Smile Politely

A review of ELLNORA 2017

ELLNORA: The Guitar Festival has, like our own Pygmalion Festival (this is something we also do in addition to publishing SP), arrived at its teenage years. In 2005, when Wall2Wall Guitar Festival arrived on the scene, the concept of the American Music Festival was still in its infancy. Coachella was just a half dozen years old. Lollapalooza had reinvented itself from a touring alt-rock show into the aforementioned Coachella’s image just up the road in Chicago. There was no Hangout Festival. There was no Governor’s Ball. No Mamby on the Beach. There were just a handful of models from which to choose, and most of them looked nothing like what Krannert Center tasked David Spelman, the founder and director of The New York Guitar Festival, to realize here in Urbana. 

Now, the landscape has changed. Dramatically. And while there’s a novel to be written about that very topic, one that I could easily write, with enough time, whiskey, and some pretty serious mindfulness exercises, I’ll just state that while most teenagers enter this part of their lives in an awkward, weird-o, half baked way, you can rest assured that Ellnora simply continues to find its voice through creative programming, community engagement, and thoughtful process. 

A collection of us got to take in the festivities this weekend, and here’s what we saw. Enjoy! — Seth Fein


I never miss Opening Night at Krannert Center if I can help it. It’s generally great weather, and getting to party on the outdoor deck, with tons of great food, very affordable beverages, and really sharp tunes is never something to miss. 

This year, Soulive, an act that formed in Woodstock, N.Y. in 1999 and that has been making the circuit for as many years, turned the Krannert lobby and its remote venue which they refer to as “Stage 6” into an all out frenzy. 

The band has opened for numerous luminaries, and has amassed a very strong following amongst fans and artists alike. That they have been hosting an annual ten night, two week residency at Brooklyn Bowl in NYC called “Bowlive” for the past seven years to sold out shows is evidence of that in the highest order. 

Soulive, photo courtesy of Brooklyn Bowl

The band performed as well as one might expect from these kinds of seasoned pros. They have forever been toeing the lines between jazz and funk and jam band and a more perfect fit might not have been possible to kick off the season, and Ellnora, a biannual event, now celebrating its seventh festival in 13 years. — SF


German Lopez, photo by Anna Longworth

Janice Ian, photo by Anna Longworth

The earlier portions of Friday featured some talks mixed with performances (German Lopez, Janice Ian pictured above), a demo of a 400-year old litar in the Great Hall.

Director Mike Ross, photo by Anna Longworth

Julian Lage and Chris Eldrige, photos by Anna Longworth

As people were milling about in the lobby in the late evening, that lead into the final show in the Tryon Festival Theatre for the night — Shovels & Rope. The folk duo out of Charleston, SC fought through Cary Ann Hearst being a bit under the weather to a very attentive crowd. This was something they didn’t seem too used to, having played mostly in loud clubs and rock venues. They were appreciative, but as they were moving through their set — “hurrying” as they mentioned, in between songs, because it was so quiet — they fit a bunch of material into their 75 minute set.

Shovels & Rope, photo by Patrick Singer

One thing I loved most about the set was the fact that the two players are so interchangable — switching between guitar and drum kit amongst each other, moving around to keys (both a smaller keyboard and a piano nearby) as they moved along. “Birmhingham” is an obvious staple in their focused and concise set on Friday night. — Patrick Singer


I am still learning what it means to understand “Kids Rock” because frankly, it wasn’t really something that was around when I was coming of age in the mid 1980s. For me, kids music was just mostly Casey Kasem’s Top 40 and MTV Top 20 Countdown. And at that time, it was packed with some truly legendary (and some truly awful) artists. 

But, I sort of felt obligated to take my 3.7 year old, Ellis, to check it out. I did enough research, and felt like it was going to hit the mark. Recess Monkey formed in 2005 by three musicians who met while in school for Child Development at Seattle University, they’ve come to be one of the most in demand artists of this newly popular genre of music. Their last record, Novelties, was nominated for a Grammy in 2016 and their drummer, I came to find out, used to perform in The Dead Science, who were signed to Absolutely Kosher Records. Check the box for hipster creds. 

I had really planned to take it all in. I romanticized about the idea of watching my kiddo dance it up by the stage, while I got to really study the tunes in the same way I might watching a new band that I was wanting to discover. I had my bottle of water, had my change of clothes in case the worst happened, and walked into the Tyron Festival Theatre and led him down the stairs to the pit. 

And almost immediately, I felt it. The clench. If you’ve had kids, toddlers in particular, there’s an inimitable “leg clech” that only means one thing: 

I don’t like this, and I need protection. Help.

Still though, this is where you encourage and prod, suggesting that they give it a shot, like trying a new food or jumping into a pool. Give it a shot, it’s fun! Hey, it’s live music! See that drummer? That’s what Poppa did for a long time! You can dance! as I tried to wiggle my ass just enough to make it seem as though, well, this is what you do. 

No dice. We stayed for a song and a half. I had planned to get some photos and really report back on what was what, critically and with reason. But I really didn’t get to see much.

What I did see was really, really fun though. The animated members of the band, choreographing their moves, and growling and howling and encouraging the kids (and adults) to all participate just made sense to me. I understand why there were so many kids and families there. And thankfully, the music was legitimately well conceived and catchy as all get up. 

I’ve been asked by my son to remove him from this, that, or the other, over the last couple years. I would think that I’d have been able to convince him otherwise, at least for a few more ditties. But alas, the waterworks came, and he asked me, through the distorted guitars, if we could just “go run around upstairs, and have a muffin?”

Hard to say no to that. Fair enough, kid. 

Still though, I was impressed with what I saw. Perhaps as my younger son gets older, and as Ellis becomes more familiar with what his Poppa does for a living, he’ll warm up to it. But for now, it seems like Legos and Playdough are going to rule the day, and I suppose I’ll just have to be patient. 

Nice work on scoring such a revered act though. Dan Zanes performed at the last six Guitar Festivals, I believe, so I was excited to see them break course and go with the hot new act.

We can’t always book Mike Kinsella, so to speak, as much as we love him. — SF

Alberta Khoury, photo by Austin Hill

Alberta Khoury performed on the Studio Theatre, which was set up for “Club Style” seating. First, let me say that I really enjoyed the ambiance that Krannert created. The studio theatre is a small room, with a small stage, only a foot or two above the floor of the seating area, so it is intimate to begin with. “Club Style” seating meant that there were small round tables from wall to wall, with four seats to a table. Around the edges of the room, the tables were a bit higher. At the back of the room, there was a full bar available, and appetizers could be ordered as well. This was great.

As for Alberta, she was incredible. Before each piece, she would give a brief explanation of what she would be playing, and what we might find interesting about it. At times, she would play short samples and explain what we would be hearing, and why she thought it was meaningful. I thought this was incredibly helpful, particularly as someone who is not familiar with classical music.

She played selections by Bach, Sergio Assad, and Leo Brouwer. The Brouwer piece, “The Black Decameron II,” was of particular note. Alberta explained that the song is about a warrior who also happens to love to play the harp, and the dissonance between these two attributes. She explained how a part characterized by delicate rapid picking represented the warrior’s horse’s hooves as the warrior fled from his life of war. She explained how at one point, the warrior is passing through “The Valley of Echoes,” and how her playing would emulate the echoes. Absolutely beautiful, and so much more meaningful with Khoury’s explanation. Each performance was quite powerful, and her playing ranged from tender and contemplative to cacophonous.

Finally, after answering questions from the audience, and after the crowd pleading for an encore, Khoury played an original composition. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found this to be the most meaningful piece of the evening.

I feel so grateful to have seen this performance by Jeff Tweedy in the Foellinger Great Hall. This is a space that has tremendous acoustic properties. The crowd sat, for the most part very quietly, clapping enthusiastically when he would start a song that someone was excited to hear, and at the end of each piece. I realize that sounds like a very unexciting way to watch a pop/rock/folk musician perform, but it was very unusual to be able to hear this relatively quiet performance in such a large place, with the beautiful natural reverberations of the hall. That is the beauty of the Foellinger Great Hall, and that is the beauty of Krannert.

He played for a full hour, busting out a number of favorites from the Wilco catalogue, including “Jesus, Etc.,” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and “Laminated Cat.” His banter was awkward, funny, and self deprecating, which was ultimately very endearing. It was a unique performance that I felt lucky to have witnessed. — Austin Hill

Let me just say that I’m not a music expert, let alone a blues expert. But I love music and I know when I hear something that I like.The Ronnie Baker Brooks Band, a group of four insanely talented performers out of Chicago, electrified the Tryon Festival Theatre Saturday night. Ronnie Baker Brooks led on vocals and electric guitar, and he was backed by a drummer, bassist, and keyboardist, who alternated between an electric keyboard and old school organ. Brooks had a wide ranging blue repertoire that included high energy pieces that had the crowd clapping, cheering, and even a few dancing in the aisles, to slow, soulful numbers where I found myself hanging on every stroke of the guitar string. The group performed blues covers, leading the audience to sing along with “I Just Want to Make Love to You” by Muddy Waters. They also introduced music from their new album, performing the title track “Times Have Changed.” It’s a reflection on the state of our society today where Brooks even raps a bit. The band played one encore to the delight of the audience, and Brooks came out into the aisles with his guitar, shaking hands along the way. All and all a masterful and entertaining performance. — Julie McClure

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