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Festival Review
by Fred Trafton

By now, you've probably already read about NEARFest 2001 in one publication or another. But since this was my first progressive rock festival, I just had to write to tell everyone what I thought of it! My first festival? Yes, I've been listening to prog rock since the early '70's, and have seen lots of big acts like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Yes and Pink Floyd in huge arenas. I've seen many of the older less popular but brilliant acts in small venues (bars) such as Allan Holdsworth, Bruford, The Dixie Dregs and Gentle Giant to name a few. I even got to see The Underground Railroad in a ... shall we say "intimate" setting (a very small dive of a bar in E.B.E.) last year. But I had never managed to get to a festival before. What must it be like to hear ten prog bands in a row, over a period of two days? Would my brains blow out? Would my ears blow out? Could I afford the time and expense to make the trip to Allentown, PA to do this? With no regard to any of these questions, I just hopped a plane to NEARFest and hoped for the best ...

I arrived the night before NEARFest, on June 22, 2001. Unfortunately, I was by myself ... I had hoped to bring my wife along, but I happened to be in Singapore sound asleep when tickets went on sale in the U.S.A. By the time I woke up halfway around the world, the tickets had sold out. Fortunately, I happened to chat with NEARFest organizer Rob LaDuca by e-mail because some photos I took of The Underground Railroad were going to be in the NEARFest program, so I mentioned to him that I wasn't going to be able to make it. He smiled (a scary thing over e-mail) and said they'd just had one cancellation, and asked if I would be interested in the ticket? Of course, I said "yes" even though it meant going to the concert without my wife. Unfortunately, I was unable to get a flight early enough to allow me to get over to see the unofficial pre-concert show by The Red Masque on Friday evening. I hadn't heard their demo EP yet at that time ... if I had, I might have tried harder. Oh well.

NEARFest - Day One
June 23, 2001

I arrived at the Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh University way too early on Saturday morning. But there was plenty to do since the vendor's tables were already mostly set up. When I went in to find my seat and wait, I was pleasantly surprised to hear an obscure CD being played while we were waiting ... Mark 1's Absolute Zero. I thought this was a great choice for program music, and great exposure for this new band.

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic

The first band up was Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. Like most of the bands playing at NEARFest, I had heard of them, but never actually heard them. I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard. Many reviews talk about their avant-garde noisiness and the difficulty of listening to them. Personally, I found them to be quite melodic, though in a neo-classical chamber music sort of way. I would hardly even call this progressive rock, despite the use of a programmed drum machine in many parts. The music features lots of piano and synthesizer and reeds. Just a little guitar and drum machine drums, so the rock feel is limited. Progressive it is ... rock it's not. Or just barely. But really interesting, though quite intellectual. For Birdsongs fans interested in what they played, their set list consisted of:

  • Petrophonics
  • Ptoccata
  • Dancing on A'A
  • Rocky and Bullwinkle Theme
  • The Simpsons Theme
  • Lost in the Bzone
  • The Insidious Revenge of Untima Thule
  • One Hundred Cycles
  • A Band of Deborahs
  • Ptinct
  • Faultline
  • Birdgram
  • Beat of the Mesozoic, Part 1
Many of these tunes were combined into medleys to fit into the "one hour per band" format of NEARFest's daytime bands. After the show, I picked up their earliest (The Fossil Record, though released in 1993, contains early recordings that didn't make it onto their CD's) and latest (Petrophonics) CD's on the strength of their performance and got them to autograph the CD sleeve. A great band!

Under the Sun

After returning to my seat and listening to Halloween (a new album? They don't seem to have a web site where I can check this out) between acts, the next band came out. This was the supposedly "neo-prog" band of the festival, Under the Sun, with a fair dash of prog-metal. Their set was interesting, but began to suffer from "volume creep", and by the end of their set I was just getting to the point where I was not comfortable with the sound pressure levels any more. I was not terribly thrilled by this band, but I did note that the rhythm section (drums and bass) were incredibly tight and intricate, and vocalist Chris Shryak was quite emotional and driving with his presentation. The main problem I had (aside from the volume) was that all the songs started sounding the same after the first twenty minutes or so. As I mentioned in my review, their CD does not suffer from this at all. It was just a problem with this particular live performance. Their set list:

  • Tracer
  • Perfect world
  • Dream Catcher
  • The Time Being
  • Reflections
  • This Golden Voyage
  • Souljourner (I Am Forever) (a new song, not on their CD)
  • Breakwater
  • From Henceforth Now and Forever (PS124)
A lukewarm thumbs up on this performance, though I do have to mention the very nice double bass drumming in "Breakwater" and an incredible bass solo in "From Henceforth Now and Forever". Still, I was not inspired to go pick up their CD based on this performance.

White Willow

The next break featured Isildur's Bane as the canned music. I was getting to hear nearly as much good music during the breaks as I was during the concert! Well, I thought so ... until White Willow came out. I have no recollection of why I thought this was going to be a prog metal band!?!? Nothing could be further from the way this band sounds! Soft, smooth and pastoral sections interplay with Yesish rock with a silky female vocalist, Sylvia Erichsen give this an almost ethnic Celtic feel, making White Willow my favorite bands of NEARFest 2001. There were some parts that sounded oddly dissonant during the performance ... I later found out that their airline had lost their instruments on the flight from Norway, and they were playing with equipment borrowed from other bands. Due to this, they were very unhappy with their performance in NEARfest, and seemed genuinely surprised by the uniformly high praise they received for this performance. In spite of what I thought were some oddities in the sound, this was the only band at NEARFest that forced me to go and purchase their entire discography on the weight of their performance. I had an ulterior motive, too ... I thought my wife would like them. And I was right! Here's their set list:

  • Leaving the House of Thanatos
  • Gnostalgia
  • Paper Moon
  • Endless Silence
  • The Crucible
  • Clothes of Sand
  • Till He Arrives
  • Snowfall
  • Anamnesis
  • The Reach
  • Withering of the Boughs
Of special mention was the three-song "unplugged" set, "Clothes of Sand", "Till He Arrives" and "Snowfall", played using only on acoustic guitar, flute and voice. Flautist Ketil Einarsen even did an Ian Anderson imitation, playing Andersonesque flute licks while standing on one foot! The encore, "Withering of the Boughs" brought the house down with applause. This is a very fine band, who I hope will put out many more CD's. And not prog metal!

Deus Ex Machina

Deus Ex Machina was the last of the first-day daytime bands, and delivered a rousing closer to the day's events. Here's another band I had never heard, but their sound was very impressive. An Italian band singing in Latin, I would call their sound "extreme fusion", a heavy metal sound quality but with the intricacy and jazzy aspects of a fusion band. This is too fusiony sounding to be called "prog metal" in my mind. But what do I know? To quote the fellow in the seat next to me, "these guys rock hard"! Yes, they do. I would have looked into purchasing their discography as well, but having just spent a small fortune on CD's during the rest of the day, I didn't do so. But they're high on my list to get some samples of their studio work to listen to. If they mentioned any song titles, I didn't understand them, and they never did tell NEARFest organizers what their song list was either, so it's never been published. Oh well, still a big thumbs up for these guys.

Porcupine Tree

We had a couple of hours break to get some dinner before the "headliner act" of the day, Porcupine Tree. I went out and got some dinner, and came back at the appointed time only to hang around and wait for quite awhile. After a few delays and extra encores during the day, we were running late anyway, and the setup for this band seemed to be taking longer than anticipated. Still, I had been looking forward to hearing these guys after reading their GEPR reviews. So, I hung around. Finally, they came on. Here's what they played:

  • Even Less
  • Slave Called Shiver
  • Shesmovedon
  • Up the Downstair
  • Lightbulb Sun
  • Last Chance to Evacuate the Earth Before it is Recycled
  • Russia on Ice
  • Pure Narcotic
  • Where Would We Be?
  • Hatesong
  • Tinto Brass
  • Stop Swimming
  • Voyage 34 (Phase 1)
  • Radioactive Toy
If you've read my review in the GEPR, you'll know I wasn't that impressed. To be honest, this band sounds more like an "alternative" modern radio band than a progressive rock band to me. OK, I'll be fair ... guitarist Steven Wilson played some incredible guitar solos which would rival anything ever done by one of my other "white man's blues" guitar heros, Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Synthesist Richard Barbieri also managed to make some wonderfully spacey intros for several of the songs on his mountain of synthesizers. But somehow, this wasn't enough for me. On the whole, I found the music to be boring, repetitious and just plain depressing. Oh, and did I mention TOO DAMNED LOUD? This was the only band of NEARFest which was so frackin' loud that I had to use earplugs to keep from having eardrum pain. I just hate that. A band needs to be so loud that no outside noises interfere with hearing them ... but not so loud that they fry your eardrums! One would thing a Radio Shack SPL meter available for about twenty bucks might prevent such a problem. Anyway ... I didn't like Porcupine Tree much. Fortunately, this was to be the low point of the two days ...

NEARFest - Day Two
June 24, 2001

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad is one of my favorite new bands ... of course, I'm prejudiced because I know these guys, being from my area of Texas. I reported on seeing them in a little bar in the first Gibraltar Webzine, and this was going to be my second time to see them. By this time, I had heard their CD Through and Through about two dozen times, so I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to hear. Here's their set list:

  • May-Fly
  • Through and Through
  • Mars
  • The Doorman
  • The Creeper (a new song, not on their CD)
The first thing to note is the shortness of the song list. This is because The Underground Railroad's songs tend to be on the lengthy side. Unfortunately, a mere hour isn't long enough for a band like this, but still this was all the time they had. Their style is very Canterburyish, mostly due to keyboardist Kurt Rongey's keyboard style and also his vocals. Most reviewers have noted the Echolyn influence as well, also due to Kurt Rongey. The guitars tend to sound like a cross between Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth and Steve Vai thanks to virtuoso Bill Pohl, so this is one heck of a band. And they showed it well during this performance, far better than the night I saw them here in the Dallas area. I must say the keyboards weren't turned up in the mix enough for me on many of the songs ... I would have loved to be running the sound board. Oh well, that was a minor complaint ... I enjoyed The Underground Railroad's set second only to White Willow's. A spectacular band, easily among the best of the new crop of serious progressive artists ... if you haven't heard their debut CD Through and Through yet, you need to! And, rumor has it they're ready to record their second CD soon, so I for one will be on the lookout for it!

Djam Karet
Signing autographs after their show

The second day of NEARFest was my day for knowing some of the bands ... Djam Karet was one of them, so I thought I knew what I was going to hear. At first, I thought this music was more heavily composed than what I was expecting. However, as the concert went on, I began to realize that the pieces were more composed than their totally improv stuff like Still No Commercial Value, but still had long improv sections with composed structures supporting the jams. Guitarist Gayle Ellett doubled on keyboards for some nice, slow spacey chord progressions, while Mike Henderson sometimes picked up a doubleneck guitar in addition to his standard electric. I believe that bassist Aaron Kenyon is new to the band, and has a very commanding stage presence compared to the other band members who are more laid back and quiet. In fact, the photo above is of them signing autographs instead of during the concert because Gayle Ellett was in the dark during most of the concert (much like another shy performer, Robert Fripp? In fact, take a look at Gayle ... doesn't he actually resemble Mr. Fripp?). Here's their set list:

  • Forbidden by Rule
  • The Red Monk
  • Night of the Mexican Goatsucker
  • No Man's Land
  • The Hanging Tree
  • All Clear
  • Web of Medea
  • Feast of Ashes
  • Burning in the Hard City
The first pieces were from existing albums, but No Man's Land onward was from their new album The New Dark Age, which hadn't yet been released at the time of the festival. The encore piece, "Burning in the Hard City", is, of course, from the album of the same name. At any rate, Djam Karet is an excellent and hard-rocking band with lots of musical range with occasional dips into both space rock and (the shallowest parts of) RIO waters, so they always stay interesting. A good band to see live!

Tony Levin and The California Guitar Trio

The California Guitar Trio is yet another band I had seen before ... on tour with King Crimson for their Thrak tour. Of course, Tony Levin wasn't playing with them at that time ... he was playing after them, with King Crimson! This would have to be a great concert! Their lightness and mostly acoustic approach was a welcome change from the heavy seriousness of the previous two bands. They played an amazing array of music:

  • Melrose Avenue
  • Zundoko Bushi (including 21st Century Schizoid Man)
  • Dance of Maya
  • Punta Patri
  • Blockhead
  • Apache
  • Beethoven's 9th Symphony (4th Movement)
  • Discipline
  • Train to Lamy
  • Misirlou
  • Heart of the Sunrise
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • Eve
I could go on about this concert for quite a while, it was certainly among the highlights of NEARFest 2001. One of my favorite parts was their version of Beethoven's 9th, which just blows my mind ... I've listened to Beethoven since before I started listening to prog, and I know every note of the 9th like I know my own name. They have absolutely nailed this piece, with only three musicians instead of an entire orchestra. Just amazing! Next was a fantastic version of King Crimson's "Discipline", with Tony Levin reprising his StickTM part from the '80's prog masterpiece. But the most fun was undoubtedly Yes' "Heart of the Sunrise" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" which the band encouraged the audience to sing along with! Hearing a thousand voices singing "Dream on, on to the heart of the sunrise" or "I'm just a poor boy from a poor family" was worth the trip to Allentown by itself! Just a great band, and loads of fun.

After Crying

Although I had never heard After Crying, I had certainly heard of them as being one of Hungary's most professional and interesting progressive rock bands. They were definitely "pro", in fact in some ways they seemed more like a Las Vegas show than a prog act. They had every move and song carefully planned, with "voice-over" introductions beginning as the band vamps behind the speaker. This isn't bad, necessarily, it was just surprising. For thoose of you who know After Crying's discography, perhaps the set list will be of use:

  • Mediaattack
  • Modern Times
  • Secret Service
  • The Posessed of Gadara
  • Technopolis
  • Viaduct
  • Sonata for Violincello and Piano
  • Burlesque
  • Conclusion, including Arrival of the Manticore II
To tell the truth, my ears were getting pretty fried by this time ... I was having trouble focusing on the music. Which is a shame ... After Crying seemed like they would really be a band I should like, with their complex orchestrations, classical influences and a keyboardist who obviously loves ELP. But I can barely remember their show ... too much of a good thing, I guess. I'll have to re-listen to their concert on the Internet at some point and see what I forgot.

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso was the closing act of NEARFest 2001. I was vaguely familiar with them, having once heard one of their earliest albums in the '70's. But that was a long time ago, and I had not heard any of their music for a long time. For those of you more familiar with their stuff, here's the set list:

  • Metamorfosi
  • R.I.P.
  • Il Ragno
  • Emiliano
  • E mi viene da pensare
  • Canto di primavera
  • La conquista della posizione eretta
  • Clarinet solo
  • Roma-Tokyo
  • La danza dei grandi rettili
  • L'Evoluzione
  • Traccia I
  • 750.000 anni fa ... L'amore
  • Non mi rompete
These guys were fantastic! Keyboardist Vittorio Nocenzi played fast, furious and very Italian sounding keys, focusing strongly on the Hammond organ. Vocalist Francesco DiGiacomo sounded great (he sang in Italian, as far as I remember he didn't sing in English), but it looked as if he was having a hard time moving ... he looked very stiff. The other "original" Banco member, guitarist Rodolfo Maltese, was also in great form, though I admit my personal keyboard-centricness had me focussed more on Vittorio's keys. The "new" members really filled out the symphonic sound of the band, with Alessandro Papotto (of Perifera del Mondo) played woodwinds, and a second guitarist Filippo Marcheggiani (of Scenario) were both excellent, I especially enjoyed Alessandro's clarinet solo in the middle of the concert.

My one regret about this band is that by the time I knew I wanted to buy some Banco CD's to have the band autograph for me and bring home to enjoy, the vendors were all packing up their wares. I should have realized this, and next year I won't be so foolish. But Banco was spectacular and did a great show, so I would highly recommend seeing them if you can, or buying their CD's if you can't.

Well, that's it. Except to say that organizers Rob LaDuca and Chad Hutchinson did an incredible job of organizing this extravaganza. Aside from a small time slip on the first day, it's hard to imagine how this could have been done any better. The sound quality was excellent, the band choices were amazing and varied, and there was really not a bad seat in the house. Oh yeah, except for one thing ... they didn't have enough seats! But they are fixing that for NEARFest 2002 with a move to a larger venue in Trenton, New Jersey. With this as my first experience at a festival, I'm definitely spoiled. And I want more! So I'll see you at NEARFest 2002! The band list has already been settled, and there are some great acts on tap including a reformed Nektar and my favorite Italian group, Le Orme, plus eight more. It should be great.

For further reading
In the GEPR:
GEPR entry for After Crying
GEPR entry for Banco del Mutuo Soccorso
GEPR entry for Michael Bierylo
GEPR entry for Birdsongs of the Mesozoic
GEPR entry for The California Guitar Trio
GEPR entry for Deus Ex Machina
GEPR entry for Djam Karet
GEPR entry for Tony Levin
GEPR entry for Bill Pohl
GEPR entry for Porcupine Tree
GEPR entry for Kurt Rongey
GEPR entry for Under the Sun
GEPR entry for The Underground Railroad
GEPR Webzine #1 The Underground Railroad Concert Review
GEPR entry for White Willow

Other related web sites:
Click here for the official NEARFest web site
Click here for Studio M's web site, where you can hear streaming audio of the entire concert

Band web sites:
Click here for an After Crying fan site
Click here for the official Banco web site
Click here for Michael Bierylo's home page on the Berklee web site
Click here for the Birdsongs of the Mesozoic Official web site
Click here for California Guitar Trio web site
Click here for the Deus Ex Machina web site
Click here for the Djam Karet web site
Click here for Tony Levin's web site
Click here for the Porcupine Tree web site
Click here for Under The Sun's web site
Click here for The Underground Railroad's web site
Click here for White Willow's web site