For the uninitiated, ELLNORA: The Guitar Festival is a three-day celebration of all things guitar, which takes place September 4 through 6 in a gorgeous setting with an astoundingly diverse line-up. The festival takes place at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, a gorgeous venue that boasts several music spaces, all with state-of-the-art acoustics.
The lineup for this year includes world-class guitarists and non-guitarists such as John Scofield, Dweezil Zappa, Del McCoury, Indian slide master Debashish Battacharya, blues legend Buddy Guy, and this year’s Artist-in-Residence, Cindy Cashdollar (to view the full artist roster, go to
ellnoraguitarfestival.com). Also appearing is the Artist-in-Residence from the previous ELLNORA festival, North Mississippi All-Stars and former Black Crowes guitarist Luther Dickinson, who will be performing with his band Luther Dickinson and the Wandering. Dickinson was happy to talk about why he’s excited for this year’s fest.
“The previous festival was so much fun,” he says. “There are a lot of great guitarists and so many different styles and cool collaborations. I played with my friend Alvin Youngblood Hart. I got to play with Ali Farka Toure’s son Vieux, and that was off the hook. Cindy Cashdollar is the Artist-in-Residence this year and she’s going to play with us, which we’re really looking forward to.”
In addition to the various jam sessions, Dickinson played solo and duo sets at the last ELLNORA, but this year he’ll be accompanied by the Wandering, for an entirely different repertoire than last time around. “This is an acoustic folk group,” he explains. “We have acoustic guitar, upright bass, and bamboo cane fife. We do what we call ‘traditional’ music, and it’s interesting to see what everybody’s idea of traditional is. We do a beautiful Kris Kristofferson tune, ’60s folk-rock, and music we learned from our grandparents.”
Dickinson’s setlist is certainly in keeping with the festival’s ethos of celebrating diversity, and he’s not worried about his band’s material being too eclectic. “I just love how an acoustic group can break each song down to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t matter what style the song was originally written in, it’s easy for us to bring them all into the same vein.”
With such a massive list of talent at ELLNORA, it might seem overwhelming to plan out who you want to see, but Dickinson welcomes the challenge. “I can’t wait to see John Scofield,” he says. “He is such a great dude and it’s always a pleasure to be around him. He’s a legend.” On the subject of living legends, Dickinson was quick to pay homage to the heaviest cat on the bill. “Buddy Guy—wow. He is the blues. He’s the last man standing, along with B.B. King. What really gets me about Buddy Guy is his voice. He’s an amazing singer. So powerful and versatile. He can do anything.”
ELLNORA is unquestionably a great opportunity to see established stars such as Buddy Guy, but Dickinson seems perhaps most excited about discovering players he wasn’t aware of.
“The fun thing about ELLNORA for me is getting turned on to new people,” he says. “I saw Kaki King and she was great. I’m glad she’ll be there this year. I’ve learned so much and gotten really inspired by the people pushing the boundaries of solo guitar. People using loopers and other technology to take solo guitar further—I love that because I’m so traditional. I’m old-fashioned to a fault. I’ve been slowly starting to explore some of that stuff because I was inspired by what I saw at ELLNORA last time. There was a band from Brooklyn called Red Hook that played soundscape-type of music. That was really fun. Adrian Belew blew my mind, man! He did a solo set that was incredible.”
The fact is, the ELLNORA festival is one of the best gatherings of great, varied guitar talent anywhere in the world. It appears that this year’s festival will go a long way toward keeping the guitar vibrant and powerful as an art form and a force of nature, a concept that is near and dear to Dickinson’s heart.
“At ELLNORA you’re exposed to so many different types of guitar playing, it’ll expand anybody’s idea of what the guitar’s about. I sure hope that people will want to pick up a guitar after going to ELLNORA, but they’ll come away bigger fans of the instrument at the very least. That’s for sure.”
For more information, tickets, artist lineups, and schedules go to ellnoraguitarfestival.com