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Posts Tagged ‘Van der Graaf Generator’

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.

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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.

Links:
http://www.nearfest.com

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It is my pleasure to present the very first guest review to be featured on my blog – a wonderful account of Van der Graaf Generator’s Rome show written by my dear friend Victor Andrei Părău, a professional musician whom ProgArchives regulars will remember by his screen name of Ricochet. Enjoy!

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Such a great concert.” That was all I managed to write down, three days after returning home. Surely, a Van der Graaf Generator concert has to be more inspiring than that.

Well, my first impulse was to catch a flight to the nearest stop of their spring tour, since they did quite an arch throughout Europe after playing several times in England. It is perhaps strange for some, this express desire to finally see one of your favorite bands on stage, to make on your own all the right moves in order to accomplish that, to travel and make a special case out of it, or even to think of it as something to be done “at least once in your lifetime”. Yet, to be honest, most of the concerts I’ve attended were this emotional. While I do already have a strong backup of jazz or experimental concerts, should Jethro Tull’s progressiveness be up for debate (I think that’s the trend lately) and also not count a few less evoking names, then what Van der Graaf offered was quite the first fully ranked progressive rock concert for me, in all its details – from the atmosphere down to the trio’s own manifest.

Time affecting bands was never a hot topic for me, although many groups have embarrased themselves – some still do. Make no mistake, time is ticking loud enough for VdGG themselves. Peter Hammill looks the most dried up; even Guy Evans’ look isn’t as badass as it was a couple of years ago. In contrast, Hugh Banton’s appearance is elegant and humble, something further proved by how he looked so zen at the keyboards, playing his part, more so brilliantly.  But their reunion is truly one of the most successful. The first great sign of this concert was to witness these seniors’ instrumental skills, as good as ever, most of the times veraciously energetic, even with a tinge of crassness, with all their trademark accents and maddening difficult rhythms, something they’ve never let go of.

Of course, I did miss the best rides of their comeback, those up until 2007, highlighted by the live gem Real Time, if not by the work on Present as well, which I always considered to be a great album, with its clever duality. I’ve seen enough fans being a little more sceptical  when it comes to the new trio form and their recent acts. While preparing for the trip, I caught news of this tour’s first shows being heavily focused on the new material, while later mixing it with the heavily desired classics. Actually, if you check the Live List on their homepage, this is all pretty relative. Nevertheless, let’s just say the Rome concert was one of the odd-numbered ones or something, indeed promoting the new stuff, with the old tracks being the high points. Hammill even joked about it a bit when announcing they will move on to something “vecchioma non troppo vecchio”.

Oh right, Rome! Well, Prague would have initially been my pick, had it not taken me a total of two days just to travel by train back and forth. There was no window for me to go to the smaller town of Cesena, so it had to be the Eternal City, adding touristic pressure to the entire trip. By the end of a five-day experience, it was hard  to consider that I went there just to see the guys. The Auditorium Parco della Musica was a destination in itself, with exhibits taking place in the Luciano Berio Largo, with chatty and modish people at the coffeehouse making me look like a peasant, with Mahler’s Ninth playing at the same time in another concert hall. I was definitely split in many sides that evening: one completely burned out after seeing Ancient Rome the whole day, one being, of course, the eager music fan and a third moderating, as in trying to keep the first alive and the second from pretentiously picking the pulse, thus simply enjoy the whole thing. As I waited for the M bus to arrive and take me to the Auditorium, along with a rather impatient British old lady and a German couple of the same age, I feared I might actually be among the youngest spectators. Fortunately, the public proved to be mixed: genuine rock enthusiasts and Graaf fanboys, people who had forgotten to change their clothes since the ‘70s, young bloods equally interested.

The screechy “nearer and nearer” (constantly misheard by me as mirror, mirror) chorus, or even the keyboard polyphonic frolics from Interference Patterns could have proved annoying, but I felt it was a good opener. The chorus blasts were heavier than usual and the keyboard animation was also of great effect. As mentioned before, picking up the strange rhythms and intricate melodic patterns, all in heterogeneous time signatures, can be the first thing that connects you with the profoundly personal, however awkward, Van der Graaf spirit – something even Trisector, as shabby of an album as it is often credited, does manage. This, on the other hand, is the departure I regret on A Grounding in Numbers, an album I met with too great expectations, the positive reactions doing no good either. Actually, even without thinking about the past when listening to it  (which is indeed a rather bad viewpoint), I find very little substance in their new songs – or the slideshow itself. The trio picked the decent stuff from that album, avoiding, for instance, nutty songs on mathematics and such. First was Mr. Sands – a sort of odd character every band gives life to at some point (see R.E.M.’s Mr. Richards) – and the more halcyon Your Time Starts Now, with a first fully sonorous organ line from Banton. Hammill moved to electric guitar, acting clumsy between each piece to mask the seconds delayed by his preparations. The heavy instrumental verve returned with All That Before,  portions of an already towering intensity.

There was no greater enthusiasm than when the classics were played (a small sad side to it being  that it felt like they were the only thing the public was truly waiting for). Hammill did prepare us for them, yet, as the ovations interrupted the first line of Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End, it was clear the game would carry on. There was indeed more to it. When Hammill made his dramatic pause at “frightening in the silence”, someone from the audience jumped in, screaming the “sileeeeeeeeence” in perfect imitation. Hammill replied  faithfully. It was a bloody genius moment. Needless to say, at the end of the final triumphing choral of the piece, the audience jumped to its feet. It felt less great to follow up with irritating keyboard dialogues from All Over the Place, something matched on the new album only by the awful irregularities on Splink. I really enjoyed  Over the Hill next. It’s the most powerful separator between Trisector and A Grounding in Numbers, also linking closest to the old Van der Graaf, with its catchphrases, cold/pulsating transitions, lyrically & musically encompassing.

Finalmente there was Man-Erg, apparently a given in these concerts, proving even more what this band is all about. The sentimental, lyrical opening was never too comforting, while the thundering section was downright macabre and convulsive. At one point, Evans kicked the hell out of his small gong so much that he send it flying. People were shouting requests by the time of the encore, be it Sleepwalkers, Wondering or Necromancer (what!). However, it was Scorched Earth – probably my favorite VdGG of all time (but I could be biased to say that right now). I can’t think of a better encore that I’ve heard. Yes, it did lack Jaxxon’s crazy improvisations, but everything else was in place. It pierced through me entirely and it was mind-blowing. The lights were turned back on right after the trio left the stage, and the fans gave up too quickly.

So, going back to my first line, it was a great concert. Hammill’s vocals were slightly off, but I dare mention it again that all three of them were absolutely impressive at their instruments. Becoming their fan(boy) was a rough deal, so I’m pretty content with going all the way through this – except, perhaps, a couple more bits and pieces on their creation that aren’t quite put together, even now. Occasionally, it’s great to also hear others puzzle over what Van der Graaf were able to create, extending to how refined music sounded back in those days.

…okay, maybe it was my dad being so nostalgic. But my feelings persist.

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