Time of Rivers returns

Round two of the (mostly) solo guitar, (mostly) unplugged destination festival
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  October 9, 2008

timeofrivers_ciannugent_ins.jpg
REEL-TO-REEL INSTRUMENTALISM: Cian Nugent.

Time of Rivers Festival | October 10-12 | Sessions begin at 6 pm Friday, and noon & 7 pm Saturday and Sunday | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | afternoon shows $5, evening shows $15 in advance and $18 at the door; festival passes $35 in advance, $45 at the door
Consider for a minute how unlikely this is. A two-day fringe festival of mostly solo, instrumental guitar performers — ranging from classically informed disciples of John Fahey to more psychedelic free folk, à la the Sun City Girls — is held in a small Northeastern city. Musicians come from around the globe to play. Spectators drive from out of state to see it, in some sessions pushing respectably sized local venues to capacity. Generally stingy locals, young and old, cough up over $30 to attend. A year later, the same festival expands into a three-day event in a 300-capacity venue, and lands media sponsorship from The Wire magazine, Europe’s bible of electronic and outsider music. 

The surprising success of the Time of Rivers Festival — held this year from October 10 to 12 at SPACE Gallery and organized by local guitarist Edward Gibbs and Nemo Bidstrup of the Portland-based label Time-Lag Records — can be credited both to shrewd marketing and Portland’s increasingly robust presence in a niche music scene. In advance, the event was covered by the independent radio stations that most avidly promote such music, most notably New Jersey’s venerable WFMU; and Time-Lag’s notoriety on outsider music Web sites and blogs ensure further notice. (Many of these acts have little or no Internet presence outside of the few sites that devoutly follow them.)

The Time of Rivers sessions I attended last year were immersive and unexpectedly diverse. Visiting acts ranged from the improvised instrumental folk and ragtime of JACK ROSE to the steel guitar and hypnotic raga of the Pakistan-born, Oregon-based ILYAS AHMED, both of whom return to the Festival this weekend. Experimental sounds more familiar to contemporary indie-rock listeners, like the sing-along psych rock of Vermont’s MV & EE and Portland’s CURSILLISTAS, spring up here and there. In their youthful but soulful energy, these ambitious young acts bridge the gap between classical masters and the Devendra Banharts and Animal Collectives that dot today’s indie-experimental folk landscape. The cumulative effect of any given session is dizzying, trying to absorb 80 or 300 years of cerebral guitar sounds. It’s both informative and undeniably trippy.

Fortunately, each night ends with a cathartic bang. The days again conclude with crowd-pleasing (thanks in no small part to a sudden injection of sheer vocal might) sets by local standouts in the field. Saturday night wraps with the chilling and magisterial 12-string guitar of MICAH BLUE SMALDONE, and Friday’s session caps off with an eagerly anticipated performance by his five-member acoustic folk group FIRE ON FIRE, who haven’t played out since June. Sunday night’s intended Festival headliners Earth abruptly cancelled their national tour last week, but the day offers a large used-record fair from 11 am to 5 pm and an evening set from the entrancing Lewiston duo ARBOREA.

A few more visiting musicians to take note of (set times are approximate):

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