The free Fretboard Festival at Kalamazoo Valley Museum kicks off Friday with The Crane Wives, followed by a full Saturday of workshops and sets by Red Sea Pedestrians, Neil Jacobs, Dragon Wagon and more.
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As Ian Gorman puts it, the festival connects today’s musicians with Kalamazoo’s history as the 20th century home to the Gibson Guitar Corp. factory.
“It makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger, stretching back generations,” said Gorman, a Kalamazoo producer and multi-instrumentalist for The Red Sea Pedestrians, who perform Saturday. Gorman also will lead a workshop at the event.
The family-friendly festival spans two buildings on Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s downtown campus. It offers more than 14 performances on four stages, 10 workshops, 40 vendors, stringed instrument “petting booths” and a raffle for a Kalamazoo-made Heritage Guitar instrument. The Cougar Cafe will serve food and drinks.
The event’s kickoff concert featuring folk-rock’s The Crane Wives takes place at 7 p.m. Friday, with workshops and more performances taking place between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free.
“The Fretboard Festival honors Kalamazoo’s innovation and influence as a guitar town, while also showcasing the incredible talent going on all around us in the present day,” Gorman added. “You can hear a presentation about how Gibson’s legacy has stretched back over 100 years, and then walk into another room and hear the next generation tearing it up on a Les Paul or J-45.
“You can see how music connects us, across culture and time.”
SEE AND PLAY STRINGED INSTRUMENTS
A wide variety of stringed instruments – some of them strange and unusual – made by local and international luthiers, will be on display. Visitors often are encouraged to touch, play or purchase what’s displayed.
The museum’s current exhibit spotlights the “Kalamazoo Gals,” the women who built Gibson’s Banner guitars in the city during World War II. Visitors can meet the Fretboard Festival’s honored guest, Irene Stearns, an original “Kalamazoo Gal.”
Gibson made guitars in a Kalamazoo factory from 1902 to 1985, when manufacturing moved to Nashville. Today’s guitars are still made in the building at 225 Parsons St. by Heritage Guitar Inc., founded in 1985 by a group of Gibson employees who did not want to move to Tennessee.
This year’s performer lineup includes winners of the 2016 Kalamazoo Fretboard Festival Play-In Contest: acoustic category winner Fauxgrass, a progressive bluegrass band from Grand Rapids, and electric category winner Brotha James, a one-man-band, live-looping act based in Elk Rapids.
They were chosen by a four-member panel: Jay Morris from Z965-FM, alternative radio, Kalamazoo; station manager AJ Paschka from Grand Rapids community radio station WYCE-FM; Trevor Coleman from Western Michigan University’s student-run radio station WIDR-FM; and John Sinkevics, editor and publisher of LocalSpins.com. (Local Spins also will be on hand to provide full coverage of the weekend event.)
Other featured performers include Bob Rowe & The Green Valley Boys, The Corn Fed Girls, The Red Sea Pedestrians, Mark Sahlgren & The Fragile Egos, Nicholas James & The Bandwagon, Joel Mabus, The Northern Fires, Neil Jacobs and myself, Megan Dooley.
Visitors are encouraged to bring their own instruments and jam or attend workshops geared toward both musicians and music fans.
LEARN FROM EXPERTS AT WORKSHOPS
Musician Jason Walker’s “Banjo Magic” workshop, for instance, is devoted to lifting the stereotype from the banjo and reinventing its sound.
“ ‘Banjo magic’ is not about playing everything note for note, perfectly,” said Walker, who plays in the Kalamazoo band Branden Mann & The Reprimand. “Banjo magic is about opening the instrument to all styles of music. It is an exploration of right- and left-hand techniques and using them in concert, literally and figuratively.”
The Red Sea Pedestrians’ Gorman will present, “Don’t Fear the Speaker: An Acoustic Musician’s Survival Guide to Live Sound.”
“This workshop isn’t geared toward sound people, per se, and isn’t overtly technical,” said Gorman, who also owns Kalamazoo’s La Luna Recording & Sound. “Instead, it focuses on the performing musicians, and discusses tools and techniques that can help them feel more comfortable on stage, sound better through the speakers, and even perform better with a better understanding of live sound.”
Other workshops include multi-instrumentalist Gerald Ross’ “Intro to Sing Uke,” folk icon Joel Mabus’ “A Survey of Country Guitar” and author John Thomas’ “Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of the Extraordinary Women in Gibson During WWII.”
Find a full schedule of workshops and performances, vendor information and festival details online here.
The brainchild of Jay Gavan, now co-owner of Kal-Tone Musical Instrument Co., the Fretboard Festival began in 2005 to raise awareness of Kalamazoo’s rich instrument history while engaging the community.
“I love being able to organize an event that can bring music and community together,” said Chris Falk, the museum’s special events coordinator.
“My favorite part of the festival, besides catching all of the acts, is seeing people enjoy themselves and making sure they leave excited for next year.”
Last year, more than 3,500 people attended the festival and Falk said he expects at least 4,000 for the 2016 event.
The Kalamazoo Valley Museum is located at 230 N. Rose St. in Kalamazoo. Get directions online here.
Copyright 2016, Spins on Music LLC