NEARFest 2004 (July 2004) (2)

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

In as much as I have always looked forward to the NEARFests I have attended, never more so than with NEARFest 2004, and mainly because I somehow, someway managed to get front row seats! Yes, I did go the extra "mile" and put my name in for Patron tickets, but given where I was on the lottery list, I expected that the first two or three rows would be filled. And before you start throwing things at me, thinking I'm going to go on and on about my seats, that I'll just keep mentioning it and bragging - not only was I about an outstretched leg away from the stage, but an outstretched arm and a half away from the speakers, too. And I had a crick in my neck all weekend. I know, "boo-hoo, boo-hoo, poor baby," you say, with not a drop of sympathy and a ton of sarcasm. I don't tell you this for sympathy, of course, just that there are tradeoffs... Nevertheless, there I was, fourth seat from the right. And, if you've never been, know that the bands are set up about five or six feet (or more) back from the edge of the stage.

Now, my cohort in prog-reviewing crime, Eric Porter, has written a fantabulous write-up of this event - for which I helped along a bit with my wee photographs, and I fairly much concur with his assessments the weekend's events, though I do have bits and bobs to add. But, go read his review now - it's here: NEARFest 2004 Report by Eric Porter - and then come back here when you're done. Please. I promise I won't mention the front row seats again after this time.

PallasWelcome back. Now, I said above that I had front-- no, I'm sorry, I meant, I said above that I pretty much concur with Eric's assessments, and I do. I wasn't as put off by Pallas vocalist Alan Reed's energy as some, but felt sorry for him that he was trying so hard with an audience that seems to sit in quiet repose and rapt attention as if we were watching a classical recital or a play. Or maybe we are all thinking of A Clockwork Orange while each band plays, only getting relief between each song when we can clap and holler and scream and bare our breasts... or was that just me?

No, no. I didn't do that. Well, I clapped and, maybe hollered a few times, but uh... anyway. Where were we? Ah yes. Well, anyway, maybe the UK audiences are a little more wild, I don't know. It's just kind of funny... and maybe it's because the audience is 98% male and not taking to wild screaming as females are - well, females of a certain age and temperament. That is, teenage girls fantasizing over Justin... or, back in the day, Paul, John, George and Ringo (though mostly John and Paul, methinks...). Not that I was ever one to scream like that over anyone... even when I saw Shaun--Hup! Nevermind that. That's a chapter we won't get into. The point is, Pallas were far more a "rock" band than a "prog" band presentation-wise in front of an audience that likes to watch fingers do widdly things with strings, keys, sticks (and Sticks), and holes... which sounds rude, now doesn't it. Erm, widdly things with guitars, keyboards, and flutes. Yes, much more tasteful.

Mike KeneallyTasteful, too, was the Mike Keneally Band's set. I had just seen him literally the week before at CalProg where the set itself was "so-so" in terms of pacing (just read my report later), but this seemed spot on. I walked away from it a fan and am diggin' Dog as I write - in fact, a strange mix of "Gravity Grab" (from Dog) and Audiosynchrocy's "Merrily Barreling Through Barely" (from their debut, and who weren't at NF) is going through my head at this moment ... I think I'm going insane! And I love it! But, this paragraph is about Keneally, not my brain (sorry, that's next issue). Fantastic guitarist (and I'll say that again later); love the green one especially - sound and look... but then it's a Strat. Keyboards often sound... weird in a live mix, and this happened here, too. But all the other elements - Bryan Bellar on bass, Rick Musallum on guitar and Nick D'Virgilio on drums - were in place, and I don't just mean they showed up and were standing on stage. But they showed up and came to play, dammit! And did.

I'm not overly familiar with Richard Pinhas - I have DWW, but rarely play it. I was expecting to actually hear some guitar, and either I totally didn't get it (as in "understand") or the out-front sound wasn't on (and remember, I was feet away from the monitors ... oops, sorry...), or... or... well, anyway, I figured either what he was playing was delayed (he did stop to fiddle every now and then with his... well, looping machine I guess) and then added into the sonicscape, or ... well, only he could hear himself. I wasn't thrilled and I like sonicscapes (Steve Roach will be at 2005's fest which really excites me!).

Sean MaloneThe other special solo spotlight guest was Sean Malone who fared better in the entertain-the-audience department, though his bass sounded a little muddy coming through the speakers. His Stick sounded great though. One piece he covered, on bass, was by Jaco Pastorius, a name synonymous with bass...

Univers ZeroI thought Univers Zero were a strange choice for headliners - not because of who they were, but because they were rather mellow. I mean, you expect the headliner to have energy, to have the audience clapping and hollering and screaming and... well, baring something, as it isn't much fun to the bands if the male audience bares their chests... and baring something else might not go over well either. At a prog show, at least. Unless you're then going to play a fantastic guitar lead with it... which would likely interrupt the band anyway, and you should be watching, not... Well, anyway, the headliner should at least have that crowd buzzing till Tuesday... or till Sunday, if one is the Saturday closer. But, I loved the music itself and Daniel Denis is a great drummer and composer and is the key figure in the UZ line up. By the way, I'm not questioning Rob and Chad's choice, just placement... but placement also has to do with "marquee value," so... anyway, moving on?

Yezda UrfaI enjoyed Yezda Urfa's set - Eric's right, the new vocalist sounds exactly like the old vocalist ... ah ha! It's really a tribute band to YU, like The Musical Box! Okay, maybe not. More than maybe, it was a mix of "old" and "new" in more ways than one, since some of the pieces performed were mixes of Boris and Sacred Baboon versions of a particular piece, and as a result, becoming something new - like a marriage, which, as well all know is... well, nevermind. Anyway, enjoyed that set. Hidria SpacefolkLiked Hidria Spacefolk, too. I was unfamiliar with Metamorfosi, but liked them, too. The light always seemed to shine just right on the vocalist, Jimmy Spitaleri, making his white hair and scarf illuminate... Of course, I noticed his great voice, too. I was expecting something a little more like Banco, but I wasn't disappointed.

I'll talk about The Musical Box in a moment, but the gap in Eric's report is with Planet X and Strawbs, and that is where I will go a little more in depth.

Planet XPlanet X smoked! Yes, they did. Sure, they blew me away with Live From Oz, but dammit if they can't deliver that live! Erm, live consistently. Sure, Derek had problems with his keyboards, using a few choice Cheneyisms to tell them to "turn the f***ing volume up!" He was pissed, but I think that helped his keyboard attack - a plot, perhaps? And while I don't usually share such things, because then it comes back to haunt me as friends and family tease me, but you know, up close, from where I was in the fr-- audience, Mr. Sherinian isn't bad looking at all. Never really thought about it until then. Oh, now, don't go starting rumours.

Planet X Now, to say that Virgil Donati - that is Virgil of the wild hair and wild look - is a good drummer is to downplay things considerably ... like downplaying it by 90%. I mean, with that wild do, would you think he'd be a quiet, refined and staid drummer? Hardly. FCC rules or not, he's a fucking great drummer. Yes, that should be in all caps, but maybe the FCC won't notice the words if they are lowercase; I'm screaming that out at the top of my lungs! Shit, do arms move that fast, and in that direction? And to think, the solo was almost missed out on. Oops. Killer set. As much as I loved the bands to that point, hot damn? HOT DAMN! Planet X rocked my socks off (so if you find some pale blue socks in Zoellner Arts Center, they're mine ... but after this much time, I don't really want them back). And, you know what, the "kid" that took over for the departed Tony McAlpine, T.J. Helmerich, and the new bassist, Rufus Philpot, just cook! Sizzlin' hot set ... from a sizzlin' hot band ... with a sizzlin' hot keyboardist? (his playing, his playing!).

StrawbsSo, the Strawbs had a lot of energy to follow up on, that's for sure. And while their set was comparatively sedate - though it wasn't sedate - they followed up nicely. The Strawbs' Dave Cousins comes across as a friendly bloke, their set seeming like we were all gathered for a picnic and he was entertaining the grandkids. Not that he looked old mind you, but uh... he just had that cool grandpa/uncle essence about him. And this doesn't really capture it, but... well, if you were there, you know what I mean. Or at least know that I don't know what I'm saying, I suppose.

StrawbsDavid Lambert is a great guitarist. That sounds like a mealy mouthed comment given my Donati exhortations in the above paragraph, but Lambert as a guitarist is not like the showy Donati as a drummer. But, let me tell you, he certainly was the best guitarist of the weekend, with Keneally running very close second - two different styles of course, Lambert the "traditional" lead guitarist, Keneally the ... well, wasn't he Zappa's "stunt" guitarist? Oh, I knew nothing about the Strawbs really going in except the material on Ghosts, but the whole set was a delight. The lineup was the Heroes And Heroines line up of Cousins, Lambert, John Hawken (keys), Chas. Cronk (bass) and Rod Coombes (drums). And, from the not-that-it-means-anything department - David Lambert looks to me like actor Patrick Stewart with hair (and a lot of it, but since Stewart is bald, even a little is a lot in comparison). Strawbs played bits from their new album, too (as did Pallas, a nifty instrumental called "Northern Lights," if I recall correctly... Of course, I mean Pallas played a new Pallas song not a new Strawbs song).

So, it was a killer weekend overall... kicked off by the incredibly lifelike performance of The Musical Box as the Friday pre-show artist. I was not old enough to see Gabriel-fronted Genesis while Gabriel was fronting Genesis... well, I was chronologically, because in 1973 I was 6 years old, but I wasn't really listening to music at that age - a Jose Feliciano record here, Donny Osmond there, and maybe the Monkees by that time, but that was it. And my parents weren't into prog. I didn't get into buying music until I was 12 really. But, from clips and pictures I've seen, I can imagine that this was very much what it was like to see the band live. Of course, the experience can't be the same because we as an audience in 2004 are so much more familiar with the music than audiences in 1973... We've had 30 some years to memorize every nuance, to study the music down to the micro-mirco second, which, if Genesis were touring their album, the audience wouldn't have yet had that chance... So it can't really be the same as having been there, other than the performance would be ... since, you know, they recreate the show right down to the between song banter - "Gabriel's" to the audience, that between "Gabriel" and "Collins" and, I suspect, the nods between "Rutherford" and "Banks" and "Hackett."

The drummer, Martin Levac, looks very, very much like Collins. You might say, "well of course, they're performing as Genesis." Well, yes, that's true, but the keyboardist, David Myers, doesn't look a wit like Tony Banks, even if Tony Banks were now, um, follically challenged. Sure, that Levac has the Collins mannerisms down is a given, given the concept, but he LOOKS like Collins. Sadly, as I interjected to Eric report, I wasn't one of the press people permitted to take pictures, so I'll just suggest you check the Musical Box's website - do that anyway - and you can see for yourself. Of course, vocalist Denis Gagné, also has Gabriel down - vocally and facially, but under the makeup, the masks... a lot is also created by illusion. Musically, very, very spot on. Someone on one of the newsgroups suggested they played too perfectly, too close to the album's sound and that Genesis probably didn't play perfectly... Well, if TMB have studied the performance they are presenting closely enough to try and replicate it... I don't know.

As at past NEARFests, there was an auction, which included a signed picture of Peter Gabriel, a Annie Haslam painting (along with Roger Dean, she was a guest of the fest, displaying her artwork), a King Crimson jacket, and a white guitar that had been signed by all the bands at ROSfest. This guitar was being raffled to raise funds for ailing Starcastle bassist Gary Strater, and the winner of the ROSfest raffle, returned the guitar so it could be raffled again at NEARfest, where it had been signed by all the bands' members. Although there was a winner at NEARFest, he donated the guitar back so it could be raffled again at ProgDay, and thus raise more money for Strater's medical bills.

So, in a rather roundabout way, so to speak, these are my thoughts on NEARfest 2004. If you haven't been able to keep up, because I write in a convoluted manner (so it's not your fault, it's mine), here's the summary: all the performances were good; Pallas tried hard to roust the audience into a frenzy; Keneally plays guitar in a frenzy; there was a frenzy to get Hidria Spacefolk CDs; Planet X seared and Strawbs capped the night off nicely.

Oh wait, I didn't mention the Spacefolk thing before, did I? Yes, after the set, as I went to purchase a CD (actually two, as my sister, who had joined me on this adventure, wanted one, too - and she isn't a prog fan), there was an anxious and excited crowed of folks abuzz around the table, which only got louder as two members of the band - the keyboardist and second guitarist (or maybe it was the drummer - they both had dreds) were at the table.. and a "sign this" frenzy began. I'm not an autograph hunter really, so I bought the CDs and left room for others to squeeze in.

[Um.... editing this now some 11 years later in 2015 (site redesign, changing file references), I feel compelled to add to those who got this far, no, I was not high or drunk when I wrote this ... whatever you want to call it... but I do think I might have been overall deliriously happy with how great the festival was. -SS/ed.]

Added: July 25th 2004
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow

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