Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA
By Stephanie Sollow
June 23 - 25, 2006
NEARfest 2006 is now but a pleasant memory. A weekend marked by hours of good music, rain, conversation and CD purchases.
Though not officially part of NEARfest, the Progressive Legends Showcase II kicked things off Friday night with a high-energy set from the Tony Levin Band. Tony, keyboardist Pete Levin, drummer Jerry Marotta, guitarist Jesse Gress and guest keyboardist Larry Fast, played a large selection of material from Levin's new album Resonator, including "Break It Down," the knowing, amusing "Places To Go," a electric performance of "Sabre Dance" (the Khachaturian classic) and others, plus a few "covers" from Peter Gabriel (including "On The Air" and "Back In NYC") and King Crimson ("Elephant Talk" specifically). The set opened and closed with four-part/barbershop harmonies, the first and intro to the band, the second an a capella version of the Gabriel/Kate Bush song "Don't Give Up." One additional, and more somber piece, that the and played was "Fragile As A Song," and the story behind it is about the experience that Levin had when he visited Gabriel in Atlanta to work with Bonobo apes.
Hatfield and the North were the PLSII headliners. I wasn't at all familiar with them musically, except by name, and listening to the samples at the NEARfest website. But having heard other Canterbury groups, and having heard bassist/vocalist Richard Sinclair with Camel, I knew what to expect. Mellow, tongue-in-cheek, and maybe a bit cheeky, progressive rock. And that's what we got from the quartet of Sinclair, Pip Pyle (drums, percussion), Phil Miller (guitar) and Alex Maquire (keyboards/piano). Thus not familiar with their catalog, reading other reports, I can tell you that most of their set consisted of non-Dave Stewart material from Hatfield And The North and Rotter's Club, including "Licks For The Ladies," a title that I remember for some reason…, and "Share It." A special tribute was given to Elton Dean who passed earlier this year; a piano solo piece from Maguire. I found it a pleasant, cheerful and sunny set (and not just because the stage seemed more well lit… though the same thing was true for Caravan a few years ago).
NEARfest proper opened with Japan's KBB. I had been listening to their Live 2004 CD for weeks leading up to the festival, and was just enamoured with Akihisu Tsuboy's violin playing. There is a hurried/unhurried way to his playing that often hints at Celtic music, though also at times you can hear the expected Asian influence. Each piece they played - many of which can be heard on the 2004 live set including "Discontinuous Spiral" - was played with fluidity. Though they may have been uncertain how they would be received, they played as if they were veterans. Very much in sync, the set went by far too fast. This is a band to watch.
Quite a contrast in sound and style were Poland's Riverside. This is a band that wowed many critics with their debut CD, myself included, and followed it up with a strong sophomore release last year. Riverside lean toward the darker aspects of progressive rock, inflecting their sound at times with elements of Marillion, but much more so a modern take on dark progressive rock. Short of rewriting my NEARfest program bio (thanks again to Rob and Chad for the opportunity), they did put on a good, if not overwhelming set. But when your music is understated, even when it explodes out of that darkness for emphasis, you are not going to get the same reaction as you'd get from a bombastic band.
The spotlight artist was guitarist Richard Leo Johnson. Oddly, because he is on the Cuneiform Records label, I was expecting something a little bit different. I won't say I was pleasantly surprised, because I wasn't expecting something I wouldn't like, but I was surprised that it wasn't as angular or RIOish as one associates with the label. Johnson had with him a selection of guitars, including a 1930s-era steel guitar. The guitars had stories as did the pieces that Johnson strummed, and plucked, and slid out of them. His selections included some from his latest release The Legend of Vernon McAlister (the name inscribed on that steel guitar). It was rootsy and folksy, but very much entertaining. I actually found it amazing how many synchronous sounds he could get from the guitar at the same time - to me, good to great guitar players are about much more than speed.
The Canadian trio FM were next. Another band I knew by name only. Their set consisted of their hits, and whether they already told a Sci-Fi tale, or they were sequenced to do so, I don't know, but a Sci-Fi journey we were taken on nevertheless. Not spacerock (that'd come next) but rock about space - selections from, of course, their "legendary" album Black Noise. There was certainly a lot of energy, and for a few pieces, what is become another favourite favourite (said twice deliberately) instrument, the violin. Here played by new member Claudio Vega (who even had the chance to play a piece he composed, "Planet Vega"). The mainstays of FM were vocalist/keyboardist/bassist Cameron Hawkins and drummer Martin Deller.
The headliner for Saturday was Ozric Tentacles. A strange choice it seemed to me. Nothing personal against the band (Ed Wynne - guitar, keyboards, Brandi Wynne - keyboards, Metro - drums and percussion, and Hago - bass), but… Well, it's hard to explain, but perhaps because their style of progressive music - spacerock - is a niche audience. Not the same broadbased prog appeal that Sunday's headliner Keith Emerson has, for instance.
Well, let me interrupt myself there, since one could argue the opposite point and say that each band appeals to a niche audience. So, what I really mean is that... they aren't legends or reuniting legends that are often the headliners. I guess, what I mean is... Hawkwind is legendary in spacerock. Are OZ? Maybe I'm wrong and it's just my lack of familiarity with OZ beyond hearing a few albums... So, I found it odd, even if no one else does. Now, I'm not questioning decisions here… just...
Anyway... Ozric Tentacles played what ultimately was a shorter than expected set (I heard later that perhaps they'd lost track of time and thought it was later than it was…??). I've heard a few albums of theirs, including the new one, but haven't yet absorbed their music enough to tell you specific pieces… and truly, if they'd played one long multi-faceted piece, I wouldn't really have noticed. For me, that's the nature of spacerock … you're kinda taken on some journey where several "tracks" may interconnect to form one "trip." I imagine that if folks had gotten to their feet and swayed and twirled and moved about in some trancy way, it would all make sense. It's about mode and groove I think, rather than saying "Oh, they're playing such 'n' such" (whereas we'd get quite excited the next night - I did - about stuff Emerson played). Again, maybe that's just me. Some other notes, Ed seemed to keep making Brandi laugh… or she just was plagued with the giggles (since Ed didn't seem to be doing anything particularly funny)… and Hago seemed to stay in the shadows behind Brandi's rig. I enjoyed their set, by the way, since I like to go trippin' every now and then (unaided by substances, please note).
So, getting home - well, to the hotel - much earlier than expected, we -- my sister and I, whom I "dragged" along with me again this year -- had a chance to relax a bit. Now, I keep trying to get her to write a report here, a non-prog fan's view of the whole NEARfest experience (which isn't like Woodstock, of course), but… since I was really familiar with only the last two bands Sunday night… erm, you're kinda getting that from me anyway, eh? So, I will tell you that her favorite band/performance Saturday was KBB. This did not surprise me because she is still taken with Kenso since 2000's ProgFest! (In fact, as of this writing, if you look carefully at the picture on the front page of the Kenso site, you can see her head peaking out behind the guy in the dark shirt and dark beard, about one-third of the way in from the left (and he is behind keyboardist Kenichi Oguchi). I, being shorter than she, am hidden).
Sunday was kicked off… by the UK's Guapo. Well, here is where I'd have to say "pleasantly surprised." Another band I was not familiar with at all and I guess I didn't listen to the samples at the NF website enough. I expected perhaps a band that was, if not in the Radiohead realm of things (and I was told by a few people, they weren't really) then maybe in the Pineapple Thief mold. But in fact, avant-garde, angular, dark prog/RIO that wouldn't seemed surprising if this quartet were from Europe. No decapitated dolls or anything, not quite as "out there" as Present. But certainly not as "friendly" and "affable" as Hatfield. I think those of us in the front row orchestra seats were a little unsure what was going to happen when keyboardist Daniel O'Sullivan came down off the stage and into the aisle between the orchestra seats and the pit seats, playing a… well, I think of it as a hooter (is there a more technical term?) … even more uncertain when the drummer, Dave Smith, joined him, banging his small gong (and no wise cracks from you folks out there about hooters and gongs and ribaldry). In fact, Dave stood right beside me there for a minute or so and rang that gong (he had a big gong on stage, too... ). Coming the other way, guitarist Kavus Torabi on his own hooter… Well, the pics in the Gallery section tell the "story." Needless to say, I liked Gaupo. Oddly - well, not so oddly, actually -- so did my sister, and they became her favorite of the day and the weekend, though she did admit that the Niacin and Emerson sets were more polished and entertaining. The set included a large part of Guapo's 2005 Black Oni album, plus pieces from their previous Five Suns release.
After Guapo, it was spotlight artist Michael Manring. Amazing bassist. At times it seemed as if he were up there with a bass, a guitar and a Roland piano at the same time; such a variety of tones did he get from his basses, including the custom bass with on-the-fly switchable tunings. Which he explained so folks wouldn't think his bass had been going wonky during the set (though wonky wasn't his word). Great stuff; mostly from his recent releases and a cover of a Jaco Pastorius tune. I don't think one can be a bassist and not play a Jaco piece, right? At least not in a solo setting (since Levin didn't). I can see why these dissimilar comparable artists - Manring and Johnson - were chosen as the spotlight artists. One bluesy, one fusiony, and yet each masterful.
Ange was next. I found them to be very good; a theatrical progressive, symphonic rock band that I'd classify along with Banco and Metamorfosi. Maybe it's because of the operatic vocalist in Christian DeCamps. More theatrical in a literal sense than Banco or Metamorfosi. I mean, at one point, DeCamps has female vocalist Caroline Crozat on a dog collar, dramatizing one of the songs. Sung in French, I don't know exactly what the song was about beyond the obvious dog context. Her entre onto the stage a song or two (or more) before was spreading "faerie dust" (or the like) on stage and in the audience. See, I like a theatrical performance, actually, because it makes the whole concert concept make sense... especially since fans don't "rock out" as they might at a mainstream rock concert (though I doubt this crowd would then anyway, either... just not their/our thing...). So, prog rock as theatre (70s Genesis makes sense to me for that reason). Great guitar playing from Hassan Hajdi, very clear and clean, and I did like the interplay between he and keyboardist Tristan DeCamps (Christian's son) who also has an amazing singing voice (are men supposed to be able to hit those high of notes??). Quite liked Ange.
Niacin were next, the fusion trio that just sizzled. Moving from piece to piece, covering tracks from their studio albums, including the new one Organik. After the set was over - not to get ahead of myself - but all I could think to say was "Yowza!" Energizing music, as fusion must be. This was, as you might expect, a tight trio. Dennis Chambers played his drums at times with such force that I thought the drum rig was going to collapse, it was swaying so much. Billy Sheehan played his bass with such ferocity, at times verily forcing sounds out of it. John Novello, a wizard as expected on the Hammond B3 as well as the keyboards. Great, great, great set.
And, to cap the weekend off, Keith Emerson, the one-time keyboardist with a fairly well known British prog trio called Emerson, Lake and Palmer, if I recall correctly. [Cue wink]. Along with guitarist Marc Bonilla - who sounds uncannily like Greg Lake and plays a mean guitar (but I knew that already from his solo releases) - Pete Riley (drums and percussion) and Phil Williams (bass) - Emerson put on a powerful set that drew from the ELP catalog including "Tarkus," "Bitches Crystal," "Hoedown" (though, of course, an Aaron Copeland composition), a rearranged by Bonilla version of "Lucky Man" (and well done, too), "From The Beginning" the ELPowell hit "Touch And Go," a Dylan cover, and the song "White Noise" that Bonilla explained he'd been playing at club in California when he and Emerson first met. Emerson's Moog modular was there, standing tall and dominating at the back of the rig, atop it a bust of - methinks - the late Robert Moog (but my pics don't reveal the plaque on it closely enough). He also played, though it was not announced (and I know only from a reply to a blog here: http://www.echoes.org/blog/?p=30) a piece called "New Orleans," reportedly written after Hurricane Katrina; this a piano-based piece. The "Tarkus" performance was an extended version. I have to say, sometimes I find sets go on too long, that I'm checking my watch to see what time it is. Not because I don't like the band or the music, but… something makes me "restless." Not the case with Emerson (and not with Niacin, either, come to think of it), except when they were saying "goodnight." I was thinking, surely, it can't be ending that early… and it wasn't that early (before midnight, I think, with the set ending about 12:10 a.m. or something).
Well, NEARfest 2006 was a blast. But then, I really enjoy myself even if I don't know the bands. And I'm not really too picky about sound unless it's very bad, so if these bands had miscues, missed notes, etc., they glossed over me. I've already slotted out my vacation time for June 2007 and have hopes of being there again to see whomever Chad and Rob roundup. Already announced are La Maschera Di Cera.