Interview:10 Questions with David Spelman of the New York Guitar Festival

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by Don Dawson



David Spelman The New York Guitar Festival is the brainchild of David Spelman and a cast of dozens, so to speak. With the guidance of luminaries such as John Schaefer (renowned radio host from WNYC) and the support from the D'Addario Foundation for the Performing Arts, the NYGF came out of the starting gates with six strings a blazing. At five years young, this guitar-centric festival has been giving the city that doesn't sleep a festival to rekindle the love affair with the many faces of guitar music. takes a few minutes to chat with David Spelman, as he prepares for the 2004 session (January 13 through February 3). David shares his thoughts with us how this festival came into existence, plus the great line-up that's shaping up for 2004. David, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Can you give us little history on the New York Guitar Festival and how it came to be?


David Spelman: Absolutely. Things started to come into focus around late '98, early '99. A couple of things conflated to make it all possible. First was sharing my hazy vision with John Schaefer the author, critic and renowned radio host from WNYC, whose show New Sounds I'd been listening to for years. I brought the idea to him not knowing that he was an old hack at the instrument too (like myself) and that we had a great deal of interest in similar repertoire. He said "Absolutely and why don't we broadcast the concerts on WNYC?" So that was our first success right there, but it raised the question, how the hell are we going to pay for this? We knew we'd have to locate sponsors. I was extremely fortunate to know John and Jim D'Addario of D'Addario Strings, so I made a pilgrimage to their headquarters on Long Island and presented what was, frankly, a half-baked idea of a crazy, multi-genre guitar extravaganza or what have you. I was completely prepared for a let down, but to my pleasant shock they said that the idea sounded terrific, and that they'd like to get behind it. So, almost the first two calls I made landed us a huge, huge injection of credibility and power to move forward -- to have a broadcast partnership with the most-listened-to public radio station in America as well as an industry giant like D'Addario in our corner, really got us out of the starting gate in a amazing way. Then we mounted our first festival in 1999 and we've been growing to the present day. So what players have performed at the Festival over the years? You indicated that this is a multi-genre event, so you must have a very compelling cross-section of guitarists that have appeared to date.


David Spelman: We'd be here all day if I had to list everybody. Give us the greatest hits, so to speak.


David Spelman: Well, let's see, off the top of my head, the folks who have appeared since 1999 would include, Pepe Romero, Bucky Pizzarelli, The Campbell Brothers, Benjamin Verdery, Vernon Reid, Andy Summers, Leo Kottke, Gary Lucas , David Torn, Elliot Sharp, Jorma Kaukonen, Greg Leisz, Bill Frisell, Jesse Harris - before Norah Jones made his songs so famous -- and numerous other luminaries from various genres. Alex DeGrassi to The Assad Duo - and so on. What's really a blast is getting butts in seats with multi-platinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning stars but then have the audience discover a player or maybe even an entire genre of music that they weren't familiar with before.


What John and I try to do is find artists whom the audiences may not know that they want to hear or may not have bought tickets to hear such and such oud player, lutenist, jazz player or avant-garde slide player, but if they were intrigued by the notion of the show, whether it was a Robert Johnson tribute or a tribute to Jerry Garcia or Segovia. They're going to come away having been exposed to something that they otherwise wouldn't have ever heard on Clear Channel radio. I think that's a really important element to guitar festivals. It's not only just giving the audience what they paid for but possibly introducing them to something that they weren't aware of and it potentially creates a whole new fan-base for that artist or musical genre.


David Spelman: That's it, exactly! We do want to show respect for the audience. We don't want to trick people into coming to listen to, say, a Jazz evening and then make then sit through hours of Polka music. At the same time, one of our shows, as would be typical, features four artists, let's say. One of them may be the headliner that got most of the people in there in the first place. One of the others may be a player with a regional reputation, maybe even have a cult following of sorts, but I can assure you that one or two of the artists that evening are going to be folks that the vast majority of the audience has never heard before. We really work hard to make it an evening of discovery and surprise people -- but ultimately we don't want to disappoint them. We want them to leave inspired and judging by the emails, letters and conversations that we've had with our audience members, that's what people really enjoy about our shows-- they're full of surprises The festival is now entering its 5th year?


David Spelman: Yea, January '04 will be our 5th season. How many event are held over the course of the festival and does it always occur at the same time each year? With the show running from January 13th through February 3rd, you must be able to hold a grand number of events.


David Spelman: That's a good question. We've been tweaking the formula since we first got started. Right now, we've found that late January, early February is a particularly good time because there are more venues available. We like to present our events in various size rooms and while we do present some of the shows in very small nightclub settings, we also use larger concert halls. The best concerts halls in Manhattan are quite busy during most of the year, so it only leaves us a small window of time where we can get the space we need. The venues range from the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center which holds nearly 2,000 people to the Kaufman Auditorium at the 92nd Street Y, which holds 1,000 to Merkin Concert Hall that's just under 500 people. Then on the more intimate side, we also work with places like Makor and Joe's Pub at the Public Theatre. I see on this years' line up, you have Bob Brozman, Bill Frisell, John Hammond, Henry Kaiser, Jorma Kaukonen, Steve Kimock, Daniel Lanois, David Torn...


David Spelman: Well, in no particular order, you've really identified some of the voices that we're going to hear from, that I'm really excited about. Two of the players you just named, Bob Brozman and Daniel Lanois are going to be part of our slide guitar evening. In addition to Bob and Dan, we're going to have some lesser known names, well probably to the general public, but certainly very talented as well, Cindy Cashdollar, who's known for her work with Asleep at the Wheel to Bob Dylan and David Tronzo, who's made it on to at least one of the 100-best-guitarist-of-all-time lists, and is just a monster slide player. When I try to describe him to people, the only thing I can come up with is Ry Cooder meets Cecil Taylor. I just think he's one of the most compelling voices on the instrument today, albeit one that much of the general public doesn't know. But in typical New York Guitar Festival fashion, hooking Daniel Lanois who will be making a rare solo appearance on Pedal Steel guitar, is probably going to draw the most people and fill our house. And if in the process, they discover the genius of Cindy Cashdollar, Bob Brozman or David Tronzo, we've accomplished our mission. That's the perfect example of the type of evening we're looking to host. Do you also plan to have clinics, discussion panels, workshops and other functions that guitarists can experience?


David Spelman: Absolutely. In fact that's one of our goals to do more of that in the future. This year we're going to have a free panel workshop called "promoting your guitar music". It's geared towards players in the early stages of their career. We've lined up various panelists from guitar magazine editors to folks from the world of publishing, A & R and radio to discuss and answer questions from the audience on what's involved in building a career as a guitarist. Whether someone aspires to be the next Jeff Beck or Yngwie Malmsteen or whether someone is a guitar-based singer/songwriter/composer or what have you. We hope that this will be an instructive and eye-opening experience for attendees. In addition to the concerts that we're doing, we're also doing two art exhibitions. There will be two photography shows focusing on the work of Hank O'Neal and Danny Clinch. Two very fine photographers who have very different artistic visions and who have shot many guitarists over the years. Hank has been shooting for the last thirty or forty years and his photographs range from Les Paul to the Reverend Gary Davis. And Danny Clinch is very much in touch with the world of modern rock. His photo's range from Ben Harper to Metallica and many, many, many things in between. I'm excited about adding that element of the visual arts to the festival. Those art exhibitions are in galleries that are attached to the concerts halls so concert attendees can visit the galleries during intermissions and after the events have concluded. So if someone wants to attend the New York Guitar Festival, how would they go about getting information and purchasing tickets?


David Spelman: I'm glad you asked - probably the best point of entry would be our website - You'll find the complete line-up, which is going through as many updates. The site is live now but we'll be adding new concerts and free events and different kinds of exhibitions weekly, leading up to the festival. We also have information on our recently released CD Guitar Harvest. All of the information regarding tickets - the box office is included on the website as well. So I think that should answer most of the questions any attendee might have. Excellent. Sounds like you've got some great plans slated for next years festival. Thanks for taking the time to share the plans from an insiders perspective.


David Spelman: My pleasure. I hope you'll plan on joining us. I wouldn't miss it.