This was my first Ellnora Guitar Festival. I did come to one show back in 2015 to see Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear in the lobby of Krannert which was a great show, but I don’t technically count that as attending the festival. Other than that, I really had no idea what to expect when it came to the festival. I tried to do very little research into the artists beforehand as to be completely unaware of what would be presented.
Krannert has now reopened for in person shows and you have to be masked when indoors. Thankfully, from what I saw, everyone was respectful and followed the guidelines. I was told that the crowd was smaller than past years, but the fest still drew a sizable crowd. Plus, the audiences of the shows I attended were very enthusiastic and interactive, making for a very fun environment. Here is a rundown of the shows I saw.
The first day of the festival kicked off with Celisse, a powerful blues and rock singer-songwriter and guitarist who performed outside in the amphitheater. She was backed by her bassist and drummer, but the trio felt so much more powerful than those three. Behind her on stage were her guitar amplifiers, sparkling pink, and the whole group was all smiles. There was just a fun energy in the air.
Celisse started her set with some strong bluesy numbers, showcasing her powerhouse voice while simultaneously busting out blues licks and solos while her band laid the grooves and foundation for her to play around. There were also more intimate moments as well, like in her song “Lost,” in which she details emotions after a breakup in which you still have feelings for the person. Her falsetto during the song felt perfect, as I felt as if she was a ghost, haunted by these feelings of “losing” a lover.
AJ Ghent is a blues rock guitarist who plays mainly with his hand wrapped over the neck of the guitar, using a slide, almost as if he was playing a lap guitar. “It’s just what is most comfortable to me,” he said during the show — he must get questions about his playing style quite a bit.
He came out in a wide brimmed hat and ripped jeans, giving me strong Lenny Kravitz vibes. The hat made it hard to see his face, and gave him a mysterious aura. Despite this, his playing lets you know who he is and what he is about. Songs like “Power” demonstrate the strength of his playing and voice, as well as his backing band. Bass and drums were in their own pocket and grooving along while Ghent and his wife — on backing vocals — played back and forth. Their powerful voices blended together so seamlessly. He mentioned during the show that he plays for feeling. “I’m not concerned about the song, it’s about the vibe…the feeling.”
I think the award for most audience participation goes to this show. Ghent had moments in his songs where he would be wailing, and then ask the crowd to echo him, and they did without hesitation, bringing a smile to Ghent’s face.
Okay, I try to stay fairly professional when writing these articles, so I will use the nicer word here: this show was freaking unbelievable. Of all of the groups this weekend, Punch Brothers were who I was looking forward to seeing the most. I was already a fan of their music but had never seen them live, so I was curious to see how they would do. Sure I had seen their Tiny Desk Concert, but seeing a video online is not the same as seeing them in person.
The group is led by Chris Thile on mandolin, with the other members bringing fiddle, guitar, double bass, and banjo. Despite knowing their music, it’s hard to express just how much better they are live. The energy the group brings is so incredibly infectious. The group played around one microphone in the center of the stage, moving in and out closer to the mic, getting louder and quieter, almost like they were mixing in real time. Thile’s energy is definitely led the group. He was all smiles, cracking jokes, dancing, and jumping around. If there is one thing I walked away from this show with, it was a reminder of the importance of dynamics within music. I was blown away by how quickly the group can raise the volume and suddenly drop back down again. I left this show feeling incredibly inspired.
Ben Harper seemed to be who everyone was excited for on Friday. I’ll be honest, I am not the biggest Ben Harper fan. I know a lot of people who mentioned that Harper was a big part of their high school experience, so I think for some there is a nostalgia factor. However, there is no denying his talent.
I had heard before the show that he was going to be playing his new instrumental album, Winter is for Lovers, which sees Harper sitting down with his lap steel guitar. He came out onto the stage, greeting the crowd with a wave. He sat down under the spotlight without saying a word, surrounded by numerous guitars of all shapes, and began playing. He started by playing two songs just fingerpicking, and then proceeded to bring out his steel lap guitar to play through his new album.
His playing was gorgeous, and he would occasionally stop to talk to the audience about his songs. At one point, when he grabbed his lap guitar, he kind of just sat for a few seconds looking at it. He mentioned how important it is to acknowledge that the guitar was once a tree, a living thing. “It could have been cut down and turned into anything” he says, “but it became this guitar.”
After playing through his new album — roughly 30 minutes of material — he began singing. I only knew one of his songs, “Diamonds On the Inside,” but my friend leaned over and mentioned “he’s playing all of the hits!” His voice is interesting as it is delicate and warm, but very powerful at the same time. While I don’t think his music is quite for me, there is no denying his songwriting prowess and ability to put on a great show. This concluded day one.
I started Saturday off with a 12 p.m. set from Nashville’s Katie Pruitt. She walked onto stage with her performance partner, pianist and backing vocalist Jess Nolan. The show was delayed however, as technocal difficulties arose. Pruitt’s vocal mic was not working, and Nolan’s piano was not making sound. While the two of them could have gone backstage while the sound crew worked that out, Pruitt and Nolan decided to stay and field questions from the audience. For around 10 minutes they talked of touring life, the music scene in Nashville, as well as having dinner and drinks at Guido’s.
Once sound was up and running, Pruitt’s set began. I was blown away by how different her singing voice is from her speaking voice, which almost has a west coast twinge to it. Her music is definitely where her Nashville and southern roots come through. She picked and strummed effortlessly on her guitar while belting lyrics about relationships, breakups, and not fitting in. She grew up in the south, and says that is can be hard to relate to a region that has the history and reputation that the south does. Pruitt grew up in a religious household, and tried hard to supress her feelings of attraction towards women. She tried to be “normal,” but she went on to say “there is no such thing as normal.”
Pruitt prefaced almost every song with the story behind it, making the songs that much more powerful. Her voice soared and Nolan’s backing vocals and subtle piano work blended in perfectly. You almost wouldn’t know her piano was there, but you’d definitely notice if it wasn’t. I dont know if that makes sense, but all I am saying is that the two of them sounded amazing together. Highly recommend seeing Katie Pruitt if you ever get the chance.
Adam Del Monte, Sonia Olla, Ismael Fernández
All I knew about this show was that flamenco guitar was involved. Frankly, that was all I really needed to hear to peak my interest. Adam Del Monte came onto the stage and beautifully played through two pieces, fingers moving at what seemed like the speed of light. You could feel his passion through the music, and see it through his body language as he swayed back and forth in his chair, eyes closed, eyebrows raising at certain points in the piece as if to say what could be coming next?
What was next was Del Monte being joined on stage by choreographer and dancer Sonia Olla and singer Ismael Fernández. The two sat beside Del Monte and clapped and stomped as he played through another piece. Suddenly, Olla got up from her seat and began to dance across the stage, stomping, clapping, snapping, and tapping her feet. How she moved her feet that quickly in heels is incredible to me. She danced beautifully and Fernández began singing, joining Del Monte’s guitar.
For the last piece, the three of them performed in their respective ways, and eventually Olla pulled Fernández up from his chair to join her in dancing. They danced while he sang, and eventually Del Monte got up from his chair and continued playing while the three of them danced, eventually dancing off of the stage while Olla waved goodbye to a cheering crowd. What a treat this show was.
I almost didn’t go see Raul Midón. I had tickets for all of the shows and was basing my schedule off of whose tickets I had, and because this show didn’t require tickets, it slipped my mind. However, I saw people heading into Foellinger and checked the website and was reminded of this show.
Oh man, am I glad I caught this show. Midón is a powerhouse musician. He was led on stage to his guitar and mic and burst into playing, while simultaneously performing a very convincing mouth trumpet. This man does it all. He was fingerpicking, strumming, scatting, singing, occasionally slapping the body of the guitar percussively. Not to mention that for one song, he stepped in front of a set of bongos, playing those with his right hand, playing guitar with his left, and singing at the same time. “This is my multi-tasking challenge” he joked with a grin.
He is also a master of his music reflecting his lyrics. In his song “Listen to the Rain” he sings of the pitter patter of the rain, his stacatto piano playing representing the sound of rain hitting the roof. He truly knows how to keep the audience engaged, displaying his mastery of the guitar, moving up and down the fingerboard with speed and ease.
Blues rocker Isaiah Sharkey walked on stage with his band. Didn’t say a word, picked up his guitar, and started shredding. His incredibly funky band, made up of drums, bass, and keyboards backed him up, allowing him to freely mess around and solo. In the opening song, the band members bounced off of each other, taking turns soloing and doing a sort of call and response. The group also did a great job of using dynamics to their advantage, not afraid to quiet things down only to grow into something huge, and explode again.
Sharkey joked around with the crowd, who were cheering him along, applauding his solos, and just having an all around blast. Sharkey and the band rifled through originals, but also provided their take on some covers as well, including a funky rendition of Hall and Oates’ “Sara Smile,” The Spinner’s “It’s a Shame,” and even a bluesy cover of “In the Air Tonight.” Unfortunately I had to head out a little early to meet up with my date for the next show, but I would go see Isaiah Sharkey again in a heartbeat.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
I mean, what can I say about Joan Jett that hasn’t already been said. She was the big name this year, and I’ll be darned if she doesn’t deserve to be. I was unable to make it to Cedric Burnside after this show, so Jett closed out the festival for me.
Despite being 62 years old, she sounds incredible. The large crowd in Tryon was filled with a wide array of people, younger and older, signifying the reach and influence that Joan Jett has established. She came out with her band The Blackhearts, and ripped through a large setlist of hits including “I Love Rock N Roll,” “I Hate Myself For Loving You,” and “Bad Reputation.” She also tore through some covers, including Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” and Tommy James and the Shondell’s “Crimson and Clover.”
Jett and the band brought so much energy, and the crowd stood and danced for the whole show. She occasionally stopped in between songs to tell stories, talking about her days with her band The Runaways, as well as her role in the movie Light of Day in which she starred alongside Michael J Fox. She was all smiles and joking around with the crowd who were loving every single minute. Jett kept up the energy for the whole hour and fort-five minute set. This was an amazing way to end the night. As we walked out of the show, I could hear the crowd praising Jett, one audience memeber saying “that was amazing, I feel like I could run a mile!” I think we all left feeling energized and young and rebellious.
For my first ELLNORA, I had an absolute blast. I feel incredibly grateful that Krannert exists in our community, as the programs and events they put on always showcase incredible talent and musical diversity. I know that feeling is shared by other community members as well. I can’t wait to see what next year holds for the festival.
Man, I missed live music.