NEARFest 2010 – An Eyewitness Account
The twelfth edition of the North-East Art Rock Festival was probably the most eagerly awaited event of the year for me and my husband. Last year had been our first time there, and – in spite of the problems encountered in buying the tickets online – it had been worth every cent. This year, however, we were much better prepared for the occasion, and decided to go patron – definitely more expensive, but also much less stressful. Pennsylvania is also relatively close to our home of Alexandria, in Northern Virginia – an easy four-hour drive, without the hassle of having to go through notoriously unreliable airports and airlines. Though hassles came to us unexpectedly in the shape of our car breaking down the day before the event (and consequently having to rent another), on the morning of Friday, June 18, we were packed and on our way.
The suggestively-named Bethlehem, a very picturesque town with a distinct Central European air, was previously home to a thriving steel industry, and is now mainly known for its university and Christmas-themed shops - its quaint houses with pointed gables, tree-lined streets and quirky boutiques and eateries very far removed from the stereotypical image of an American urban centre. The festival’s venue, the stunning Zoellner Arts Centre, offers excellent acoustics and not a bad seat out of over 1,000 – not to mention all the amenities required for an almost three-day stay, including some rather frigid air conditioning that, however, was particularly welcome this year, on account of the unpleasantly hot and humid outside temperatures.
This year the organization of the festival had been taken over by an energetic trio of dedicated progressive rock fans – Kevin Feeley, Ray Loboda and Jim Robinson – who had been working hard since the end of last year’s event in order to deliver the goods to both faithful aficionados and newcomers to the event. Their efforts were crowned by a full house, the whole of the three days permeated by a wonderful community atmosphere. Conversations were struck around the vendors’ tables, and in the halls while waiting for the next band to come on stage. Old friendships were renewed and new ones made – all in the name of a largely underground, 40-year-old phenomenon called progressive rock.
Besides the main attraction – a bill offering ten outstanding bands from all walks of prog spread out over three days – the attendees were regaled with a mind-boggling selection of music to buy, the inevitable T-shirts and assorted gadgetry, and some remarkable art. Renowned artist Mark Wilkinson, who had designed the Viking-themed logo of this year’s edition, was present with his latest book, “Shadowplay”. Another booth was selling copies of the newly-released documentary “Romantic Warriors”, part of which had been filmed at the festival’s previous edition. In one of the rooms on the ground floor, a number of up-and-coming bands displayed their music and merchandise to a keenly interested crowd.
The festival opened on Friday evening with the Alumni Night – a spot dedicated to two bands or artists that have been previously featured on the NEARfest bill. This year the choice had fallen on two vastly different acts – Polish progressive metal band Riverside, and legendary Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. By and large, though the older generation of proggers are often wary of anything with connections to metal, Riverside got a very warm reception, and deservedly so. An extremely tight outfit, fronted by the striking-looking Mariusz Duda – an energetic frontman with an endearingly spontaneous approach to the audience, possessed of one of the best set of pipes on the modern prog scene, and no slouch on the bass guitar either. Quite surprisingly for a band tagged as prog-metal (though, in my view, a bit too hastily), their sound is based more on Michal Lapaj’s keyboards than on Piotr Grudzinski’s guitar – the latter being probably one of the least showy guitarists on the whole scene. On the other hand, the dynamic, propulsive rhythm section of Duda and drummer Piotr Kozieradzki provides a solid core for music that is aggressive enough to appeal to metal fans, yet offers enough melody and atmosphere to be of interest to a more conservative set. In my view, Riverside might be construed as the anti-Dream Theater: unlike the New Yorkers, they are a band first and foremost, with every member contributing to the cohesion of the sound rather than showing off his individual chops. Though some members of the audience were turned off by the metal elements in their music (which, by the way, are anything but overwhelming), this was a very strong introduction to the festival, with a band obviously growing by leaps and bounds.
Those who associate Steve Hackett with the gentler, more pastoral side of Genesis’ output got the shock of their lives when he opened his set with Mechanical Bride – a stunner of a track sounding quite distinctly like something out of the King Crimson songbook. What the crowd was obviously awaiting with bated breath – the Genesis golden oldies – was accordingly dealt out by the band, though not always with complete success. The Carpet Crawlers, in particular, suffered from Gabriel’s absence, though drummer Gary O’Toole did an admirable job on the other Genesis tracks. Most importantly, though, on stage we saw a REAL band, and not just a gifted guitarist with a bunch of sidekicks. The real star of the show, however, was bassist Nick Beggs - formerly with Eighties one-hit wonders Kajagoogoo, then briefly a member of Iona. Decked in a leather kilt and vest, boots, blonde pigtails and sunglasses, he wielded his collection of basses (including a Rickenbacker and a Chapman Stick) like machine guns, providing both aural and visual entertainment. Vocalist/guitarist Amanda Lehmann, on the other hand, provided a bit of eye candy for the masculine element of the audience, but little else in musical terms. Obviously, the Genesis stalwarts such as Firth of Fifth (an almost note-perfect rendition) and Blood on the Rooftops, with its exquisite acoustic guitar parts, stole the limelight, but the likes of Ace of Wands and Mechanical Bride showed Hackett’s eclecticism as a composer. He also seemed genuinely happy to be there, and connected well with the audience.
After a good night’s sleep, on Saturday morning we arrived at the venue early in order to browse the vendors’ tables before the crowds descended on them. Then, at around 11, California-based band Astra took to the stage, and proceeded to play their entire debut album, “The Weirding”, without any interaction with the audience whatsoever, though showing some occasionally cheesy visuals in the background (mainly taken from three movies – “Zardoz”, Ralph Bakshi’s version of “The Lord of the Rings”, and “2001: A Space Odyssey”). In spite of their impressive instrumentation (including a double-necked guitar and the inevitable mellotron), they used about half of it, and their lack of communicative skills proved very unnerving to me – even allowing for their young age and obvious stage fright. Their music, while not intrinsically bad, was a strongly retro-oriented, rather derivative brand of psychedelic prog, packing in quite a few of the clich?s of the genre (as a look at their song titles will quickly confirm). While I generally find that particular musical direction rather appealing, Astra’s performance only confirmed my previous reservations regarding their material. In any case, the band have all the time in the world to grow and develop a more personal sound, and possibly cultivate their stage skills.
After the lunch break, it was the turn of my personal most-awaited act of the whole festival – the French seven-piece Forgas Band Phenomena, led by drummer extraordinaire Patrick Forgas. Their latest album, “L’Axe Du Fou”, was one of my top 10 releases for 2009, and the band did not disappoint my expectations. A mix of young and more experienced musicians led by the understated but incredible drumming and composing skills of Forgas, their set was a blend of stunning musicianship and touchingly funny moments, revealing a strongly cohesive outfit with an almost orchestral feel, who also seemed to genuinely enjoy performing together. Combining the lyricism of Canterbury bands with the dazzling dynamics of Mahavishnu Orchestra, and a subtle yet clearly perceivable Old World flair for melody, propelled along by Forgas’ and bassist Kengo Mochizuki’s stunningly measured time-keeping, as well as Igor Brover’s richly rhythmic tapestry of keyboards, their music engaged the listeners without wearying them out. Violinist Karolina Mlodecka’s performance was definitely one of the highlights of the whole festival – here is an attractive woman that, unlike so many others in the music business, is a musician first and foremost, and a very skilled one at that. FBP’s set included three out of four tracks from “L’Axe Du Fou”, some older material, and two new tracks that showed a somewhat more avant-garde direction for the band’s sound. Later on Saturday night I got to meet Mr Forgas himself and have a brief conversation with him in his native French (a language I speak reasonably well) – a real gentleman, as well as one of those (nowadays rare) musicians who constantly seek to evolve and grow.
After such a powerful, engaging performance, Iona’s set felt somewhat anticlimactic. Though I was not familiar with the band, their music was exactly what I had expected – a vaguely more proggy (and, in my view, not as convincing) version of Clannad, with an excellent vocalist (Joanne Hogg) and a heavy religious subtext. As Joanne made it quite clear in her speeches to the audience, the band were not used to being associated with the prog scene, and were accordingly a bit out of their depth. While their collective musicianship is hard to fault (I especially liked Martin Nolan’s performance on the Uilleann pipes), and Hogg’s voice is awe-inspiring in its pitch, clarity and perfect control, even over an almost two-hour set, the music as a whole was devoid of that sense of tension that characterises the best of the progressive world, and ended up sounding a bit too new-agey for comfort, when not downright bland. The Irish reels at the end injected some welcome energy, but were somehow misplaced in the context. The religious content of the lyrics was also somewhat of a turn-off for many people in the audience, though luckily it was not conveyed in the unabashedly preachy way typical of many Christian outfits. In any case, I think Forgas Band Phenomena would have more deserving recipients of that third slot on the bill.
After a well-deserved dinner, we approached Three Friends’ set with some serious reservations, especially after the news that their lead vocalist Mick Wilson had had to be replaced at the last minute because of visa-related problems. Doubts about the band were rife after Kerry Minnear had bowed out after only a few shows – which, to all intents and purposes, made them only ‘One and a Half Friends’. However, a very pleasant surprise was in store for us – Three Friends delivered in spades, delving deep into Gentle Giant’s peerless back catalogue, and offering a performance that was at the same time technically inspired and heart-warming. Gary Green has not lost his inimitable touch on the guitar, and communicated with the audience with the warmth of an old friend. Far from being a mere stopgap, singer Pierre Bordeleau did an amazing job with his high-pitched yet melodic tenor, and – though the band’s trademark intricate vocal arrangements were obviously missing – the instrumental mastery was all there. I was particularly pleased by their choice of hard-hitting Giant as a final encore – as well as by the inclusion of both Rabelais-inspired songs, The Advent of Panurge and Pantagruel’s Nativity. The visuals complemented the music quite nicely without drawing away the listeners’ attention, and the band as a whole gave off a genuine feeling of pleasure at being on stage.
The following day dawned even more uncomfortably hot and humid than the previous one, and a number of people in the audience slept in, missing opening band Moraine – this year’s recipients of the ‘whack band’ slot, or (as longtime festival-goers generally put it) the ‘rude awakening’ after the previous night’s partying. And what an awakening! The band – a five-piece based in Seattle, led by experienced guitarist and composer Dennis Rea – were probably the most genuinely progressive act featured on this year’s bill, delivering an immaculate performance bolstered by some distinctive video art. The recent line-up changes have brought some modifications to the sound evidenced on their debut album, the excellent “Manifest Density” (out with the cello, in with a saxophone) but their very original brand of avant-garde-tinged jazz-rock with loads of ethnic influences (mainly Chinese, as evidenced by the mini-suite they played about halfway through their set) was often positively riveting – as well as somewhat refreshing because of the absence of the ever-present keyboards. Dennis Rea was an articulate, soft-spoken mouthpiece for the band, with a welcome touch of dry wit and a genuine passion for making innovative music shining through his words. We got to meet the band after their performance, and were profoundly impressed by their friendliness and down-to-earth attitude. I will be definitely looking forward to the band’s future productions – this is a bunch of seriously talented musicians with plenty of great ideas.
When The Pineapple Thief had been announced as part of the line-up, some of the festival stalwarts had expressed their misgivings. In fact, they are one of those bands that hardcore proggers frown upon because of their association with the so-called ‘indie’ scene, and in particular the frequent comparisons with Radiohead – a divisive name within the prog community. While I could not in all honesty state that I genuinely enjoyed their performance (the morose, Thom Yorke-style vocals being somewhat of a turn-off for me), I found a lot of merit in their instrumental parts, especially in the second half of their set. Since prog fans as a whole can be much more conservative and set in their ways than one might expect, I strongly suspect that some members of the audience had already decided they would dislike the band. Personally, I would not mind seeing The Pineapple Thief again, though I’d rather they concentrated more on the instrumental side of their work. Song-based progressive rock is all very good, but (at least in my humble opinion) it needs the appropriate vocals to carry it off. Additionally, I feel that the band’s sound is a tad too derivative for comfort – with Radiohead as the overarching influence, and quite a bit of Porcupine Tree and Tool to be detected in the harder-edged parts. I also found their not exactly warm and friendly attitude towards the audience quite off-putting, and probably contributing to the numerous walk-outs during their set.
Next on the bill were The Enid – probably the biggest cult band on the scene, but a completely unknown quantity to me (except for the name). For some reason or the other, I had never felt inclined to listen to their music, so, when their time came, I sat down in my seat with some trepidation, prepared to be put to sleep. However, the band – in spite of a serious technical glitch that forced them to stop halfway through their opening song (which they handled superbly, with uniquely British sense of humour) – almost stole the whole festival, sending most of the audience into a frenzy of delight. The Enid opened their set by playing their entire new album, “Journey’s End”, before turning to their Seventies classics, including the iconic Sheets of Blue. Far from being soporific, their music was grandiosely cinematic (and more than a bit kitschy), often powerful, and at times even riveting – particularly when their set climaxed with a wild orgy of percussion that had the audience stand up and cheer enthusiastically. Robert John Godfrey is the picture of the eccentric English gentleman, and an obviously very talented musician and composer, with a thorough knowledge of classical music. Indeed, The Enid often sounded like classical music performed with rock instrumentation (as Godfrey pointed out while expounding on the band’s guitar style). On the whole, it was an incredible show, though I suspect the music would not have the same impact on CD.
The festival’s headliners, legendary keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson and an impressive collection of talent (drummers Mike Mangini and Marco Minnemann, bassist Billy Sheehan and guitarists Marc Bonilla and TJ Helmerich), inevitably suffered from comparisons with the previous performance (not to mention with 2009 headliners PFM’s career-defining show). The almost 90-minute delay of their appearance on stage, as well as the extremely strict ban on photography and such, also annoyed part of the audience, ready to throw around allegations of ‘prima donna’ behaviour (which does not seem to have been the case at all). While the solo spots (especially the twin drum solos) might have been trimmed down a bit, it should also be remembered that, ever since its inception, progressive rock has been about technical prowess as much as anything else. On the other hand, Sheehan was actually remarkably restrained, and the two guitarists somewhat under-used (especially Helmerich). Unlike Jobson’s 2009 tour with UKZ, this time the majority of the set was dedicated to material from UK’s only two studio albums – as well as paying homage to the whole progressive rock genre. As a major UK fan, I was delighted (Nevermore, performed here for the first time ever, is one of my favourite tunes by the band), but even more so by the blistering versions of King Crimson’s Starless and Red (which Sheehan regularly performs with his band Niacin). Marc Bonilla tackled the vocal parts with assurance and passion, and his interpretation of Carrying No Cross was, in my opinion, almost superior to John Wetton’s original. Even if it was not the perfect performance that many had expected, it was nonetheless a mightily intense, powerful one – and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see those incredible pieces of music performed by such a line-up.
As a final remark, even as a relatively ‘green’ NEARFest attendee, I would like to encourage the organizers to keep up the diversity of the line-up without being daunted by the naysayers. As far as I have been able to see, the event manages to strike a near-perfect balance between established and up-and-coming acts belonging to all the ramifications of the genre. Though the 2010 edition may very well go down in history as ‘the year of the tribute bands’, I believe this would be grossly unfair to both the acts involved and the organizers themselves. Pleasing everyone is next to impossible, and some people seem to have got nitpicking down to a fine art. On our end, needless to say, we will be eagerly awaiting next year’s edition, and anxiously follow the announcements that will be made in the next few months.
On a more personal level, it was wonderful meeting some of the people whose work I have reviewed in the past few years, or will be reviewing in the near future: Patrick McGowan of The Tea Club (whose new material sounds really promising) and his lovely wife Jenny, Andrew Sussman of Frogg Cafe and the band’s manager Adam Rizzuti, Robert James Pashman of 3rd Degree, Kyree Vibrant of Half Past Four. It was also great to have had the opportunity to meet the members of Forgas Band Phenomena and Moraine (a special mention for drummer Stephen Cavit, who is a big fan of my hometown of Rome), as well as Riverside’s Mariusz Duda. I would also like to thank Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune Records for his kindness, and Greg Walker of Syn-Phonic for the great recommendations. Hope to see you all again next year!
RB (Raffaella Berry): June 24, 2010