Melissa Merli: Guitarist Wrembel amazes at Ellnora
"Oh, she sounds great," I thought as I walked by raspy-deep-voiced Aussie blues singer-guitarist Fiona Boyes performing on the opening night of Ellnora The Guitar Festival in the lobby of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
But I had really wanted to check out Django-style guitarist Stephane Wrembel and his band outside near the amphitheatre. I figured I would return to the lobby at some point to check out the Boyes Trio and other acts inside.
Well, I never did.
Like the rest of the large audience outside, I was nearly enraptured by Wrembel and his band, which that night was made up of a young man with a huge red Afro playing upright bass, a drummer at a full set and another guitarist.
Wrembel, a Paris-born, Berklee-trained guitarist and composer, is pushing the Gypsy-jazz style further, with his intricate, speedy and highly accomplished fretwork, and his band's rockin' beat.
Wrembel's playing left some of my guitar-playing friends wondering "How does he do it?" I overheard a young man ask Wrembel that question after his set.
"Practice, practice, practice," Wrembel replied as he sat at a table inside the Studio Theatre, signing autographs.
I try not to buy new CDs. I already have so many. But that night I plunked down $20 for Wrembel's "Bistro Fada" and gave it to Wrembel to sign. He drew a guitar on it before adding his name.
Last Sunday, in an Ellnora afterglow, I listened to "Bistro Fada" at home. On it, Wrembel's playing is a bit slower, more measured, but just as great.
The CD includes the tracks he wrote for Woody Allen's movies "Midnight in Paris" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
During one of his sets at Ellnora, Wrembel, before playing the theme music for "Midnight in Paris," said Allen had called, asking if the musician could compose music that would evoke Paris at night, in the 1920s.
"Yes, I can," Wrembel said he replied.
Yes, he did.
One of my guitar-playing friends called Wrembel brilliant, not only for his elan on guitar but also for the fact that Wrembel named one of his compositions "The Selfish Gene," as a nod to the 1976 book on evolution by Richard Dawkins.
Though a bit in awe, I pulled Wrembel aside after his first set at Ellnora for a short video interview, in which he talked about why he first started playing guitar, his first guitar and his obsessions with Django Reinhardt, Pink Floyd and Johann Sebastian Bach. (The video accompanies this column.)
You can hear all those influences, plus more, in Wrembel's music.
There were, of course, many other fantastic guitarists at Ellnora, the biennial event that is fast becoming a big draw — and big fun.
Because of work and life, I could not make every Ellnora event, though I wanted to.
I did hear the keynote with the famed flamenco guitarist Paco Pena and young American classical guitarist Jason Vieaux. I was struck by the cultural differences between the two men's experiences.
Vieaux said in America, when people play instruments, they usually get together to "rehearse" before playing "somewhere."
Pena instead grew up in a large family in Andalusia in the south of Spain. He described the life there in a sort of charming compound where nine or 10 families lived and would meet in a central courtyard.
The families would gather in the courtyard and play instruments, not to rehearse for a concert. But because music was part of their lives. That's how Pena began playing guitar.
After the keynote I took in young guitarist Luther Dickinson & the Wandering outside in the Sonic Garden. The Wandering, refreshingly, features young female roots musicians. Ellnora artist-in-residence Cindy Cashdollar joined them, adding her tone and texture to what came off as a jam. A tasty one.
I then took in the solo act J. Spaceman inside the Foellinger Great Hall. Spaceman — aka Jason Pierce — is the former co-leader of the alternative rock band Spacemen 3.
He played electric guitar, with lots of looping. A couple of friends and I found the bass loop too repetitive throughout, but I found the overall ambience a little dreamy and weblike. After 30 or so minutes, the sound seemed to be jacked up, and I moved to the balcony but eventually left before the concert was over — as did a few others. But the small audience had its J. Spaceman fans, who clapped enthusiastically as he first took the stage.
After that, early Friday evening, a friend who's around my age and who like me dug fusion-jazz in our youth, took in John Scofield's Uberjam Band, in the Colwell Playhouse.
The band had brought their own sound man, and the mix was excellent. We were able to discern each of the guitars, and that concert was trippy and got our groove on.
I skipped Buddy Guy but did take in a bit of his show — and the Chicago bluesman is a showman — in the Sonic Garden, where lots of people who apparently couldn't snag tickets to the sold-out show watched on video screens.
That was a beautiful thing about Ellnora: Many of the concerts were streamed into the Sonic Garden on the southeast terrace.
The next morning, around 11, I returned to Krannert to experience acoustic bliss in the Great Hall as classical guitarist Ana Vidovic played classical standards, quite beautifully.
She played a little too long, though, which left only 45 minutes or so for Vieaux, who turned in a dynamic set that ended with his arrangement of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood."
The sound in the Great Hall for these two guitarists were so good that I found a seat in the back center and just closed my eyes, soaked it in. There was, I felt, no better place in the world to be, at that moment.
Then I scooted over to the Tryon Festival Theatre for more audio bliss: Pena's solo set. The 71-year-old is considered one of the world's foremost traditional flamenco players; however, he comes off as sweet and humble.
After that I immediately headed back to the Foellinger Great Hall for Don Ross and Kaki King. I had thought the two acoustic-guitar masters would play together, but they turned in solo sets.
A Canadian who could be a stand-up comic, Ross went first, telling jokes as he amazed the audience with his fingerstyle and percussive guitar playing. He is the only person to win twice the U.S. National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship. I could see why.
King has been at the guitar festival at least two other times. She continues to evolve technically and artisically and was much more comfortable on stage this time.
In 2006, King made Rolling Stone's list of "The New Guitar Gods." She was the only woman and the youngest artist on the list. She's now 34 and it's rather scary to think about how good she will be in say, 10 or 20 years. Cashdollar sat in with King for a while, and as the steel-guitar queen left the stage she motioned at King and said, "Isn't she amazing?" Yes.
Then came some comic relief, in the Colwell Playhouse. Former Del Fuegos rocker Dan Zanes, with a percussionist, provided a live soundtrack for the screening of Buster Keaton's "Steamboat Bill Jr."
The silent film, with all of Keaton's physical comedy; the music; and the laughs of the children in the audience made for a delightful time.
I skipped the next few acts for dinner with friends before going home to tend to my dog, Skye. Though bone-tired, I returned to Krannert around 9:30 p.m. for Lucinda Williams and her band in the Tryon Festival Theatre.
Sorry, Williams fans, but I should have stayed home and gone to bed. The mix was muddy and way too loud, and I could not discern many of her lyrics.
Too bad. The Grammy Award-winning rock, folk, blues and country singer-songwriter is a good writer, like her father, Miller Williams, a poet and lit professor. In fact, in 2002 Time magazine called Williams America's best songwriter.
I remember really enjoying her 1998 gold album, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," so I was disappointed by this concert. So were a few others; I saw a half dozen or more people leave about 20 minutes in. I gave the concert an hour and then went home.
A friend of mine who's a major fan and other friends of mine, though, enjoyed the concert. The fan friend also told me Williams is sort of known for mumbling her lyrics.
Overall, I enjoyed the 2013 Ellnora more than any previous one. I think many of my friends did as well.
It's a great event, with a fabulous atmosphere, and the streaming of concerts in the Sonic Garden this year was a really nice touch.
That, as well as the fact that nearly half of the events are free, makes the festival accessible to all as well. Looking forward to 2014.