Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival 2015: Guitar Heaven with Dweezil Zappa, Lee Ritenour and More in Idyllic Bigfork, Montana

by Andy Aledort
Posted Oct 28, 2015 at 2:06pm

This past September, I had the great privilege of being asked to participate in the sixth annual Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival in Bigfork, Montana, as an Artist in Residence, where I served as an instructor in group and private capacities and appeared as a performer.

I had heard about COCGF for a few years, as past events have included an incredibly diverse array of brilliant, world-class musicians such as Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, Dweezil Zappa, Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin, Steve Lukather, Joe Bonamassa, David Wilcox, Livingston Taylor, Julian Lage, Sonny Landreth, Chris Hillman, John Oates, Robben Ford, Scott Tenant (The LA Guitar Quartet), Alex de Grassi, and Shelby Lynne, and many others.

This is quite clearly a mind-boggling range of stylistic musical mastery. Even more impressive to note is that each of these uniquely talented musicians, aside from their featured performances at the evening public concerts, offered intimate instruction to the COCGF attendees during each of the six days of the event.

In the words of Lee Ritenour, “COCGF is the most unique, inspiring workshop I’ve even been involved with. It combines great teachers, great students and an incredible atmosphere that keeps everyone motivated and creative. There is nothing like this that I know of anywhere else in the world.” Adds legendary jazz guitarist Mike Stern, “The general feeling of the whole situation is really special to me. And in this setting, it’s simply amazing. It’s paradise.”

The brainchild of COCGF is founder David Feffer, whose original intent with the Crown was, “To promote the artistry of the guitar across all genres in a non-competitive community environment” while also, “providing a place for guitarists to draw creative inspiration from the spectacular natural beauty of northwestern Montana.”

Having experienced the Crown Festival for myself, I can attest that they have well achieved these very ambitious goals. Says Feffer, “From day one, our aim was to establish Flathead Lake as an internationally-regarded center for the guitar. If artists and students could come with their families and stay at a top-notch location, this could be a workshop like no other: an opportunity to bring world-class musicians and people of all levels with a passion for playing the guitar to Montana and introduce them to the unparalleled experience of the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park.”

To describe the beauty of the environs, the idyllic Flathead Lake is 28 miles long and is located in the very quaint town of Bigfork. The home of the event is Flathead Lake Lodge, a stunning four-star dude ranch situated on the shoreline of the lake. A short 25 minutes away is the truly spectacular Glacier National Park, a pinnacle of natural beauty within North America.

The park encompasses over 1 million acres and includes parts of two mountain ranges (sub-ranges of the Rocky Mountains), over 130 lakes, more than 1,000 different species of plants, and hundreds of species of animals. This vast pristine ecosystem has been referred to as the "Crown of the Continent Ecosystem", a region of protected land encompassing 16,000 square miles. The region that became Glacier National Park is comprised of mountains that began forming 170 million years ago and was first inhabited by Native Americans. The beauty of these natural glaciers, as well as the incredible and distinct wildlife, makes Glacier National Park one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. We were given a guided tour through the park on one of the days of our visit, and it was a breathtaking, unforgettable experience.

One of the most impressive elements of COCGF to me are the broad-minded scholarship/fellowship programs they have established in concert with entities such as D’Addario Strings, the Berklee College of Music, the Zappa Family Trust, The Guitar Foundation of America, and the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, among many other formidable entities, along with the donations of individuals. Over the past five years COCGF has awarded 110 scholarships valued at approximately $425,000.

These scholarships offer incredibly unique opportunities for young guitarists within the classical, jazz, blues, and songwriting fields. As a non-profit organization, COCGF has worked to support their charitable partners including The Glacier Symphony and Chorale, A.C.E.S., The Montana Land Reliance, Montana Public Radio and Broadcasting, North Valley Music School and Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center. In the effort to further include the community at large, the Crown has offered guitar clinics in nearby Whitefish, Kalispell, Bigfork and Columbia Falls.

Also unique to the Crown are the expansive, musically diverse concerts that take place every night of the six nights of the event, which are open to the public and take place within a 1000-seat tent, each concert presented with state-of-the-art sound and lighting. The list of performing Artists in Residence for COCGF 2015 was more impressive and diverse than ever, including Lee Ritneour, Dave Grusin, Dweezil Zappa and Zappa Plays Zappa, Madeleine Peyroux, Brett Dennen, David Grissom, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Shane Theriot, Romero Lubambo and Jon Herington. After each long day filled with Master Classes and in depth instruction from the artists, each evening would feature an impressive four-hour concert that, over the course of the six days, ran the gamut stylistically from classical, to jazz, to fusion, to progressive rock, to Brazilian jazz to roots-y Americana, to blues and blues/rock.

Another great aspect of the Crown is that the artists and students all dine together each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, allowing the students direct accessibility to their favorite players. Personally, I had the opportunity to discuss my favorite Frank Zappa shows with Dweezil, the art of songwriting with Brett Dennen, and the intricacies of intense theoretical guitar study with Jon Herington. Also, each night following the concert event, jam sessions and get-togethers take place in the lodge, offering teachers and students the opportunity to interact in the most casual way.

On one of these nights at the lodge, not long after the evening’s concert had ended, Jon Herington grabbed an acoustic guitar and began playing some obscure (and some not so obscure) blues, jazz and pop songs with Madeleine. After a few, he encouraged me to grab a guitar, which led to a rambling three and a half hour jam through dozens of Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Band, Stevie Wonder and Neil Young songs, as well as a ton of blues and jazz tunes, with Zappa Plays Zappa band members Ben Thomas and Chris Norton joining in. Somehow, by 3 am we decided maybe going to bed wasn’t such a bad idea.

I conducted an hour-plus clinic in the Main Lodge entitled, “Being a Sideman,” that I hosted with master drummer Kirk Covington (Tribal Tech, Joe Zawinul, Robben Ford, Allan Holdsworth), joined by the fabulous local bassist Don Caverly. Kirk and I discussed our approaches to best fulfilling the sideman role—for me, in performance and recording with Dickey Betts, Double Trouble, and The Band of Gypsys, and for him in his capacity for the many high-profile gigs he has played throughout his distinguished career. We also took advantage of the opportunity to illustrate our points via performance as a trio, which was a total blast—the best part was that one of us would just start playing any random song and the other two were expected to get on it immediately. What better way to clearly illustrate the expectations assigned to a sideman?

In the early evening, the three of us were scheduled to perform for an hour in the performance space next to the Main Stage, and Jon Herington graciously joined us for a no-holds-barred jam through tunes by John Scofield, The Band, Muddy Waters, Freddie King and Albert King. It was an absolute honor and pleasure to play with such incredible musicians in front of such a fantastic, appreciative and in-tune audience. We were all on the same wavelength: the love of music!

To clearly illustrate the volume of instruction available on a daily basis at COCGF, there were 10 different classrooms from which one could choose: Playing with the Masters with Dweezil Zappa and Tim Miller, Jazz Rock Evolution with James Hogan, Classic Guitar Perfected with the LA Guitar Quartet, Brazilian Emerges in MT with Romero Lubambo, Personalized Rock and Blues with Jared Meeker, Beyond Six String with Susan Mazer, Join the Band with Dennis McCumber, Jazz Class with Mark Dziuba, the Art of Songwriting with Bret Boyer, and Six Styles Acoustic with Brett Denner and Madeline Peyroux. In addition, each day featured a Master Class Clinic conducted (in chronological order) by the LA Guitar Quartet, Brett Denner, Madeline Peyroux, Jon Herington, David Grissom and Romero Lubambo; these artists also made numerous guest appearances in the daily classrooms.

Saturday night was the big faculty concert, and for my performance slot I chose to play Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House,” in a trio setting, with Trebbor Riddle on bass and Valley Lopez on drums. With the vast array of styles and sounds presented by the many great players there, no one was representing a Hendrix-style take on the synthesis of different blues and rock sounds and styles, and this approach seemed to fit the bill. I did my best to pay homage to Jimi’s vibe, including playing with my teeth, abusing the tremolo bar, utilizing feedback and assaulting the instrument in ways that might not even be legal in Montana.

My heartfelt thanks go out to everyone on the COCGF Board of Directors for inviting me to participate in this extraordinary event, including David Feffer, Steve Anderson, Dennis Anderson, David Berman, and David Green, and I look forward to return visits.

For more information on COCGF and future events, check out crownguitarfest.org.