Matt Blackett: My Thoughts on the Ellnora Guitar Festival


What draws you to Ellnora is the amazingly diverse talent. Where else can you see Buddy Guy, John Scofield, Cindy Cashdollar, Dweezil Zappa, Del McCoury, Lucinda Williams, and about a zillion other artists at the same venue? But what I didn't expect was how intimate such a big festival could be. The Krannert Center in Champaign Il. is a beautiful place to see and hear music, but the stages are situated in such a way that you have in incredible access to the artists. Case in point: Someone was sound checking a mandolin today, with people milling about all over the place. I took a closer look and realized it was Sam Bush. He got off stage and was just hanging out, and happily recounted his story of stealing the very first issue of Guitar Player from his high school library, along with a bunch of other great anecdotes. When his duo partner for the night, bluegrass legend Del McCoury, showed up, Sam brought him into the conversation, as he did with Cindy Cashdollar when she walked by. When attendees or workers recognized them and said hi, they were all gracious and mellow.
It was an education to watch Cindy Cashdollar sound check with the Lee Boys and Fiona Boyes. She played lap steel with both but played completely differently. As this year's Artist in Residence, she's expected to be flexible and versatile, and she truly took that to another level. And these were just the sound checks!

The Gigs
There are so many great sets at Ellnora that it can get a little overwhelming. It seems like every 45 minutes or so there's another must-see performance. Thankfully the Krannert Center is set up so logically that you don't have to go far, and I felt like I was able to see pretty much everything. Everyone played great, but here are some sets that stood out for me.

Luther Dickinson and the Wandering
After a super-cool lesson on open-D and fingerpicking, Luther joined his mostly acoustic band for a set of traditional American music. The band featured a deep groove, unique instrumentation (that included bamboo cane fife), and deft interaction between the musicians. A huge bonus was when Cindy Cashdollar sat in on Dobro.

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John Scofield and His Uberjam Band
Maybe the best set of the weekend. Sco and Co. played funky, groovy, spacey jams that really allowed Scofield to stretch out. He got killer tones, demonstrated his ability to listen, showcased his musicians, and just flat-out burned. The guy is one of the all-time greats and this gig showed why.

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Sco's Pedalboard

Del Castillo

I wasn't aware of these guys prior to Ellnora, but a shuttle ride to the venue where we discovered our mutual love of Jason Becker forged an instant bond. Watching brothers Rick and Mark del Castillo take the stage and throw down dazzling nylon-string runs, in unison and in harmony, made me a big fan. Think of them as Los Hermanos Allmans, playing infectious Latin rhythms with mind-boggling solos. They whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

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Mark del Castillo playing so fast it made him blurry.

Zappa Plays Zappa
Dweezil Zappa was cool enough to sit for a lesson before his set and he demoed some of the freshest ideas for making solos more interesting. He and his band ran the Frank album The Roxy and Elsewhere in its entirety and absolutely killed it. Using a Fractal Audio Axe FX II (actually two of them!), Dweezil got what seemed like hundreds of great tones and played amazing, intricate melodies ("Bebop Tango" being particularly impressive) and blazing solos. His whole band is spectacular but special mention goes to vocalist/saxophonist/keyboardist Scheila Gonzales, who played gorgeous parts and sang glorious lead and harmony vocals. It's kind of unfair for one person to be so talented!

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Dweezil gives an exclusive lesson to GP

Buddy Guy

The man can work a room like nobody's business and he's not shy about letting the audience know if they're not appreciative enough. That made for some hilarious singalong moments that also showcased the incredible control over band dynamics that Guy has always had. He's known as a guitarist, and for good reason, but his greatest gifts might lie in his abilities as a singer, bandleader, and showman.

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Buddy Guy got right in the crowd at Ellnora

Lucinda Williams
What a voice, what a songwriter, what a band. To a packed house, Williams called out tune after tune that delighted her fans. Guitarist Stuart Mathis added vibey, rootsy parts on his awesome vintage guitars and amps.

Jonny Lang
Always an amazing singer, Lang brought guitar tones and chops that could hang with his killer singing. He closed the show the first night and had a full house totally rocking.