NEARFest 2007 (June 2007)

Date of Performance: June 21 - 23, 2007
Venue: Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, US

While in the fullness of time it won't matter when I wrote this and when I posted it, I felt it necessary now to mention that, in as much as it was written a while after the festival (in July), as I begin below, it's also been awhile since I wrote it... (and might well be subtitled "with lotsa footnotes"...)

Because so much time has passed since I was at NEARFest 2007, so much of what I thought specifically is now mere shadows of memory. Most of my strongest recollections of NEARfest 2007 center around the two bands I wanted to see - Izz and Magenta. But, before I get to that, I'll let the rest of my thoughts come tumbling out.

This was probably the smoothest edition yet, as everything ran pretty much on time, the only delay occurring just before Magma's headlining set, and even then it was only about half an hour. At one point during their set, Christian Vander, James MacGaw, Phillipe Bussonnet and, if I recall correctly, Emmanuel Borghi jammed together on jazzy little number -- perhaps it was Coltrane? What struck me was how very much like a sax MacGaw's guitar sounded, which I'm sure was intentional. It was a cool moment. Magma performed a new piece that they are still working on; it will be released in early 2008, I think I recall Stella Vander saying. My perspective for most of Magma's set meant I could not see Christian at all (except his hands); and I'm not "daring" enough, nor really physically able to, move about the hall and crouch down. During a break between songs, 2 folks sitting next to me left their seats, and at the next break I hopped over two seats... and still couldn't see much of Vander. Funnily enough, I suppose, I made the "shift seats" decision in the midst of one of the pieces ... and there came a point where I thought, "ah, it's about to end, I'll move then"... and it didn't end... and then it seemed it was about to end... and it didn't end... and so on for a good 15-20 more minutes. Such is a Magma track, methinks. And, because I'm very conscious of whose sitting around and behind me, I didn't want to interrupt their viewing any more so than I had by my photographing the festival.*

The prettiest guitar was in the hands of Bob Drake, Saturday's spotlight artist. Powder blue with what looked like reflective silver siding. Doing a little research, it appears it is a Gretch, perhaps the Electromatic Hollow Body. My pic of Bob with the guitar appears here (larger in the gallery) and a link to the Gretch website (for a better view of the guitar itself) is here. Drake, if you aren't familiar with him (and I wasn't), is a musical humourist, though not humour for humour's sake, but that sort of wry humor that, if on the first glance seems silly, you know there's some underlying point or message or story. This much I took away from his set at least, as I've yet to delve into any albums. His guests were Dave Campbell (guitars, bass, vocals) and Dave Kerman (drums and percussion, when he wasn't napping), and Oliver Tejedor (keyboards, of NeBeLNest).

There were four types of folks who stayed for Hawkwind (a fifth type of folk being those who left after Magenta). The first type, and there were 4 or 5 of them in the pit rows that I could see, were headbanging with a vengeance. In fact, I suspect they visited their chiropractor the Monday after. So, who says all (North American) prog fans are staid during the sets and let it out only during the pauses between songs? The second type was those who stayed, but walked out during or immediately afterward. The third type, those who stayed and perhaps came away a new fan, but not yet at the headbanging stage. And four, those who were entertained, but not quite impressed. I guess I'd be in the fourth camp.

Of course, I'm a prog rock fan at heart. And I didn't know what to expect from Hawkwind, really. I had heard a couple of pieces some years ago on a compilation -- Ambient - A Brief History Of Ambient, Volume 1 to be exact** -- and so had a certain impression. And to prepare, I purchased their recent release Take Me To Your Leader, though it arrived two days before my flight, and so I had only heard one track.

If I might digress a moment: for my personal home use I make a compilation of tracks of artists appearing at NEARFest to get a taste of what to expect, and for Hawkwind I wanted something more recent than what appeared on the 1993 Ambient CD, so, ... Leader was it.***

So anyway, didn't really know what to expect from Hawkwind -- spacey rock or rock about space ? and in the end, I expected more of the former and less of the latter. The visuals were interesting, some great artwork being used, but... most of the songs sounded pretty much the same to me, at least using the same chords? I don't know if they decided to use their most "commercial" material, the most "rock-like" or what, but well, after what had lead up to their set, it was... not as varied as I'd hoped. They're good at what they do, and sure looked like they were having fun.****

La Maschera Di Cera were perhaps the only band I was unfamiliar with that delivered what I expected, emotional, epic Italian progressive rock. While not quite the caliber of Banco yet, they were very good. Of course, I've enjoyed other Fabio Zuffanti projects, so I fully expected to enjoy this one. Again, all I had was a sample from Lux Ade (the other CD I bought along with Hawkwind). Though, for some reason, I thought Fabio would be older? I fully expect that this band will become a favorite of mine.

In a way, the rest of the bands are kind of a blur. I thought Indukti did very well, but I'm a sucker for a well-played violin and we got plenty of that. I did enjoy their set and was just a few "w"s short of wow (which leaves "o"). They played with intensity, certainly Ewa Jablonska did, and I think with a few more years behind them they'll be fantastic.

Pure Reason Revolution, the other "youngsters" on the bill (if not in age, certainly in number of albums), also did very well. They sort of encapsulated a number of the other bands on the bill in their style - kinda spacey like Hawkwind (or the Hawkwind I was expecting), dark at times like Indukti and NeBeLNeST, and accessible at times like Izz and Magenta. The vocals of Chole and Jamie blend together quite well and I have to say, I was well impressed.

I've only had a nibble of NeBeLNeST, so I truly didn't know what to expect (despite the track, nibble, on the comp.). As much as it might bristle some for me to say, a certain range of artists are signed to Cuneiform records, so there's a certain general expectation. Arty, avant-garde, jazz-inflected, perhaps dark... That is, I wouldn't have expected symphonic prog, or, even less likely, mainstream pop. So, in that regard, they were what I expected. But they weren't as "avant" as I expected (and were a bit symphonic) ... I rather liked their set. Interesting, dark music... and I'm all for dark music. I didn't quite make the leap and buy any of their CDs... so, I'm still sorta on the fence there...

So ... what about the two bands I came to see? Well, I'm biased because I'm fans of the bands in question, though that doesn't mean if they sucked I wouldn't say so. Fortunately, they didn't suck, they were both great.

Izz's set was energetic and lively, though they got to a slow start with "My River Flows" from their recent album of the same name. From then on they were "on" and in very good form. For me, their set was too short, but I'd seen them higher up on the bill at past festivals, so I was expecting to hear a longer set, missing some of my favorites. I'm not sure why they were the openers and not NeBeLNeST, but maybe the latter's profile in the avant-garde, RIO end of things is larger than Izz's is in the prog rock end?? Or, and perhaps more likely, Izz do play on the east coast often, so a live appearance here isn't a rare thing, whereas it would be for NeBeLNest. Nevertheless, it was a great way to start off a Saturday.

They were followed by Magenta. Prog or not, they put on a great show. I always feel... odd when bands like Magenta, Pallas, etc. play, as I feel they expect a lot more interaction with their audiences. But rather than be a rowdy, fist-pumping, etc., etc. sort of crowd ('cept those Hawkfans), we're attentive, watching what the fingers are doing to create those lovely sound-shapes. While I sometimes think that Christina on record is just a smidgen off where I think the vocal should be, live she nails it. I mean, this was my Wow! moment of the whole weekend -- I think it came during "Anger" where I was just floored.***** I just get all caught up and... well, prog or not, they put on a great show!

The weekend was begun with the Progressive Legends Showcase - Fusion Friday. First on were One Shot, a Magma off-shoot. I felt that they were a little too loose and a little out of sync, which left me feeling rather ho-hum about their performance. I'll admit that fusion is not necessarily my forte, being more a prog rock gal at heart, as said. But having heard a variety of artists in the category, both metal-fusion and jazz-fusion and rock-fusion (my favorites including Planet X, Niacin, and Kenso), I had certain expectations of being wowed. I was not wowed. (Interestingly, they were much more in-sync for the Magma set two days later...)

I was not wowed by Allan Holdsworth, either. Oh, naturally he, Chad Wackerman (drums) and Jimmy Johnson (bass) played well, but perhaps a little too... self-focused? At least on Holdsworth's part. Or maybe that was just me. I will say that as I was looking through my pics, I was struck by what slim hands Wackerman has; it's hard to believe he generated so much power from them. Ah but with a surname like Wackerman, he couldn't be anything but a drummer (except maybe a gardener, I guess?). So tight and well performed, but the set seemed... I don't know... It didn't leave an impression on me. Maybe it was the feeling of distance with the trio being set so far back on stage (someone said it was because the amp was set up while Secret Oyster were on stage and Holdsworth didn't want to move it forward for his set and reset everything. I can understand, the set changes were swift and the house wasn't cleared, so having perhaps set up once, you wouldn't want to have to redo). Closer up, there might have more of a connection...

And while I wasn't blown away by Secret Oyster, who played in between One Shot and Holdsworth, I felt of the three, they had the strongest, most lively and entertaining set. Here they were after 30 years playing their first-ever show in the US (they're from Denmark). I don't know how much prep time they had, rehearsals and such, but I really enjoyed their music. They were definitely the highlight of evening and I was impressed enough to pick up their Sea Son CD despite the mixed reviews it has received here on this site.

Finally, going back to Sunday, I need to mention Robert Rich. I started to get interested in electronic music after getting hooked on the video game Myst back in 1994. The atmospheric music heard in each of the worlds was so serene ... and eerie in a way, as I truly felt alone. Though I think I started down the electronic music path some other way as well, though I can't recall whether it was reading about Steve Roach in i/e magazine or I picked up the magazine because Roach was interviewed. At any rate, Roach lead me to Rich (which also lead to someone loaning me Ambient - A Brief History Of Ambient, Volume 1 that I later purchased myself) ... Rich's performance was not about Rich himself, it was about the results of what he was doing twisting nobs, pressing keys, moving patches, etc., accompanying visuals from Atlas Dei the new DVD described as "A lyrical journey through time and space into the mystery of our cosmos. In this feature length film, musician Robert Rich and filmmaker Daniel Colvin weave the strands of science, myth, and poetic vision into a powerful and compelling tapestry of the human enigma." The result Sunday afternoon? Beautiful music and stunning images that made for a very satisfying spotlight set.

In retrospect, NEARFest 2007 will be looked on as another great entry in their 9 year long tradition. Something for everyone and all tastes, which is what the festival aims to do. The progressive music tent is very large, growing larger every day as there continues to be new permutations of progressive music, all to keep progressive music progressing. No, there weren't the broad-appeal headliners as in past years, as I'd say Hawkwind and Magma have a niche audience (even if that niche is large). But, how can you have diversity if you only pick those broad-appeal bands? I mean, not everyone is fan of [insert your own choice of broad-appeal artist] and if they were, it'd be called [that artist]fest with like-styled support artists.

Hmm... more op-ed than report, eh? Well, I'm looking forward to what NEARFest 2008 -- or NEARFest X, as it's termed -- will bring. Already, a re-formed Discipline are scheduled. [and now also Banco, Liquid Tension Experiment, Echolyn and Koenji Hyakkei]

*So, for those who were behind me in Row B, around seats 4, 5, 6, 7... now you know why I kept shooting away... and if you didn't notice, all the better.

**The tracks: "The Forge Of Vulcan" (Quark, Strangeness And Charm, 1977) and "Lifeform" (PXR5, 1977) [isn't that some planet on Stargate: SG1?]

***Anecdote: I brought the comp with me, intending to listen to it on the trip from home to the airport, which I did, and then, once we were in PA, from the Philly airport to the hotel, which I did not... because... unfortunately, I stupidly left the CD in the car at long term parking at LAX... (sigh)... where it sat baking for the better part of 4 days. Oh well. Since the CD itself survived the ordeal, although the jewel case did not, I can't assume I was being punished - by proxy - by the copyright police.

**** (Yes, more footnotes) And yeh, I know, saying the "negative" things will have me vilified by some of you (the same lot of you at PE, I suspect, "jumping" on others who felt the same [wink]) and getting agreement from those who felt the same as I. So, before the first group fires up and uses the comment feature, let me add one last thing. In many ways, a lot of the music in each set sounded samey to me - except maybe for Izz and Magenta, and perhaps that only because they are at the popish end of the prog spectrum they had more "songs" and also because I'm more familiar with their material than with anyone else on the bill, so I recognize the songs and so know they're different. [The PE reference was relevant in July... not so much so now in October...]

***** (dear god, not another footnote!) As I posted at e-Prog, and was apologized to by Chris, their sound mixer (who didn't have to apologize), Magenta were loud. Clear, crisp sound, but the volume was loud. What I recall now and didn't post there is that Pallas were loud, too. Perhaps because I so enjoyed their set, 4 years on I'd totally forgotten about that. Which means most likely, the next year's "loudest" of the festival will have me forget it was Magenta this year, remembering only that I so enjoyed their set.

Added: October 15th 2007
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
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