the wool Chicagoan on our hands, fed a steady diet of Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy all of his life. But no. This guy is from Danville.
Julian Lage you may already be familiar with. I am not a Jazz-head by any means, but listening to Lage makes me think I might want to become one. His playing is peaceful and nostalgic; complicated but accessible. There is certainly something old worldly about his tunes. I could listen to Lage’s “Nocturne” (apparently a “Spike Hughes composition,” per Wikipedia) all day (or night, as it were). Lage’s work with Chris Eldridge is perhaps even more accessible, still. While still in the realm of jazz guitar, their compositions as a duo tend towards a slightly more folk-oriented direction, or perhaps classical. Their songs generally have a mirthful exuberance, but can stray back into a sort of lonely melancholy, as acoustic instrumental compositions can be prone to do. I would rank this set as a must see.

Speaking of must see acts, Saturday night will feature Jeff Tweedy (top photo) playing in the Foellinger Auditorium. Tweedy has been on a tear as of late, releasing excellent material away from his main act, Wilco, both under the “Tweedy” moniker (with son Spencer on the drums), and as a solo act. His 2017 release, Together at Last, revisits a number of older tunes, previously released by Wilco and Jeff’s sundry other projects. It’s great.

So there it is. Like most of what Krannert does, ELLNORA really is something special. For most, it is an incredible opportunity to observe a diverse, remarkable group of musicians, many of whom you were likely not aware of. As a musician, it is an opportunity to see how far you can take an instrument, but generally speaking, it’s a chance to observe humans being humans; simultaneously behaving similarly and dissimilarly to one another, using a common medium to express different ideas and emotions in ultimately a rather similar way.

Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge, Photo by Devin Pedde
ELLNORA: The Guitar Festival takes place September 14-16 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Go here to check out your ticketing options for the weekend.

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