NEARFest X (June 2008)


Date of Performance: June 20 - 22, 2008
Venue: Zoellner Arts Centre, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, US

NEARFest X was remarkable in many ways. Firstly, of course, because it was the 10th edition of the festival, the second longest running major progressive music festival in the US (ProgDay, out of which NEARfest grew, more or less, has a few more years on NEARFest at 14). Secondly, it's remarkable because it's the end of one era and the start of a new. Long time organizers Rob LaDuca and Chad Hutchinson have turned over the reins to Jim Robinson, Ray Loboda, and Kevin Feely (all from the NJ Proghouse), the latter of whom has been the stage manager for NF for many (if not all) of the 10 festivals.

Thirdly, NFX was remarkable because it had another remarkable line up of artists. The draw for me, at least before I bought tickets, was the chance to see Echolyn again*, to see Banco again, and the long dormant but recently resurrected quartet, Liquid Tension Experiment. After tickets had been purchased (or maybe just while I was waiting on the Patron lottery queue), the final draw was announced, Fish.

The rest of the festival line up was remarkable because... it marked only the second time Larry Fast - Synergy - performed live (solo) and the first time in the US. It also had the distinction of a rare live US appearance from Peter Hammill. Naturally, Banco doesn't get over to North America very often, and did have to cancel their BajaProg appearance due to the ill health of founder/keyboardist Vittorio Nocenzi (who was energetically healthy Sunday night). They're also scheduled for Le Festival Des Musiques Progressives De Montreal on September 13.

Traditionally, these reports go in the order of performance... But instead, I'd like to start out with the more notable performances and work from there.

The bands that open each day - Saturday and Sunday, I mean - have an added challenge: wake the audience up as well as entertain them. The impression - though not necessarily accurate - is that the audience is light for those 11am bands, as one is recovering from Friday and Saturday night revelries; and those that are there are not fully awake. At least this year, it was nearly a full house for both Koenji Hyakkei and Mörglbl, and if anyone was asleep, they woke up fairly fast. The first are a Japanese quintet formed by Yoshida Tatsuya (drums/vocals) of Sammla Mammas Manna and who reminded me very much of Magma, and yet not entirely. Maybe it was the vocals of Nami Sagara and the opera-jazz style the music had, seasoned with some stunning soprano sax work from Komori Keiko. I knew nothing of them going into the festival, unable to get a copy of their recent CD Angherr Shisspa before the festival, but came away pleasantly surprised. It was a fiery performance, making them also akin to Kenso. In my opinion, and in the opinion of others I've seen (mostly Progressive Ears postings), they were a highlight of the fest.

Sunday's opener was also a surprise. France's Mörglbl are... anything metal band - jazz metal, rock metal... That is, they'll play jazz at metal speed/volume/intensity. I had had their new CD for review for some weeks, but didn't play it until the Saturday night before their performance. My expectation was quirky avant-garde like... oh French TV, Miriodor, etc. Yes, but I think heavier. Christophe Godin is an amazing guitarist - with quite an amazingly colourful guitar - lemon yellow, neon pink... it's quite a sight. You know, one often says "he makes the guitar sing" about some guitarist or another. Godin literally made it sing... okay, not literally literally, but never was the phrase more appropriate or apt than then. Add in some great bass playing (Ivan Rougny) and drumming (Aurélien Ouzoulias) and you have a tight trio. Excellent. While Mörglbl are an instrumental band, for an encore they played a great version of "Smoke On The Water," with vocals, which Godin handled superbly.

Is it possible to play fast and tight? Well, yes, Mörglbl proved it, but rewinding a few hours, there was the incredible quartet of Liquid Tension Experiment, headlining Saturday's slate. Tony Levin just kills on bass, and while I'm usually a six-string guitar gal, it was Levin who drew my attention, though he wasn't necessarily drawing attention to himself. Stick, bass, bass with the funk fingers, he can do it all. Fabulous. And Mike Portnoy is a monster on drums... And it might be understating that John Petrucci is an amazing guitarist (though he might have been outdone in many ways by Godin). And then there's Jordan Rudess on keys... I'm not sure why, but his keyboard rig rotated... so he could be at one moment facing the band, the next facing the audience and the next facing stage right (left? Oh, I forget from my drama days). When their set was over, I just said "wow." They were hot. I think in the fullness of time, once the euphoria of their electrifying set has faded, I'm sure I'll be a bit more objective... and remember all the finer details. I recall them playing "Rhapsody In Blue." And I know "When The Water Breaks" was in the set (a reference to when, while recording their second album, Petrucci rushed to the hospital because his wife was giving birth. That "idle time" led to the trio jamming in the studio, those jams leading to Liquid Trio Experiment - Spontaneous Combustion). While I have some of the set lists from the show**, this isn't one of them, but from a posting at the message board at Petrucciforum.com, here goes:

Acid Rain
Kindred Spirits
Blaxident
Freedom Of Speech
(improv jam)
Another Dimension
State Of Grace
Universal Mind
(improv jam)
Rhapsody In Blue
When The Water Breaks
Osmosis
Paradigm Shift

Fish. Although I'd not heard his last 3 albums (!), including the recent 13 Star, it was because of him I was at NEARFest X. As I said, he wasn't my only reason for going, but if you rewind my life 23 years (give or take) to that fateful day when I first listened to and fell in love with Misplaced Childhood... well, it was that album that introduced me to Marillion, and it was Marillion (some years later in 1991) that prompted at first a search for rarities that lead me to other prog, buying CDs of artists that "sounded like" them and then who they sounded like and then other classic artists and new artists (Echolyn Spock's Beard among them). I was sharing my discoveries with my friend via comp cassettes, writing little "reviews" of the music... well, you can read the whole story somewhere on this site in an About page [see link at end of article if interested -ed.], but the key point is, I wouldn't have started this review site if weren't for, and wouldn't have had my tenure at Progression if weren't for, and thus, I wouldn't have discovered other prog artists if it weren't for, and wouldn't... have started an 8 year history of attending NF if it weren't for... Yes, it all goes back to that 1985 album. The two times I could have seen Fish locally, I was either already committed to another concert (ironically, it was Marillion) or otherwise not available (Fish was playing the House of Blues a week-plus before his NFX show)? so, NFX was going to be IT.

So, did sitting in nervous anticipation of a Fish concert receive a payoff? Yes and no. My initial, out of the theatre impression was "Fucking Fantastic" but with a few days now behind me, that has been tempered somewhat. There were flaws, not in performance necessarily, but Fish's mic did seem to cut out when he was belting out. Whether he was moving it further away at those penultimate moments so it softened the impact, I don't know, but that's what seemed like. But, the thrill of hearing "That Time Of The Night" live... ah. Well, naturally, "Hotel Hobbies" that includes "That Time...," but... well, I often find affinity with the line "If you ask me/how I'm feeling inside/I can honestly tell you/we've been taken on a very long ride?" and sure wanted to belt it out right along with Fish. But the reserved NF crowd meant I did so only in my head. Although Fish was often encouraging more audience participation... it just doesn't really happen at seated prog venue... in the US. And overall, it wasn't the best sound mix I'd heard (other bands had more clarity), but Fish and company gave it their all. A few nights before, Fish explained, he had been in New York and won an award for his "Fish on Fridays" show at Planet Rock (and maybe because he's Scottish, too, but Fish does do a very good Sean Connery... actually from a distance he could be a thinner, taller Connery... or Patrick Stewart... actually, I had this thought: roll Phil Collins, Stewart and Connery into one, stretch the new hybrid out a bit and... well, then I thought better of it. But Fish looks and is quite nimble for a man of 50...).

Anyway, Fish's set was split between songs from Clutching At Straws - which was expected, as we'd been told it would - and the new one 13 Star, it being the new one, how could it not... and thus, billed the "Clutching At Stars" show. It has been some 20 years since CAS came out, after all. A track from Fellini Days ("So Fellini") and one from Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors ("Cliché") were also included (fab guitar solo from Frank Usher).

Because I was unfamiliar with them, the 13th Star material didn't register as they should. No fault of the band or Fish or even the sound issues. I did find "Manchmal" distinctive, and "Square Go." Fish's entire set list was (though I think there was a swap with "Cliché" and "Sugar Mice"):

Slainte Mhath
Circle Line
Square Go
Openwater
So Fellini
Manchmal
Hotel Hobbies - Warm Wet circles - That Time Of the Night
Zoe 25
Arc Of The Curve
Dark Star
Faith Healer
White Russian
Sugar Mice
Cliché
Incommunicado
Last Straw

I mention Fish first, because it leads into a much shorter anecdote about Echolyn. Because, in the way I described above, Fish led me to Echolyn back in 1991 or so. I picked up Echolyn because... oh, something on the sticker that Rhino Records in Claremont used put on their prog CDs. So I played it. And while I wasn't overwhelmed by it, I did like a few tracks on it - notably "Until It Rains." "Great Men" is the track you'll find more often in their live sets and was in their NEARfest X set as well, even though Brett says he hates the song. But, I liked Echolyn enough to pick up Suffocating The Bloom and have pretty much kept up to date with Echolyn, except for their latest, The End Is Beautiful.

So, anyway, about their NEARfest performance. I thought they were great. Ray Weston (vocals, occasional bass and guitar) sang very well, their sound was good. I know some found fault with their stage banter, but... you know, you don't go to see a band live to judge their stage banter. At least they interacted amongst themselves and with the audience, talking about the songs they were playing. I like that, I like to know about the songs. Especially new material. About that: They didn't include any new new material; that is, from the album they're currently working on. But the material from TEIB was new to me. "Too Late For Everything" from the soon-to-be-remastered Cowboy Poems Free nearly made me cry; and I'm not one for public displays of emotion. But the whole meaning of the song, the video playing in the background... just about got to me. They opened the set with the rocking "Georgia Pine," followed with the fan favourite "As The World," and then "Entry," "Winterthru" and... well, here's the setlist:

Georgia Pine
As The World
Too Late For Everything (with video accompaniment)
Great Men
Entry
Winterthru
The Cheese Stands Alone
Lovesick Morning
Texas Dust
The End Is Beautiful
Mei (excerpts)

Encore

Never The Same
Those That Want To Buy [methinks, the setlist just says "Those"]

I thought they put on a better show... or at least I liked them better... this time around versus their 2002 performance. For me, they seemed spot on and engaging. Best performance of the weekend? Maybe not, but one of my favorites to be sure. And one that has me itchin' to revisit their back catalog (even though I did on the flight back to Cali - MP3 players are amazin' things).

[It's been bugging me all week - Weston reminded me of someone elseL it's Del Taco's "beast"... ]

Banco. What can be said about Banco. This is my third time seeing them and they are just as great. Francesco Di Giacomo seemed more "tired" then last time, but he is a bit older than he was then and so maybe... maybe he does get "tuckered out." In fact, there was one point where he was sitting on the drum riser that I started getting a little concerned. He put his head in hand for a moment; I thought maybe he was feeling ill. The rest of the band played on, and if something were amiss, I'm sure guitarist Filippo Marchegianni would have said something to the band somehow. But no, Di Giacomo otherwise seemed fine, so I guess my concern was unwarranted. Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, Vittorio Nocenzi had been ill earlier in the year, but he seemed quite well. The rest of the group was in tip-top form, and just... wow. Terrific set, though still the only peace I recognized immediately was from Canto Di Primavera. I guess I played the heck out of that CD. Other pieces were drawn from Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Darwin, Io Sono Nato Libero, Garafono Rosso, among others.

Complete set list, as posted at PE by Chad:

R.I.P.
Metamorfosi
Il Ragno
Cento Mani E Centro Occhi
Emiliano
750,000 Anni Fa... L'Amore?
Canto Di Primavera
Garofano Rosso
La Conquista Della Posizione Eretta
L'Evoluzione
Traccia II

Non Mi Rompete
Traccia

Two insightful things that Di Giacomo said that night. First, at the beginning of their set, that he didn't know if this would be their best show, if their last one was, or if some future one was, but they would play with all their hearts. And really, what more can one ask. Later he said that it didn't matter if you played well or not, but that you played with heart. And you know, he's right about that, too. And they did.

The weekend opened with synthesist Larry Fast - Synergy. One of the pieces he played was called "The Metropolitan Suite" accompanied by vintage footage of New York in the early part of this century. Other pieces were accompanied by computer generated animation, selected perfectly (and at times hypnotic). The entire set of music was new to me as I'd not heard any Synergy pieces before... well, the night before on my MP3 player doesn't count (I was listening to Games). The "danger" of playing synthesizer music, especially to an audience of folks not all necessarily there to see the artist in question, is that the audience will either get so relaxed or bored that they drift off. That was not the case with Larry Fast, partially because of the visuals (which helped Steve Roach and Robert Rich in their spotlight sets in previous fests) and partially because Fast kept attention by sharing information "behind the scenes." How he constructed these pieces, long before computers and synths could do as easily now what was done painstakingly then. But, it didn't become lecture either, but an entertaining and informative set. Other pieces that Larry played included "Phobos" and "Warriors" (the encore). I could easily - and will - get to exploring more of Larry Fast's work.

Peter Hammill played a similar set to Larry Fast. (Say what?) Well, in that it was he and he alone. No synths for Hammill, but just piano or guitar and voice. Okay, I'm one those who don't "get" Hammill. Maybe if I knew what he was singing about (the lyrics), I might more. I get the feeling that there is a lot of abstractness. I did get that some of the songs were about relationships? One, I'm not sure the title... I think it was "A Way Out" has a line "out of gas" which, given the current "oil crisis" (well "oil price crisis") struck me as funny. Which I uh, did, utter a well, not laugh, but a grunt aloud... quickly covered with a quiet cough. Not that I was laughing at Hammill, but at what it made me think of. Okay, I'll say these aren't really songs, per se. Tone poems? Poems set to music? That sort of thing. I just think for a main set artist at a festival with a mixed crowd, it was a little stark and ... not boring or anything, but... Well, I'm sure the same kind of thing could be said about any artist based on your point of view, that a long set works better with a tailored audience. I mean, would LTE go over well on poetry night? I think not. I do get that it's not like Hammill was a local, which the spotlights have generally been (that is, from the US not overseas), so, a lengthy set makes the trip worthwhile.

Hammill is not a fabulous singer, but he is a fab piano player and pretty good guitar player. I didn't snag the set list at the time, but - where I usually find them - at PE this was posted by "LaRossa":

Piano: Don't Tell Me, Too Many of My Yesterdays, Friday Afternoon, A Better Time, Black Room

Guitar: Amnesiac, Shingle Song, Central Hotel, Driven, Last Frame, Patient

Piano: The Lie, A Way Out, Traintime, Still Life

Encore: Stranger Still (on piano)

Radio Massacre International are another group where, if you have a mixed taste audience, a long set might seem too long. I love electronic music - Tangerine Dream, Steve Roach, etc. So I've no qualms about the music itself, but... I think perhaps, for me, a series of shorter pieces would have worked better than a few long pieces. I don't know. At least the quiet attentiveness that is prevalent at these festivals seemed perfect. Some quiet on the edge of sleep? It could be that relaxing. Floydian soundscapes for the most part, accompanied by visuals. And given that their latest release Rain Falls In Grey is a tribute to Syd Barrett, not too surprising. Funny, I talked with former PW contributor Clayton Walnum before the set and said "oh, they're electronic" when asked what they're like (or maybe his son asked me that). Anyway, the guitar, bass, drum rock piece that opened the set made me wonder if I had remembered all wrong their 2002 set at ProgWest. Then their second piece began and... well, I learned later the rock element is a newer evolution of the duo (now trio). Included, too, was a Theremin (expected). And folks might be excited to learn that there were TWO Mellotrons on the stage (borrowed or brought over, I don't know... as I understand they're heavy and cumbersome, I think they may have been borrowed (as were Anglagard's a few years back).

Guests were Cindy Lee Rule on violin -- well, a v-bodied violin. A strange looking thing that made pretty sounds. And yes, I do still mean the violin; cheeky people!-- and Premik Russell Tubbs (if my info is correct) on saxophone, which/who also made pretty sounds, but didn't look odd at all, neither sax nor performer.

So, while the Fast set was perfectly placed and paced - high marks. I think, personally, Hammill and RMI might have been better placed as "spotlights." Hammill certainly. On their own tour outside a festival, it'd be a different thing altogether - your audience is there to see you, hear you. But as I said, I'm sure the Hammill fans will say the same thing about any of the other artists on the bill?

Well, I think this round up is missing only Discipline. The recently reformed Discipline. Well, they were disciplined, I'll say that. Not much "stage presence" though they were all there. Perfunctory, I think is the word. Now, I understand they didn't rehearse much (or maybe that was LTE?). And I know that Matthew Parmenter is a bit stage shy (he said so himself in his spotlight performance at NEARfest 2005), so that might explain why he didn't step out from behind his keyboard. Their set list basically included all of their "C" songs - "Circuitry," "Crutches," "Canto IV," "Carmilla," as well other non "C" songs - "Into The Dream," "Rogue" (a new song I believe). The execution was very good and Parmenter has a fabulous voice. But... I don't know... the performance was a little dry, I guess. I've not mentioned them last because I thought they were the worst. Just that I had very little to say. They came, they played, they went. No encore, by the way, though I think their set filled their allotted time and so no room for an encore.

Mörglbl received 2 encores; Banco, of course, did. I think Echolyn had two... I was at a "disadvantage" being behind the lighting board because I could see the set list, could tell that some bands were going to have scheduled encores. But, I have to say, for it being the first time since 2003 I was not in the 1st or 2nd row***, Row H of the Grand Tier are pretty great seats. Full view of the stage, no obstructions... yeh, I'm thinking "front row" ain't all it's cracked up to be. I say this sincerely, by the way.

All in all, NEARfest 2008 was a remarkable festival and will go down in the record books as one of the best. I don't know if it was the best, or one of the earlier ones were, or the next one will be, but it was presented with a lot of heart.

Oh gosh, the between set activities. Well, Chad thanked a lot of people for being there these last 10 years (or most of), including the Zoellner folks (excellent job). Rob revealed the contents of his brief case - a stuffed frog (not a real frog stuffed, a toy), a scuba mask, a US flag and... grey briefs. "It is a briefcase after all," Rob quipped. Later Chad presented long time NEARfest logo artist (whose famous for a whole lot more) Roger Dean with a plaque, thanking him for his work and presence the last 8 years. Larry Fast and Michelle Moog-Koussa talked about the Bob Moog Foundation, encourage folks to visit their booth and donate. And... the funniest moment came before Banco's (slightly delayed) set -- after introducing and thanking the NEARfest staff (stage techs, keyboard techs (Jim Rezek and Dennis Haley, etc.), out came Colonel Sanders (reportedly Dave Kerman of ReR USA and a host of bands including Presént, Thinking Plague) to present Chad and Rob a tub of KFC chicken. I'm sure there was some meaning to it... then came out a woman dressed as a chicken singing a chicken rap (har har; I didn't make the comment up, however; I think it was part of her song). She gave Rob and Chad each "hats" of twisted balloons. The new organizers, a bit later, gave Chad a slinky black dress (naturally) and to Rob, a "man purse." And plaques. Well photos of all that are in the Gallery, along with more pics of the bands performing. In some cases "a whole lot more pics."

* and yet again at CalProg this coming October. ** the lighting guy (and/or the video display guy) had copies and I'd snap pics of them from where I sat in row H; but they didn't have all of them (at least visible). *** In 2001, I lucked into a 2nd row pit ticket; 2004 (I think) onwards, I've done the Patron thing and sat first row Pit, then first row Orch right of center, left of center, and far left (2005, 2006, and 2007). Best view overall, this year in row H... and for picture taking, having the 18x optical zoom with 800 ISO... perfect (and using the digital zoom, sometimes tooooo close to the action. The nose hairs on... just kidding).

About Me [not updated in while, however]

Added: June 29th 2008
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
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Artist website: www.nearfest.com
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