Smile Politely

ELLNORA 2015 in review

ELLNORA came and went in a flash. The biennial guitar festival lasted for three days at Krannert Performing Arts Center, utilizing outdoor terraces and tents in addition to its indoor theaters to stage an incredibly diverse show of guitar talent. I, and a few other Smile Politely writers, editors and a photographer were each able to carve out a slice of the fest for ourselves. Below are reviews and photos of what we took away from ELLNORA this past weekend. — Maddie Rehayem

Drive By Truckers. Photo by Chris Davies.

This year’s ELLNORA had plenty of acts within it that are heralded as solid rock ‘n roll acts — but a Friday night show by Drive-By Truckers, back to back with a set from Earth, was a great thing to see chalked up for the festival. As you realize fairly quickly, this set, being in the Tryon Theatre, was a bit different than seeing DBT in another venue or space. The band’s 75 minute set was top-to-bottom filled with a bunch of highlights — “Heathens” being one of them — and although every couple of songs saw people shuffling into the space and out, all was good. Patterson Hood & co. were experiencing a little bit of technical difficulties throughout the first portion of the set, guitar and stage techs coming onto the stage every few minutes or so at the beginning to assist, but nothing came crashing down.

You know, because a rock show is a rock show. These things just happen. The sound was great, as always, and it was interesting to see DBT in a venue like that, as the scope of their performance changes a bit with the audience, who is very much there to watch the artist do what they do best: wail on their guitars. — Patrick Singer

Directly following DBT was the Pygmalion Festival alums Earth, which performed in the Sonic Garden, located on the south side of Krannert Center. The fairly-huge tent stucture stretches, and so did the booming drones of this Seattle crew. I’ve seen shows in this are before, and typically walking into the tent — I’m a bit nervous about the sound quality. You know, because it’s not really a room at all. Thankfully, these dudes rocked, and of course, it takes a certain type of listener — and I was glad to see Earth as a part of the lineup, providing a bit different progginess to the mix — to engage with this type of metal. Solid. — PS, photo by Nathan Landolt.

Punch Brothers. Photo by Chris Davies.

Saturday afternoon, Punch Brothers packed the Tryon Festival Theatre for the 2nd day of the Ellnora guitar festival. Punch Brothers opened up their performance with ‘My Oh My,’ the sixth track off their latest 2015 release, The Phosphorescent Blues. Armed with just their instruments and a single microphone, Punch Brothers manages to fill the stage with their sound rather than equipment. One might think that a mix of acoustic instruments and vocals might not be enough to hold a crowd, but even during their instrumental pieces (three of which were performed) the entire audience was stuck in a trance. During instrumental performances, as well as in full songs, Punch Brothers takes care in showcasing each of the individual talents of the respective members. Chris Thile (mandolin) and Chris Eldridge (guitar) provide the lead vocals on most tracks, but every member of the band provides backing vocals which lends to grand and powerful harmonies echoing all across the performance hall.

While many of Punch Brothers’ lyrics circle around heavy subjects like religion, death and lost love,they take care to add levity to their performance, during songs and in between. Such moments include Noam Pikelny (banjo), UIUC alumn, joking about his time on campus and Paul Kowert (bass) playing a comically long bass solo. “I remember walking by Krannert and thinking, ‘man, I should really go to class ,’” Noam says with a grin plastered on his face.

Ripping through a 12-song set within just an hour and a half (even more impressive when one learns that “Familiarity” is roughly 10 minutes long) Punch Brothers captivated Tryon with elegance and poise, earning them a standing ovation and returning to give an encore of “Julep,” the second track off their latest record and crowd favorite which had everyone standing on their feet. —Nishat Ahmed

Los Lobos. Photo by Chris Davies.

At first glance, the men of Los Lobos are rather unassuming as an act, dressed mostly in jeans and dark t-shirts. It quickly becomes clear that they need not put on airs. These men are seasoned, accomplished musicians whose work speaks for itself. They came to play a guitar festival, and they left ELLNORA reeling. David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas and Louie Perez absolutely killed it on the strings. With a solo on almost every song, the guys played their guitars with masterful skill that comes only from a lifetime of work. The band rounded out their sound with the drums, keys, bass and horns complementing the guitar expertly.

Although their abilities gave away their age, the guys were cheerful and energetic as they encouraged the audience to clap for rhythm. Krannert’s Tryon Festival Theatre is a more subdued venue, but the nature of Los Lobos found the crowd itching to move. It was no surprise when a few bold fans approached the stage to dance, and the guys didn’t mind. Los Lobos wasn’t afraid to please the crowd. They played “Will the Wolf Survive” and “Evangeline” from their keystone rock-and-roll and blues album, as well as “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” from the popular, more experimental Kiko. The guys also kept their Latin roots present. Rosas broke out the maracas for the Spanish “Maricela,” and Hidalgo’s sparkling gold accordion also put the mariachi sound front and center. They sampled yet another genre by playing the title track from their new album, Gates of Gold, which had more of a folk sound.

The show culminated in grand fashion during the band’s encore with possibly the best moment of the evening. Los Lobos covered Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” paying tribute to one of the best guitarists of all time, and a much-loved influence for the band. The listener could hear their respect for him. The guys really made their strings cry for this one. It was a fitting end for Los Lobos’ impressive showcase of guitar work and musicianship, and to their amazing contribution to 2015’s ELLNORA.—Julia McAnly

Rodrigo y Gabriela. Photo by Maddie Rehayem.

Probably the chillest set of ELLNORA was Jessica Lea Mayfield. Nothing special, just a three-piece band fronted by Mayfield and her many guitars, each run through rich distortion. Each slow-tempoed song had the same elements, drums, bass, guitar (electric) and Mayfield’s calming coo.

Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela have been using acoustic guitars to create Flamenco-tinged instrumental songs for 10 years. The unique aspect to their music comes from their backgrounds — both played in a metal band before going acoustic. While their show was not only palatable but an energizing display for the entire audience, not just the heavy music fans among us, their metal roots were obvious. They even did a medley of Metallica and Megadeth toward the beginning of their hour-and-a-half-long set. Rodrigo often assumed power stance for optimal shredding, and Gabriela’s incredible dexterity enabled her to work rhythm into the songs in lieu of drums.

Some ELLNORA magic was in the air as well. In order to offset the strangeness of a seated audience, the duo invited some audience members onstage. People stood behind them and danced as they played for much of the set. Even those in seats were able to clap and move along to the (sorry but they were a) dynamic duo.

After being wowed by Rodrigo Y Gabriela, I headed out to the Sonic Garden tent to check out some of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, and boy was it a true testament to the diversity of performers found at ELLNORA and an actual electric counterpoint to what I just heard Rodrigo y Gabriela play on the same instrument. Hearing avant garde sounds and ambience coming from electric guitars was quite different but a welcome and beautiful end to a night of music. —Maddie Rehayem

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