NEARFest 2003 (June 2003)

Date of Performance: June 28 - 29, 2003
Venue: Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton, NJ, US

War Memorial, Patriot's Theater, Trenton, NJIn part two of my NEARFest report (see The Gallery for part one, the photos), I share with you my thoughts and impressions of the weekend. No review can really capture in words what an event was like, short of taking you minute by minute of what each band member was do during a particular track. And do you really want to know that during the third song the third act played, he adjusted his underwear/she adjusted her bra? Not that that happened mind you, I made that up as an example. Don't want rumours going around that such and such artist is, after all, human and wears ill-fitting clothes. Yes, even the folks from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum -- they're human; they were just costumes and masks. The truth is, there's nothing that compares to being there. The best we can hope to do is let you know whether a band did well live or sucked -- and no one sucked by the way, even if there were technical difficulties on the sound end. And, I must admit, I'm not very good about keeping track of what songs an artist played unless I know the band very well and know every song. And, because it seemed to me that Magma played just one song for the whole set, including the encore, I'd have an even harder time (though they did mention that for the encore, they had ten minutes, and would play a little more of Attahk).

I'd say "controversy" marked this year's NEARFest but not in a way significant to affect the weekend's activities, and most of it actually came about days after the event was over. But it is interesting that for days after the questions were "Why didn't The Flower Kings play an encore?" "Why did Ånglagård take so long to take the stage?" "Why was the sound bad for Glass Hammer?" and "Should SGM have aired their political point of view? And are they satanic?" Think I'm making that up? Nope, these were, more or less, questions/comments floating around the NEARFest board. Are they valid questions? Absolutely, though two have easy answers -- "because everyone involved is human and these things happen," (sound) and "there were three mellotrons to get ready" (stage delays). The others are not quite so easy, and one is really irrelevant now, the show is over and done and short of having a time machine, we can't go back and change things... nor go back and whisper into whomever's ear needs whispering into "an encore is okay." This leaves the latter one, the SGM question. Some audience participants walked out because of the "evil" context of their stage show, some because Nils Frykdahl mentioned the direction the US is going. Neither of things bothered me, but maybe because I felt the same as Frykdahl on this point -- and isn't just down to one side of the political fence, which is what makes a democracy work. Both sides get to vote on wise/unwise actions.

High Wheel at NF03Anyway, about the festival itself. For months I had been eagerly anticipating NEARFest 2003, both because of the bands I was familiar with - Ånglagård, The Flower Kings, Camel, Glass Hammer - and those I wasn't. I wasn't entirely certain I'd get tickets, having spent some time at #33 on the Patron waiting list. Knowing how fast the general tickets would also sell, I got anxious (as I have the past couple of years). That is, lots of anxiety, fretting about whether I'd be going. Unnatural, yes, but it must thrill Rob and Chad to bits to know that they do have one of the "must see" events of the year (right alongside ProgDay, of course ... now if we could just get thriving West Coast tradition, as sadly ProgWest had to be cancelled...). Nevertheless, I learned a few weeks later that I had moved up to #4 on that waiting list. Ah, to be so close, and yet so far. I had faint hope I'd cross the threshold. But luck was on my side this time, as word came that I was in and I could breathe again. Our seats were better than I expected, as the map of the theater seating is not up to date. So row C orchestra became the second row (behind the two rows in the pit).

Germany's High Wheel were the first band on, playing selections from their most recent release, Back From The Void, as well as earlier material. High Wheel are Wolfgang Hierl on guitars, flute and vocals, Erich Kogler on bass and vocals, Uli Jenne on drums and Andreas Lobinger on keyboards and they play a style of progressive rock that is equally informed by UK prog rock (e.g IQ) as it is by Echolyn (and by extension, some American prog) but the combination of these elements along with others give their sound a different character. They were good, though I felt needed just a little more polishing. I had listened to Back... only once prior to NEARFest, so all of it was still new to me. It was a good start to what would become a very interesting and entertaining weekend. As I said, I don't do well with track lists, but I do recall that they played "Try An Error," and, I believe, "Blind Archer."

Alamaailman Vasarat at NF03Saturday's second band was the excellent Finnish group Alamaailman Vasarat who put on a fine performance, energetic and lively. Certainly that can be said of the trombonist Erno Haukkala who is far from shy onstage, "throwing shapes," as they say, in the course of his playing. Of course, he had the chops. When you think of cellos, you think of dark, warm, somber tones, even if played lively. Kick that up about 10 notches, to a metal like ferocity, and you have the dual cellists of AV -- Marko Manninen and Tuukka Helminen. Frontman and sax player Jarno Sarkula, who with his beard and burlyness could be the fourth member of ZZ Top (or the fairer-haired version of Banco's Francesco DiGiacoma) introduced each piece, giving rough English translations to the songs. Their set was not only skillfully played, but entertaining to boot. For me, they became the highlight of Saturday's line up. With two albums to their name, their set included selections from both, including "Mamelukki & Musta Leski" (from Vasaraasia), " Lentävä Mato," and "Olisimme Uineet vieläkin Pidemmälle" (from Käärmelautakunta)

From having read the recent issue of Progression magazine (#41), I knew that Percy Jones wanted to put Brand X behind him, concentrating on his new group, Tunnels, the third band on Saturday's bill. And yet, his guest was former Brand X cohort guitarist John Goodsall. Something must have happened before the band took the stage, either during the soundcheck or even before that, because Jones didn't look very happy or enthused to be on stage. And when Goodsall appeared, he, too seemed none too happy. And this was reflected in the band's performance, which seemed a little lackluster. TunnelsVibist Marc Wagnon seemed into it, though he did have to take a few extra seconds to switch patches on his midi-vibes. They played well but uninspired, and were plagued by an overlong drum solo from Frank Katz -- perhaps he, too, was annoyed by whatever was annoying Jones. And, despite Jones' comments in Progression - about not wanting to play old material since that was in the past, they did include a Brand X tune or two -- not being really familiar with Brand X (other than by name), I couldn't tell you which they were. Their second and third guests were violinist Mark Feldman and vocalist Sarah Pillow (or Mrs. Wagnon) singing a track from her upcoming album, an album on which the members of Tunnels play as well. Pillow has a lovely singing voice, and was a one of the highlights of their set.

The Flower Kings at NF03Next on stage were Sweden's The Flower Kings, a band that is no stranger to readers here, given how many reviews of their albums we've published (which is why you don't see my take on Unfold The Future, though even now the first track is stuck in my head). In our now archived poll, The Flower Kings took 33% of the vote in the question "who are you most looking forward to seeing." Camel was a close 27%. I thought The Flower Kings put on a great set, but maybe should have played a couple shorter pieces to balance the long pieces. Their set included "The Truth Will Set You Free" from Unfold... (that song in my head), "Last Minute On Earth" (The Rainmaker), one of my favorites, as well as "Stardust We Are" (Stardust We Are). There was something inspiring in watching Hasse Fröberg and Roine Stolt sing triumphantly "The Truth will you free / we will stand up to the lie / with this heart bigger than America." They played with enthusiasm, and it was nice to see that Stolt's guitar was audible, since the last time I'd seen him live, at Progfest 2000, he had had nothing but trouble. On guitar, percussion, and backing vocals was Pain Of Salvation frontman Daniel Gildenlöw, who along with drummer Zoltan Csörsz, percussionist Hasse Bruniusson, and Fröberg on a single snare played a short percussion jam which I quite liked. As mentioned at the outset of this review, though an encore was called for by the fans, it did not come to pass -- several reasons for this have been speculated, all based on organizer Rob LaDuca's comment after The Flower Kings left the stage that they "couldn't afford the overtime." I'm sure Rob wouldn't appreciate me delving into that too much here in this review, and I won't. Anything would be mere speculation anyway, though questions of "whose overtime" were floating about.

Magma at NF03After the dinner break - which the Marriott seemed to handle much better this time, despite two rather large groups sharing the hotel this weekend -- it was time for the headliners, Magma. I had heard MDK a couple of times over the last year prior to NEARFest, but am not at all familiar with their music otherwise. They didn't sound like what I expected, the operatic elements kept low key, which isn't to suggest it was a mellow set. Stella Vander was joined by three other vocalists - all of whom were very good. I'm not sure if their vocals were deliberately mixed low or this was a mixing problem, but it sounded as if Stella's vocals mimicked the guitar and Antoine Paganotti's mimicked the bass (he the son of former Magma bassist Bernard Paganotti). Performance-wise, Magma was excellent, their balance between instruments right. However, though it seems the band played several different tracks, including part of Attahk as an encore,Magma at NF 03 it just seemed to me, as I said, to be one, set-long track. Which if it were would be okay, if it's several... well.. But, as I said, they did it well.

Many who were already familiar with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum questioned the wisdom of having the band open Sunday's activities. Would it be something that folks who'd been up till all hours of the night would want to be greeted with first thing in the morning? Well, 11am, that is. Given what the band played, it was a kickstart to the day. And that's an understatement. Sleepytime Gorilla MuseumThe stage was kept dark, keeping in theme. The members came out in costume with masks on - cow, donkey, etc. -- but shortly thereafter, other than the drummer, took them off -- the masks that is. Violinist Carla Kihlstedt looked like a disturbed child, but she sure could play a mean violin, such that for some effects I was hearing it took me a second to realize it was her violin. Vocalist/guitarist Nils Frykdahl wore a dress, hose, and a red scarf on his head that seemed amazingly permanently affixed (I think it was designed that way), since it never seemed to fall out of place no matter how violently he shook his head. The bassist wore just pants and simple vest, while the drummer was shirtless and the percussionist shirtless with suspenders. This was really the only band for which what they wore was important to the experience -- of course, that each of the bands played clothed was more often than not a good thing, though I'm sure many of you males out there had wished Glass Hammer's backup singers had forgone that detail.* The group played a highly theatrical and entertaining set, playing their harder edged material from their debut CD, Grand Opening And Closing. They were very good, and much better than coffee to get one going in the morning. While they wouldn't take top honors as best show of the weekend, for my money, they came in at just about third or fourth.

Glass Hammer at NF03After a long delay, Glass Hammer finally took the stage and played selections from their recent release Lex Rex. What most have remarked on -- because they're guys -- are the three female backup singers, who, at least from where I was sitting, weren't often heard when they should have been. Unfortunately, the sound gremlin plagued Glass Hammer's performance such that this is what folks on the newsgroups were talking about for days (as previously mentioned). But, aside from that, Fred Schnedel, Steve Babb and Walter Moore gave a good performance. They also played a track from their Chronometree CD, and had as a special guest Kansas guitarist Rich Williams, who played a blistering guitar solo during their performance of "Portrait (He Knew)" (a song from my favourite Kansas album,Rich Williams during Glass Hammer's set at NF03 Point Of Know Return.) Walter sang great for most of the tune, dipping into good and ok for the rest. Because it came across so well, it became the highlight of their set. I think if everything had gone well for them, though, the overall impression would be much better. My sister, who had enjoyed every band up to this point -- yes, including SGM, though she couldn't get the name right half the time -- didn't care for GH. She said, "see this is what I don't like about prog" -- meaning the symphonic aspect; on the other hand, she liked TFK, so... I dunno. I was happy with Glass Hammer, having the chance to see them. Hopefully they'll get out this way (West Coast). A choir was also brought on stage, but from my seat, I could only see the right most members and, like the backing singers, couldn't hear them (or least couldn't filter them out from the rest of the sound).

Kraan at NF03Germany's Kraan were next and played a good set, falling somewhere between Tunnels and Camel stylistically. At least that's my impression on first hearing them. Unlike Tunnels on this particular occasion, they did seem to enjoy being there, playing in front of 1800 rabid prog fans. I was totally unfamiliar with the band, as I didn't get the chance to hear Live 2001 before the fest (I didn't bring any CDs with me). I did enjoy their set, however.

Anglagard at NF03Ånglagård, the highly respected sextet who, after releasing 2 great albums, split shortly after the release of Epilog (excluding the live CD Buried Alive), were back together, minus one member, and playing live once again. Flautist/saxophonist Anna Holmgren said, after the band had played their first piece, that it seemed like a dream. Given the warm applause the band received, I could tell they were moved by the response. I was moved, too, in imagining how they felt. And they delivered. Sure, some noticed sound problems with the mellotrons -- yes, I said that as a plural, there were three -- but I was just immensely impressed. They played two new songs, "New Song #1" and "New Song #2" ... and in introducing them, guitarist Jonas Engdegärd showed his sense of humor, talking to the audience. They did seem a little uncertain about being there, playing live, but this wasn't reflected in their performance. They gave a great performance that demanded an encore. Though we might have seen a replay of Saturday night with the Flower Kings, especially since Ånglagård took longer to get set up and get started, encore time was granted. Would I have paid a little more to cover the overtime? You betcha! Though there was a long wait, it was worth it. Ånglagård nailed it, and I'm hoping that they can keep it going.

Camel at NF03With the Glass Hammer delay, and the Ånglagård delay, Camel didn't take the stage until well after 10pm (the last set was scheduled 8:15 - 10:15). Ah, but again, the wait was worth it. This quartet -- Andy Latimer on guitar and flute, Colin Bass on bass (naturally), Denis Clement on drums, and Tom Brislin on keyboards (subbing for Guy LeBlanc) -- played a stellar set of classics and new pieces -- "Lady Fantasy" "Ice" "For Today" (written in response to the September 11 tragedy), ... even a track from Nude. Andy talked to the crowd, Camel at NF03 introducing various pieces, including stories, and remembrances of the late Pete Bardens. Best performance of the weekend and a set I didn't want to end... even after the encores. Except for the somber moments, Latimer looked like he was having a ball up there.

So, that was my impression of NEARFest 2003 and I'm already looking forward to 2004. Though Rob and Chad have made no plans yet (at least none they've announced) and didn't tease us like last year, the lineup is a blank slate. Bands I'd like to see next year: The Red Masque, Manning, Kopecky, Dreadnaught (they'd kick your ass awake on a Sunday morning), Jadis, and maybe as the reunion event of the year, ELP. Yes, I'm joking about that last one. Not because I wouldn't like to see 'em live, but even if R 'n' C were able to get them to agree to appear, would they agree to appear on the stage at the same time? And if not, who'd be the headliner of the three? Or, equally farfetched, but perhaps not so contentious, would be a Genesis reunion.

*while this is not an earth shattering footnote, in commenting about the festival at the NEARFest newsgroup, I happened to mention that I hoped Camel's "farewell tour" was the first of many, a la Cher and Barbra. I added however that was the only similarity I was hoping for. Someone replied "you wouldn't like to see Camel perform in see-through, sequined gowns?" To which I quipped, "Depends on which member..."

CD Haul. Well, I tried to be good again this year, so I didn't purchase too many. While in the dealer room I met our own Larry "LarryD" Daglieri for the first time; he was working the Laser's Edge booth for/with Ken Golden and Scott McGill (after nearly four years and 3 festivals, Larry and I finally cross paths); Lynnette Shelley of The Red Masque; Eric Corbin of InsideOut; chatted with the ProgDay folks for a moment ... who just about berated me for not being able to make it again this year... :-) ... and, on Sunday, just before Ånglagåd's set, Dario Axelrud of Rock Symphony. Other contributors who were there were Clayton Walnum, who'll have his own NF report in his next ProgLife column, and Eric Porter.

Anyway, the haul:

· Steve Hackett - Live Archive NEARFest -- the debut release from NEARFest Records
· Arjen Anthony Lucassen's Star One - Live On Earth (DVD/CD set)
· Guy Manning - The Ragged Curtain
· The Red Masque preview single featuring "Beggars & Thieves" and "Yellow Are His Opening Eyes"
· Vanden Plas - The God Thing (at last! My review had been of a borrowed copy)
· Vanden Plas - Accult
· ProgDay 2003 sampler
· Apocalypse - Refugio (courtesy Dario)
· Eloy Fritsch - Atmosphere (courtesy Dario)


· Änglägärd
· Alamaailman Vasarat
· Camel
· The Flower Kings
· Glass Hammer
· High Wheel
· Kraan
· Magma
· Sleepytime Gorilla Museum
· Tunnels

Links: Progression Magazine, The Red Masque, ProgDay, Rock Symphony

Added: July 12th 2003
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow

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