NEARFest 2005 (July 2005)

Date of Performance: July 8 - 10, 2005
Venue: Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, US

NEARfest 2005 marked the seventh anniversary of this major US progressive rock festival, held again at the Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. It was announced just before Sunday's headliner that Rob LaDuca, the festival's organizer (along with Chad Hutchinson), was stepping down. He will remain business manager, but has turned over the organizing reins to Chad. But more on that later.

Proto-Kaw at Progressive Arts Showcase (NF Preshow) (photo: Stephanie Sollow)The weekend started with the Progressive Arts Showcase featuring Proto-Kaw and PFM. First on was Proto-Kaw, playing a set of music that drew from both their 30-years delayed debut Early Recordings From Kansas and last year's sophomore release, Before Became After, including "Gloriana," "Heavenly Man," a wonderful "Words Of Honor," and "Greenburg, Glickstein, Charles, David, Smith and Jones" (about which vocalist Lynn Meredith apologized to any lawyers in the crowd for... jokingly, of course). Plus, a song from their soon to be released new album, The Wait Of Glory. All members were in fine voice, be it the vocals of Meredith, the guitar of Kerry Livgren, the saxes of John Bolton, the bass work of Craig Kew, the drumming of Brad Schulz and the keyboards of Dan Wright. And, aiding and abetting the quintet was (I believe) Bolton's son (?) on sax and percussion (as you will see, the weekend was a family affair). The whole band was spot-on and tight. Performances hewed very close to their album counterparts. I thought they put on a very enjoyable set. They were obviously enjoying themselves and playing together. While Meredith did most of the between song talking, introducing the tracks, Livgren interjected a few times, once relating in brief how he and Wright met in high school, just before a solo spot for Wright.

PFM at Progressive Arts Showcase (NF Preshow) (photo: Stephanie Sollow)The Italian band Premiata Forneria Marconi were Friday night's headliners. Drummer/ vocalist Franz Di Cioccio was a bundle of high energy, sometimes racing from the microphone back to the drums to play some certain part - otherwise they were covered by Piero Monterisi (I believe). As this was their first US appearance in some time - some 30 years, in fact - the band's set featured tracks from many of the band's well-loved albums, including Chocolate Kings, Photos Of Ghosts, and others. I'm really, really bad about remembering or writing down set lists, especially with bands whose repertoire I'm not overly familiar with or have not memorized. Luckily, Chad posted the set lists to the ProgressiveEars board (later planned for the NEARfest website) and so he through me can tell you that PFM played: "Rain Birth," "Appena Un Po," "Per Un Amico," "Maestro Della Vocca," "Out Of The Roundabout," "Alta Loma," "La Luna Nuova," "Dove Quando," "Il Banchetto," "Dolcissima Maria," "Harlequin," "La Corrozza Di Hans," "Scary Light," a violin solo and part of the "William Tell Overture" (this I recalled; a very cool rendition, I must say). For their encore, "Impressioni Di Settembre," and "E'festa/Celebration," the latter of which got the whole audience involved, as each third (left, center, right) sang one part of the word "celebration." In the absence of keyboardist Flavio Premoli, who was reportedly ill, PFM had a guest main keyboardist, Gianluca Tagliavini. Lucio Fabbri was on the other set of keyboards and also played violin. Franco Mussida on guitars and vocals, and Patrick Djivas on bass (and piccolo?) completed the lineup.

Wobbler at NEARfest 2005 (photo: Stephanie Sollow)NEARfest proper began with newcomers Wobbler, whose debut CD, Hinterland, has just been released through Laser's Edge. In fact, Wobbler were added to the NEARfest line up, reportedly, based solely on audio files available at their website. Likely a first! These Norwegians play a complex and involving brand of progressive rock that has been likened to Änglagård. There is something a dark and moody about their music, as seems the fashion from that part of the world. The band's lineup includes White Willow's keyboardist/synthesist Lars Fredrik Frøislie and, in a guest role, flautist Kejil Einarson. Although most of their material played was from the debut CD, there was a track that was not included on the album, but is on their website (and if I recall correctly, is also the track on the ProgDay XI support CD, Kinections; there is a Wobbler track on the CD, just not sure if that's what they played...). Wobbler put on a good set, but I felt will need a few more live shows behind them before they get in sync. Though once into their set, they did tighten up ... I found their first piece to be very... loose, and not in the good way. But as the set went on, they found their rhythm. Not my favourite performance of the weekend (that would come on Sunday), but I was interested enough to pick up their debut CD.

Frogg Cafe at NEARFest (photo: Stephanie Sollow)Frogg Café followed with their jazzy, avant-garde style. With both a trumpeter (Nick Lieto) and trombonist (John Lieto) in the lineup, you can bet that brass was a large component of the Frogg's ribbiting, as was the violin work of Bill Ayasse. They played material mostly from their latest release, Fortunate Observer Of Time, but also what seemed to be a fan favorite, "Waterfall Carnival." Not-so-new-anymore guitarist Steve Uh was on hand to play some interesting leads and, for one piece, a duet with Ayasse on dueling violins, truly dueling, though the audio for Uh's violin was not audible enough out front. But they played with quite a bit of energy. Former guitarist Frank Camiola was guest for one track, playing acoustic guitar. Rounding out this quintet, who began life as a Zappa cover band, are Andy Sussman on bass and drummer James Guarnieri.

Present at NEARFest 2005 (photo: Stephanie Sollow)Belgium's Present were present for the third band of the day... What can one say about Present, especially to those who have never heard or heard of them? Avant-garde and angular don't seem to be quite accurate enough. Drummer Dave Kerman used not only the expected drum sticks to bash the skins, but Barbie Dolls (or so they seemed from a distance; dolls nevertheless) till their heads came off during "The Limping Little Girl." And drums weren't the only percussive instrument he used, as there were also the found sounds of a paper plate being bashed to fragments. The music... dissonance ruled the day; dark dissonance. Each member -- Roger Trigaux on keyboards, Reginald Trigaux on guitar, Pierre Chevalier on keyboards, Fred Becker on saxes, Matthieu Safatly on cello, and Keith Macksoud on bass -- seemed to be playing a different piece, and yet there was sometimes a symmetry... leading to a dark fascination. A somewhat surreal moment occurred when a painted and bald-headed man emerged wearing only a black and white plaid skirt or kilt, stood at the front of the stage and banged a long pipe with another object. The first thought I had was "oh, something like the Blue Man Group..." only no blue... and no additional performance art.

Steve Roach at NEARFest 2005So, it might seem strange to follow that with Steve Roach, who was Saturday's spotlight artist, playing a several synth pieces (all flowing together) accompanied by a video projection, and day one's headliners, IQ. First, Steve Roach, who had a mightily elaborate rig set up, lit beautifully in blue. The focus was the music and the visuals, not Roach himself. Amongst all his knobs and buttons and wires and keys was the only analog instrument to be seen ... a didjeridoo, which Roach also played during the first piece. Though the initial visuals -- photos of the desert and desert formations - didn't quite seem to fit the music, the later computer generated images did so... and reminded me strongly of the artwork to Body Electric, his 1999 album with Vir Unis... though nothing from that album was included.

IQ at NEARfest 2005IQ, the first repeat band for NEARfest, closed the night out with a great set of songs old and new, dipping back as far as their first albums... and including a track from Nomzamo, one of two albums where it's not Peter Nicholls on vocals. What came to mind all during IQ's set was a quote from Martin Orford, his saying that IQ wrote pop songs... and I still could not find the "pop" in anything. Why that was on my mind, of course, is because I had initially been asked to write the bio on IQ for the NEARfest program - the story of which I include here... Anyway, IQ played a marvelous set filled with great music, humour (lots of humour from Nichols, in fact), and some very interesting visuals to complement each song -- in many cases, artwork from the album the track appears on. Though the first song was hampered by sound problems - which seemed to annoy Nicholls terribly (okay, he looked pissed), it was not reflected in his actual performance. A true professional. It could be his gesticulating at the sound man was in response to be heard over the stage monitors, however. Nevertheless, the sound problems were fixed and the band played on. Granted, I think every band had some sound issue... mainly wanting to hear someone else louder or quieter in their monitors... I don't think I've been to a festival show where that hasn't happened... ah, the tradeoff for the short-ish set breaks.

Knight Area at NEARFest 2005Sunday began with Knight Area, the Dutch band who released their well-received debut The Sun Also Rises last year. The musical style is in the heavy "neo-prog" genre, though to look at vocalist Mark Smit, you might expect some Iron Maiden inspired metal (the long hair, the sleeveless t-shirt, leather pants). They put on a pretty good performance playing most of their debut with several new pieces as well. A moment's chuckle came about with the multiple "costume" changes made by Smit, though for what purpose I'm not sure. You can see in the pictures in the Gallery the sequence of changes.

The Muffins at NEARFest 2005Following Knight Area were The Muffins, the avant-jazz ensemble who were for this outing augmented by a few guests - Dave Newhouse's son on sax and Thomas Scott Frazier's two children (a son and daughter) on saxes, as well. (See, really a family weekend since Roger Trigaux's son Reginald was playing guitar with Present, and Gerben and Joop Klazinga are in Knight Area together). Fans cheered when the Muffins brought out a chestnut from their catalog, "Captain Boomerang," (technically, "The Adventures Of Captain Boomerang"), a piece I could hear fans calling out for. Most of the set was from their latest album, Double Negative.

Matthew Parmenter at NEARfest 2005The spotlight artist for Sunday was Matthew Parmenter, late of Discipline, complete in his iconic mime makeup. His was a sparse, acoustic set. Admitting to his stage fright and relating advice he'd received to imagine the audience naked, someone blurted out "you don't want to do that here" which stepped on Parmenter's joke that the bad thing is that it works both ways. From that point, Parmenter played a few pieces on electric piano, one inspired by a Japanese composer whom he admired greatly. It was a terrific, dark and gothic piece ("sounds German," Parmenter said in relating his story of the songs composition), and then several more on acoustic guitar, playing pieces from his solo album Astray.

Kenso at NEARfest 2005Following Matthew Parmenter were Kenso. Excellent set, and the only one (or so I thought) to include a song written especially for NEARfest called... "NEARFest" complete with audience participation (seems Roach snuck in a NEARfest related bit, too - gleaned from postings at ProgressiveEars). But that wasn't the hightlight of the set, just a little icing. No, the band were cooking, running on all cylinders, just blowin' the house down with their jazz-fusion fury. From the moment they hit the stage to hours after their set ended the room was verily humming ... there was some electricity in the air, for sure. Since the last time I'd seen them, and the last time they were in the US (I believe, or nearly so) at ProgFest 2000, they'd acquired a new drummer, Keisuke Komori, who is every bit the showman that Masayki Muraishi was. The latter part of their set also included a medley of some classic rock songs ... and earlier, a few refrains from Chicago's "Saturday In The Park" (and, someone said, a bit of Billy Joel's "Allentown," though surprisingly I didn't catch that myself (my brain must have left my body there for a moment)). Kenichi Mitsuda played a beautiful piano solo, really stunning. What was very clear was that Kenso were enjoying themselves and made sure the audience enjoyed themselves right alongside.

Le Orme at NEARfest 2005So, that meant that Le Orme, the headliners, had a tough act to follow. Lead by Aldo Tagliapietra, Le Orme played material covering their entire career, in some cases complete albums. The set included their 2004 release L'Infinito, earlier releases Felona E Serona, Contrappunti, Uomo De Pezza, among others. Creating their rich, symphonic sound were, in addition to Tagliapietra on guitar and bass (and sitar), Michi Dei Rossi on drums, Michele Bon on organ and keyboards, including a keytar (I believe, something sure acted/sounded like it'd be a keytar), and Andrea Bassato on piano, keyboards, and violin. It took a while for Le Orme to warm up, but once they got going, they too cooked - though in a quietly simmering way, unlike the bubbling Kenso.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this was the last NEARfest (at least for a while) with Rob LaDuca at the helm, as he has passed the festival organizer status on to his cohort Chad Hutchinson. A tearful moment for Rob was when Laura Dent and others involved with the festival presented Rob with huge plaque with the names of every artist who had appeared at NEARFest.

Laura Dent and others presenting the plaque

Rob accepting the plaque

Rob hasn't stepped out of the picture entirely, though, as he'll remain business manager.

All in all, NEARfest 2005 was a success; I'm already making plans for next year -- well, as much as one can knowing that scoring a ticket is a matter of luck and perseverance. Yes, I was flabbergasted this year to be the first patron to pick seats... and that kind of luck will never ever happen again.

*I mention this with some trepidation... and if you've read the letters section in Progression #48, you know why, but... it was after the Barbie Doll decapitations that I noticed a number of people exit the theater. There were some whom I'm sure left during other sets (some left during the delayed Le Orme set, and the Present fans probably skipped IQ), and I can also say there were some who didn't show up at all for others (the crowd for Steve Roach was small), but the number of people who all-at-once departed was... interesting, let's say. It was probably less than 1/10 of the audience, mind, and those fans who remained cheered the band ... though an encore wasn't to be. It might have been difficult as the bassist busted a string at the end of the performance ... I mention this really because I thought it interesting that Chad chose to say before Present took the stage, "If you need to leave, please use the doors at back..." (or words to that effect). Why do I find it strange? The PA already said as much earlier in the morning...

Added: August 4th 2005
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
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