RoSFest 2007 (May 2007) (1)

Date of Performance: April 27 - April 29, 2007
Venue: The Colonial Theater, Phoenixville, PA, US

RoSFest 2007 will go down in the prog festival annals as a year of many highlights, some low lights, and perhaps, the year of the lights. That last will be a footnote to this festival when we look back on it a year from now, hopefully, and that's where I'll leave it, as a footnote.*

No review can capture every moment of a performance, of a festival. There are too many nuances for one thing. Or there should be, at least. The best we can hope to do for those who weren't or couldn't be there is give you the highlights of each performance, a general sense of "being there."

While the expectation might have been that Pendragon would receive the prog equivalent of paying tribute to returning heroes - seeing how it has been 12 years since the band played live in the US - that reception actually came to up-n-comer Magic Pie, who return to the US after only a year's absence. That isn't to say that Pendragon weren't suitably and justly revered by the crowd, just that Magic Pie might just have topped them. For me personally, it's a very tight margin and the lead changes from moment to moment. And while US prog rock icons Spock's Beard played a thunderous set to a roused crowd -- in fact, I sat beside a pair of fans who headbanged to the band's rockier pieces -- they come in behind these two front runners and Friday night's headliner, Starcastle, who also put on a stellar set -- and I dare say had the best sound mix of the weekend barring Sunday's opener's Darwin's Radio.

The weekend began with Tempustry, the duo of Allan Brunelle (of Iluvatar and Dark Aether Project, on keyboards, drums, vocals) and Jim Rezek (of Iluvatar, on keyboards) playing a selection of electronic music pieces reflective of the music of Tangerine Dream and others - to wit, soundscapes, some with an energetic, rock edge. To date, Tempustry have released just one album, Le Voyage Due Temps, with a follow up, Astral Gate due later this year. It is from Astral Gate that they compiled their set. The music was, in many ways, a departure from the usual RoSFest fare - neo and heavy prog. I liked what heard, but this is the kind of music that you need to live with a while to appreciate; it's not the instant "get" that rock based progressive music is - or can be. What my recollection is - a lot of analog and electronic percussion.

Puppet Show seemed not at all like I remembered them from their debut Traumatized. Ironically, what I remembered from that review - as it had been a while since I played the CD - is the opposite of what I actually thought. Therefore, I expected something like Dream Theater and what I heard was not at all prog metal, though it did have a harder prog feel. Nor did they seem at all Marillion-like to me. Here's a small irony... in my review I compared them to Grey Lady Down... two members of said band formed Darwin's Radio, who would be taking the stage two days later.

I think Puppet Show did a good job, despite some adversities - namely, the lights going out during their set, and doing so unexpectedly. I found vocalist Sean Frazier off sometimes, but I'm impressed enough with a track from their new album The Tale Of Woe to give it a go and give the band a chance to wow me. I'll be seeing them again at CalProg this May, too. For their RoSFest set, they closed with a Gentle Giant cover, "Cogs In Cogs" (hoping that Jim Harrel at CalProg didn't mind... suggesting a repeat for CP?). The rest of their set was all but one track from Tales..., and but one track from Traumatized ("Relativity"). Puppet Show are, in addition to Frazier, Mike Grimes on keyboards, Chris Mack on drums, Chris Ogburn on guitar and Craig Polson on bass.

Friday's headliners were the legendary Starcastle. While musically, they don't really sound like Yes, vocally they do. Handling vocals for this edition of Starcastle was Al Lewis of the band Alaska. Other than with their Chronos I release from 2001, a collection of outtakes and such, and hearing the "Lady Of The Lake" clip from the RoSFest site, I wasn't really all that familiar with Starcastle. I knew that I liked what I'd heard on Chronos I, so I knew that I'd at least like what I heard live. But, Starcastle put on a great show. As I mentioned, they had the best sound mix of the weekend, I could easily separate out Bruce Botts' guitar to my left from Steve Hagler's and Matt Stewart's guitars to my right (and further between both Hagler and Stewart); could easily make out the vocals and their harmonies were spot on - even if I find it's an element a tad overused. Unlike for other sets, the drums (Steve Tassler) were at just the right volume level... And don't want to leave out bassist Woody Lingle. The new material sounded great and, at least to my ears, keeping with their traditional sound without necessarily sounding dated. They also seemed to enjoy themselves up on stage (even when things got a little hairy backstage).

They had with them two guests - Oliver Wakeman on keyboards (and isn't it ironic that the son of the man in the band that they're most compared to is filling in?), and Annie Haslam on vocals for one track. That one track was a tribute to the late Gary Strater. Leading up to the song, the producer of the band's recent album, Mark Rubel, brought to the front of the stage a bass, explaining that it was Strater's favourite custom bass. Its presence on stage was Strater being there in spirit. He had lost his fight with cancer during the recording of the band's most recent release Song Of Times; the acoustic track that Lewis and Haslam sang duet on was written by Strater.

Folks might remember a few years back that an autographed guitar was making the rounds to various festivals - being auctioned off, won, and then re-donated by the winner to continue to being bid on. The monies from those bids were going to help defray health care costs for Strater.

It wasn't until Erik Norlander pointed out Saturday morning during the Rocket Scientists' set that Mark McCrite was singing "Mariner" for the first time in a long time, and the first time on the current tour, that I noticed someone was missing from the stage. No, not Lana Lane, she was there, towards the end of the set; it was RS's new vocalist David McBee who was absent. And this "revelation" came 5 songs into their set! That meant that Mark McCrite (guitar, vocals) sang lead for the whole set - except when it was Lane, of course. Not a startling change, since this was a return to this larger role, and he sounded very good.

Their set was a mix of material from the new album Revolution Road, including "Sky Is Falling," "Better View," "After The Revolution" and the title track; from their first album, Earthbound, "Earthbound" and "Avalon;" from Oblivion Days, "Space: 1999," "Aqua Vitae," and "Oblivion Days," and, with "Mariner," a track from Brutal Architecture... their whole catalog, in a nutshell. We were also treated to a solo piece featuring N/S Stick maestro Don Schiff, leading into "Dark Water, Pt. 5," a piano instrumental "Dreamcurrents" (from Norlander's Into The Sunset CD) and a track from Lane's Lady MacBeth album, "The Dream That Never Ends." I was surprised that Norlander did not have his "Wall Of Doom," as he'd had for CalProg 2006 (and his "solo" appearance at CalProg 2004); but given that space was at a premium on the stage, this then became not so surprising. Great set from the group, and again serves as a prompt to give Brutal... a fresh listen.

[Anecdote: It wasn't until going through my pics that it occurred to me that Erik Norlander looked like a longer-haired deadringer for Dr. Who/All Creatures Great And Small actor Peter Davidson? ]

Originally Frost* were to be the second band of the day on Saturday. But when the band, ahem, defrosted, their slot was replaced by Galahad. This was exciting news for me. Not because I didn't want to see Frost*, but because I did want to see Galahad. Of course, with a new album out, much of the set was filled with new material - powerful stuff, methinks. I picked up the tour edition of the new CD, but it, along with a few others purchased that day, haven't yet made it to the player, though I'm anxious to give this new stuff a good hearing. From the Galahad catalog they also played "Bug Eye" (Following Ghosts), "Sleepers" and "Exorcising Demons" (Sleepers), "Lady Messiah" (In A Moment Of Complete Madness), and "Year Zero (1-4)" (Year Zero). (Stu Nicholson posted later on the RoSFest group that "Termination" and "Room 801" were planned, but cut due to a shortened set; that being due to extra time needed between sets to remount the lights). Stu came out dressed as a priest in robe and red stole, while keyboardist Dean Baker seemed to have emerged from the new-wave 80s and guitarist Lee Abraham from the punk era... My thought was, is it a comment on where Britain went as their Empire dwindled?... the new Galahad album is Empires Never Last, but perhaps I was reading more into it than was intended. I was pleased with their performance, though I had my own favorites that I'd have loved to hear live, but there would not have been time (namely "Shine" from Following Ghosts... and I think it might have been... well, neat for me at least to hear "One For The Record" from In A Moment Of Complete Madness...). But I thought they went over fairly well.

Carptree have put out two really good albums (I've not heard their first), and play a very moody, dark and sometimes-subtle, sometimes-not style of progressive rock. Unfortunately, the sound mix meant the drums dominated and trampled those subtleties. It made all the tracks feel samey even though I know they're not in their studio versions. I was in the auditorium for their sound check and know that the band weren't entirely happy with their sound mix, but, as Niclas Flinck murmured "it will do" (though I know the on-stage sound is not the same we hear in the house, so I can't say it was because of the volume of the drums). But, performance-wise, I think they did a good job. Backing the duo of Niclas (vocals) and Carl Westholm (keyboards, synths) were the No Future Orchestra - Jejo Percovic on drums, Stefan Fandén on bass, Ulf Edelönn and Öivin Tronstad on electric and acoustic guitars. Ulf, with his squared off and tinted glasses and short, blondish hair, made me think of a non-costumed early-70s era Elton John. Then again, with Niclas' curled-at-ends moustache (handlebar?), he reminded me of sideshow barker or circus master...

Headlining the evening were Pendragon, playing their first US performance in 12 years! The last time they were here was for ProgFest 1995 in Los Angeles - a lineup that also included Spock's Beard. I wasn't there, so I knew that when Pendragon were announced as headliners that I would be coming to the festival, regardless of who else was on the bill. I can't say that I have always been a Pendragon fan, but appreciation of their music and what they do has grown, and was solidified with Masquerade Overture, an album from which they drew "As Good As Gold," "Guardian Of My Soul," "Paintbox," and "Masters Of Illusion" for their set. Three cuts from their latest release, Believe were also included, naturally -- "No Place For The Innocent," which they opened with, "The Wishing Well," and "The Edge Of The World." And, of course, other Pendragon favorites - "Nostradamus," "The Black Knight," "Breaking The Spell," "Dance Of The Seven Veils," among others. Towards the end of the set, Nick left the stage and walked up the centre aisle in the crowd, whilst he and the band performed "Am I Really Losing You?" Stellar performance, even if they weren't absolutely perfect - I could see when Nick Barrett thought he'd flubbed a note or lyric, as he'd give Clive Nolan a chagrined grin or wee wince. But, I'd say they were 99% spot on. The audience had a great time, and the band had a great time. Behind the kit was Joe Crabtree, taking over for Fudge Smith, who'd decided to leave the band in (circa) 2006. And continuing the "looks like" anecdotes, bassist Peter Gee had a ski cap on that gave him a look of The Edge (as in U2).

The third best performance and second best sound was turned in by newcomers Darwin's Radio. Sort of newcomers - Mark Westworth (keys) and Sean Spears (bass) were once members of Grey Lady Down (who released 3 albums). This pair are joined by Dec Burke (of The Spirit Of Rush) on guitar and vocals and Tim Churchman on acoustic and electric percussion (also of Spirit of Rush), replacing David Pankhurst, who played on the band's EP, Pictures and their debut album Eyes Of The World. The set and band were enthusiastic - you could tell without them having to say it that they were pleased as punch to playing to this audience; and given the reception the band got, that the audience was pleased as punch to have them playing. Included in their set was a new piece or two that will appear on the band's upcoming second release. Traditionally, the Sunday openers are the surprise hit, the band you regret you slept in and missed -- Darwin's Radio continued that tradition. Great stuff.

Retroheads filled the slot vacated some months before by Anyone's Daughter. While I didn't find Retroheads to be retro, at least to my ears, I thought they had a good show. Their sound seemed more modern than retro, a bit heavier than I expected, though not heavy. Perhaps it was the presence of too much drums in the mix. Personally, I got into it more towards the second half of their set, and actually found the 70s-feel of the material from their first album more like what I expected. While Irishman Mike Mann is the lead vocalist for this Norwegian band (and for the set, we were all Norwegian), bassist Tore Bø Bendixen also sang a pair of songs (those from their first album, Retrospective, when he was also lead vocalist). If the stage was crowded before with people and gear, Retroheads boast a lineup of 7 members! They'd be Ann-Kristin Bendixen on backing vocals and additional keyboards (though her keys cut out during the set); Deborah Girnius on backing vocals, flute (or was it baton?) and acoustic guitar; Per Nordengen on keyboards and Hammond B3, Kjell Bergland on guitars, and Morten Venli on drums. Yet, Mann had a lot of energy and had an easy manner with the crowd... all whilst in a leather (?) kilt.

When Matt returned to the stage, he had with him a Viking helmet -- you know, a helm with horns -- that he wanted to present to George Roldan (festival organizer). Well, if you've ever been in charge of an event, you know you never really get to sit down and enjoy because you're running around here, there and everywhere. So, George was not in his seat ("tell him they'll be in my room," Mike says, a hint (?) of ribaldry) ... but luckily walked back into the venue at the right moment to get his horns.

Okay, about the parenthetic baton comment earlier... Girnius would on occasion twirl her flute above her head like a baton... wonder if Ian Anderson ever does that.

Magic Pie -- also from Norway -- were last year's Sunday surprise, although there'd been a buzz surrounding the band based on their debut album Motions Of Desire. On Friday afternoon the band held their CD release party for their new album Circus Of Life, which wasn't scheduled to be released until Sunday. And, their set was essentially a live airing of all of the album's tracks, almost in running order (there were some moved around) with "Motions Of Desire" in the middle and the closer, "Chance." This song had, with prompting by vocalist/guitarist Eirik Hanssen, the whole audience (or so it sounded) singing along with the song's chorus - "I will lead you to a better future / I will give shelter to the poor / Give me your hand and I'll show you the door // I will lead you to a better tomorrow / Come, let me show you my plans / I will give hope to those who feel lost..."

I've already mentioned that this band is vying for best-of-show honors with Pendragon, at least for me. They were terrific ... even with a little hiccup during "Chance" ... and that was a technical glitch not a performance glitch. I'm sure the next time they come to these shores, especially if they repeat at RoSFest at some future time, they'll be the headliners. That's just how good these fellows are. Remember the names: Eirik Hanssen, Kim Stenberg - lead guitar (excellent), Jan Torklid Johannessen - drums (great sound mix this time... though I couldn't see him at all), Allan Olson - vocals and guitars (great voice), Gilbert Marshall - keyboards and vocals, and Lars Petter Holstad - bass.

Now, I've been a Spock's Beard fan since I first heard The Light way back in 1995. I don't recall now what prompted me to purchase it - but it was surely on some sort of whim... perhaps a review in Progression. But, I liked it. Beware Of Darkness didn't grab me the same way (yet), but I declared "The future of progressive rock is here and it is called Spock's Beard?" in my review of Kindess Of Strangers, which has remained my favorite SB album to date - until their new one Spock's Beard, that is. So, I was quite anxious to see the band live in a full set -- the members had been guests of Nick D'Viriglio's when he performed Kevin Gilbert's The Shaming Of The True at ProgWest 2002. And even more so to hear the material from the new album live.

They didn't disappoint, playing five tracks from the new one, opening with "On A Perfect Day," and including "The Slow Crash Landing Man," "Is This Love," "All That's Left," and the four part epic "As Far As The Mind Can See." I would have loved to hear and see "With Your Kiss" live, too, if only for the tremendous percussion section (though I think it was played on tape as an intro), but there's only so much one can include in a 2 hour-plus set (which unfortunately also got started late...). From their catalog, the set included "Mouth Of Madness," "Crack The Big Sky," "Thoughts Part II," and lots more. It was a nice mix between mellow and rocking tracks. They were full of energy - certainly Alan Morse was... talk about being "on"! And Ryo was "frisky" I guess you could say, going on about about... well, I thought he was saying "butt face" but I learned later it was "butt paste"...? Well... as Nick said after Ryo finished pontificating, "ooohkaay." Morse also played a track from his new solo CD 4 O'Clock And Hysteria, "Return To Whatever" and earlier in the set Ryo entertained for a moment with a Japanese karaoke love song. Morse's guitar fell victim to the gremlins that roamed about, as he lost sound at one point, though I couldn't tell if it was just his monitor or out-front sound since he also stopped playing it, too.

RosFest 2007 was great, even with hiccups, glitches and delays. To see George and Tom seem to remain calm and relaxed throughout... got to give them kudos for that on top of pulling together a fantastic line up. RoSFest 2008 is currently scheduled for May 2 - 4, 2008... while no bands have been announced yet, you can be sure it will be an exciting line up.

[See Joshua's take on some of the bands -ed.]

*While I'm not going to go into great detail or get into "gossip mode" about it, suffice it to say that there were issues with the lights Friday night, beginning with what became nearly a 2 hour delay before Tempustry took the stage, due to, I'm told the lighting company arriving late. We did notice when we arrived about 5:30 p.m., that the truck was parked outside the venue, some rigging still inside. While this lighting issue didn't interfere directly with any performance -- it wasn't a safety issue, for example -- there came a time late into Starcastle's set where a unique, and unfortunate, situation could potentially have escalated were it not for the swift reaction and action by George Roldan and Tom Smith, the festival's organizers, and the wherewithal of Starcastle to carry on with their set as if nothing were amiss.

Sitting in the second row at stage left (B18, if you're curious), I had full view and hearing of what transpired. As you will no doubt also hear elsewhere, the person in charge of lights lost, for whatever reason, his own self-control to the point of belligerence, including yelling at the members of Starcastle to get off the stage. As mentioned, Starcastle carried on with their set -- the show must go on. When neither Tom nor event security could resolve the issue, the police were brought in ended that situation.

As a result, a new lighting company was brought in for Saturday, creating unavoidable delays as they did their best expedite putting up their own lights between bands.

Added: May 14th 2007
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow

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