Krannert Center director Mike Ross had thought the gray skies and rain would keep people away from the Ellnora Guitar Festival/season opening party on Thursday evening.
He estimated 2,000 people had come through the various entrances for what one woman called "a big night." The official count the next day was 2,093.
The festival-goers made for a multi-generational, diverse crowd, one good for people watching. I saw a toddler on a man’s shoulders, posing for photographs; college kids; young adults; boomers; and senior citizens — one of them dancing in a seeming frenzy.
Among the festival-goers were five members of the Downer’s Grove Music Club in Bloomington. The Music Club members meets to listen to music on members’ iPods, following themes, like dead musicians or covers.
"Somebody will play a song and then someone else piggybacks off it," said club member Mike Schulz.
The club tries to attend the opening night of each biennial guitar festival at Krannert; Schulz said there’s nothing comparable in Bloomington-Normal though there’s a lot of live entertainment there.
"It’s great. We love it," he said of the Ellnora opening night. "The food’s great. Any time you can have beer and music, you can’t beat that."
At the opening night party, the club members grooved to Toshi Reagon and BigLovely, often chanting Toshi’s name. She can belt it, as one of my friends said. I’ve heard her powerful band at the Michigan Women’s Festival, where they perform an arena-like act that rolls over listeners.
Toshi is a daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the amazing a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, who have performed at Krannert Center in the past.
After her set, Toshi called Krannert one of the best performing arts center in the world and thanked festival artistic adviser David Spelman for his steady support.
Also performing Thursday evening was Malian singer/guitarist Vieux Farka Toure, whose musician father, the Grammy-winning Ali Farka Touré, was brought to the attention of the Western world by Ry Cooder. Festival artist-in-residence Luther Dickinson, whose father also is a well known musician, joined Toure and his band on the Stage 5 stage.
Uber-producer and musician Daniel Lanois followed, playing on a stage in front of Foellinger Great Hall with his band Black Dub, featuring blonde female vocalist Trixie Whitley, whose vocals were nearly as powerful as Toshi’s. Wrapping up the night was the Russ Barenberg Trio. An acoustic guitarist, Barenberg was in the Festival Studio Store before the concert, signing autographs.
I wasn’t alone in feeling that the sound in the low-ceilinged lobby was too loud; festival-goers were forewarned by strategically placed baskets of cellophane-wrapped ear plugs in the lobby.
A friend of mine used the Audio Tool app on his iPhone to measure the decibel level. It averaged 94 and at times reached 113. A jet engine produces 120 decibels of noise, he told me.
People had to shout to converse with each other and even then, it wasn’t easy to hear. But there were plenty of things to divert you in the amphiteatre, where local restaurants had food booths (I saw a lot of people eating plates of Mexican food) and in the lobby.
There stylists from H20 Salon in Urbana crimped into festival-goers’ hair small decorative braided strings that end in Guitar Festival guitar picks. Mine is still in my hair.
Festival-goers also could get music-related tattoos painted on their bodies. And there was a table where you could make your own beaded festival bracelets.
Or you could peruse a large poster titled "The C-U Scene, 1960-Present." It listed more than 400 bands as well as clubs based in C-U.
"That’s probably just a fraction of them, but it’s a pretty good mix," said Larry Fredrickson, drummer for the Tons ‘O Fun Band.
People could write the names of other bands and venues on the poster. I immortalized Handsome Norma, a rock band that played here in the early ‘70s and included my good buddies John Lopinski and Charlie McGrady, both guitarists.
Another nice touch: Young guitar students from Corson Music greeted festival-goers, playing their guitars near entrances and in the elevator lobby.