RoSFest 2010 (May 2010)

Date of Performance: April 30 - May 2, 2010
Venue: The Majestic, Gettysburg, PA, US

On an overcast yet not very rainy weekend, RoSFest 2010 moved from its home of the last two years - the Keswick Theater, Glenside - to the Majestic Theatre in Gettysburg. The Majestic is situated on a spur of a roundabout (how appropriate for a prog festival, yes?) right in the heart of the city. The Battle of Gettysburg is very much a part of the fabric of this town. One need only walk a few feet before they encounter some historical spot. It is surrounded by the National Military Park - the battlefield - that has preserved the key locations of the Civil War battle that took place July 1-3, 1863.

The Majestic was a perfect setting for the festival -- a very nice theater, roomy lobby, upstairs balcony lobby area that housed the dealer room, comfortable seats with great sightlines; helpful staff and anything one needed was a short walk away - food, entertainment, shopping and, probably foremost on the minds of prog fans, besides the music itself, beer and spending money. And, if you wanted, you could book a room at the Gettysburg Hotel, a mere 200-plus feet from the venue; the main official hotel for the fest was the Eisenhower Hotel about five miles away. The atmosphere of RoSFest has always been communal and this venue continues that tradition.

Although the weeks leading up to festival were fraught with uncertainty, owing to the spewing ash from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull -- no, I can't pronounce it -- cancelling flights from Europe (more than half of the lineup was from outside North America), flights resumed in time for all bands to make the trip.

If anything characterized the weekend's line up it was that each put on entertaining performances. Mystery, Ajalon, DeeExpus, and Magic Pie were of a similar type, a type that has come to define RoSFest - melodic progressive rock. Pendragon could be in that group, too, although their sound of late has gotten a bit darker, heavier. There was also the classical-folk of Renaissance, the jazzy music of Oblivion Sun, and the Von Hertzen Brothers, whose sound owed as much to the 70s as to today's hard rock. The volume and ferocity of all but Renaissance's and Manning's sets lent a heavier feel to each band's sound.

The highlights for me started with Friday's headliners, Pendragon, one of two artists I was coming especially to see. I had seen them at their performance in 2007, and, as then, they didn't fail to impress. In the time since they last played the US, they've had a change in drummers; Scott Higham taking over for Joe Crabtree, and Higham is an amazing drummer. Not that Crabtree wasn't, but know that the lineup has remained solid. Clive Nolan did his keyboard bits with enthusiasm, Peter "The Corner" Gee energetically provided the bass, and up front, of course, Nick Barrett singing his heart out while playing his fingers raw (well, I'm presuming the last, although he's not a shredder, as it were). They focused on the material from Pure, their most recent opus, including "Comatose," "Eraserhead," but dipped back to Masquerade Overture for "Paintbox" and "Master Of Illusion" and even further back to Window Of Life for "Breaking The Spell," "Nostradamus (Stargazing)" (have to admit, I silently sang along there) and, if I'm remembering correctly, "Last Man On Earth." Oh, they were just fabulous. Again.

Now, about "The Corner" nickname referenced. I didn't catch who Barrett said had said it, but apparently someone said that Gee reminded them of the Edge (U2). I'd say, with his hat and demeanor, I see why. And so, Barrett related, Gee is now "The Corner." I must add that Barrett himself is a contrast -- his tousled blonde hair, mouth-framing beard/mustache a tad long, cropped pants and tee-shirt belied his love of surfing, and yet Pendragon are as far from the Beach Boys as one can get. Well, maybe not the furthest, but far enough.

Anyway, I'll save that for my Prog Fashion magazine article. (Don't look for it on newsstands).

Another highlight - and in some ways unexpected - was Renaissance. You see, in a short review of Tales Of 1000 Nights - Volume 1 I wrote many years ago I said "Haslam's voice isn't the best in the world, there are moments here were it is flat..." and I'm not sure what I was thinking then. But having been listening to "Carpet Of The Sun" again on a compilation I put together to prep for RoSFest and listening again to Tales... on the MP3 player for the same reason AND now having heard them live ... I can say that I surely have to rewrite that review. Haslem has an impressive voice, and for someone who'd been outside of music for a while pursuing a new avenue in painting and who is ... older than she was in 70s... it sounds the same. In fact, during the set the throat gremlin that had struck Guy Manning, Tony Wright (DeeExpus), and Dave Hughes (Oblivion Sun) also tried to take hold of Ms. Haslem - in her case I think a bit of dryness due to the stage-fog, and yet she was able to sing through it as if there hadn't been a problem.*

One thing that struck me, afterward, was that Renaissance are of a time when not only having lyrics, but allowing the audience to actually hear them, was the norm. I don't know if we shifted to the music being louder than the vocals when Nirvana took hold, or what. Or maybe I'm just getting too old. Yeh, if you know songs because you played the LP/cassette/CD/MP3 over and over and over and had the lyrics to read from, you know what's being sung even if you can't hear it. But it is a testament too to how crystal clear the audio was for Renaissance - I could hear every instrument, every vocal from Haslem, Dunford, etc. (Contrast that with, for example, the Von Hertzen Brothers, who, aside from one track, I'm not sure really what the songs were about... more on that below).

Renaissance's set included "Carpet...," "Prologue," "Black Flame," "Things I Don't Understand," which Michael Dunford dedicated to his 18 year old daughter (niece? granddaughter? I forget the exact relationship now), and "Ocean Gypsy." One new track, "Mystic And The Muse," Haslem explained she wrote about herself and Dunford, she being the mystic, he being the muse. Her mindset after being diagnosed with cancer, which, she reported, is currently in remission, had made her mystical. In Dunford bringing her back to music, he became her muse. It is one of a few tracks on an EP due out soon from the band. The live line up included Rave Tesar on keyboards, Frank Pagano on drums, and David J. Keyes on bass and vocals. Guest keyboardist was Tom Brislin.

I've long been a fan of Guy Manning's music - since The Cure - and have often thought he should be invited to a US festival - whether NEARfest, RoSFest or CalProg. So when he was announced for RoSFest, I knew there was no question that I would be making plans to go. Based on the strength of the material of his last few albums, including last year's Number 10, I knew it would be a good set. I wasn't wrong, even despite the laryngitis that Manning worked through, admirably. If anything, it made him sound a bit more like Ian Anderson. In addition to tracks from Number 10, we heard a track from the upcoming "number 11" album Charleston -- which looks to musically pick up where Number 10 left off -- as well as track from the first album Tall Stories For Small Children. I was looking forward to hearing Laura Fowles' sax live, but she did not accompany the troupe. Manning's band included: Chris Catling on lead guitars - great job; Tim Leadbeater on keyboards, Kris Hudson-Lee on bass; Dave Albone on drums and percussion; Kevin Currie on rhythm guitars and backing vocals; Julie King providing additional keyboards, percussion and backing vocals, and Steve Dundon on flute.

Magic Pie was, like Pendragon, on another go 'round at RoSFest, this time as Sunday's headliners - this is their third appearance. As I said in my "tweet," Magic Pie was magical. Great sound, great harmonies in that sound. New vocalist/guitarist Eirikur Hauksson fits in quite well, giving the group a nice sound continuity. It's odd to think that a band's signature song comes from only their first album, yet that is what "Change" is. You realize this when, as soon as it starts, there's a heightened level of excitement. That was true this year, too. Not that there's a lack of enthusiasm for the material from their second CD, Circus Of Life, or some anticipation for the upcoming The Suffering Joy. Here's a testament to how clear their sound was; I could hear the lyrics and related them to the album cover image displayed on the backstage curtain. I don't recall which song from the new album it was now, probably "Slightly Mad," a track that can be heard at their MySpace site (as of this writing).

Not to give short shrift to the other bands on the bill, as each and every one of them put on a good show, even if there were sound problems (more instrument clarity was needed for some), or, as mentioned, throat issues. Canadian progressive rock band Mystery started things off on Friday. Mystery features Benoit David on vocals -- he who has been fronting Yes of late --, but is the brainchild of guitarist Michel St. Pere. You can tell right away why David was tapped for the Yes gig, his voice has the same quality as Jon Anderson's; however, I'm told that David doesn't try to sound like Anderson for the Yes shows and tempers that quality. Nevertheless, Anderson-like it was for the Mystery material, although there were times, for me at least, where he reminded of fellow Canadian Geddy Lee in his younger years.

Not having been familiar with Mystery prior to the festival - except in name and having reported news on them - I went in without too many expectations. That they didn't sound like a Yes was a plus for me. As much as I like bands of a certain style, I find I want to hear bands take that into new directions - e.g., progress. Even more so, I'd like bands to find their own voice. While I wouldn't call them neo - as that term has really become nebulous to the point of meaningless (even if I do use it on occasion) - they can be classed in the niche occupied at times by Marillion, Pendragon (who followed), etc. How true to form that is will be revealed to me when I dive into their catalog, including their latest CD, One Among The Living, which was released on May 1, and from which they played a least three cuts from "Wolf," "One Among The Living," and the epic length "Through Different Eyes." From Beneath The Veil Of Winter's Face three of the set's tracks were drawn; "As I Am," "The Third Dream" and "The Preacher's Fall." They also included a track from their third release Destiny? ("Shadow Of The Lake").

Not to leave the full complement of Mystery a mystery, there was Steve Gagné on drums and backing vocals; Benoit Dupuis on keyboards and backing vocals (as Benoit David said, there's more than one Benoit); Dean Baldwin on guitars, keyboards and backing vocals and Francois Fournier on bass and backing vocals.

Ajalon are a band whom I'd heard of but not heard. Their second release, On The Threshold Of Eternity has been awaiting a review at PW HQ for longer than we (I) should admit. By the time I made it to the dealer room, I couldn't find a copy of their new CD, This Good Place - sold out I presume - but did get Light At The End Of The Tunnel. I had been listening to "Lullaby Of Bedlam" (from their new CD and available for listening at the RoSFest site - as of this writing), so I knew to expect melodic prog. Hearing material from both albums, I'd venture to say the new one is a bit rockier than previous outings. That isn't to say less prog, just... rockier. I liked the music; we'll have to see how I respond to the lyrics, not being of the Christian (or any) faith.

A surprise guest was Magic Pie guitarist Kim Stenberg, who came out to play a solo during one track. And their guest vocalist was Jennifer Newberry, a singer in her own right. She was filling in for (I believe) Robyn Dawn. I must admit I thought she seemed out of place - not that her vocals didn't fit in or anything - but that her manner of singing and dress would put her more at home singing Rhianna songs than melodic prog. I guess it'd be like finding a surfer dude fronting a UK prog band. It worked of course, and when bassist Randy George introduced her, it all fell into place. And should I admit that I thought George looked like a taller Danny DeVito?

Or that I thought of Austin Powers - a bit - with Gazpacho's vocalist Jan-Henrik Ohme... There were no instances of "Yeah, baby" to be heard, but from where I sat... he could be Mike Myers. At any rate, I knew of Gazpacho from their demo CD Get It While It's Cold, which I reviewed in 2002. Oddly, other than my passing thought, there isn't a lot about Gazpacho's set that sticks. I do recall the songs had a gloomy outlook, and that tracks from Tick Tock were included - I recognized "Desert Flight" from having heard it on the RoSFest website (and on my promo copy of Tick Tock). They were good, but were missing some spark - at least for me - that has me recall individual moments. They did debut a new track that wasn't quite finished lyrics wise - Jan-Henrik saying "don't pay attention to the words, it's just gibberish," which, of course, meant that those who care about lyrics anyway were going to listen to see if they really were gibberish (for the record, they were real words in real sentences in English - although if I hadn't been paying closer attention, I might not have noticed).

Oblivion Sun features Stanley Whitaker and Frank Wyatt of Happy The Man fame, along with Bill Plummer on keyboards, Bill Brasso on drums and Dave Hughes on bass. Their sound is jazz-rock, probably leaning more towards jazz. The cats can play and sounded equally at home with vocal tracks as with instrumentals. Tracks from their upcoming CD The High Places were included, as well, naturally, tracks from their self-titled debut CD ("Chapter 7.1," "Catwalk," "No Surprises," "The Ride" (at which Whitaker's wife gave a whoop from the seats), and "Tales of Young Whales" as well as a "Deckard," a Wyatt piece, itself a subset of "Tyrol's Daughter" (if I recall correctly).

Whitaker thanked the audience for their support, given when he was battling cancer a few years back, RoSFest had done fundraising to help with his medical bills - encouraging fans to donate. He seemed and was genuinely moved by it.

Abe Lincoln introduced DeeExpus on Sunday morning - I was really wondering when there'd be a strong Gettysburg/Civil War connection (short of a fight between the "old proggers" and "new proggers"... there wasn't one). And I truly believe that if Tony Wright's voice had been right, we'd be talking about the Sunday morning surprise band. As it was, they were quite good. Wright was distraught at one point - his and brother Steve's (guitar, vocals) father had passed away last June and, as Tony said, he wanted the performance of the song to be powerful; the laryngitis wasn't going to let him. The story behind the song was related by guitarist/founder Andy Ditchfield - he was in a pub near his home and the pub owner told him that he'd had a dream that Andy had recorded a song called "Maybe September" that was a huge hit for him (Andy). After an attempt himself, he asked Tony to write a song called "Maybe September" (which I think will be on the band's second CD). Another sad story was behind "Half Way Home" about a childhood friend of Wright's who, as an adult, committed suicide. It was someone who had always seemed happy, had married and as she and her husband were planning on kids, she discontinued her medications.

Actually, there's a contrast for you - if the sets of Pendragon, Gazpacho, DeeExpus, and, maybe, Mystery, were dark and, perhaps, depressing song-subject or context-wise, then Ajalon and Magic Pie, and to some extent Renaissance were light and positive.

Finally, I will include mention of the Von Hertzen Brothers. As I say above, their sound is a modern take of 70s rock. Their opening number, "Bring Out The Sun (So Alive)," had me thinking that VHB were a throwback to the psychedelic 60s -- a comment I made to Magic Pie manager/promoter Kenny Soloman when visiting the MP merch table on Sunday, ahead of VHB's set. But that'd be true of that song only. They opened the set with this track, and the stage lighting - especially the single light at stage right - was coloured like the sun (and nearly as bright). I tried to capture that moment on "film" (here's a larger version of the shot). One track, which they themselves said would remind the audience of the Eagles, did indeed - of course, I don't recall now the title of it. They did play "Freedom Fighter" - which seemed a bit punk, though that will suggest a certain something that isn't quite true. They did make mention of the history of Gettysburg and the Civil War in their intro to the song.

What I remember is that they were loud. Good, but the sound was overly loud. The only point during the whole weekend where I thought that. Sure, concerts are loud, but the audio levels to this point (and after) were ok. And given the heaviness of their sound - at times - it just was too much. Of course, those who were further back or further center might have had a different experience (I was in Row H, left aisle seat).

So that was my take on RoSFest 2010. All the bands were good and gave good to great performances. There might have been sound or mix quibbles - a guitar not loud enough here (during Manning's performance there was a call for Catling's guitar to be turned up), a bum note or two (I think I saw Oblivion Sun's Bill Plummer wince once or twice, as if he hit a wrong key or note).

No hints about 2011 were given out - I'm sure that George Roldan, the festival organizer, was waiting to see how the venue would work, what the audience reaction would be, to see if it worked. Actually, if I recall correctly, he solicited just such feedback, so, I'm sure after a few weeks to recover, he'll start the planning for next year.

* I was going to begin this review by saying it was a "froggy night down at the club" -- a play on a lyric from a Marillion song that, for some time, I did think Fish was singing a "froggy" or "foggy night down at the pub," but it turns out it's "Friday..."

Added: May 8th 2010
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow

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