NEARFest 2004 (July 2004) (1)

Date of Performance: July 10 -11, 2004
Venue: Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, US

As I sit here and think back on NEARfest 2004, one thought permeates through my head ... hurry up 2005. What a blast the festival was this year! It is such a well-run event, and the audience is incredibly friendly and attentive. One of the most enjoyable aspects was the move back to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Baker Hall at the Zoellner Arts Center.

We went as a party of three this year, having about a three and a half hour road trip to get to Bethlehem. We brought the Genesis Archive (Volume 1) to listen to on the way down and to prime ourselves for The Musical Box. Let's just say that they did not disappoint. Had my $85 dollars been spent on this concert alone it would have been worth it. Putting on a 2-plus hour show, The Musical Box faithfully recreated the Selling England By The Pound tour. These guys had everything down, the costumes, the mannerisms, stage set, instruments, etc. I was mesmerized as they opened with "Watcher Of The Skies," with the makeup and batwings being a feast for the eyes and ears. There were moments where the hair on the back of my neck stood up such as the ending of "The Musical Box." The piano intro for "Firth Of Fifth" was a knockout, as were the solo sections. All in all, these guys just blew me away. From where I was sitting, the Gabriel and Collins members of the band even looked like the guys. When "Phil" came out to do "More Fool Me" his voice was right on, as were his backing vocals throughout the show. If you are a Genesis fan you must see these guys. Hopefully Rob and Chad will be able to bring them back as they are going to be doing The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway tour for their next tour. As the band encored with "The Knife," I could not believe what I had just seen, and hoped the weekend would continue to bring more stunning performances. After our drive earlier that day, and the adrenaline rush provided by The Musical Box, we just went back to our rooms to talk about what we just saw and get some sleep for Saturday.

[From where I sat, the drummer did indeed look very much like Phil Collins, and not just in mannerism; sadly only certainly press folks were permitted to take pictures and PW wasn't among them. -ed.]

Yezda UrfaWe got back to Zoellner around 10:45 Saturday morning and snagged one of the few remaining spots in the parking garage (on top of course). Having owned Sacred Baboon, I was familiar with some of Yezda Urfa's material and really liked what I knew. Although they struggled through some sound issues, the band played well and was a good kickoff to the weekend. The vocalist was not the original singer from the CD, but if no one had told me, I would not have known. Yezda Urfa to me sound like a mix of Yes and Gentle Giant, playing a lot of complex material. The band seemed thrilled to be playing, and during the introduction to most of their songs, they would say "we hope you like it." I believe they played a new song, and at the end of their set held up a banner thanking NEARfest for inviting them to play.

After Yezda Urfa, I was able to scout the vendor rooms for merchandise. This is a place where one must be very careful to leave enough money for food, gas, and tolls to get home. The wallet can easily be emptied in a very short time. I bought a Roger Dean print of the ABW&H cover, which he signed. Roger Dean is an absolute pleasure to meet, and no matter how many people he has to say hello to during this weekend, he always does it with a smile. A very nice man.

PallasNext up was Pallas. I cut my teeth on Neo-Prog, being exposed to Marillion very early on in my introduction to progressive music. I just could not get past the rock star posing and posturing of lead singer Alan Reed. I have no problem with trying to fire up the crowd, but this was a Spinal Tap moment to me. It was just over the top and seemed forced, trying to get the crowd to sing along, all the clichés you can think of. I did enjoy "The Atlantis Suite," but they were too far gone by that point. They did go over well with the crowd, but I just could not get into it. As people began filing out of the hall, the band had to hurry back on stage to get in the encore of "Cut And Run."

I stayed for the Richard Pinhas solo set, but briefly. I can only compare what he was doing as similar to Robert Fripp's guitar loops and soundscapes, but it just didn't do much for me in this setting.

Mike Keneally BandThe Mike Keneally Band took the stage next and absolutely crushed me, and the audience seemed to eat it up as well. Keneally is the ultimate musician, and his band cruised right along with him. I had picked up the Dog album in the vendor room, but having been unfamiliar with it, I did not know a lot of the songs the band performed. But that did little to curb my enthusiasm, as Keneally was my favorite act of the weekend hands down. Apparently, Mr. Keneally needs little sleep as well, as stories of him leading an after-hours party at the Comfort Suites Inn until the wee hours are now NEARfest lore.

Univers ZeroThe dinner break allowed us some time to relax before the featured artist Univers Zero. This band was really not my cup of tea, but displayed some impressive musicianship. The music was pretty dark, and using instruments like bassoon and clarinet, one must at least be intrigued by what the band is trying to do. I guess after such an upbeat afternoon, it was just too depressing for me. I would have liked something more up to end my evening.

Another long day, so it was back to the hotel for more sleep and another day ahead.

Hidria SpacefolkUnfortunately, we were only able to attend 2 of the 4 shows on Sunday due to work on Monday. Hidria Spacefolk came out and really got the crowd going. They were the surprise hit of the fest in my opinion, and from the crowd's reaction, I would say they felt pretty much the same way. The band can rock, and although at times there might not be much variation in what was being played, the band established a solid groove that was infectious.

The Italian progressive band Metamorfosi was next and again, the crowd responded. Dramatic vocals and some serious keyboard playing defined the bands set. I didn't know much of their material as I was not really able to get into Inferno so I never listened to it much, but I am sure they satisfied plenty of appetites out there for the Italian Symphonic crowd.

[See Stephanie's report for comments on the Planet X and Strawbs sets -ed.]

We hit the road listening to a few discs we picked up for the ride home. Yes, I was a bit bummed that we were going to miss Planet X and The Strawbs, but it was better than not having gone at all to only miss two bands. I guess some might find it surprising that one of my favorite parts of the weekend consisted of a cover band doing Genesis songs, but if you have not seen them, and you are a Genesis fan - they will amaze you. It was another great year, and many thanks to Rob and Chad for continuing to put on such a fabulous event. Hopefully next year will allow me to meet some of the other writers here at and make more friends at this annual gathering. I am already crossing my fingers in hopes of scoring my seat!!!!!

Added: July 25th 2004
Reviewer: Eric Porter

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