NEARfest 2010: How I Spent My Summer Vacation
Got to love Summer vacation. As usual I had a great time. Something I have added to the musical pilgrimage for the last two years is a few days in New York. Heard some cool music there as well, hit Coney Island and stumbled upon a couple of great free comedy shows.
The first one was a weekly showcase called “Big Terrific.” The show is hosted by Jenny Slate (of S.N.L.) and Gabe Liedman, and they invite other comics to perform in between their sets. Gabe and Jenny have a very unique style where they tend to talk over each other. It works very well, but you feel like you might miss something when concentrating on just one of them. The highpoint of the show was Joe Mande. He’s a storyteller, and a freakin’ riot!
The second was a Celebrate Brooklyn event called “Eugene Mirman and Pretty Good Friends.” The lineup included Kumail Nanjiani, Jerry Minor, Michael Showalter, Janeane Garofalo, John Hodgman, and an unannounced appearance by Jim Gaffigan. Michael was celebrating his 40th birthday, and he was given a cat cake with his head on it. Jerry Minor’s auto-tune routine was fouled because of technical difficulties, but I think what he did instead was probably funnier. John Hodgman, and his take on the local neighborhood of Park Slope, would have been the top if not for Gaffigan. He absolutely killed!
So, on to the music …
I have to honest. Outside of Friday night, I didn’t have high expectations for this year’s lineup. I am still confused as to why the both of the strongest acts were scheduled on Friday. Steve Hackett did have to get back on the road, but Riverside hung out for the whole weekend. The headliners for Saturday and Sunday, Three Friends and Eddie Jobson / Ultimate Zero Project / UKZ (or whatever they call themselves), seemed like dubious choices since their pedigrees relied solely on bands that haven’t existed for a very long time. In actuality it doesn’t matter. NEARfest is about the total experience.
As indicated earlier, Friday was looking very good to me. Riverside is great, and their new album is outstanding. Being a huge Steve Hackett fan, I was really looking forward to my first live experience. It didn’t seem possible, but my expectations were even exceeded.
Riverside was as tight as tight can be. They put on a blistering perfomance showcasing mainly the new album, and some well-chosen earlier cuts. Aside from a bit of banter, and a short sing along, they don’t have much of a stage show. The energy came from the music itself, and the primo musicianship. I did think it was nice of Mariusz Duda to invite us all to say hi to them while they were amongst us for the rest of the shows.
This part is hard to write, because as my spiritual teacher Haju Sunim often says, “Words fall short.” Steve Hackett was amazing. I may not be as big a fan of the new album, and the set list was far from perfect, but who cares. As I told my friend Micky, he could play “Polly Wolly Doodle” and still be mesmerizing. He opened with “Mechanical Bride” which blew everyone away. There were the obligatory selections from “Out of the Tunnels Mouth, classics like “Ace of Wands,” “Everyday,” “Slogans,” and quite a few Genesis tunes. He said the fans had been asking for more Genesis, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Steve has a very impressive catalogue. I also found it odd that the opener was the only tune from his more recent power trio of albums “Darktown,” “To Watch the Storms,” and “Wild Orchids.” Those are some of the best of his career, and were virtually ignored. There was a consensus that “Carpet Crawlers” didn’t work because of Gary O’Toole’s vocals (Steve’s by the way seem to be getting better). I think an instrumental only version could be quite cool (are you reading this Steve?). But as I said, no matter what the song, I was in the presence of greatness. Be it blues, rock, metal shred, classical Spanish acoustic, and of course two handed tapping, Mr. Hackett has no competition. I was almost moved to tears a couple of times. Just incredible!
Saturday began with Astra. I didn’t know much about them aside from a few samples I had heard. The feeling those gave me was that I would find them a bit soft and uninteresting. In concert Astra was far from soft, but still uninteresting. There is definitely talent there, but the music is derivative and lacks inspiration. It is a group of younger guys who try very hard to dress themselves in the trappings of 1970s prog. We saw lots of keyboards, Mellotron, and a double-necked guitar. They keys were definitely more than what was necessary, with the Mellotron obviously there mostly for show, and the twelve string neck of the guitar was only briefly used once. The almost laughable part was the visual projections. For the first part we were treated to scenes from probably the worst film Sean Connery ever made, “Zardoz.” The middle consisted of battle scenes from the Ralph Bakshi animated version of “Lord of the Rings,” and the finale was the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I mean, come on, these guys aren’t even old enough to have seen these films on T.V. Keep trying fellas. You’ve got the chops, but some originality is required.
Next up was Forgas Band Phenomena from France. Even though I was unfamiliar with the band, I had enough information to be looking forward to the show. Every year there is at least one act that takes you completely by surprise. On Saturday it was Forgas Band. Wow, are they good! The music would best be described as avant-jazz that almost approaches Zeuhl (which makes sense, given Patrick Forgas’ association with the Zuehl scene). Guitar player Benjamin Violet is the front man, and has excellent stage presence. The horn player (also great), Dimitri Alexailne, was invited up to make an announcement but he got confused with the English. Redemption was later found when Benjamin got tongue tied, and Dimitri came to the rescue. As exceptional as the music was, I couldn’t pull my attention away from the violinist. Karolina Mlodecka is incredibly talented, and very attractive. I now have a new prog infatuation (sorry Christina Booth).
Iona was there to please the folkies. There are a few prog-folk bands I enjoy very much, but it’s not a sub-genre I generally look to. Iona is very good, and the singer has a beautiful voice. She was also very good with the banter. Martin Nolan is also excellent with the pipes. However, they failed to hold my attention, and I got sleepy. Maybe not the best time of day for a band like this. They also shared Astra’s need for superfluous equipment. Lots of keyboards that weren’t used all that much, and a stand up bass that was plucked (not even bowed) for a few notes in one song. And I’m happy you love your faith dear, but can you scale back on the Catholicism just a bit? Not really complaining. It’s all good, just not my bag.
I can understand that for many fans the idea of a Gentle Giant reunion in any form is a big deal. I am a fan too, but tend to be more of a pragmatist. I didn’t even want to see Geniesis the last time around, and that was a bona-fide incarnation of my favorite progressive group. Three Friends started with original members Gary Green, Kerry Minnear, and Malcom Mortimore (who was only with the Giant for one album). Kerry didn’t stick around the new project long, so the draw is really just Gary Green. And I’m sorry, but if no one in the band has the last name Schulman, it ain’t Gentle Giant! Gary’s guitar surely was integral to the band’s sound, but he didn’t compose the music. So forgive me for being a bit taken aback by the idea of Three Friends as the Saturday headliner. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting much. The news that the lead singer had been replaced at the last minute didn’t help much either. Happily they rose to the challenge, and put on a very good show. It was only on the softer numbers that the specter of authenticity came creeping back into my head (in other words, keep jamming Gary and people won’t care so much). The music is very difficult, and was masterfully executed. It was a good show, but I still don’t think a tribute band deserves to be one of the headlining acts.
The Sunday “wake up call” slot is usually where the organizers like to schedule a particularly bombastic or oddball (most likely both) band to shake up the crowd after a night of progtastic revelry. Seattle’s Moraine is an avant jazz band, and did shake things up a bit in the beginning, but I think some of the other bands could have done the job better. Plus, it didn’t last long. Things mellowed out pretty quickly. Credit was given for one of the more challenging numbers to a former member / composer, and the statement “we hope you like our new direction” got me thinking. It would seem that their former colleague was responsible for the truly interesting music. The softer (and most likely newer) numbers failed to take hold. This is not to say that Moraine isn’t good, they are. The pieces are high quality, and the musicians are on top of their game. It is just my opinion that they should stick to the more energetic pieces for live performances. The Chinese suite was especially beautiful, but more for home listening. Electronic effects were also very heavily used. Once again, not a bad thing as far as the music itself is concerned. The sax player was obviously very good, but what does it matter when everything he plays sounds like it is coming from a synthesizer. Very good band, so-so concert.
The Pineapple Thief has piqued my interest in the past. However, for no real reason I had just never investigated the music. It could have something to do with the post-prog label, which I confuse with post –rock (or is it the same thing?). That kind of stuff has never been my cup of tea. This concert was the true surprise of the festival. These guys are good, very very good. There are definite similarities to Muse, Porcupine Tree, and “The Bends” era Radiohead. But where the aforementioned artists have moved away from their indie origins, The Pineapple Thief bathes in the art while having their feet firmly planted in the grunge from whence they came. They play great music with an intense passion. Had I been wearing socks, they would have been knocked off.
The fact that I knew so little about The Enid is a bit embarrassing. They are a symphonic band and I was a symphonic specialist at Prog Archives. I have one of their albums, but never listen to it. It was surprising to see so much hype before the festival. They never really got brought up in conversations I had with my old compatriots at P.A. I figured it was like The Flower Kings. Even with all the raves, they fail to grab me. And that’s pretty much how it went. Lots of talent, huge symphonic grandiosity, and a complete failure to captivate. The last piece did begin to draw me in, but it was too late. The simplest way to describe it is to imagine a band called John Lord’s Electric Light Parson’s Project, featuring none of the infections grooves or hooks of those artists. Upon listening to “In the Region of the Summer Stars” again, they were more interesting in 1976, but sadly no more. The lineup has immense talent, but I was taken aback by one of Robert John Godfrey’s comments. He said that guitarist John Ducker had the difficult task of learning to play in a more operatic style, rather than riffing. He did play what was needed well, but I didn’t notice anything that required added expertise. Was the difficulty in holding himself back? Please, we had just seen Gary Green and Steve Hackett. Don’t make me laugh.
Eddie Jobson has an impressive resume, and is undoubtedly one of the finest musicians in the entirety of rock music. It was my understanding that he had decided to perform again, and put together a heavyweight lineup for his Ultimate Zero project. It also appears that he has become a prima donna about it. After making us wait and extra hour to start, were instructed that cameras were absolutely forbidden. I should note that at least since I have been attending, no other NEARfest performer has barred cameras. As far as the set list was to consist of, I really had no idea. There could have been some old stuff, or new compositions that he never had the chance to perform live. It seems what he really wanted to do was resurrect U.K. Yes it was the first prog supergroup (or the first one labeled as such), but I don’t give them the Godhead others do. I always saw it as lots of talent not quite reaching their potential (but still much better than Asia, or GTR). Eddie said that he didn’t just want to celebrate U.K., but the entire genre as well. What we got was U.K. with a couple of King Crimson tunes, and one ELP. Oh, they did kill a substantial amount time with an impressive, but WAY to long drum duet. Make no mistake it was great to see the band strut their stuff, especially Eddie. The performance was outstanding. However, once again it really was nothing more than a tribute band.
Okay guys, here are my notes. Use stronger, and significant acts for headliners. I would also start dialing back on the dust gatherers. Unless a classic artist is still a viable working act (Steve Hackett, Magma, PFM, Van Der Graaf Generator), do we really need to see them? There are a lot of great younger artists out there who need the exposure. And for the love of all that’s good, do something about the sound! Every year the low end consumes everything else. Believe me, there is no danger of not being able to hear the drums. Turn it down!
No matter what, NEARfest 2010 was a success. You don’t have to love every show. The entirety of the experience is what it’s about. I value every band I saw. I love progressive rock, but there just aren’t that many opportunities to see a live performance. Is it any wonder I will travel such a distance to see ten bands in one weekend? Plus, there are the vendors, artists, and of course the people. I get to hang out with a giant group of fellow prog heads. At this point there are now also friends that I look forward to seeing. Yep, I loved it. See you next year!