NEARFest 2002 (June 2002)

Date of Performance: June 27 - 28, 2002
Venue: Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton, NJ, US

War MemorialThe venue for NEARfest 2002 was the beautiful and stately Patriot's Theater in the newly renovated War Memorial in Trenton, New Jersey. A more perfect spot couldn't have been found for this latest edition of the long running festival, though one suspects that if these festivals maintain and increase their popularity, Madison Square Gardens or other larger venue will have to be on the cards. But for this year, when 1800 tickets were sold in an amazing amount of time, the War Memorial was perfect. The ever popular dealer rooms were downstairs, so for those of us in need of exercise, and I do include myself in that, this was a good way to get a bit in while heading for something we enjoy -- spending money. All the well-known labels were represented - The Laser's Edge/Sensory/Free Electric Sound, Syn-phonic, Musea, Cuneiform Records/Wayside, Kinesis, and others. Of course, Progression Magazine and Exposé were there to draw in more subscribers. The band Izz, who will be playing at both ProgDay and ProgWest later this year, had a booth set up as well. The sum of it is, people left with emptier wallets, myself included (for my CD haul, see below).

Food TentOne of the pluses for this venue, for those who weren't staying at the nearby Marriott Hotel, was parking was conveniently close (and free). Though I heard later that, at the end of the show Sunday, the gates were closed in one lot, momentarily trapping those parked within. And, as Rob La Duca has mentioned elsewhere, the boxed meals that were being served in the tent weren't what he had intended on being available. The meals were good, but were pricey. My complaint there was that I was charged for a drink separate from the box meal, later learning that a beverage was supposed to be part of the cost. Rob has said this hiccup will be ironed out for next year. There was a buffet at the Marriott next door as well -- very steep though it was all you could eat, and there was a wide variety to choose from.

A separate room for the NEARFest table as well as the artist tables was set up, which worked well for the most part, though I understand that lines for autographs clogged the room for those seeking to purchase their NEARFest tee-shirt. Not being an autograph hunter really, I didn't make in there other than when I purchased mei early Saturday and my NEARFest tee shirt and program. I had hoped to say hello to Echolyn, but they weren't there when I popped in.

Anyway, the focus of the weekend is, of course, the 10 artists on the bill. It was a fairly diverse line up, a mix of progressive music artists of nearly every flavour. The biggest draws for the festival were certainly the more well-known artists - the reunion of the legendary band Nektar after 26 years, the equally legendary Caravan's first performance in the US in about 27 years and the (yes, legendary) Steve Hackett Band, building a mini-tour around the NEARFest show to tour in support of 2000's Darktown album. Certainly Echolyn, Enchant, and Isildurs Bane were at the next level in terms of being known. Which isn't to minimize the bands that weren't as widely known - Miriodor, Gerard, Spaced Out, and La Torre Dell'Alchimista.

La Torre Dell'AlchimistaItaly's La Torre Dell'Alchimista opened NEARFest 2002 with selections from their first (self-titled), and only, album to date, as well as (if I recall correctly) new material. While one could tell that they were a young band, not only age wise, but in live experience (certainly in comparison to Nektar, Caravan and Steve Hackett), they gave a very nice performance. The band's flutist, Silvia Ceraolo, seemed comfortable, however. They're a band to watch for the future. Their set included "Delirio (In Do Minore)" and "Il Volo," for which the drummer switched to acoustic guitar and the bassist to alto clarinet. Did a quiet hush come over the crowd as I imagined in my review? Well, given that the NEARFest crowd is often in a respectful hush during the performances of all artists, it's hard to say. It would be true when keyboardist Michele Mutti crossed the stage to sit at the electric piano that their newest member Elena Biagioni had been playing and then played a classical piece, which I believe was "La Persistenza Della Memoria." Quite beautiful. Overall they were well received, but overwhelming appreciation would have to wait for a few more sets to take place.

MiriodorI was thrilled to see Quebec's Miriodor live since I was very much impressed with their recent Mekano CD -- I do believe I'm becoming a fan of RIO. They played a number of tracks from that album as well as dipping back into their previous releases. From Mekano they played "Bugs," "The Warlock," "A Master Tape Snack," "Aztek Boogie" and "The Ghost Of M.C. Escher." Pascal Globensky (electric piano, synthesizer) made mention of someone comparing their music to the artwork of Escher -- a comparison I'd made in my review of Mekano, though I cannot say it was me he was referring to in saying it. I enjoyed Miriodor's set very much.

Isildurs BaneAs an instrumental unit, I really liked Isildurs Bane. I thought their set lost its way for the vocal pieces. I thought the new vocalist, Christof Jeppsson, had a nice voice, but it was very wrong for the type of music Isildurs Bane were playing -- it was more a pop voice than a prog voice. The highlights for me were violinist Joachim Gustafsson and trumpeter Fredrik Davidsson, which added sparkle to the set. The starkness of their set probably had a lot to do with how they were received, which wasn't with overwhelming enthusiasm. Coming after the enthusiastic playing of Miriodor, perhaps the crowd wasn't ready. But, I did like Isildurs Bane. Of the material they played, they included a piece or two from their upcoming Screenplay, a multimedia project the band are recording in collaboration with Swedish author and artist Bernt Daniel.

The two bands that I was most familiar with were Echolyn and Enchant, and not because they were the two "local" bands. Philadelphia's Echolyn held down the third spot on Saturday night's schedule. I have been a fan of the band since their first, self-titled release in 1991, though I have to admit I was not completely enamoured of the album -- my favourite track has been "Until It Rains" which they didn't play. However, in Echolyn's set was "Carpe Diem." In this live setting, the track seemed to me much more solid than its CD counterpart. In fact, guitarist Brett Kull mentioned before playing this song something to the effect of not liking or not being happy with the first album. Their set included something from each album including a couple of tracks from their 2000 reunion release Cowboy Poems Free ("Brittany," "67 Degrees," and "Human Lottery"). The band also played the entire mei album/track backed by strings and an additional drummer/percussionist on kettledrums. This was the first time I had heard this piece, since I didn't get my copy of mei until NEARFest, as I mentioned. It is an epic piece of music with a lot of character - but I'm going to hold back on any kind of opinion of it itself until I have a chance to hear the studio version. EcholynI know many didn't like Ray Weston's vocals -- my sister who accompanied me to the festival (though isn't herself a prog fan yet), didn't like that he yelled the vocals, but she did like "mei." I couldn't, however, convince her to buy the CD -- we don't share that collecting passion either. I was quite happy with Echolyn's performance, though.

As a special guest, the band's first bassist Tom Hyatt accompanied the band on "The Cheese Stands Alone" and seemed to have a great time playing with his mates again. Echolyn's first three albums will be re-released in a 3-disc set soon, so folks who haven't been able to get their hands on them will have their chance.

(Since, as I'm working on this section, Chris Buzby has just posted the band's set let to the band's newsgroup in response to a fan request - not me -, here's Echolyn's set list: "As The World," "Human Lottery," "Carpe Diem," "67 Degrees," "In Every Garden," "The Cheese Stands Alone," "Mei," and for the encore, "Brittany.")

Headlining Saturday's bill were Nektar, who were recording a DVD of their performance. Though it seemed odd for them to specifically mention it, since the rule of the weekend was no flash photography and no videotaping, folks with digital cameras that could record video segments as well as stills were told their camera would not be allowed inside. Since I didn't want to press the issue, I elected to leave the camera locked safely in the car.

Nektar's set was filled with numerous classic and well-loved tracks, if the audience response was any indication. During one piece, "Nellie The Elephant" vintage footage of the band was projected onto the back screen mixed with a live feed of the band playing -- very briefly the live vocals were in sync with the vintage visuals, but not consistently. The performances were quite good and one could tell that the band was having a great deal of fun playing together. For those, like me, unfamiliar with the band's music, I felt their sound was a combination of Genesis and Yes, with Yes the stronger element, no less because of Roye Albrighton's vocals. But, that isn't entirely accurate, but those were my initial thoughts. I failed to note specific tracks, but can tell you that it appeared as if they played material from (if not the entire album) Recycled and stuff from Sounds Like This and Remember The Future, if I recall correctly.

Nektar fans outside theater having pic taken for DVDFans will be excited by the DVD I think. A crowd shot was taken for the package, though in what manner it will appear, time will tell. Sunday afternoon, a photograph was taken of all the fans wearing Nektar tee shirts (sold at the event). The picture here is of them taking the picture, though I was across the street at the time.

Spaced OutSunday morning began with Montreal's Spaced Out, who filled the spot that Somnambulist vacated -- though under much different circumstances than Le Orme. According the NEARFest site (at present, webmaster/co-organizer Chad Hutchinson is working on a redesign as they gear up for 2003), lead vocalist Peter Cornell wasn't sure his schedule would "be free in June for necessary rehearsals and the NEARFest concert." So, it was a graceful and courteous exit, opening the way for Spaced Out. Spaced Out played a chaotic set, though there was some cohesion in the chaos. I liked their set, but I wasn't blown away. I'm still becoming familiar with them through their second release Eponymus II. Their set included "Lost Train" (Eponymus II) and "Green Teeth" (Spaced Out) (the only two titles I recall).

GerardAs alluded to above, Le Orme were originally to have played at NEARFest, but backed out for one reason or another. The debate about why is long past, though Rob La Duca did include the contract as the "number one piece of useless prog memorabilia" (beating out such items as "Jon Anderson's testicles" [ouch], "Roger Dean's (childhood) fingerpaintings," and "Phil Collins"). "I'm not bitter. Really I'm not," La Duca said, "because we've got a great line up." And he was right. I don't know how many Le Orme CDs were shifted anyway that weekend, though I can say at least one. At any rate, filling their spot, although the playing order was shuffled, were Gerard, a three-piece from Japan. Symphonic, keyboard-based rock was what was heard from Gerard. They were very warmly received, receiving numerous standing ovations from the crowd. Keyboardist Toshio Egawa was the spokesperson for the band in good but broken English. Rounding out the trio were Masuhiro Goto on drums and Atsushi Hasegawa on bass. Clearly they were comfortable in front of crowds and unlike some of the "newer" artists on the bill, didn't seem nervous at all. I daresay, Egawa was extremely confident. I was thoroughly unfamiliar with the band, having heard their recent Sighs Of The Water only briefly before the festival.

EnchantThe San Francisco Bay area based Enchant played a number of tunes from their upcoming Blink Of An Eye CD (due July 23), and had hoped to have it available for purchase at the festival. US Customs intervened and were holding it. From the new album, the band played "Seeds Of Hate" (among others?), plus at least one song from each of their previous albums - "Colors Fade" (Juggling 9 Or Dropping 10), "My Enemy" (Break, though the crowd seemed to want to hear the title track instead), and "Below Zero" (Wounded). I don't recall which track from their first they played -- and it's ever more difficult now, as "Colors Fade" is now playing in my head -- nor which from Time Lost, though each album was represented. Their set wasn't perfect and while they weren't ignored, the crowd didn't seem much appreciative of the band. The second guitar which vocalist Ted Leonard played off and on during the set was not audible, at least to some in the middle orchestra seats and nor to I in the stage-right seats. Leonard's mic crapped out at one point, too, but when one gets only 45 minutes for a sound check, these kind of things are going to happen. It's the nature of the festival setting. Enchant were also able to debut their new drummer Sean Flanegan, replacing Paul Craddick. The new material shows an Enchant leaning toward an even harder edge to their sound than before.

Caravan Caravan essentially gave Sunday's line up double-headliner status, playing, as I said, their first US show in nearly 27 years (also being filmed for a DVD). Like Nektar, the band played classic tracks from their catalog. Reading opinions elsewhere, Caravan were often mentioned as highlights of the show, and with good reason. I was well impressed (though you may wonder, "why no Caravan on the CD haul below? " Call it too cautious with my funds, knowing I'd be spending 2 days in NYC later). Again, I'm very bad about writing down what was played -- too busy listening and enjoying to fumble with a pen and paper, but I can tell you that the set included "If I Could Do It Again, I'd Do It All Over You" which was dedicated to the audience, "For Richard," "9 Feet Underground" (both written by keyboardist Dave Sinclair), "Liar" and "I Know Why You're Laughing." And their performance featured, for the first time in the US, perhaps for the first time ever, anywhere, electric spoons! Yes, I said electric spoons, as played by multi-instrumentalist Geoffrey Richardson. I didn't get a chance to document that historic moment, unfortunately. The volume was too low at first to be heard, but reached an audible volume in time to be heard before the spot was over. Caravan was extremely entertaining, and, I dare say, stole the show to this point. The lineup featured Pye Hastings on vocals and guitar, Richardson on viola, mandolin, and flute, Sinclair on keyboards, Richard Coughlan on drums, Jim Leverton on bass and vocals, Simon Bentall on percussion and Doug Boyle on guitar (the latter two the "youngin's" of the band).

Steve Hackett (photo w/crosshatch filter effect)I say that they stole the show to that point, because the incomparable Steve Hackett followed, closing the show. In keeping with the theme of his current tour, supporting Darktown (2000), he opened his set in the dark, with shades on. While one might think either that he's "gone Hollywood" (or thinks he's Lou Reed), the fact that his band more often than not got the spotlight, literally, suggests to me a person more down to earth. He apologized to the audience for the delay with the start of his set. The crowd was delighted with keyboardist Roger King playing the opening notes to the instantly recognizable Genesis tune "Watcher Of The Skies" -- lengthened and enhanced by some tremendous drum work from Gary O'Toole, though the whole track was not played. And the crowd and Hackett himself was somber during "In Memoriam," which Hackett dedicated to the late John Entwhistle. Fans were also delighted when Hackett played "Spectral Mornings," which he said he hadn't played live in some while. Included also in the set was "Vampyre With A Healthy Appetite" (from Guitar Noir), "Everyday," acoustic pieces from Sketches From Satie, as well as other Genesis tunes (or so I'm told, I didn't recognize them myself ... my bad, of course). I was mesmerized by Hackett's playing, and like I think Hackett intended, his guitar was the focus, not himself. What a classy performer, though the dark lighting made clear shots impossible with my particular camera set up -- I can't even call the blurry double and triple exposures arty experiments. Ah, but the memories of his playing -- priceless.

The festival was filmed by Studio M for broadcast at the NEARFest site later this year - August, I believe.

All in all, the latest NEARFest was a resounding success and even before the festival had begun, the buzz on who would be on the bill for 2003 was begun. The first announced band, headlining 2003, is Magma. It will be interesting to see how the 2003 line up progresses over the next six months or so. My suggestion is to schedule a vacation day for the day tickets go on sale so you can be primed and ready as I feel the 2003 edition will be another sell-out.

Though windblown a bit,
t'is your humble correspondent

CD Haul:

Well, I tried to be good and not purchase too many CDs this year, only because I knew my suitcase was already packed to the max with clothes and such -- my rule for the weekend was "it all must fit." So, the first day, I was timid about spending too much; the second day, less so, but confined my purchases pretty much to folks attending upcoming festivals that I didn't already have titles for. So then, here's the list, alphabetically:

· Cast - Laguna De Volcanes
· Devin Townsend - Terria
· Echolyn - mei
· Edguy - Mandrake
· Finisterre Project - Hostsonaten
· Le Orme - Elementi --- Yes, I know they backed out of NF '02.
· Nolan & Wakeman - The Hound Of The Baskervilles
· Rhapsody - Power Of The Dragonflame
· Rhapsody - Rain Of A Thousand Flames
· Theory In Practice - Colonizing The Sun

I want to also thank everyone who posted to the NEARFest forum for helping me out, unknowingly, with some of the "what they played" information as regards Nektar and Caravan especially.

Roger Dean was the guest artist with artwork on display and for sale. Dean, of course, designed the NEARFest 2002 logo which graces the program and official festival tee-shirt.


· Caravan
· Echolyn
· Enchant
· Gerard
· Steve Hackett Band
· Isildurs Bane
· Miriodor
· Nektar
· Spaced Out
· La Torre Dell'Alchimista

Links: The Laser's Edge/Sensory/Free Electric Sound, Syn-phonic, Musea, Cuneiform Records Wayside, Kinesis, Progression Magazine, Exposé Izz, ProgDay

Added: July 5th 2002
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow

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