REVIEW: Adelaide International Guitar Festival

The Adelaide International Guitar Festival is a unique monolith on the Australian guitar landscape. More like the great European festivals in terms of its approach rather than a G3-like celebration of electric guitar power, it pays homage to the instrument by celebrating the broad palette of sounds it’s capable of, with particular emphasis on world-class virtuoso guitarists outside of the well-trodden rock realm – while also drawing in some of the best that the rock guitar world has to offer too. Over the years the event has included the likes of Ralph Towner, Jorma Kaukonen, The Assad Duo, Pepe Romero, The Atlantics, Richard Clapton, David Lindley, Kaki King, Vernon Reid, Bob Brozman, Xavier Rudd, Adrian Belew, Hoodoo Gurus, The Derek Trucks Band, Lior, Troy Cassar-Daley, The Party Boys, Slava Grigoryan, Ash Grunwald, Grinspoon, Guy Pratt, Manuel Barrueco, Yamandú Costa, Dhafer Youssef, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Christa Hughes, Ben Fink, Karin Schaupp, Oscar Guzmán, Tommy Emmanuel, Jeff Lang and many, many more. This year’s event featured a great assortment of guitarists from a wide range of genres. My girlfriend is from Adelaide and we thought it would be fun to make a huge road trip out of it (stopping at lots of fun tourist stops along the way for the benefit of our 7-year-old… who am I kidding, I just really wanted to see the Big Lobster), so here are my highlights:

Debashish Bhattacharya. An absolute master of Indian classical music, which he performs on a collection of unique instruments including his ‘Trinity of Guitars’ – his lap-slide chaturangui, 14-stringed gandharvi and the anandi, a four-string slide ukulele. Debashish also used a Gibson Super 400 which had belonged to his guru Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra. Accompanied by Subashish and Anandi Bhattacharya on percussion and vocals respectively, the performance was hypnotic, soulful and utterly captivating. It’s tempting to look for links between Debashish’s slide guitar sound and the blues that we’re probably more used to hearing, but ultimately this style of music has an extremely long, nuanced legacy and is a world unto itself. Debashish’s humour, both verbally and within his playful musical interactions with Subashish and Anandi, was utterly endearing.

Chris Finnen and Phil Manning’s performance was a great one-two punch of legendary Aussie guitarists (well, Finnen wasn’t born here but moved here when he was young). Manning opened with an acoustic set featuring some blues classics before Finnen joined him with his slightly Indian-influenced slide guitar, before taking over with an electric set (later joined by Manning). Finnen’s tone, phrasing and knack for ear-catching tricks (harmonics, wah-wah, weird noises) was spellbinding. Truly one of the greats. While Finnen and Manning played “Hey Joe,” Debashish and band strolled in and stood next to my, where I eavesdropped (okay, they had to yell so I had no choice) on them commenting on how great and natural both guitarists were.

The Festival Gala featured the Australian String Quartet performing Boccherini’s “Quintetto No. 4 Fandango” with Pepe Romero; Slava Grigoryan performing (careful how you say this) “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which was written for him and the string quartet by Shaun Rigney and inspired by Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges; and the Máximo Pujol Trio playing Pujol’s own suite for strings, guitar and bandoneon, “Luminosa de Buenos Aires.” The evening began with the 23-strong Aurora Guitar Ensemble playing a set of playful compositions under the guidance of Dr Paul Svoboda. Grigoriyan’s performance was more meditative and textural than we’re probably more used to hearing him (my grandma-in-law didn’t like it, sorry Slava!); Romero demonstrated his complete mastery of rhythm and phrasing; and Pujol’s Pizzola-inspired piece was an inspiring, multi-layered, exhilarating ride and one of the highlights of the festival.

On the final night of the festival I caught Stochelo Rosenberg Trio. The night was again kicked off by the Aurora Guitar Ensemble augmented with local Adelaide players to create the 80+ member Adelaide Guitar Festival Orchestra, joined at the end by Slava and Leonard Grigoriyan. Svoboda and his crew should be applauded for giving so many guitarists such an amazing experience of playing for such a big audience, and choosing and arranging such varied and fun material. It was probably an odd pairing, given Stochelo’s world-class virtuoso gypsy jazz skills offsetting the more direct, measured pace of the Adelaide Guitar Festival Orchestra’s set. Rosenberg and his new trio (featuring the incredible Sébastien Giniaux on second guitar) ripped through a set of amazing gypsy jazz tunes, including quite a few Django Reinhardt numbers, pushing each other to higher and higher levels of virtuosity. Rosenberg’s performance was exactly what I needed to see at the end of the festival: an incredible musical experience in its own right as well as motivation to get home (after a stop at the Naracoorte Caves, because underground chambers full of fossils are totally metal), pick up my guitar and play.