Everything should be
as simple as possible,
but not simpler ~
Albert Einstein

Fender Bender

Krannert thrums with energy during Wall to Wall Guitar Festival
Illinois Alumni magazine November 2005

When David Spelman returned to his Urbana hotel after midnight, he found world-class musicians Mamadou Diabate and Juan Martín jamming in an alcove of the Historic Lincoln Hotel’s lobby. Another guitarist, Dan Zanes, was on the floor with a quiet smile on his face. Others sat on chairs or by the fireplace.

All were rapt.

“They traded solos back and forth that night in the lobby, like a musical conversation,” Spelman said of the musicians. “You could see the joy light up Juan’s and Mamadou’s faces as they played.”

The musicians from Spain and Mali had never met, said Spelman, who organized the Wall to Wall Guitar Festival held at Krannert this fall. “But Juan had heard Mamadou play that night and thought he was fantastic,” he said.

“I was going to introduce them, but they found each other without my help.”

With no tickets nor advance warning, that moment was exactly the kind of thing Spelman had dreamed of when he first proposed the Wall to Wall Guitar Festival — or W2W for short — to Mike Ross, Krannert’s director. Imagine bringing together 30 guitarists from seven countries to play from morning till night over a four-day period.

Spelman and Ross did and produced an unprecedented musical experience.

The brilliance of the weekend relied on drawing up an eclectic lineup of musicians who would spell-bind an audience as well as each other. Unlike previous guitar festivals around the world, this one included the wide range of blues, jazz, folk and rock music and classical in the same place at the same time. The building that weekend was like the United Nations of guitar-dom, with instruments ranging from traditional, like the kora (an instrument made from an enormous gourd with fishing line for its 21 strings), the vihuela (a 16th-century, Spanish ancestor of the guitar that sounds a bit like a lute) and the oud (a short-necked, half pear-shaped, plucked lute of the Arab world), to banjos, ukeleles and the more traditional Gibson, Martin and Fender brand “axes,” as guitarists call their instruments. And the audiences ranged from skilled musicians to music aficionados to enthusiastically jumping children.

The only other guitar festival that does something like this is the New York Guitar Festival, which Spelman founded in 1999 and continues to direct. That event, though, is spread out over the city of New York over a three-week period. The Krannert Center, in contrast, held its festival over the “fat weekend” of Sept 29-Oct. 2.

And more than just music filled the festival. There were demonstrations and talks about guitars; workshops about how to use Garage Band software; an art gallery showing and talk by Andy Summers, formerly of the rock group Police, who is now a jazz musician and photographer; and vintage instruments on display, both at the Krannert center and around town.

To Ross, the festival epitomizes what Krannert stands for.

“It’s not just a facility but an idea,” he said. “Krannert itself should feel like a combination of both a public square, a sanctuary and a classroom or laboratory.”

Ross describes W2W as “a microcosmic illustration of this big ‘no brow’ philosophy I vigorously embrace,” he said. “It’s so exciting having these guitarists all come together. It’s exciting even to the artists. They are used to going to festivals that are only jazz or blues or whatever, and their excitement is palpable.”

The excitement of the festival-goers also was palpable, not just at the formal concerts at Krannert theaters but at various free events in the lobby and elsewhere in town. For guitarists or aspiring musicians of any kind, the festival offered numerous opportunities to improve their own understanding of the guitar and performance skills.

The events reached a wide range of music lovers. Some performances attracted classical music aficionados, while the late-night happenings attracted a somewhat younger demographic. At the family concert with musician Dan Zanes, the majority of the audience was under 3 feet tall and dancing like pogo sticks at the front of the auditorium.

Workshops and demonstrations also took place at local stores, including Corson Guitar store, Pages For All Ages bookstore and Café Verde coffee shop. Tim Brookes, a National Public Radio commentator and author of “Guitar: An American Life” lectured about the guitar. Krannert Center itself was buzzing the entire weekend, with people milling in the lobby, either getting ready to go into one of the theaters, enjoying the lobby entertainment or visiting booths about guitars or music-making software.

Several local high school and University of Illinois students also got the opportunity to create and record original music and lyrics in the John Lennon Educational tour bus. The three musician/engineers affiliated with the bus help the students with not only technical issues but with unlocking their own creativity. During the Sunday session, students from University High School, Centennial High School and the U of I also got to work with famed slide guitarist David Tronzo, who just dropped in to the Lennon bus to help them create music.

“It’s the sort of outreach that can change a life,” said Spelman, of the bus.

One of those changed lives belonged to festival-goer Sarah Flannery. “I went to the festival to see [guitarist and record producer] Daniel Lanois and ended up going to every other show I could manage,” she said.

Ross hopes that the creative wave of the festival won’t stop with the last performance. He would like the gathering of artists to spark some follow-up, such as recording on each other’s albums, returning for future festivals or doing commissioned works together.

Ross looks at W2W as exemplifying the dynamic power of art.

“The idea,” he said, “is that there can be a very broad framework for art and aesthetic experiences, that is bigger than any single building, bigger than any one way of thinking about art.”

Web Extra: To view video of the original works created on the John Lennon Educational tour bus, visit www.jlsc.com/bus.

To listen to podcasting of festival events and interviews, visit www.walltowallguitar.com, the Web site for the festival.

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