After a wait that felt even longer than usual (and some disturbances in between), the big day finally dawned, accompanied by a wave of stiflingly humid heat. Unlike our last time at NEARfest, two years ago, when our car broke down the day before the event and we had to rent one in order to make it, this time everything went smoothly. The scenic route that we took, through Pennsylvania Dutch country and the lovely city of Lancaster, caused us to reach our destination somewhat later than expected, but it was well worth it. Highways are undeniably very convenient, but they often leave a lot to be desired if one wants to see some interesting sights.
As I made it abundantly clear in the three essays I wrote last year after NEARfest 2011’s cancellation, I was a bit skeptical about the whole “going out with a bang” affair. However, the past weekend turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences I have had in a long time – and a sort of watershed moment on a personal level. Indeed, it was so packed with excitement, friendship and great music that it ended up being even more exhausting than usual – especially as the constant adrenaline rush caused me to miss out on sleep for two out of three nights. All in all, though, it was an unforgettable weekend, even if somewhat marred by a rather anticlimactic ending.
After a one-year gap, there was a poignant sense of familiarity when we drove from our hotel to the Zoellner Arts Centre. It was sad to think that it would be the last time (though, of course, you never know how such things are going to pan out), but still we resolved to enjoy the event to the fullest. After visiting the vendor rooms and reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances for a couple of hours, at 7 p.m. we sat down in our comfortable seats (located at the edge of one of the orchestra rows, which meant not getting a 100% complete view of the stage, though with the advantage of being able to move freely) and got ready for the first set of the weekend.
Having heard some music from Belgian chamber rock outfit Aranis prior to the festival, I knew I was going to like them a lot, but I was not prepared for the sheer triumph that was their performance. Judging from the crowd’s reaction, they are the kind of band that – even if tagged as “RIO/Avant” (a label likely to send quite a few prog fans running for the exits) – have a powerful cross-subgenre appeal on account of the strongly melodic nature of their music. The presence of legendary drummer Dave Kerman (a veteran of the NEARfest stage) added a more definite rock note to the supremely elegant sound of the band – a seven-piece led by Joris Vanvinckenroye, and featuring three very talented female instrumentalists (flutist Jana Arns, accordionist Marjolein Cools and violinist Liesbeth Lambert). With only an amplified nylon-string guitar to anchor the band to the rock ethos, they delivered a positively mesmerizing set, oozing with diverse influences – the biggest of which, to my ears, being Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, together with their fellow Belgians Univers Zero and 20th-century composers such as Stravinsky and Ravel, and a generous sprinkling of Old World folk music. Their compositions, of varying length and understated complexity, were at times almost infectious, with whimsical titles such as “Tomatissimo” or “Spaghetti Polonaise”. Most importantly the band members seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, introducing the songs with liberal helpings of humour, while their outstanding musicianship created a tightly woven flow of beautiful sounds. Dave Kerman’s role in the band was much closer to an orchestra percussionist than a traditional rock drummer, more textural than propulsive; he delighted the audience with an array of exotic instruments, including one that looked like some creature’s jawbone. Aranis provided an amazing start to the festival, and a big hit with the crowd – witnessed by the seemingly never-ending line of people at the post-set signing session.
When I saw Van Der Graaf Generator for the first time at NEARfest 2009, I was extremely impressed by their set. Though I cannot really call myself a fan, I have a lot of respect for them, as they are one of the few Seventies bands that have not turned into a parody of themselves, and are still very much relevant. This was borne out by their choice of playing quite a few items from their latest album, A Grounding in Numbers, alongside the older material that everyone was expecting. However, as much as I wanted to love their set, it left me a bit cold, mainly for reasons related to the setlist. The central part of the performance was taken up by a revamped version of “Flight”, a Peter Hammill solo piece originally included in his 1980 album A Black Box. At over 21 minutes, it went on a bit too long, and was a turn off of sorts for anyone who was not a devoted Hammill fan. Even their choice of classics was not thoroughly convincing, with the exception of the barnstorming “Scorched Earth” that opened the set. In spite of these misgivings, however, the band were in fine form, with Hammill’s voice every bit as strong as in his Seventies heyday, and Guy Evans and Hugh Banton offering a stunning display of skill and precision coupled with genuine emotion. After a while, however, tiredness got the best of me, and I started drifting off. On the other hand, though Hammill’s voice can be a bit hard to put up with for nearly two hours, he was a delight to watch, and a true gentleman, joking with the audience and looking as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself. Not bad for a man who almost died of a heart attack nine years ago… Besides his customary piano, Hammill also played electric guitar on a few songs, showing how the band and their songwriting have adapted to the trio format. Though not the highlight I expected the set to be, it was a fine performance nonetheless.
As tired as I was, I did not get much sleep that night, and on Saturday morning I was not feeling exactly my best. We got early to the venue, and spent a pleasant couple of hours checking out the vendors and chatting with various people before we sat down for the opening act of the day – Connecticut jazz-rock quartet Helmet of Gnats, who were one of the bands I was most interested in seeing. I had got acquainted with their material through their MySpace site and Progstreaming, and their set confirmed my early impressions: stunning chops and potentially great music, but not too strong on the songwriting front. It took them a while to warm up, and for the first couple of songs they hardly communicated with the audience, which brought back memories of Astra’s dismal set in 2010. However, this was clearly due to the overwhelming emotion of having finally fulfilled their dream of performing at the festival after an 11-year wait. After the first awkward 15 minutes or so, the band hit their stride, and guitarist Chris Fox proved to be a warm and endearing frontman, especially when he introduced the band and explained the ties of family and friendship binding its members. The music – which at times reminded me, in style if not in actual content, of the sadly disbanded D.F.A. – had moments of riveting beauty, especially when keyboardist Matthew Bocchino fired up the Hammond organ and seamlessly meshed with Fox’s beautifully clear, fiery guitar in a fashion that made me think of Colosseum II. The tracks, all quite long, tended to ramble a bit, with highly exhilarating moments alternating with lulls that caused the attention to wander somehow. People who are not into jazz-rock/fusion may have found them a bit hard to follow, due to the overall lack of cohesion at the compositional level. However, they are an extremely talented bunch of musicians who genuinely enjoy playing together, with a keen sense of humour as displayed by their song titles and rather hilarious name – whose origin I finally learned later during the day, when I got to meet the band in the lobby. I hope to have the pleasure to see them again in the future, and perhaps review their next album.
Having never having been a follower of the original neo-prog scene (with the sole exception of Marillion in their early incarnation), I was barely familiar with Twelfth Night, and my expectations were also quite low. My increasing tiredness prevented me from staying longer than the first three songs (at that point, I really needed to take a break), but I would be lying if I said they were the worst band I have ever seen, as other attendees instead claimed. With only one of the original members left (drummer Brian Devoil), and two members of fellow UK band Galahad on board, they mostly sounded like a cross between an Eighties synth-pop band and a glam-metal one, with some occasional symphonic prog influences thrown in for good measure. Their look was also a throwback to the Eighties, with a penchant for the use of visuals and stage props; the mannequin in the 19-minute epic “We Are Sane”, accompanied by politically-charged images on the screen, made me think of Pink Floyd circa The Wall and The Final Cut. In spite of the not exactly enthusiastic reception on the part of the audience, and plagued by a host of technical issues, the guys in the band were delighted to be there (it was their first ever US appearance) and gave their best. Though Andy Sears is undeniably a good frontman, I did not care for his vocals, nor did the piercing, whistling sound of the synthesizer do anything for me; however, the band’s brash, punk-tinged energy held the attention of those who stuck around. Though some attendees thought that Twelfth Night were out of place in the lineup, there is a sizable part of the prog audience that enjoys their particular take on progressive rock, and one of the reasons for NEARfest’s success in the past 14 years has been precisely their “big-tent” approach.
With a new album (titled Viljans Öga) about to be released, 18 years after Epilog, and a 9-year hiatus since their last tour, Swedish legends Änglagård were probably the most highly anticipated act on the lineup. While I was familiar with their seminal debut, Hybris, I had never really connected with their music as I did with their contemporaries Anekdoten. When we sat down for their set (which started somewhat late on schedule), my head was almost drooping with weariness, and I feared I would be forced to sit it out. However, things changed rather quickly once the band started playing. An extremely tight unit performing exclusively instrumental music, they often bordered on Avant territory, and their new material sounded angular and occasionally menacing. In spite of their reputation as a “retro-symphonic” act, Änglagård were anything but a nostalgia-fest, and easily transcended any attempts at pigeonholing – even if the two Mellotrons gracing the stage were enough to send hardcore proggers into fits of delight. After the three talented ladies in Aranis, it was great to see more female talent in the guise of Anna Holmgren, who effortlessly switched from flute to sax to Mellotron. The band performed all but one track from their forthcoming new album, plus two from Epilog and the iconic “Jordrök” – the manifesto of the Swedish prog renaissance of the early Nineties. Although all of the five band members delivered impressive performances, the true star of the set was drummer Mattias Olsson, a pint-sized concentrate of flawless technique, inventiveness and humour – the real engine at the heart of the band’s intricate yet seamless sound, duly assisted by Johan Brand’s booming, muscular bass lines. All in all, it was a truly riveting set by a band that amply deserves its near-legendary status.
My habitual readers, who are used to reviews of rather left-field material, will probably be surprised to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed Renaissance’s set. While many prog fans love their output, others (including many of my fellow attendees) consider it terminally cheesy. In my case, though I do tend towards more challenging material, I have also been exposed from a young age to all kinds of music, including opera and musicals, and will readily admit to having a soft spot for Renaissance’s classic Seventies albums. Though my favourite female vocalists tend to be assertive rather than angelic, I find Annie Haslam – the voice who launched a thousand imitators – a delightful listen, and their lush melodies appeal to what you might call my typically feminine side (as well as my Italian heritage). Having missed last year’s tour, we were happy to see the band perform Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and Other Stories in their entirety. At the beginning Annie’s voice may not have been as smooth or self-assured as it was in the second half of the set, but then it became an effortless thing of beauty. In my view, Renaissance were the perfect choice to follow the demanding complexity of Änglagård – a very relaxing, enjoyable listen, made even more pleasing by Annie’s gracious manner and positive aura (even if her reference to God fell a bit flat). As much as I love the edgier stuff, sometimes it is nice to kick back and sing along to gorgeous tunes such as “A Trip to the Fair” or “Carpet of the Sun” (performed by Haslam and Michael Dunford as an acoustic duo, and dedicated to the organizers). The set ended with new track “The Mystic and the Muse” – an interesting composition with some breathtaking vocal acrobatics.
After all the praise I had heaped on their third album, Glue Works, Gösta Berlings Saga were the act I was most looking forward to – and that in a festival that featured much higher-profile names. My rave review had turned some of my friends on to the band’s music, while my husband had so far remained impervious to their charms. However, last Sunday he walked out of Baker Hall as a convert, as did most of the 1,000-odd people that witnessed that career-defining performance. Simply dressed in black, the four fresh-faced Swedes, in spite of a grueling trip (they missed their connecting flight, and arrived in Bethlehem in the middle of the night between Friday and Saturday), put up a show that summed up everything great music should be about. Although some people are desperately trying to put a label on them (are they post-rock, avant-prog, Zeuhl, or what?), they are one of those rare outfits who manage to sound like no one else. Fuelled by genuine passion, they literally brought the house down, eliciting standing ovation after standing ovation, and transmitted their passion to the audience, affecting many of us on a physical level. The powerfully exhilarating swell of the music was interspersed by pauses of gentle quiet, like the calm before (or after) the storm, and their use of repeated build-up patterns created an uncannily mesmerizing effect. Einar Baldursson’s guitar sliced through the dense web of sound emanating from David Lundberg’s bank of keyboards (employed for texture rather than as the main event, as in so much “traditional” prog); while Gabriel Tapper’s deep-toned Rickenbacker bass, together with Alexander Skepp’s electrifying drumming – a veritable tumultuous waterfall of sound – drove the music along relentlessly. In a set of astonishing perfection, two tracks stood out: the jaw-droppingly beautiful modified blues of “Västerbron 5.30” (with a haunting vibraphone passage that brought me close to tears), and the sensational rendition of “Island” at the close of the set – a sonic poem dedicated to the land of ice and fire, a “Starless” for the 21st century, further enhanced by a supercharged guest appearance by Mattias Olsson on assorted sound effects.
Though for completely different reasons, Il Tempio delle Clessidre were high on my list of bands to see at NEARfest. I had been in contact with them for some time after their participation was announced, and a touch of patriotic pride in me wanted them to be a great success. Even if Gösta Berlings Saga would have been a tough act to follow for everyone, the five-piece from Genoa more than proved their worth. Led by the lovely and talented Elisa Montaldo – a young Siouxsie Sioux dressed in a black Victorian-style outfit – and featuring the warm, rugged vocals of former Museo Rosenbach vocalist Stefano “Lupo” Galifi, they owned the stage for 90 minutes. Blending the feel of vintage Italian prog with harder-edged vibes (provided by bassist Fabio Gremo and guitarist Giulio Canepa’s energetic, metal-inspired stage presence, as well as Paolo Tixi’s rock-solid drumming), their music was powerful, flawlessly executed yet rich in emotional content. Galifi’s voice owes more to blues and soul (he cited James Brown and Wilson Pickett as major influences) than to opera, in spite of the common misconception that any music coming out of Italy has to be “operatic” to some degree. Many in the audience were expecting to be treated to the whole of Zarathustra, Museo Rosenbach’s renowned 1973 album, though they had to content themselves with an extract of stunning intensity. Together with most of their self-titled debut album, the band performed three excellent new songs, as well as a cover of Kansas’ “Paradox” that segued into “L’Attesa”. One of the highlights of the set was the mostly instrumental “Danza Esoterica di Datura/Faldistorum”, which saw the band don masks and Elisa perform a sort of esoteric ritual that included a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Those who (probably forgetting about Peter Gabriel and his fox mask) indicted them of cheesiness were clearly not familiar with the ancient Greek and Roman tradition of wearing masks on stage, nor with the rich body of witch-related lore of the band’s home region of Liguria. Visibly moved by the experience of playing before such a crowd in a state-of-the-art venue, the band members brought to bear the skills acquired in their extensive live activity, and their performance was full of the sheer joy of sharing such a career-defining moment.
Alongside Twelfth Night, Mike Keneally Band were the only other act on the lineup I was not familiar with, though I had listened to a couple of songs on YouTube prior to the event. Like Änglågard on the previous day, they took to the stage somewhat late on schedule (around 5 p.m.), and finished equally late. Like the English band, they have their dedicated following, but left a sizable number of attendees rather cold, though for completely different reasons. An extremely talented outfit, led by guitarist/composer Mike Keneally (known for his stint with Frank Zappa, as well as a solo career) and featuring, among others, bassist Bryan Beller and (in a touch of exquisite irony) Umphrey McGee’s drummer Kris Myers, they play the kind of music that is undeniably progressive, but not in the way that will usually appeal to the average traditional prog fan. On a personal level, I was quite drained after the one-two punch of the first two sets, and had to leave after the first hour or so because of prior commitments. Moreover, in spite of its evidently high quality, I found that I could not relate to the music – even though liking the band’s eclectic, mainly song-based approach, with its emphasis on guitar rather than keyboards and warm jazz and blues influences. Mike Keneally proved a genial frontman, though his vocals were a bit of an acquired taste, as well as an outstanding guitarist. The band played some of the songs written by Keneally together with one of the most respected songwriters on the modern music scene, Andy Partridge of XTC fame; while Chris Buzby of Echolyn joined them on stage for “Dolphins Medley”. Unfortunately, the billing did somewhat hurt an otherwise excellent band, as people were tired and hungry at that time of the day. I hope to have the opportunity to see them again when I am in better shape to appreciate their considerable talent.
Unlike many other attendees, my husband and I had not been particularly looking forward to Eloy as a headliner, and their almost last-minute replacement with UK was more to our taste (though we were obviously very sorry about Frank Bornemann’s health issues). As the Washington DC date had been cancelled due to poor ticket sales, we were glad to be able to see the band in such a historic occasion. Unfortunately, what happened on Sunday night gave new meaning to the saying “careful what you wish for”. Due to technical issues, the band appeared on stage nearly 2 hours late (it was close to 11 p.m.), and then, when everyone was seated and the lights went down, nothing happened for about 10 minutes – so that the crowd got restless, and some boos were heard. At that point, I was exhausted, and my husband even more so, and so annoyed that I contemplated leaving even before the start of the set (which was preceded by the obligatory round of credits to everyone involved in the making of the festival). Though we ended up staying for the first half an hour or so, I found myself completely unable to enjoy anything – even when the band played “Starless”, one of my favourite pieces of music ever – and started finding fault with almost everything. The very loud volume did not help to relieve our sense of exhaustion, so – even if I knew I was going to miss some songs I have always adored – there was no choice for us but to leave and try to get some rest before heading back home the following day. It was deeply saddening, but in some ways also quite cathartic. To me, it felt as if that performance (which, in any case, most of the audience seemed to love) signaled the end of an era, and showed that it was time for the prog community to shed its Seventies obsession and move forward.
As we walked out of the venue, a few drops of rain were falling, and everything was quiet. On the way back to our hotel, we reflected that perhaps that was a fitting conclusion to a spectacular run of festivals, and in a way represented the current state of the progressive rock scene – torn between the glory days of the past and the fresh, irrepressible energy and creativity of the new guard. A band like Änglagård, in many ways, embodies the best of both worlds, and this is why they would have amply deserved that headliner spot that, unfortunately, seems to be denied to anyone not originating from the Seventies.
When we headed back home on Monday morning – still exhausted but happy – it was raining heavily, and the magnificent “Island” was playing in our car, reminding us of the moments of true glory of the past weekend. Even as relative newcomers to the festival scene, it was hard not to feel a pang of sadness for what had just ended; however, it was compounded by a sense of hope that something might soon be rising from the ashes. Many thoughts have been running through my head in the past few days, but I will keep them for a separate article that will hopefully come some time in the next few weeks.
Anyway, it was encouraging to see many other women (even if there were no lines for the ladies’ restrooms), and also a few younger attendees, some of them barely out of their teens, and already so knowledgeable about progressive rock. As for myself, perhaps for the first time since I moved to the US, three and a half years ago, I felt as if I might finally feel at home in this country, especially when I saw so many people interested in my welfare after my recent immigration-related woes. I was also positively surprised to see my name mentioned at least twice in the programme (which I got Roger Dean to sign, as you can see from the photo above): it is always good to see your hard work pay off, even if not in monetary terms.
Before I wrap up my review, I would like to thank organizers Rob LaDuca, Chad Hutchinson and Kevin Feeley (as well as all their collaborators) for an unforgettable weekend, and for all the effort they put out to make the festival a reality, in spite of headaches such as having to find a suitable replacement for Eloy barely one month before the event, and having to deal with an occasionally troublesome bunch of “customers”. I understand why they are throwing in the towel, and hope that someone will be there to pick up from there. Kudos to them for the tribute to DFA’s keyboardist Alberto Bonomi (who tragically passed away one year ago) included in the programme. Frank Bornemann’s touching video salute to the audience did not fail to move even those who were not Eloy fans, and the plugs for two forthcoming festivals – ProgDay and FarFest – were also a welcome touch that showed a commendable community spirit.
As usual, I also wish to mention all the great people I met during this amazing weekend: the collective members of Aranis, Gösta Berlings Saga and Helmet of Gnats, and of course my fellow Italians of Il Tempio delle Clessidre, as well as other great artists such as Raimundo Rodulfo, Dan Britton, Lynnette Shelley of The Red Masque with her gorgeous medieval-inspired art, Cyndee Lee Rule, the members of Echolyn, Matthew Parmenter and Matthew Kennedy of Discipline, and my friends Robert James Pashman and George Dobbs of 3RDegree, Phideaux Xavier, Ariel Farber and Linda Ruttan-Moldavsky of Phideaux, and Alan Benjamin (with his lovely wife Amy) and Joe D’Andrea of Advent. Then , Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder – whose latest venture Romantic Warriors II – About RIO was a big hit with the crowd, MoonJune Records head honcho Leonardo Pavkovic and his friend Sasha, Cuneiform Records’ Steve Feigenbaum and his wife Joyce, Greg Walker and his treasure trove of music, my DC-SOAR cohorts Tom Hudon, Mark Chapman and Debi Byrd, Steven Berkin of Exposé magazine, Mike Potter of the Orion Studios, Jeff and Coralita Wilson, Laura A. Dent and her husband Noel Levan, David Gaines, Helaine Carson Burch, Terri Simmons, Ian Carss (with his daughter Alex), John Hagelbarger, Rick Dashiell, Buster Harvey, über Italian prog fan Leo Hadley Jr. and his wife, and everyone else I may have forgotten to mention. Thanks also to everyone who stopped by and complimented me on my writing, and a special mention to our friend H.T. Riekels. It was great to see him again after two years.
This review is dedicated to two friends who, while we were having such a great time, were experiencing the worst moment of their lives – The Muffins’ drummer Paul Sears, whose son Niall lost his life in Afghanistan last Friday, and his wife Deborah. There is nothing I can say that will comfort them in their loss, but I hope to meet them again when they have regained a measure of peace.