Date of Performance: May 2 - May 4, 2008
Venue: Keswick Theater, Glenside, PA, US
RoSFest 2008 was unlike any previous RoSFest. As solid as the past 4 festivals were (certainly true of the previous 3, as I was there, not having been at the first), this one was the best organized festival - event! - I'd ever been to. And that's including some smaller scale events that I've been an active part of for work. Bands started on time, or near enough that you wouldn't have noticed; 5 minutes being a minor delay. And, not to knock Phoenixville, but we liked the atmosphere around Glenside even more. "Small town" like Phoenixville, but area seemed... safer. We enjoyed being able to stroll up and down Keswick Avenue. So, regardless of the performances (which over all were fabulous), this was a A festival. And some kudos to the folks at the Hampton Inn where we stayed. We imagined having to beg for an early check-in Friday despite my note when booking online, but the gal at the desk mentioned it before we did. And when their new lock system didn't respond to our cards, they were quick to fix the problem, as they said it might happen, and gave us a goody bag of chocolates, water, and popcorn by way of amends. (And with free wireless access standard to boot, I was in hotel heaven).
So, with the weekend already off to a great start, we were ready for a terrific weekend of prog. We were not disappointed, though not all the performances were A mostly due to sound. One other pre-report comment; throughout a large screen provided camera footage of the performances - or background displays, depending on the band. I did see multiple cameras, so perhaps the entire fest was filmed? I know that for sure Crack The Sky's set was filmed.
Day One: Friday
GPS. Although I was familiar with some of the parts, I wasn't at all familiar with this GPS unit. They turned in a very good set which included many tracks from their debut, naturally, as well as a pair of Asia tunes (both from One Nation, I believe, one being the title track). Guthrie is an amazing guitarist -- vocalist Payne joked that he was a combo of Steve Howe and Ted Nugent; he's certainly got the Nuge's hair. Substituting for Ryo Okumoto, who could not make the performance due to commitments in Japan, was Erik Norlander, who also had an opportunity to dazzle on a solo track of his own. This was not a band that blew me away, aside from individual performances - Govan and Norlander - but do earn a solid C in the grading scale.
The biggest part of Ambrosia was not present. That is, we did not hear their big hits. And that was perfectly ok in this setting; the reverse would have been ... well, sacrilege might be overstating it more than a tad, but certainly not what this audience wanted (even if there were a few in the crowd that also like their mainstream hits -- or perhaps there was just one in the crowd? erm, yes, I mean me.) Well, um, I was more familiar with those hits than what constituted their prog-focused set, including an interesting piece "Mama Frog" which included a spoken word section of "Jabberwocky" being recited. The audience members, at random, were asked to act out the poem if the spotlight were shown upon them - and there was 99% participation, with one hold out. Nope, don't mean me; I was not spotlighted. Which is good, because despite being an English major with an emphasis on Lit (my writing not in evidence), I did not know the substance of "Jabberwocky" (I know what it is, mind; just haven't memorized the words).
Anyway, that was not the sole content of their headlining set. They were very good, the vocals spot-on - eerily spot-on, as I could remember those voices from the hits as well as my brief brushes with Life Beyond L.A. and One Eighty. Not that necessarily they all were those voices, as back in the day, it was David Pack and Joe Puerta, and in 2008, it's Shem Von Schroeck and Joe Puerta. Of the non-pop material played -- a set that also included "Kamikaze," "And Somewhere I've Never Traveled," "Ready For Camarillo" (about which Puerta explained it's origin and their days of playing a strip club), "Nice, Nice, Very Nice," among others -- the song I did immediately recognize was "Holdin' On To Yesterday," which was stuck in my head for the rest of the evening (and in fact recurred often in the days following). We were even treated to a new piece, a jazzy r & b number that, I believe, was called "Let Me Down Slow" (full disclosure - my source is a post on ProgressiveEars.com from "Hunnibee.") I'm certain my collection will be growing by a few early Ambrosia albums soon.
Day Two: Saturday:
Blind Ego were the openers and turned in a great set, not least of which due to Kalle Wallner's guitar playing. But Paul Wrightson was in fine voice, John Jowitt thrumming those bass strings with a quiet ease (but seemed rather subdued where trousers were concerned). Their set included most of the debut Mirror as well as an Arena tune, "Crack In The Ice," and a smoking cover of Deep Purple's "Perfect Strangers" as an encore. As it happens, one my fave DP songs. I don't want to overlook Yogi Lang on keyboards, but his shining moment would come several hours later with RPWL. Wrightson seemed set the tone of "scruffy" frontmen in black, as he started the "trend" later followed by Lang and Circa's Billy Sherwood. Ritual's Patrik Lundstrom broke the chain in a red and black "jester's" top and flowing black pants (or a skirt; never quite was sure). I probably shouldn't admit this, but I wasn't thinking for a good part of Blind Ego's set, as I didn't at first recognize that it was Paul on vocals, other than I kept thinking "they sound a lot like Arena." When they played "Crack In The Ice," I smacked my head (mentally). Of course, on the CD he split vocal duties with John Mitchell, who I knew wasn't on stage. Nevertheless, he gave quite a performance.
Ritual took my head and I don't want it back. Fabulous. Stellar. That's all that really need be said. They played a mix of their rockers and acoustic numbers, and were quite personable on stage. Presence, I think it's called. :-). Just teriffic. As it was Ritual's 15th anniversary, their set dipped back to material from their earlier albums, including their first. Patrick mentioned how, in Sweden they aren't a band that necessarily make the press or the radio, but it surprises them (and thrills them) that there are folks in other countries that know their music. Of course, the new album, The Hemulic Voluntary Band formed a lot of the set. "Late In November" was nuanced; "The Groke" was perfectly sad and appropriately lumbering; we sang along with "Moomin' Took My Head" and "Humble Decision" (as Patrik mentioned European audiences did)... They included the "epic" "A Dangerous Journey." Yes. Perfect and for me THE best set of the whole weekend. How would RPWL follow?
RPWL followed Ritual with a fabulous set of their own. Much of their latest album The RPWL Experience was aired, as well as earlier pieces, including from their first (at least I seem to remember Yogi saying that). Aside from their latest, we heard material from World Through My Eyes, including one of my faves, "Roses", "Start The Fire," "3 Lights," "Wasted Land"; Stock's "Gentle Art Of Swimming" (another fave), among others. Their take on "This Is Not A Prog Song" included specially themed references like to Steve Miller, where "keep on rocking me baby" became "keep on (p)rocking me baby" and The Scorpion's "rock you like a hurricane" became "prog you like a hurricane." In a way, it made a funny song funnier... at least to me. And for their pop-culture/media influence track "Choose What You Want To Look At" included a special guest to sing along with Yogi... I didn't quite catch her name, but it sounded like Bea. Anyway, whilst this was on, there were a series of corporate logos and slogans flashing on the screen.
The headliner was Circa:, the group consisting of ex-Yes men Billy Sherwood (bass instead of guitar) and Tony Kaye along with current Yes drummer Alan White, and on guitar, Jimmy Haun. Their performance was great, but as the overall volume was loud, some of the finer details were lost for me. I know this has been a big topic of discussion on the RoSFest newsgroup and at Progressive Ears, so no more needs to be said. But, I do want to add that, whereas the first 6 bands of the weekend had had well balanced sound (the rumour about Keswick having great acoustics is not unfounded - I thought it was excellent), Circa:'s became at times a "wall of noise." Not that individual instruments couldn't be picked out, but that ... they weren't as defined as I would have liked. And bass seemed the most prominent (calls for "more guitar" could be heard... no "more cowbell" however).
Day Three: Sunday:
I wasn't really sure what to expect with Sunday's opener Credo. I had had heard nothing in advance, and the only review I had read was John "Bobo" Bollenberg's review of Field Of Vision, the band's debut. I'd been contacted by the band some time after they were announced for the festival and asked if I could "remove the review of Field Of Vision from the site as the album does not accurately reflect the current sound and line up of Credo, the album was recorded in 1993/1994!!!" Well, aside from the first part of that -- I didn't remove the review* -- I thought to myself, well.... Bobo said "What you get on this debut by Credo is typical British progressive rock as it has been for the last decade." I took that to mean either neo in the Marillion/Pendragon/IQ mold (sorry Martin) or more rock with progressive leanings, like Jump, for example. Bobo went on to write, "In contrast with the popular seventies there's more of a powerful rhythm present in the song structures which probably has to do with the fact that a lot of the gigs find their way into the pubs. Obviously that particular audience doesn't like the theatrical approach and wants music with bollocks. That's exactly what you get here: good old honest rock music with an emphasis on the guitar." So, you know, not Genesis then. And yet, Bobo also says, "With a name like Credo the link with charismatic figure Fish is rather obvious." Well, you can read his review. Anyway, after getting the email, I thought, well, if the new material was different from that... what to expect? Something new? Something that squarely said "prog rock in 2005"?
No... but it wasn't 1994 again either (or even 1984). However, I was not blown away by Credo and found their style to be influenced by Fish and falling somewhere away from the neo-prog camp and closer to the rock with prog leanings camp... for the most part. So, what I expected, in other words. That doesn't mean I didn't like them, nor that they weren't good, but just that... I was not surprised by anything. And coming after stellar performances from Ritual and RPWL who surprised me by being better than I hoped -- it was going to take A LOT to blow me away. Their material was entirely drawn from 2005's Rhetoric (so that tells you something), with the exception of one new track, yet untitled. Like Fish, the lyrics of Mark Colton are drawn from failed relationships all rendered in a poetic fashion. Musically, there are some Marillion-isms, notably in the keyboards of Mike Varty. But I have to give Credo kudos in that I never once thought "Marilli-clone" or "Fishy-clone" other than ... well, not subject matter, as the annals of music history are flooded with songs about "he/she done me wrong", but more in the lyrical rendering of that subject matter.
What gets bands is a lack of stage presence, but that didn't plague Credo. Mark is a humourous, often self-effacing front man, providing background to their songs, their context. And I always like that, especially when you are a band that is mainly an unknown quantity to most of those in attendance. I mean, an artist shouldn't just assume the crowd knows what you're playing. Oh, I suppose a band as big as Yes could get away with it. And I have to say, the band were quite happy to be performing and very appreciative of their audience.
It's kind of an odd position to be disappointed that a band played well and sounded good and sounded as you expected. That dreaded "meets expectations." Sure, you get the raise because you got the job done, but having worked your tail off, you wanted to exceed that. The danger of starting out good is that you have to be better than good next time? Sure, I had that happen to me, so I know how it feels. But, I was interested enough to pick up Rhetoric and so we - I - can update our library with a review of where the band are now. And where they are now is working on a third album.
The apocalypse came later that afternoon as Black Bonzo blazed a trail through Sunday afternoon and never looked back. Not only is their music 70's inspired, but oddly, the whole vibe on stage felt that way, too. Now, I haven't failed to notice some small measure of irony in that I'm disappointed that Credo were doing nothing new in the annals of modern British prog rock (IMO) and yet I'm going to be effusive about a band whose sound is straight outta the 70s. And I think the difference is that Black Bonzo are trying to recapture that vibe, and I can't say that Credo, necessarily, are trying to be the Marillion/Fish that was. (Too much competition for that in and out of the UK anyway).
In fact, I had goosebumps during Black Bonzo's set as certain favourite parts of favourite songs were rendered live - "The Well" and "Giant Games" come to mind. And no, I'm certain it wasn't the air conditioning. I had already been taken by Sounds Of The Apocalypse, so for BB it was an easy sell. But they easily could have sucked live. They didn't. It was a terrific and energetic ... electric ... set. With a set that included, mostly, their latest, they did dip back to their first album to include "These Are The Days Of Sorrow" and "Lady Of The Light" (if I recall correctly).
It was the second best performance of the weekend for me, right behind Ritual and just edging out RPWL. Just terrific. Oh yeh, because their equipment was stolen in Pittsburgh, they were without keys (though not without organ), so they accomplished this feat with a "instrument challenge" and nailed it. At end of Sunday, fans were asked to donate to help the band replace their gear. All told, we learned later, $824 was collected on behalf of the band.
The last two bands of the night switched slots from the original schedule. Wishbone Ash were flying in from England, where they had played the night before, so Crack The Sky graciously moved from the last band to the third band, though they were still the headliners. In fact, George informed us, the move was Crack The Sky's suggestion/offer.
I knew we would be in for something a bit different, as before Crack The Sky's set began, a large balloon - an inflatable ball at the very least - was being batted around amongst the crowd... and even made it to part of the band's set before it burst. Whether security burst the bubble or it just happened, I don't know. Although I had reviewed the band's Ghost, and had played their new one The Sale a couple of times, I wasn't really familiar with the material. And even after a good long live dose, I'm still not. Oh, it wasn't that I wasn't paying attention or anything, but I couldn't tell you what they played ... except I can. And that's because the set list was taped to Joe D'Amico's drum set, and that I didn't notice until I was going through my pictures. So, the set opened with "White Music" and included "Nuclear Apathy," "Go," "Zoom," "All American," "She's A Dancer," "Ice" and "Surf City." This was rock 'n' roll, best way to describe it, and I can tell you I was quite impressed with the twin... three lead guitars, though most often when there was a guitar duel, it was Bobby Hird and Rick Witkowski. They played well and kept a high energy level, but like many bands, I think they expected an energetic crowd. You know, dancing, yelling... carrying on. Didn't see much of that except during the Circa: set. This made them a tough read - enjoying performing, sure, but were they feeling the crowd? Hard to say. But they went over well and I think pleased their fans. There was one track, I don't recall which one, that began with a very cool bass line from Joe Macre. A highlight moment for me in their set, though I'm usually a guitar solo gal.
Towards the end of the set, guitarist and lead vocalist John Palumo came down into the crowd, right during the song, and let various fans strum his guitar. Of course, he had no way back up onto the stage, at least for that moment, so he turned around and watched the rest of the band concluded the song until he duck over to the stage access corridor. So, yeh, I think they were enjoying themselves. And in reporting covers, the band covered The Beatles' "I Am The Walrus," engendering more audience engagement.
Closing the evening were the other venerable veterans Wishbone Ash. Their's was and is a name that I knew even without knowing a thing about them. In fact, I was "cramming" before the festival by listening to Argus on the plane from CA to PA. And I liked what I heard. Live, they're a rockin', boogie-ing band with memorable songs - though I only recognized the tracks from Argus. I liked Wishbone Ash quite a bit, but this was the style of rock I grew up on, even if not on them specifically. Vocalist and co-lead guitarist Andy Powell related a story of how they were at one time thought to be a southern band because of their twin-leads. I really dug their set and have plans to go beyond Argus once I have fully digested it. This was a very polished band, the set was well paced, the song mix perfect -- yes, you could tell they were veteran stage warriors. Fabulous twin leads between Powell and Muddy Manninen -- and it wasn't until someone mentioned it that I learned why the drummer's name - Joe Crabtree - sparked a flicker of recognition... I'd seen him the year before with Pendragon.
As headliners often are, both these last two bands were louder than most of the rest, but, unlike with Circa:, it was a balanced loud. There was still separation between the instruments and I could make out each instrument; it wasn't a wall of noise, so whilst my ears felt numb for a while after the final note from Wishbone Ash (and actually, it seemed for a couple of days after), they each took advantage of the great sound the Keswick has without trying to flatten crowd and the building. Okay, enough whining about the volume.
Mark Rites of Spring Festival 2008 an unparalleled success. Great new venue with a similar intimacy that the Colonial had, but with room for the audience to grow. I suspect it will with Frost* and, undoubtedly, Nektar announced for 2009. Add to that the just announced Abigail's Ghost, and George, Tom and company are well on their way to maybe topping this year.
I mean, Yes ain't the same band they were with album 1, but the sound of that album itself hasn't changed in 30 plus years, but folks have got to know what to expect :-)