We all had our doubts but they were able to pull off one last NEARfest. There are lots of emotions and thoughts associated with this and that will all be addressed later. I will say that this was my best experience out of the five that I have attended. Oddly it started even before I got to Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh University.
As if to preface what was to be encountered over the weekend, I was awarded the good fortune of catching Stephane Wrembel at Radegast Hall in Brooklyn. You may be familiar with him as the composer of the soundtrack for the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris.” As good as any recordings may be, it doesn’t come close to seeing a live performance. Stephane can easily be placed in the company of the best guitarists in the world. His Django Reinhardt inspired, single pick, flamenco style of playing is simply astonishing. His pick hand moves so fast that it becomes a blur and never misses a note. What is even more amazing is that I have seen him twice for free at this quaint beer hall. I would definitely pay to see such a fine musician. Funny thing, when we were talking after the show he told me that they had just been in Ann Arbor two weeks earlier. It was my favorite venue too (I have to pay closer attention to The Ark’s schedule). That got me good and primed and I was now more than ready for NEARfest Apocalypse.
After a scorching drive out of New York City (101 degrees in the Holland Tunnel), I arrived at Zoellner and realized I had left my tickets at the hotel. Doh! Back again and ticket in hand, I was soon reunited with my dear friends Michael and Raffaella Berry. The energy created by my friends and the crowd charged my batteries to overload. So many familiar faces, friends, musicians, CD vendors and event people, all just happy to be together again. After a brief chitchat with Dave Kermann on his way to sound check with Aranis, I got word that the new Änglagård album was available at the band table. Zoom! About two seconds later I had limited edition, signed copy. Picked up a program, said hi to Rob LaDuca, found Mike and Raff and went in to my FRONT ROW SEAT!
Aranis, fom Belgium, was one of six bands in the lineup that I wasn’t really familiar with. For as much prog as I have been immersed in, it always amazes me how the organizers find so many that are foreign to these ears. I had heard some of their music and found it interesting, but what happened onstage was mesmerizing. They are a rock band in loosest sense including a full drum kit and a guitar being the only electric instrument. The rest is closer to a chamber outfit filled out by violin, accordion, flute and double bass. The band all looked as though they were playing an orchestra hall, dressed in black and serious visage. Dave Kermann being the exception (and the only American) with his long gray hair, t-shirt, short pants and playful sensibility.
The music was very eclectic. Think rockin’ chamber music, heavy on the accordion. Dave was the show with his varying array of percussion implements. He used air cans to produce a “psst psst” sound, played a deck of cards, and beat what looked like the jawbone of an ass on his hand. It was a terrific concert with intricately constructed music. The only minor criticism being that the compositions tended to sound very much alike in rhythm and key. As I said, minor, it didn’t detract from the performance at all. My major criticism was the two drunk guys that plopped down beside me half way through, and wouldn’t shut the f&%k up! If you think you have heard inane drunk babble before, you haven’t. These guys were pros. Oh, and their mimicking of the instrument sounds was an added bonus.
I was looking forward to Van Der Graaf Generator, having thoroughly enjoyed their NEARfest performance in 2009. It appears as though I am in the minority in thinking that this time was even better. Many people had a problem with the set list. Hey, I get it. When a performance by a prog legend like this is very rare, you want to hear the classics. Well the band is a trio now, and that’s what the two most recent albums were written for. “Trisector” and “A Grounding in Numbers” may not be like “H to He Who am the Only One” or “Still Life” but I still find them very strong efforts. It’s just what VDGG is now and you have to give it a chance. I found them to be the strongest in the new songs, which makes sense since the old ones were not written for the trio.
Regardless of the debate between old and new, these guys rock! If you saw them in a restaurant, you might just regard them as three pleasant old men having soup. Don’t be fooled because Hugh Banton, Guy Evans and Peter Hammill still have fire burning inside them. Amazingly, for good or bad, Hammill’s voice is also just as powerful and piercing as ever. They powered out on “All That Before,” Emoted on “Refugees” and had a very cool reworking of “Flight” from Peter’s “A Black Box” solo album (I may be alone on my opinion of this one).
My new “friends” indicated that they were VDGG fans, so I was hoping for some relief. There was some but not much. The noisiest one kept trying to converse with the band and intermittently sang along. At least VDGG was louder than Aranis and provided more coverage.
Saturday began began as usual with more camaraderie and discovery of other friends. The first band sounded promising, but I was fearful of my neighbors’ return. Upon the return to my seat, other people around were saying, “Could you believe those guys last night? What the hell?” We made an agreement to stand together if it happened again. To the delight of all concerned two new occupants showed up, and received a hero’s welcome. As I suspected, the drunk dudes probably moved up when they saw the empty spots. My heart goes out to the people who hade to endure them for two days.
Helmet of Gnats proved to be very talented and entertaining. Jazz fusion rarely rocks, unless it is a band like Mörglbl. But where the French trio basically goes metal at times, this particular outfit plays their jazz with a harder rock style. Guitarist Chris Fox is a great front man and did very well engaging the crowd. I found the music extremely enjoyable and the playing superb. What I am beginning to realize is that live jazz fusion just isn’t my thing. I listen to it home quite often but in concert the band loses me almost every time. The same thing happened with Moraine and even DFA. For me I guess a more concise vision would work better. Just because you have a lot of good ideas, that doesn’t mean they all have to go into the song. The compositions tend to wander and then so do I. My theory was proven with the encore. They had a limited amount of time so they did an abbreviated version of “Space Chimps.” I thought what I heard was perfect. Any more would have been detrimental.
Having worked quite extensively with Neo-Prog, I was amazed to be so unfamiliar with Twelfth Night. I listened to some of “Fact and Fiction” before I left Michigan and did not like it at all. Needless to say, this was the one show I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be staying for. The music still was not my cup of tea but I did enjoy the performance. The band, and especially Andy Sears, had great stage presence. My enjoyment is even more impressive considering the massive technical problems. The vocals were barely audible at first and you couldn’t hear Roy Keyworth’s guitar at all. That changed a little bit toward the end when someone finally yelled, “Turn the guitar up.” Andy Sears’ guitar was so high up in the mix that you could hear the noise every time he picked it up. It’s a shame because it could have been a lot better. Either way it’s doubtful I’ll become a Twelfth Night fan any time soon.
There is always a danger in being very excited for cult legend like Änglagård. The expectations may be higher that what the band can deliver. It was everything I had hoped and more. This band is the pinnacle of virtuosity, precision and outstanding composition that lured us all to prog in the first place. With the serious, almost foreboding nature of the music I would expect the band members to be of stoic demeanor. That was mostly true with the exception of percussionist Mattias Olsson. He is a show unto himself. Your eyes can’t help but to be glued to this ball of energy, just waiting to see what he will do next. I did remember that there are other incredible musicians on stage, so the stellar work of Anna Holmgren, Jonas Engdegård, Johan Brand and guest keyboardist David Lundberg (Gösta Berlings Saga) did not go unnoticed. Anna in particular is impressive switching between flute, sax and mellotron. Definitely one of my all time favorite performances and the rest of the audience seemed to agree. Proof that Änglagård should have been a headliner.
They played all but one song from the new album (which I had just listened to that morning) and had a contest to name the one they didn’t play. Nice idea considering this audience contained the only people who could have heard the new disc. It was too bad that Thomas Johnson (keyboards) couldn’t make the trip but oddly Tord Lindman did. He hasn’t officially been in the band since they reformed in 2002. I saw him hanging out with the group but didn’t get a chance to ask any questions. Well, there is a mystery to be solved at another time.
I felt bad having to take a call from work after the first Renaissance song. But I knew if the restaurant owner was calling when he knew I was at NEARfest, he definitely needed my help. The call didn’t take that long so I didn’t miss too much. Roger Dean gave me a nice smile on the way back in. He must have been disappointed to see me walk out in the first place.
The lapse didn’t spoil the experience one bit. It was a joy to see Renaissance again. Even if the band contains only two of the classic members eliminate any delusions, we are there to see Annie. Although she is older, her voice is still a fine instrument. I thought she sounded even better than the show I saw in 2010.
There was a long intro period, and then an odd intermission early on. That got many of us speculating with concern. Was someone not feeling well? When we realized they were doing the “Turn of the Cards” / “Scheherazade” program from the last tour, which included a break, a collective sigh of relief was shared. Some people I talked to were worried about Renaissance being a letdown after the powerhouse that was Änglagård. The fears were proved to be unfounded as Renaissance is a completely different animal. Joy and beauty were the keywords. Annie and company transported the audience to a lovely and lyrical place. The classic pieces were popular of course, as was the new piece, “The Mystic and the Muse.” It is no surprise we all went bananas for the encore of “Carpet of the Sun,” with just Annie and Michael Dunford on stage. It was well suited for such a simple rendition, although I could still hear the piano part playing in my head.
After the show I waited in line, as I had done for Van Der Graff, to have Annie and Michael sign my copy of “Ashes are Burning.” It was late but worth it. I always get such a kick out of talking to Annie. On stage she is a legend, but in person she becomes this sweet, funny lady that I can’t get enough of. Getting her to laugh (and it’s not hard to do) is a real treat.
On paper Gösta Berlings Saga didn’t peak my interest any more than the other bands that were unfamiliar. The tracks I heard sounded cool enough. Rafaella on the other hand couldn’t stop talking about this band. Her opinions are completely trustworthy but we don’t always like the same things. I was not expecting to be so blown away. They started out very strong and just kept getting better. The compositions were very eclectic but still accessible. Each number drew me in deeper. The finale was an absolute scorcher and made even better by the guest appearance of Änglagård’s Mattias Olsson. Wow does he add energy to a stage! His addition was not so surprising being that Mattias produced Gösta Berlings Saga’s latest album, and both bands featured David Lundberg on keyboards. Percussionist Alexander Skepp was also quite a charmer. It’s just too bad I couldn’t see him because the mellotron and vibraphone were blocking the view (how often have you heard of that problem at a concert?).
Gösta Berlings Saga is an incredible band and I am huge fan now. Both Michael and I were raving after the concert. Raffaella said, “So guys, when I tell you a band is awesome… believe me!” The Swedes came, saw and conquered. It only took two bands and their country’s flag was flying high over Bethlehem PA.
Il Tempio delle Clessidre certainly had their work cut out for them. I was unsure in the beginning if they would hold up under the pressure. It was okay and the guys had their rock and roll look down with the leather and leopard print pants. Elisa Montaldo looked fetching in her gothic black gown. Well, she’s just gorgeous anyway. Things picked up steam during “Faldistorum,” a song about a witches’ Sabbath. They donned masks and Elisa did some kind of potion ceremony complete with the classic “Macbeth” quote, “Double, double, toil and trouble.” Because these young folks recruited revered Museo Rosenbach vocalist Lupo Galifi into the ranks, we were treated to a cover of “Zarathustra.” That was the high point of the show for me.
Il Tempio delle Clessidre achieved the almost impossible by thrilling an audience that had just recently witnessed an ‘it doesn’t get any better than this’ performance. As we stood and cheered, the band members seemed on the verge of passing out. Lupo, showing his veteran status, kept his cool and held his hands out to catch Fabio Gremo should he keel over backwards. This is an amazingly talented band and I love their will to bring theatrics back to the genre. The practice may seem outdated but they make it work. The other thing is as much as I respect and admire Galifi, I don’t think he is really necessary. The band has all the chops it needs already and Elisa has a great voice too. I’m not saying they should dump him. The purpose is to illustrate how good this band is.
Even though Mike Keneally was alien to me, I was looking forward to seeing him. He has great credentials stemming from frank Zappa, and I liked the songs I had heard. As expected there was a high level of talent on the stage and Mike has a good sense of humor. I really wanted to enjoy the show but the compositions had trouble taking hold and boredom set in. I did enjoy “’Cause of Breakfast,” the songs he co-wrote with Andy Partridge (XTC), and one that sounded very much inspired by Harry Nilsson. Unfortunately they weren’t enough to keep me going. Just when I was about ready to give up, he pulled me back in and I really enjoyed the rest of the show. The audience participation bit was very unique, but now there was a different problem. The show started late, was going on very long and hunger was taking control. The show was good but I still wanted it to end. If dinner hadn’t been calling the experience may have been better, but I still don’t see myself being too interested in seeing the Mike Keneally Band again.
I wasn’t expecting much from U.K. Even though it is a prog super group, the music from both albums has always fallen a little flat with me. I was actually a bit relieved when I saw Eloy had to cancel (never cared for them) and my enthusiasm was not particularly raised when the replacement was announced. Matters were not helped by the ‘no camera’ edict placed again by Eddie Jobson and the hour plus delay to be let in. When the lights went down there was a further delay.
With everything riding against them it still turned out to be a great show. Gary Husband is a powerhouse on the drums and Jobson is a virtuoso. The best part for me was seeing Wetton perform. He has always been my favorite King Crimson front man and it was a thrill to see him perform “Book of Saturday” and especially “Starless.” That tune alone was worth the wait. I still believe these guys need some lessons on showing respect for the fans but they do rock. I was not however going to wait in line for any autographs.
At the end there was the emotional goodbye from Chad, Rob, Kevin and the rest of the NEARfest crew. Even if the festival does somehow resurrected, Rob and Chad are done. This truly was a parting of family. These two gentlemen brought together a special community and there is a definite bond. Words fall short so I will just simply say thank you. Hopefully we will see them at other events, only amongst us as fans.
There has been a lot of speculation as to why NEARfest is no more. I have my own theories as well. I think a big reason why 2011 didn’t sell was because of the weak lineup in 2010. Sure, Friday was incredible with Riverside and Steve Hackett but what about the rest? Astra, Iona, Moraine and The Enid were all snoozers. Then we get to the headliners, which were a tribute band and a cover band. Sure there was some classic talent in Gary Green and Eddie jobson, but these are acts that should not even be booked at prog’s premier festival let alone headlining it. So I think that people might have been losing faith in the abilities of successors Jim Robinson and Ray Loboda. The duo was also conspicuously absent at the Apocalypse as Chad Hutchinson and Rob LaDuca returned to do it one last time. I applaud them for their attempt to bring in a lot of young obscure acts for Friday night, and even some more daring choices for the other slots, but the damage had been done.
Some have said that it was the amount of unknowns that sank 2011. I am sure that is true for a certain segment of patrons but not all. Many like me enjoy the discovery of something new. Most people who have regularly attended will tell you that often it is the unknowns that provide the standout performances. Izz, Indukti, Mörglbl, Kōenji Hyakkei and Cabezas de Cera are just a few examples. It’s just hard to have faith in those obscurities when your recent experience left a lot to be desired. Even I entertained the idea of passing on 2011.
I think we as a prog community have to change our approach anyway. If we want the genre to survive, we are going to have to stop relying on the old guard to prop it up. Time is running out on our original masters and we need to get some younger acts into position. Veterans like Änglagård and Discipline can provide the foundation while artists such as Cabezas de Cera, Gösta Berlings Saga and Izz get an even more secure footing. Then they can prop up the Dan Brittons (Deluge Garander, Birds and Buildings), Quantum Fantays and Shadow Circus’ of the world.
None of that makes any difference when it comes to what I will really miss. The awareness hit me like a brick when I was getting ready to leave Bethlehem and I started to tear up. It’s the people. From the hotel desk clerk to the girl who refilled my coffee at breakfast and of course the Zoellner staff, the Lehigh valley is filled with warm welcoming people. It pains me to realize that it is very possible I may never see them again. Combine these folks with all my prog cronies and it is one of the only situations where I truly feel a sense of belonging in a large group. Not that I necessarily need that but it sure is comfortable. I have a lot of love for everyone considered and I am better for having been amongst you. I can only hope it won’t be long before I see some of you again.