The purpose of this review is to answer to all of the folks who were asking for my thoughts on the festival. So, after some discussion, Billy and I thought that, to be as thorough as possible, that we would get together and add our thoughts, stories, and music review into one post and encourage discussion, photos, videos, etc with all of the wonderful people that we’ve met at the NEARfest Prog-ocalypse.
First, I will start by reviewing the music itself, the main focus of why I went to the festival.
Aranis – I caught about 10 minutes of these guys during soundcheck when I first arrived and the immediate reaction was chills down my spine. When I came back for the show, my first exposure to live RIO was breathtaking to say the least. The pianist, Pierre Chevalier was insanely proficient, going from dissonant chords to beautifully played passages. One got the feeling that, as Billy pointed out with his comment, “I had no idea he invented the piano”, the man really owned his instrument. The accordionist, Marjolein Cools played the most raunchy tone I’ve ever heard and really blended well with the group, giving an extra eeriness to the group. The flutist, Jana Arns, was a wonderfully sweet lady and I really appreciated her gorgeous flute work, her mixture of classical and jazz techniques, and particularly her ability to weave and blend with violinist Liesbeth Lambrecht. David Kerman joins the tradition of phenomenal RIO drummers and he’s in good company … his style reminded me of Vander, Denis, Cutler … no easy feat and he was a wonderful personality off stage and at the hotel. As another festival goer observed (I’m sorry, his name escapes me … if you are reading this, say hi so I can properly acknowledge you!), if guitarist Stijn Denys had played an electric, it really would’ve been an apocalyptic situation, as I had to keep reminding myself that this was an essentially acoustic ensemble.
Van der Graaf Generator – AH, the legends! And they certainly lived up to and exceeded my expectations. I’m a VdGG fanboy … everyone knows that … and they are the reason why I took an excursion to Bethlehem for my first prog festival. When they took the stage, we were treated to a rousing, note-perfect rendition of 1975’s aptly titled “Scorched Earth”, which left festival-goers Scorched, indeed as Hammill perfectly sang every note, which earned them a standing ovation. In fact, Hammill’s voice sounded better, in my opinion, then it did on “A Grounding in Numbers”. Guy Evans, the most underrated drummer in prog, thumped along, adding a lot of power to the group, while Hugh Banton was positively innovative on his organ. The song “Flight” (which I’d never heard … more on that later) particularly showcased his talents, with the swirling airplane effects the floated throughout the Zoellner. The big number at the end, “Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End” brought an emotional reaction from everyone and the place erupted in applause with Peter’s solo vocal spot in the middle, but it was the encore presentation of “Refugees” that left us all misty-eyed at the end of the proceedings. The middle of the show was mostly newer material, which was great. VdGG is not a jukebox and are, as Peter told me at the after party, “A modern band”. A side note, I was rather embarrassed that I was unfamiliar with “Flight” … a 19 minute song which featured the band on Hammill’s “A Black Box” from 1980 (thanks to Phideaux for filling me in on this info!!), so much so that I rushed out Saturday morning and bought it from Ken at lasercd!
Helmet of Gnats – These guys were really cool and guitarist Chris Fox added a lot of great FZ and other influences to his heavy take on jazz fusion. I loved all of the effects he used and use of tremelo in his tone. Not much more to say other than the fact that they were a highly enjoyable addition to NEARfest.
Twelfth Night – I went into the performance, entirely unaware of their style, so expectations were fairly low. However, I was pleasantly surprised by their style of Neo-Prog which Rob LaDuca described to me as being half Genesis and half punk which wasn’t for everyone. We enjoyed it quite a bit, particularly Andy Sears vocal prowess and sense of theatricality. Andy Faulkner on bass was a fine musician and so was Roy Keyworth’s Rothery-like guitar licks. The guys were also wonderful to hang out with after the performance and Andy Sears was happy to meet appreciative fans and sign autographs and take pictures.
Anglagard – These guys were probably the highlight of Saturday for me. They played around 2 hours of mostly music from their recent record, “Viljans Öga”, as well as selections from “Epilog” and a stunning extended take on “Jordrok” from “Hybris”. Anna Holmgren was a surprise for me (I’ve only heard the first record) as their sound has had a lot more flute added to the mix, almost as the lead instrument and her beautiful sax playing added even more depth and variety to their already eclectic mix, as well as her masterful mellotron work, often adding counter melody to Thomas Johnsson’s epic mellotron and organ work. It was drummer Mattias Olsson who stole the show, though, as he was an absolute joy to watch play and was without a doubt, the finest drummer there. Anglagard’s music is based in dynamics … its all about contrast … loud, soft, beauty and brutality. From the smallest twinkling of Mattias’s percussion (including a bicycle wheel with keys attached to it!) to the punishing loudness of the heavier sections, every nuance could be heard and appreciated. Later, Mattias provided a lot of fun at the after parties and was great fun to hang out with.
Renaissance – Not my favorite band of the weekend, but still very, very good. Vocalist Annie Haslam took a few tunes to get warmed up, but once we got to the vocally challenging “Things I Don’t Understand” the beautiful voice that we all know and love had filled the Zoellner and the 65 year-old Annie sounded like she did 40 years ago on those albums that I so adore. The orchestral parts of these classic Renaissance tunes were covered to perfection by Jason Hart, but sounded a bit too Midi-ish for my tastes, but he is extremely talented and great to talk to when I bumped into him at the hotel (he was staying a few rooms down from us at the Comfort Suites). Pianist Rave Tesar played all of the original parts to perfection and was great fun to talk with on the elevator Saturday night, sporting a Gong t-shirt at the after party! My only problem with the band, other than the Midi sounds was that “Vultures Fly High” (one of my absolute favorites) was very weak, particularly on the part of the vocal harmonies … I’m not sure why that one fell apart, but in spite of that, the band put on a rousing rendition of “Song of Scheherazade” that brought the house down and I couldn’t keep back the chills when the band went into the final section of their brand of prog epic. An encore presentation of “Carpet of the Sun” (a song I was not familiar with) with Annie and Micheal Dunford was a nice simplistic folk tune that went over well. They finished the show with a new song, “Mystic and the Muse” which Annie told me was going to be on the new record that was epic in the style of good old 70’s Renaissance. At the autograph session, Annie seemed pleased that I attended what was my first Renaissance concert and we chatted for a few minutes. She is a very sweet lady and seemed to appreciate young people who were into her music. It was definitely not a perfect show by any means, but a very good show … excusable since it was opening night!
Gosta Berlings Saga – Sunday morning was off to a tremendous start with these guys from Sweden. Their brand of hypnotic and heavy prog rock came across like a swirling machine and all four members played their hearts out. They were also cool guys to hang out with and I struck up a friendship with drummer Alexander Skepp while helping him make waffles at the hotel breakfast! Later, we got a picture with all four guys who seemed just as happy to be there as Bill and I were. Great guys and a great band. For an encore, they played a rendition of “Island” from the Glue Works album which left us all speechless!
Il Tempio Delle Clessidre – Another band that I went in completely unfamiliar with and was left a complete fan. Great performances from all involved, especially Lupo Galifi from the classic RPI band Museo Rosenbach who sang with the power of a man half of his age. Elisa Montaldo on keys was phenomenal, adding dark sounds to the band’s heavy take on RPI and was also a lot of fun to jam with at the afterparty. Also notable was Fabio Gremo on bass who was very talented, very energetic … something that made the entire band a treat to watch and listen to, as well as a solid dose of theatricality. Excellent all around. Later, Lupo signed my copy “Zarathustra” and even though he spoke little English, he was seemingly overjoyed on Monday morning when I told him that I enjoyed the band. The band also hung around the entire festival. Such a classy bunch and very professional and very talented.
Mike Keneally Band – I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mike, even though my knowledge of his output is sorely lacking. My introduction to the man was very unique. When I went to purchase an album of his, I asked the vendor which one was good for a Keneally novice, to which he replied, “Why ask me, when you can as a Keneally?” and Mike turned around and shook my hand and talked for a long time, even personalizing our purchases with his signature. The highlight for me was after his devastating performance at the afterparty, Mike and I talked Crimson for a bit (we share a mutual love for the “Lizard” record), VdGG (Mike claims that Pawn Hearts blew him to “f***ing Venus”, but his favorite is “World Record” ) and before going to bed, he said “Cool hangin’ with ya, man” … it doesn’t get much better than that. His performance, of course, was unbelievable to say the least and Mike’s guitar work and compositions were highly original, innovative, and very different. I loved it! If you haven’t met him, he’s a really cool guy and a lot of fun to talk with. If you’re reading this, Mike, thanks for hanging with me!
UK – I was introduced to Eddie Jobson in the hotel shortly after he arrived by Kevin and we talked Curved Air for a bit. Eddie seemed surprised that I liked Curved Air and told me that his son bought him the debut on picture disc vinyl for Father’s Day … cool to know that Eddie is into vinyl … and he was a joy to talk with. The performance, although a bit too loud, was tight and all members were in fine form, with Wetton sounding better than ever, in my opinion. Eddie stole the show, however, with his violin solo with prerecorded tape accompaniment was what stole the show, along with a soaring take on KC’s “Starless” which was very authentic and very thrilling.
So there you have it … my review of the bands of NEARfest Apocalpse. The only thing left to say is that the people who were there were absolutely wonderful and I felt completely at home during the weekend. Even though I barely slept, I feel 100% refreshed from the amount of good, honest people I met and talked with there. I felt more at home there than anywhere else next to my actual home, of course.
Due thanks to the community for making me feel like a distant, but welcome relative to a close-knit family. It was fun to finally meet Rob LaDuca, Ian Carss (and get a sweaty man-hug), Cyndee Lee Rule and Jeff, Dale Stubitsch, Anthony Ferraro, Frank Stickle, Sean Tonar, as well as the countless others that I came across while waiting in line for signatures, hanging out in the venue, or in the vendor rooms. As far as artists (not already mentioned): Phideaux (thank you for the evil), Mark Wilkinson, Roger Dean and Gary Green. Wilkinson was a lot of fun to hang out with, particularly while discussing Gosta Berlings Saga. Roger Dean was an absolute hoot … when I told him how much I liked his “Tales from Topographic Oceans” cover, his dry response of “Who tortured you and made you listen to Yes?” had Bill and I in stitches. When he signed my copy of “Octopus”, he complained about the crop of the cover and signed it twice, saying “They didn’t even credit me!” (Do you blame him?)
Sean Tonar, of Progressive Ears
Gary Green of Gentle Giant
Hanging with Dale
How could I forget Tom Gagliardi? Doing the interview was an absolute treat and he deserves all of the credit he got at the festival.
Kudos to Rob LaDuca, Chad Hutchinson, and Kevin Feeley for keeping prog alive through this excellent festival. Though this was my first (and only) NEARfest, their tireless efforts to keep this music going is remarkable to say the least. Last, I wish to send my sincere thanks to Kevin for making this weekend more special to me than it otherwise would’ve been. The community that he has gotten me involved in is something that I think about with a smile and that is something I’ll never forget. You’re the man!