Soli is not your dad’s bluesy shred fest 

Get ready for some real guitar heroes

click to enlarge Marisa Anderson

Photo of courtesy of Mississippi Records

Marisa Anderson

One sign that a music scene is fertile is how many new, small, targeted music festivals spring up. We're obviously not talking about the kind where a fourth-rate 1970s butt rock band with only one remaining member alive lumbers out onto a summer stage to address a small field of mud strewn with empty bottles and half-eaten elephant ears. We're talking vital, new, and experimental music festivals. A lot of times, these micro-fests turn out to be one-off events, because it's truly a thankless job to put on. But hopefully these recent Detroit examples will all have long and fruitful lives. Last week, we had James Cornish's Free Arts Music fest, and next month is the debut of the Wolf Eyes crew's Trip Metal fest.

This weekend sees the birth of an exciting Detroit festival, though on the surface it might look like something you've seen before. Soli: A festival of solo guitar is far more diverse in sound and substance than any other guitar-based fest we could find, here or elsewhere. A handful of the players are from out of state, almost a third of the 13 players are women, and it's not all white people, neither. And musically we venture from acoustic fingerpicking to electric guitar, from drone to Americana, from gospel-inspired to gospel.

Because each of these artists is so groovy, we've written a bit about each one. This is really a festival not to sleep on, and also not one that demands a lot of your time and money and you end up with a sunburn because you stuck around all day to see the one artist you wanted to watch out of the bunch.

The festival runs for two days. There's Peter Walker, Duminie DePorres, Davey Williams, 696 Blues Band, Shells, and Tyler Hicks on Friday, April 22.

On Saturday, April 23, the performers are Marisa Anderson, Benjamin Miller, Nicolle Brown, Haley Fohr (Circuits des Yeux), Warren Defever, Andrew Barrett, and Nick Schillace.

696 Blues Band is none other than James Baljo, one-third of the band Wolf Eyes. It's hard to say what his "style" is, as he's as capable of playing beautiful, bluesy material as he is laying down heavy noise-drones. His work is playful, but it's endlessly fascinating.

Marisa Anderson lives in Portland, Ore., and her live shows are not to be missed. This electric guitarist's haunting work delves into the roots of vernacular sound in delightful and unexpected ways. Her sound is bold and beautiful. And while Anderson's favorite artist is the Rev. Gary Davis, her own sound is some wonderful hybrid of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Jack Rose. A founding member of the defunct Evolutionary Jass Band, she's released four solo records (two for Mississippi) and one split 12-inch (with Tashi Dorji).

Andrew Barrett sculpts delicate works in a fingerpicking style on his acoustic guitar. His pieces fuse singer-songwriter style material with solo guitar-style work. His work comes from a deep and highly personal place, and it's genuinely inventive.

Nicolle "Nikki D" Brown is a rising star in the "Sacred Steel" community, which is a big part of the African-American church community in Toledo, Ohio. Sacred Steel is charismatic gospel music where the lead instrument is a pedal steel, and Nikki D, aka Nikkita Sugar Foot, slays on her chosen instrument. She and her sisters have a band called the Brown Singers, but of course she'll be performing solo, as that's the theme of the fest. Brown will in fact be playing her first solo show for Soli fest.

Circuits des Yeux is the project of Haley Fohr, who lives in Chicago. For 10 years, the 27 year-old has made haunting, spectral music with just her 12-string guitar, her voice, and a few effects pedals. Her music has been praised by Pitchfork, NPR, The New York Times, and Consequence of Sound.

Warren Defever is the chief force and troublemaker behind the uncategorizable band His Name Is Alive. Defever's grandfather was a musician from Saskatchewan who taught Warren and his brothers how to play various musical instruments. One of the originators of Noise Camp, Defever started to play guitar and make tapes as HNIA while still a teenager.

Duminie DePorres is Detroit musical royalty. While recently he's been the go-to electric guitarist for local techno artists such as Theo Parrish, he might be best known for his work with George Clinton, Public Enemy, and Umar Bin Hassan. This onetime manager of the Hip-Hop Shop has also collaborated with Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton. He taught himself to play like Jimi Hendrix as a teenager. All of that is to say, we have no idea what he's going to play, and we cannot wait to hear him play it.

Tyler Hicks is young, handsome, and talented. You might have seen him in the noise band Thanks USA, or performing a solo tape-based show under the name Crode. We think he'll play fingerpicked style solo acoustic at Soli.

Benjamin Miller is a resident of Ann Arbor with decades of experience in creating multimedia and multichannel works. He's also been a member of Sproton Layer, Destroy All Monsters, M-3, Exploded View, and Transistor. His heavily processed guitar is a sonic tapestry that defies standard guitar playing. His clandestine approach to prepared guitar is enhanced by visual projections, quad sound setups, and other ways of breaking down the barrier between artist and audience.

Nick Schillace is one killer finger-picking guitarist, banjoist, and composer, but you knew that already, as maybe you've seen him solo or with Lac La Belle, or maybe the Detroit Pleasure Society. Schillace is nimble, and Schillace is quick, and did you know he wrote a ginormous (249 pages?) thesis for his musicology degree all about John Fahey's self-described "American primitive" guitar style and the process of American identity in the 20th century? It's not only true, but you can read it on his website.

Shells is the nom du guitare of Hamtramck's Shelley Salant. Salant has created her own vocabulary on the electric guitar with music that's sing-song-y, repetitive, and hypnotic. Imagine a cross between Gate, Marisa Anderson, and Mick Turner and you're getting close. As we wrote when we included her in our list of the 15 best up-and-coming artists late last year, the single best description for her sound has come from Outrageous Cherry's Matt Smith, who told her that "it sounds like Sandy Bull playing out of Swell Maps' equipment."

Peter Walker rules so hard. He is a 77-year-old resident of New York City and generally considered to be the finest living acoustic guitarist of his generation playing today. He's also a great storyteller, as you'll witness at the show. He's known for his lightning-quick playing style that fuses Indian classical raga music and Spanish flamenco playing. "Recognized principally for his recorded output in the mid-to-late '60s, his rediscovery by the current generation of folk artists has seen his work accorded similar reverence to that of other notable American fingerpickers such as Robbie Basho and Leo Kottke, and granted him a renewed platform for both touring and recording," Wikipedia says.

Davey Williams is an avant/improv guitarist based in Birmingham, Ala., where he frequently collaborates with violinist LaDonna Smith. A co-founder of the influential publication The Improviser in 1981, he was a member of Curlew in the 1980s and has released many solo, duo, and trio records on labels such as Atavistic and Ecstatic Peace.

Soli festival is Friday, April 22 and Saturday, April 23. Both days it runs from 8 p.m. sharp to midnight; 1464 Gratiot Ave., Detroit;; $15 one night, $25 for both nights.

More by Mike McGonigal

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