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Live Reviews

Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival 2013

By Published: September 4, 2013
As I entered the festival grounds the night of the Metheny concert, a tall, slender guy with a bushy moustache wearing a pressed white cotton shirt, blue jeans, well broken-in cowboy boots and rancher's hat, extended his hand and said, "Hi Mark. Long time." It was Doug Averill, the son of the resort's founder who took over the operations of the resort from his late father years ago. We had been students together in the Bigfork school. "We have 2,000 acres," he updated me. "That's the largest piece of private, non-commercial timberland property in the county." And, during festival week, it's all put to excellent use. Horses grazing in manicured pastures, an occasional glimpse of a real cowboy, a front row seat for evening sunsets on Flathead Lake, and acres of rangy Ponderosa pine trees all provide a serene backdrop to the music-making that goes on from dusk to dawn.

Lee Ritenour has become the event's de facto music director. This year, he was paired in two cross-genre evening concerts with Robben Ford and Daryl Stuermer. Given his friendly, open manner and his stylistically well-rounded guitar virtuosity, Rit is the perfect public face for such an undertaking. And, for those who have been disappointed by his recent string of rather tepid fusion and funk-grounded recordings, his playing at the festival has been a revelation. No matter what the setting, from rock to blues to fusion and straight ahead jazz, he brings an A+ game to every performance. It could be that the presence of so many guitar legends has the competitive testosterone levels running high. "Rit played amazingly the other night," commented John Zoltek, the conductor of the local Glacier Symphony Orchestra and himself a talented Berklee College of Music-trained jazz guitarist. "Maybe it had to do with Metheny being here. In any case, he played his balls off!"

The appearance by Metheny and his working trio, featuring drummer Bill Stewart
Bill Stewart
Bill Stewart
b.1966
drums
and bassist Larry Grenadier
Larry Grenadier
Larry Grenadier
b.1966
bass
, was the first ever performance by the elite group in Montana and the festival's only certified jazz showcase. The guitarist began with a tranquil solo warm-up number before being joined by Grenadier. Halfway through the next, more jazz-oriented piece, a woman leaned over and asked, "Mark, what's the name of this tune?" Up until that point, the melody had been thoroughly obscured by the guitarist's clever inventions. Then the melody of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "How Insensitive" was revealed. Although a well-known standard, Metheny drew on his career-long interest in Brazilian music as he probed the inner soul of the song and explored its reflective theme with finesse and harmonic warmth. With Stewart in the mix, the trio performed the quirky "Question and Answer," with Metheny switching to his custom synthesizer guitar, taking advantage of its octave doubling capabilities. A highlight for the audience was his performance of his ballad "Farmer's Trust." He played his Pikasso guitar, which has been part of his arsenal since 1984. Crafted by Canadian master luthier Linda Manzer, who had flown in from Toronto just for the Metheny concert, the instrument boasts four necks and 42 strings. On the song, the guitarist optimized the instrument's capabilities, invoking Asian and Indian modes and achieving, at times, the rustic tonal textures of the Japanese koto.

The festival's spectacular growth has, predictably and somewhat sadly, has put a dent in its once homey, unpretentious personality. A highlight for many locals was mixing with founder Feffer's bubbly wife Judy, who seemed to be everywhere, doing everything but grabbing a Les Paul Gibson or a Fender Stratocaster and jumping onstage for an impromptu jam with Rit. She greeted concert-goers, sold T-shirts and CDs, supervised a handful of friends who'd been talked into being volunteer workers, and probably emptied the trash cans and mopped the floor after the evening concert. Today, that folksy touch is less evident, unless one considers the dried horse manure that carpets much of the area. VIP parking and VIP seating have been created for big donors, corporate sponsors and other special guests. Another sign that the festival has joined the big leagues is the presence of a small army of staffers and volunteers outfitted in official T-shirts with badges dangling around their necks.

The festival, however, has already born a good deal of fruit. For example, three young guitarists who attended the event as students last season—Israeli Rami Halperin, Canadian Karl Marino and Alexander Still of the U.S.—were inspired to organize themselves as the Trifield Guitar Project and collaborate on an album, Montana Suite. The recording, released during the festival, features original compositions and "Juggler's Etude" by Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner
b.1940
guitar
and John Abercrombie
John Abercrombie
John Abercrombie
b.1944
guitar
. Lee Ritenour's drummer son Wesley is a member of the backing rhythm section.


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