A seasoned blues-man. A world-renowned eclectic pop band. A British folk guitar legend. A revered classical guitarist from Uruguay.
The seventh annual WNED Buffalo Niagara Guitar Festival is like an iPod mash-up of musical idioms centered around the guitar. This year's lineup is a testament to both the enduring resonance of the six-string in modern music, and to the eclectic tastes of present-day guitarists themselves. "Something for everyone," as the cliche goes, but in this instance, it's pretty close to the truth -- beginning Saturday, and continuing through Tuesday evening, the most iconic instrument in both popular and "serious" music will be celebrated in all its diverse glory.
Canadian power-pop ensemble the Barenaked Ladies headlines the festival on Saturday at Artpark. On Sunday, a special free Father's Day show at Gateway Park finds blues and R&B virtuoso Robert Cray returning to our neck of the woods. The North American Rock Guitar Competition, a high point of each year's festivities, takes place inside the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts on Monday, concurrently with classical guitar hero Eduardo Fernandez's recital in the Flickinger Center on the Nichols School campus. On Tuesday, folk-rock legend and songwriting eminence Richard Thompson caps the fest with his appearance in the Tralf.
Intermingled with these feature performances will be an art show, a series of lunch-hour concerts at M&T Plaza, and ancillary highlights, including the Gibson Guitars tour bus, which will be present at the venue during each of the main attraction shows.
This flurry of activity speaks of the health of the festival itself, which may be surprising, considering the relative dire straits WNED President Don Boswell and Co. found themselves in prior to the 2006 edition, which almost didn't come off at all.
Since 2001, when the festival kicked off with a weeklong series of events scattered throughout the region, through 2006, when the Tragically Hip helped rescue the event from its downward slide in popularity with a rivetting, sold-out performance at Artpark, Boswell's baby has morphed, evolved and grown up in public.
Part of that growth meant fine-tuning the ethos behind the festival itself. It also meant narrowing the scope to a tight schedule of events spread across a few days, rather than the 14-day extravaganza Boswell and his team at WNED -- among them, Gwen Mysiak, Wendy Ceppaglia and Darwin McPherson -- originally envisioned.
"The scope of the festival has changed a bit over the years, because it had to in order to survive," said Ceppaglia, the festival director. "But Don Boswell's original idea -- to celebrate the guitar -- has remained at the center of everything we do. The integrity of that idea has not been tampered with at all."
That said, there have been scattered criticisms in the local music community concerning what some see as the "selling out" of the festival, by the inclusion of acts perceived to be only nominally connected to the guitar.
Dave Taylor, who came on board for the 2006 Festival as talent buyer, and returned this year, sees it differently.
"I figured people would complain a little bit when we brought in the Tragically Hip last year," Taylor said with a laugh. "Now, with the Barenaked Ladies headlining this year, that criticism has come up again.
"The thing is, it's not like we're presenting Billy Joel or Tori Amos, who are both pianists, you know? Both the Hip and Barenaked Ladies are guitar-based bands, musicians who've developed interesting and unique arrangements centered on the guitar. If you hear 15 seconds of either band's music, even before the singing begins, you know it's them. The guitar playing is integral to the sound of the music, and it's instantly identifiable."
It's also a sound financial investment -- last year's Hip show was an instant sell out, and precipitated the band's return two-night engagement on June 30 and July 1 this year, so much did the Hip enjoy playing at the lovely Lewiston venue. (These forthcoming Hip shows are not part of the 2007 festival, it should be noted.) Similarly, the Barenaked Ladies show was almost sold out at press time, with only lawn seats remaining. The festival needed "shows that had mass appeal, not solely guitar heroes playing instrumental music, which is not as popular as it once was" in order to survive, according to Taylor.
"We have the more traditional guitar virtuosos on the schedule as well," Ceppaglia said. "So we've really only broadened the scope, by adding to the basis of what this thing has always been about."
>Set to compete
One area of the festival that has displayed consistent growth since year one is the International Guitar Competition, which this year features five highly skilled players from around the world competing for the title before a panel of judges that includes host/guitarist Queen Vee; John 5 of Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie fame; Austin City Limits producer Terry Lickona; Guitar Player magazine associate editor and BX3 guitarist Jude Gold; and Guitar Institute of Technology Director Beth Marlis, among others.
Ceppaglia said the guitar competition "is one of the most exciting parts of the festival every year, because it really is a guitar-lover's delight, and it also proves how influential and inspiring the instrument is all around the world."
Taylor said the festival's present-day state of health comes from a necessary adaptation to financial realities, and to an expansion of the festival's mission.
"The Festival is definitely an homage to the guitar itself," Taylor said. "But now, it's more than just that. It's also a celebration of the diverse kinds of music that can be made with the guitar. That opens it up to an even broader audience."
WHAT: WNED Buffalo Niagara Guitar Festival
WHEN: Saturday through Tuesday