What makes a great guitar festival? I suppose it’s a bit like a good dinner party: You need a decent turnout (preferably with actual buyers), you need memorable servings (that would be guitars, in our case), a good, organized layout, but—just as important—there needs to be some positive energy in the air. And that last part, the true x-factor, is nearly always the hardest to pull off.
The Pacific Northwest has been lucky enough to have two great guitar festivals recently – both brand new and totally different. On Mother’s Day weekend 2017, La Conner, a sleepy little waterside hamlet in Washington State, held the La Conner Guitar Festival, an all-acoustic showcase featuring some of the country’s finest luthiers. (We sponsored it and covered it extensively here.) And then a month later, 100 miles to the north in Canada, we attended the debut of the Vancouver International Guitar Festival. It occupied roughly the same footprint albeit with what seemed a more a global group of builders (being smack dab in Vancouver’s Chinatown didn’t hurt). Both shows were, at least to my eyes, successes: I saw crowds of interested guitar purchasers (old and young, despite what The Washington Post may claim); I heard of numerous guitar sales; and I met some of the many craftspeople who fill our magazine pages and our Instagram feed. And, most importantly, I saw a ton of great guitars.
Two shows so close together in date and geography may not have been intentional – I’m guessing at least a few builders and customers had to make a hard decision about which to attend (tables at such events are often more than $500, a serious investment for a struggling luthier). Yet it worked. For starters, the Pacific Northwest has a booming economy and no shortage of guitar fanatics. La Conner is a short drive from Seattle’s thriving music scene. Vancouver is another bustling metropolis with a love for the arts. The Canadian show coincided with the Vancouver Jazz Festival, though it truthfully didn’t really matter – the guitars and guitar community were enough of a draw for most.
Vancouver Festival co-founder Meredith Coloma also did something we seldom see: Taking a cue from successful events like the Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin, she threw both electric and acoustic builders in the same room. No, no fights ensued and no one heard a blaring rendition of “Eruption” while trying to audition a fingerstyle instrument – there were separate acoustic and electric rooms for auditioning guitars. You could hold a conversation throughout the hall. It just worked.
Everything in Vancouver—including the exhibitors’ guitars—was top notch. To my eyes, that’s what brought the chemistry to the dinner party. You expect (or at least hope) to see legendary makers like Bruce Sexauer, Grit Laskin and Linda Manzer at a typical high-end guitar show. But the world of electrics – including the guys from Milimetric, Kauer, M-Tone and Prisma Guitars (the latter using reclaimed skateboard decks to make exquisite instruments) gave the whole affair a youthful energy, too. Even if you no longer plug-in, you couldn’t help but admire the originality going on here; there wasn’t a PRS or Fender clone to be found. These were true “luthiers,” just like the acoustic builders. The kids, indeed, are alright.
Speaking of luthiers: It’s worth noting the one other trait that both La Conner and Vancouver shared. They were both essentially organized by professional guitar makers. La Conner was helmed by luthier Brent McElroy’s wife, Shirley Makela, while Vancouver was led by Coloma. You could tell. The luthiers were the spotlight at both events over splashy concerts, clinics and used/accessory vendors who often may yield more revenue or foot traffic but run the risk of diluting a show’s focus. These shows were labors of love.
So, what does the future hold for these shows and handmade guitar shows in general? Time will tell. Now that Healdsburg is long gone, it feels as though Woodstock is the perennial favorite for those on the East Coast. (Both of the Pacific Northwest shows were on the same smaller scale – under 50 exhibitors – as Woodstock.) In the meantime, other shows have sprung up across the nation: Santa Barbara, the Artisan show in Pennsylvania, the Memphis show, a small showcase in Winters, California and presumably others I’m forgetting. Can guitarists support all these? Will builders favor localized shows over big national ones? We’ll see… but I know I’ll be attending La Conner and Vancouver going forward. Both were my kind of dinner party.