After months of speculation and restless waiting, barely a month ago NEARfest’s comeback in 2012 was finally announced. Unfortunately, only a few days later, the enthusiasm of US progressive rock fans was dampened again when the organizers unequivocably stated that the fittingly- titled NEARfest Apocalypse would signal the end of the festival that for 12 years had occupied a prominent place in the calendar of devotees of all things progressive. On the Internet discussion board that has been providing the main support for the festival since its inception, the organizing committee (now down to 3 members) promised a bash to be remembered in the annals of the international prog community – sparking off thread after thread of suggestions, speculations and the occasional attempt at levity.
On the evening of Saturday, October 29, the eagerly-awaited lineup was officially announced on the Philadelphia-based Gagliarchives online radio station. Having followed the debate, and mulled over the organizers’ outspoken statements about pleasing the crowd with strong headliners – in order to avoid a repeat of this year’s cancellation, as well as cater to expectations about bowing out with a bang – I had few illusions about the lineup, which I expected to be a collection of “classic” bands from the Seventies (those that some of my acquaintances, much less charitably, would call “museum” or “dinosaur” acts) with a handful of newer bands thrown in to appease those with more cutting-edge tastes. Three years of regular contact with the US prog scene have taught me that, for most people, new or obscure bands are a wonderful resource to gain “cool” credentials in online discussions, but this does not extend to supporting their live endeavours, especially as regards festival appearances.
Unfortunately, in spite of the USA’s reputation as a cradle of progress and modernity, prog fans, musically speaking, are by and large a surprisingly conservative bunch. While this may be related to the country’s somewhat marginal status in the “prog explosion” of the Seventies, the way US prog fans seem to cling desperately to the past never fails to unsettle me. There is an obvious disconnect between the vibrant, variegated scene – comprising hundreds of bands of all ages that compose and perform outstanding examples of progressive rock, from symphonic to avant-garde to prog-metal, and have long since overtaken the genre’s cradle, the UK, in terms of quality – and its often hidebound audience. The dismal state of the economy may not have helped, but (as I pointed out in one of the articles I wrote in the aftermath of NEARfest 2011’s cancellation) it has not prevented festivals of every description from springing up all over Europe. In the summer of 2011, my native Italy (despite its well-known economic woes) was teeming with prog festivals that encompassed both “old glories” and modern acts – in some cases allowing seasoned veterans and up-and-coming musicians to share a stage, as in the case of the collaboration between Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair and the excellent jazz-rock outfit Accordo dei Contrari.
Anyway, I was rather taken aback by how the lineup announcement was greeted by the prospective attendees on their discussion board of choice. While the previous days had seen a proliferation of threads containing the inevitable speculations, nostalgia-drenched reminiscences, and the obligatory sniping, on the “day after” the tone of the discussion was oddly subdued. Although there was a measure of gushing praise (including definitions of “dream lineup” and the like), on the whole it felt a bit hollow, as if the enthusiasm was somewhat forced, and – at least judging by the limited number of responses – not too widely shared. Knowing that the 2012 bash will be the last edition of the festival has undoubtedly put a damper on the fans’ enthusiasm, in spite of their attempts to rationalize things and turn NEARfest’s final curtain into a celebration. To make matters worse, the decision to call it quits has resulted in a sort of protracted wake with rather creepy overtones. Life can be sad enough without having to commemorate the passing of something that was dear to us almost a year in advance, wallowing in the expectation of dissolving in tears when the curtain will fall for the last time. While I am all too aware that everything must end, I do not think it is particularly healthy to spend months anticipating something that will ultimately cause sadness.
On any account, I am quite sure that people (though most of them will never admit it) are very much aware that the festival’s demise might have been avoided. I realize that, back in the spring, the organizers were left with little choice but cancel, unless they wanted to risk losing large amounts of their own money; nonetheless, such a traumatic event caused a visible rift in the US prog community, one that may never heal completely. NEARfest’s disappearance will mean the loss of one of the most important showcases for bands old and new, as well as a means for artists to network and sell their music and merchandise. I know for a fact that, in the community of artists, there is widespread resentment against the close-mindedness of those who were supposed to support them, and the splintering of the prog audience into parochial, subgenre-focused events is certainly not going to improve things for anyone looking for gigs. NEARfest’s greatest strength lay in its eclectic nature, and the mere suspicion that this very eclecticism may have contributed to its demise is very sobering.
As to the lineup itself – though my aim here is not to criticize the organizers, who had to deal with the strictures of having to satisfy an audience largely and firmly stuck in the past – it left me more than a tad perplexed, and definitely underwhelmed. Some of the historic Seventies bands that are still active on the live front, such as Yes and Jethro Tull, are too expensive for the organization’s budget, and the same applies to some of the icons of the modern scene, like Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree or Dream Theater. Then, after last spring’s cold shower, the close-mindedness of the prog community as a whole had become quite evident, so it seemed wise to rule out acts with roots in heavy metal or alternative rock; even RIO/Avant bands might be considered a risky choice, bound as they are to appeal to a “fringe”.
However, as aware as I was of the quest for the “big draw”, I found the choice of Sunday headliner particularly puzzling. While Eloy seem to be great favourites with some prominent members of the community, I fail to see how, in the grand scheme of things, they can be seen as less obscure than Curved Air or New Trolls, or more influential for the development of the genre than Van Der Graaf Generator (one of the few “vintage” acts that are still very much relevant nowadays). On the other hand, Eloy have never performed in the US before, which will make their performance an historic occurrence of sorts, and their European origins make them automatically superior to any homegrown band. Another rather puzzling choice was the inclusion of Gösta Berlings Saga, one of the bands that were on this year’s aborted lineup. In my view, it would have been best to start completely from scratch, as the Swedish band’s inclusion will inevitably feel like a slight to the other bands that were damaged by NEARfest 2011’s sudden cancellation.
Some of my readers might wonder why I am so invested in the matter, and have made the effort of writing some rather extensive opinion pieces. After all, I am not a musician, and – though I have been living in the US for three years – I am not a native of the country, and will probably move away some time in the future. True, I might qualify as a “prog fan”, though I like to see myself rather as a fan of interesting music. However, the main cause lies in my own psychological makeup. I tend to embrace causes that I deem worthy, even if my personal investment in the matter is not particularly strong. Getting in touch with so many recording artists, and in quite a few cases meeting them personally and forming friendships, has undoubtedly been one of the most rewarding aspects of my move to the US (otherwise somewhat frustrating for a number of reasons). Paralleled by my collaboration as a reviewer with some established websites dedicated to progressive rock, this has given me an insider’s view of the struggles of non-mainstream musicians in this day and age. Being aware of what these talented people often have to endure in order to practice their artistic calling has driven me to champion their cause, and I have no problem in admitting that I would definitely like to do more – like investing some time and money in the organization of even a small-scale event, in spite of not being exactly business-minded.
Indeed, I believe that scaling things back, instead of calling it quits altogether, might have been an alternative worth exploring. Choosing a smaller venue (with consequently lower prices, more affordable for people badly hit by the recession), at least for a couple of years, would have avoided a cancellation that, to all intents of purposes, sounded the festival’s death knell. As for many people the attraction of those events is social as much as musical, they might have appreciated the possibility to hang out with their friends without risking bankruptcy. That would have also allowed the organizers a broader range of choices.
At risk of sounding overly pessimistic, I do not hold much hope for the US prog scene, in spite of the wealth of great bands and artists that go through all sorts of struggles to get their music across. Bluntly put, even the highest-rated modern US-based band may attract 100 people at a venue like the Orion Studios (as witnessed by the Phideaux gig of October 1), but will always be considered second- or third-tier if compared to any foreign band, and certainly not worthy as a festival headliner. The lack of performing opportunities, coupled with people’s apathy, will advantage studio-only projects, and the illegal downloading culture may well do the rest – stunting the amazing revival of progressive music that has been going on for over a decade. Those of us who are in the reviewing “business” in order to help the artists and not just to get music for free may end up feeling (as I do sometimes) that our work is like Sisyphus’ endless, pointless task. Still, I will try to keep a positive outlook, and hope that, after NEARfest 2012 is archived, the US prog community will regroup in order to prevent the scene from dying a slow death. For the time being, I would be satisfied if the NEARfest parable had taught people not to take anything for granted – especially those few things that bring joy into our lives.