OCEAN GROVE RESIDENT CURATES MIDWEST GUITAR FESTIVAL

Ocean Grove resident and Anchor contributor David Spelman shares some thoughts upon returning from another installment of Ellnora (www.ellnoraguitarfestival.com), a Midwest music festival he’s been curating since 2005.

So, what is Ellnora all about?

Ellnora is a three-day celebration and exploration of guitar music from around the world.  It happens at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois, a fantastic place with five indoor theaters and multiple pop-up stages and outdoor performance spaces. The festival attracts about fifteen thousand people and has become a signature event in this micro-urban community and throughout the region.

Where did the name of the festival come from?

Ellnora Krannert and her husband, Herman, made the initial donation in the 1960s that made the creation of the Krannert Center possible. Her vision helped set not only the aesthetic tone for the Center, but its open and welcoming philosophy as well. Naming the festival after her was our way of paying tribute to those essential contributions that continue to underlie our mission and work.

45J. Spaceman (aka Jason Pierce)

Do you feel restricted by producing a festival dedicated to a single instrument?

Well yes and no. My love of music certainly extends beyond the guitar, but the global, multi-genre approach we take, means that I get to program an exceptionally wide range of music.

Over the life of the festival we’ve presented hundreds of artists and the range of styles is extraordinary; The National, Calexico, Los Lobos, Lee Ranaldo, Lucinda Williams, Robert Randolph, Richard Thompson, The Derek Trucks Band, The North Mississippi Allstars, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Marc Ribot, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Junior Brown, Keb Mo, Sonny Landreth, Jerry Douglas, Ani Di Franco, Daniel Lanois, Andy Summers, Dweezil Zappa, Kaki King, El Ten Eleven, Paco Peña, Rahim AlHaj, Mamadou Diabaté,  Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. . . the list goes on and on.

The cellist Yo Yo Ma likes to speak about musical diversity with a biology metaphor; he talks about how in ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of “edge effect.” In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms. This is such a beautiful concept, and I share Yo Yo’s belief that this applies to music.

Ellnora’s diverse mix of genres is still a work in progress. The difficulty of booking this festival from my point of view is its diversity and eclecticism; I’d say that’s also the beauty of it and I love the challenge. It’s important to me to create a mix where people can come and see great, established geniuses but also encounter emerging artists and those from genres they may be unfamiliar with. I want it to be a festival of both awe and discovery.

52Buddy Guy

How to you decide who is appropriate and who’s not for the festival?

It’s a totally un-scientific process that involves a lot of dialogue among the festival’s senior team. Ultimately gut instinct plays a significant role, and what feels right one year may not fit the following year.

What music are you currently listening to?

I’m kinda obsessed with old-fashioned regional radio. I was recently given a cool home audio system by a company called SONOS. Their equipment sounds great, and makes it super easy to listen to streaming radio stations.

Two of my favorite stations right now are KCRW in Santa Monica, and WWOZ in New Orleans. Listening to a DJ called Black Mold on WWOZ has become a Friday night tradition for me. A recent show of his featured Tom Jones, Chris Whitley, Hank Williams, Tom Waits, Gary Clark Jr., Anders Osborne, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin.  Just fantastic stuff, and wildly eclectic.  Sure, Pandora is an ok service, but I find the human touch and whimsy of live radio programmers more satisfying than a computer algorithm.

Of course, I also go to quite a few concerts, though not as many as when I was living in Manhattan. My favorite local venue is The Saint, and this year I’ve heard some stunning performances including The Hot 8 Brass Band, Marco Benevento, Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (aka Sean Lennon’s band), Sons of Fathers, Shannon McNally, Willy Porter, Gedeon Luke, Rick Barry, and Wreaths.

20130906ellnora2233Luther Dickinson (Black Crowes, North Mississippi Allstars) and David Spelman 

What other festivals do you admire? 

Big Ears in Knoxville was a favorite, but I think they’ve taken a hiatus. Solid Sounds, Wilco’s festival at MASS MoCA is terrific in how it brings together music, comedy, film and visual art.  I also like what The National’s Bryce Dessner has done with MusicNOW in Cincinnati and Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.  Of course Austin’s South By Southwest (SxSW) is great too. . . and Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. . . BAM’s Next Wave. . . GlobalFest. . . All Tomorrow’s Parties. . . and there are so many others.

How do you account for the longevity of Ellnora, when so many other festivals have come and gone?

Absolutely central is the commitment of the Krannert Center’s director, Mike Ross. He’s stood behind this festival since the beginning, and his vision has been what’s kept us on a steady course for so many years. Also key is the extraordinary generosity of the foundations, companies and individuals who financially support the Krannert Center’s not-for-profit mission, dedicated to the advancement of education, research, and public engagement through the pursuit of excellence and innovation in the performing arts.

It’s a great privilege to work for an institution that is dedicated to excellence and creativity more than just box office figures.

67Kaki King

Ever think about producing a festival in Asbury Park?

Sure, I just haven’t had the invitation.

Are you still involved in the New York Guitar Festival?

Yes, and I serve as the festival’s artistic director.  Planning is nearly complete for our 2014 events. Our opening night will be January 10th –  a big, free concert in lower Manhattan.  We’re making our announcements very soon.

Photo at top: Debashish Bhattacharya. All photos by Deirdre Shoo.

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