A few Smile Politely music writers attended a few major performances during this year’s ELLNORA | The Guitar Festival, and below were their takes on the performances they experienced.
Sharon Isbin & the Pacifica Quartet
Sharon Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet offered a Saturday morning array of string timbres. They bookended the concert with two pieces from their album Souvenirs of Spain and Italy—Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major for Guitar and Strings, RV 93 to open, and Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet No. 4 in D Major, G.448, “Fandango” to close. Isbin offered a few solo guitar favorites: Granados’ Danza española No. 5 (Andaluza), Lauro’s Waltz No. 3 Natalia, and Barrios Mangoré’s Waltz Opus 8, No. 4. The Pacifica Quartet brought their rendition of Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 92, and all five came together for their Midwest premiere of Joseph Schwantner’s Song of a Dreaming Sparrow (commissioned 2020).
What is most remarkable about this group of five artists is the balance of timbres that they achieve in concert. Combining the guitar with bowed strings highlights its clear articulation. Isbin eschews using picks in favor of the fingers-only technique, which allows her to stand out from or blend in with the quarter easily. The four members of the string quartet have the advantage of bowing—they can sustain notes with no sound decay in ways that guitars can’t without electronic manipulation. The opening Vivaldi—whose “Largo” was probably the best-known piece of the concert—was fresh and unhurried. During Prokofiev’s String Quartet, the four bowed strings really got to show their colors, as the rest of the concert cast them in largely accompaniment roles. The performance as a whole was low-key and conversational: performers happily performing and listeners (of all ages!) equally happily listening. Between pieces Isbin and Brandon Vamos (cellist) gave the audience personal anecdotes about their experiences with the music and details about what they might expect to hear. Themes of walking through nature, regional folk music, and the passage of time abounded. Ibsin gets incredible projection out of the classical guitar, especially at quiet dynamics, and can lean into them to evoke the nostalgia, thoughtfulness, or melancholy that such evocations require. (KM)
Rodrigo y Gabriela
I’ve done a few reviews of concert shows before, let me start this one by saying that this show was simply fabulous! Rodrigo and Gabriela played to a sold-out audience in the Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center. They were high-energy, great musicians, wonderful entertainers and they enjoyed great rapport with the audience throughout the night.
These two have a unique kind of show they put on. Rodrigo plays lead guitar and Gabriela plays a combination of rhythm guitar/percussion on her acoustic guitar. To say she bangs on the guitar is truly misleading. Yes, she does bang on the guitar, but she does it in such a way that it makes you think a drummer is on stage playing a drum kit. She keeps the rhythm going; she’s a percussionist with a guitar around her neck.
Both of them are definitely rockers. Their music really moves you. In Rodrigo’s playing, you hear heavy metal, shredding, note picking fast and clean. He moves around the guitar’s neck vertically and horizontally with ease, and he can play with quiet finesse. There were a few moments of that during their nearly 90-minute performance.
It was clear these two have a following in the C-U area. The audience was extremely responsive, with loud applause at the end of each song and during the solos of some songs. At the conclusion of the show, when they came back for an encore, Rodrigo motioned for the crowd to leave their seats and come up to the stage, which the audience gladly did! After their encore, Gabriela, apparently not ready for the show to end, raised her finger in the air saying one more! They did a second encore song before calling it a night, ending a solid show of music and entertainment.
Rodrigo and Gabriela have a highly polished act put on by two quite accomplished musicians. This performance was certainly worth the price of admission. (RM)
Emmylou Harris and her five bandmates played for nearly two hours in the Tryon Festival Theatre Saturday night. The late 9:30 p.m. start time did not deter folks from showing up – the venue was packed.
The warm performance by the 13-time Grammy Award winner (nominated 47 times) included songs that spanned Harris’s legendary career. With subtle lighting coming down on her dazzling white, shoulder-length hair, Harris began the show with “Here I Am” from the album Stumble Into Grace, followed by “Orphan Girl” and “Love and Happiness,” all songs that Harris joked were “from this century.” “Wayfaring Stranger” came next, a tune from 1980. Harris’s first record was released in 1975. The 76-year-old had no problem joking with the crowd about her longevity.
Harris’s bandmates have an unassuming look but are stellar musicians and background vocalists. On the left side of the stage, Phil Madeira could be seen playing the keyboard, a mean slide guitar, and the piano accordion. On the opposite side was Eamon McLoughlin, whose fiddle playing at times stole the show. McLoughlin also sprinkled the songs with his mandolin and viola throughout.
Harris, who is known for interpreting other musicians’ songs and making them her own, as well as for collaborating with other artists, plays with a heartfelt spirit that trickles down to her bandmates. Each of the musicians’ musical parts were poignantly in service of every composition, and often their faces conveyed that expressiveness.
Toward the end, Harris took time to say nice things about the recently deceased Jimmy Buffett, which wasn’t a huge surprise. What was surprising was that her guitarist, Will Kimbrough, co-wrote Buffett’s latest single, “Bubbles Up,” from Buffett’s posthumous album, Equal Strain on All Parts, to be released on November 3. The band played “Bubbles Up” with Kimbrough singing, and it was perhaps the most powerful moment of the night.
“He really knew how to live,” Harris said of Buffett. “He knew how to make music. He knew how to make people happy. We could learn a lot from him.”
One could say the same things about what Emmylou Harris has offered the world. (SN)
Ani DiFranco review by Kathleen McGowan
Ani DiFranco’s afternoon concert seemed to capture her in-between things eclectic aesthetic. A little contradictory, a little vintage, and sharing the audience’s nostalgia for some of her classic songs, she steadily swapped between two guitars with crossed purposes. Her acoustic sounds always seem to lean a little harder—toward the classic rock, the punk, and maybe a little borrowed twang. The slower ballads and lyrical numbers that would seem to demand acoustic treatment get more electronics, synths, and a little pop influence. She never actually plays a banjo but seems to get something important and vital from steel strings. There’s a little Joan Jett, a little Runaways, and a little Kathleen Hanna that all turn up in her sound, but she’s singing no covers.
DiFranco’s nostalgia is sometimes obvious. “I think my voice used to be higher,” she remarked after finishing a string of particularly long high notes. She has a streak of anarchy and rule-breaking, as her fans know well. “What happened to all these people?” she asked after the first tune, gesturing to the first two rows of seats which were somehow empty. Fans were happy to take any opportunity to fill them. After a set of classic songs, she invited Kristen Ford, with whom she is touring, onstage to round out the show with duets and a double encore. (KM)
Kathleen McGowan., Ray Miner and Sal Nudo contributed to this article.