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NEARfest 2006
Posted on Thursday, July 27 2006 @ 21:03:23 CDT by Greg Stewart
Concert Reviews The Weekend In Review
Peter Pardo

Hard to believe that NEARfest is now eight years old…and yes, I've attended them all. Way back in 1999 at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I can remember going nuts to IQ, Mastermind, Nathan Mahl, Alaska, Scott McGill's Hand Farm, Crucible, Larry Fast, Ice Age, Solaris, and Spock's Beard, thinking "how cool is this that 400+ prog fans are assembling in one place here in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania to see these practically unknown bands?" Well, after 7 years, which saw a switch to the Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh University, then a move to the War Memorial Theater in Trenton, New Jersey, only to return once again, for good perhaps, to the Zoellner Arts Center in Bethlehem, over 1000 prog fans return to this prestigious festival each summer for 2+ days of progressive rock music from around the world. As good as the music usually is, it's not just about the tunes. NEARfest weekend is also about seeing and getting together with friends, spending lots of cash on prog CD's and memorabilia at the many vendor tables, tailgating, and just spending a relaxing mini-vacation with over 1000 other progressive rock fans from around the world.


The Sea of Tranquility Crew

Each year, a few of the staff of Sea of Tranquility manage to make it to NEARfest to enjoy the festival as well as cover it for the site. This year, even though we had almost an entire weekend of rain for the first time in the history of the festival, we still managed to stay dry enough to do our tailgating for the first time. Armed with mini gas grills and plenty of pork products, beer, and tarps, we were able to spend some quality time in between band sets and during extended breaks cooking, hanging out with friends, and talking music. This year, SoT's Steve Pettengill, Jack Toledano (both of whom will be contributing set reviews from various acts from the weekend) as well as Webmaster Greg Stewart and myself, along with friends and occasional contributors Steve Fleck, Grant Kikkert, and Dave Kime, enjoyed the sounds of the weekend and all it had to offer. Despite the rain, it proved to be one of the best NEARfest's yet. Read on and find out why.



FRIDAY, 23RD JUNE

The Tony Levin Band
Steve Pettengill

The Tony Levin Band kicked off Friday night's Progressive Legends Showcase, not with a bang, but with a hilarious and well-done barbershop performance featuring all band members save Larry Fast. Then Levin and company got right to business, performing many selections from his growing discography of solo albums. Accompanying him for this performance was drummer Jerry Marotta, guitarist Jesse Gress, brother Pete Levin on keyboards and Larry Fast on synthesizers; all in all, not a bad roster there! By turns rocking and angular, soothing and atmospheric, the music of The Tony Levin Band was not too dissimilar from his work with King Crimson. Levin had a nice report with the audience and told a funny story involving Peter Gabriel, an ape, a piano and Levin's wife before breaking into a song inspired by communication called "Fragile as a Song". The Tony Levin Band also gave the audience a couple of King Crimson pieces, including "Elephant Talk" and "Sleepless" while Jerry Marotta took lead vocals (great vocals I must add) for a take of Genesis' "Back in New York City". The band's encore consisted of Peter Gabriel's "On the Air" before each member huddled around the microphones, minus Larry Fast, for a barbershop cover of Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up". Certainly, this was a rock solid set and lots of fun to boot.

Hatfield and the North
Steve Pettengill

The recently reformed Canterbury band Hatfield and the North closed Friday's Progressive Legends Showcase and as this was the band's first ever performance in The United States, it was a very special evening. Drawing mainly from their two studio albums, the self titled debut from 1974 and the classic Rotters' Club from 1975, Hatfield's music was breezy, easygoing and immediately likeable. Vocalist/bassist Richard Sinclair still has an amazing voice after all these years and his bass playing was impeccable. The rest of the band was solid as well. Guitarist Phil Miller still has great playing abilities, but for reasons I don't understand, stood in profile view of the stage the entire night. Running through classic tracks like "Fitter Stokes Has a Bath", "Halfway Between Heaven and Earth" and "Rifferama", the band's laid back, jazzy performance was mostly successful, save for a couple of things: Richard Sinclair tried to change a couple of the vocal melodies, at times with mixed results. His phrasing on "Share It" was a bit awkward, especially if you have the album version ingrained in your head. My other criticism is that as fine as the show was, it was perhaps a little too mellow. While keyboardist Alex Maguire is a fine replacement for Dave Sinclair, he didn't cook the way Sinclair frequently does on the albums. But these are really minor reservations as it was great just to have the opportunity to see Hatfield and the North on stage. All in all, it was a nice way to begin a very long weekend of music.



SATURDAY, 24TH JUNE

KBB
Peter Pardo

The Saturday morning opener is usually a tough spot for any band. Usually, you are playing in front of two sets of people- the ones who were up late the night before checking out the pre-show bands and expecting something great, or the travel weary fan who has just arrived at the festival and just looking to settle in. The past few years have seen some outstanding performances on Saturday morning, notably Yezda Urfa and Wobbler, and this year KBB perhaps topped them all. Hailing from Japan, this was the first time KBB has made it to the US, so the progressive fusion ensemble was poised to impress, and impress they did. Drawing songs from their two studio albums Four Corners Sky and Lost and Found, KBB fused classic 70's inspired fusion of bands like The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Dixie Dregs, and Jean Luc Ponty with symphonic progressive rock of legends such as ELP, Kansas, and King Crimson.


Band leader and violinist Akihisa Tsuboy tore up the stage with his dynamic electric violin solos, alongside the sizzling keyboard work from Toshimitsu Takahashi. The rhythm section of drummer Shirou Sugano and bassist Dani provided plenty of muscle and groove, and the interplay between all four members was telepathic to say the least. Despite the obvious chops that the band possessed, melody was the key, as each song took the listener through soaring passages dripping with memorable melodies, showcasing the bands stunning compositional abilities. NEARfest has seen some hot Japanese bands previously, namely Kenso and Gerard, but there was something about the sophisticated sounds of KBB that had attendees talking about them all weekend. The band announced towards the end of their set that their recent concert CD and live DVD were on sale in the vendor room during the weekend, and needless to say I happened to see many people walking around with them over the weekend. Having had a chance to meet up with the band on Sunday, they were extremely happy to be playing at such a beloved festival, and were humbled by the reception they received as well as the praise when speaking to the fans. One word can describe KBB at NEARfest-classy.

Riverside
Peter Pardo

2005 was supposed to be the debut of Poland's Riverside at NEARfest, but due to visa problems the band had to pull out of last years festival. This year all those issues were taken care of and Riverside brought their dark mix of spacey prog and metal to the Zoellner Arts Center. Given that the band only has two studio albums plus the recently released Voices in My Head EP, the band had about an hour to play some of their best songs, which they did, although they chose their more progressive pieces and left out some of the heavier material, like "Volte-Face", from Second Life Syndrome. However, the 16 minute title track from that album proved to be quite the crowd pleaser, and gave the band plenty of time to build their brooding and atmospheric sounds into a symphonic crescendo. Bassist/lead singer Mariusz Duda displayed a unique variety of vocal styles, from Pink Floyd/Anathema influenced soothing passion to more aggressive displays of power that one would expect on a Porcupine Tree or Opeth record. If you are familiar with his vocal prowess on the Riverside albums, rest assured he sounded spot on during their set at NEARfest. While keyboard player Michal Lapaj added plenty of atmospheric backdrops, guitar player Piotr Grudzinski provides most of the fiery bombast in Riverside, and on this day he cranked out some scorching solos that recalled both David Gilmour (Piotr even added in a few moments from the main riff of "Shine On Crazy Diamon") and Steven Rothery from Marillion. Unfortunately his rhythm guitar parts were a little buried in the mix behind the vocals and keyboards, but this does sometimes happen early on Saturday when the first couple of bands have less than perfect mixes, but it was minor to say the least.


Even though Riverside stayed away from their heaviest material for this NEARfest set, their music was perhaps still a little too dark and heavy for some in the audience, and maybe not "progressive" enough for others. Regardless, the crowd gave the band an enthusiastic applause after each song and a warm response at the end of their set. Hopefully we can see Riverside in the US once again in the near future, either on a tour with a few similar sounding bands (how about with InsideOut label mates Evergrey and Pain of Salvation?) or at a festival with some heavier progressive bands.

FM
Jack Toledano

The Canadian Prog Trio were up 3rd in the Saturday lineup, and were the first band of the day that I was able to attend. Consisting of keyboardist/bassist/vocalist Cameron Hawkins, new band member and violinist/electric mandolinist Claudio Vena, and drummer Martin Deller, FM turned out to be a very pleasant surprise, as their music and approach reminded one of a mini-Yes onstage. I was truly amazed at how tight they were musically, when you consider the instruments they chose to play. Generally, most bands have the tight knit section of guitar/bass/drums, but FM employed mostly keyboards/violin or electric mandolin/drums, with Cameron Hawkins only picking up the bass on occasion. Hawkins sounded great vocally, while Vena really added an extra bonus with his mandolin play.


While I do not have their full setlist, I can tell you that FM concentrated most of their setlist to their most successful album, Black Noise, playing practically the entire album, with songs like "Phasors on Stun", "One O'Clock Tomorrow", "Hours", "Journey", "Slaughter in Robot Village", and the title track.

Ozric Tentacles
Peter Pardo

At first Ozric Tentacles seemed like an odd choice for headliner for the Saturday line-up at NEARfest 2006. I mean, the band is more like a psychedelic jam-band than an actual progressive rock group, but the Ozric's have a long and storied career that have long pleased fans of many genres, so why not bring their hypnotic, trippy, and energetic sounds to the Zoellner Arts Center stage? The band has a pretty loyal following, so there's no doubt than many in attendance at NEARfest this year came specifically to see the band in this headline spot, complete with a stunning light show and superior sound that always is part of the NEARfest package.


Ozric Tentacles took the stage and played for roughly two hours, tossing songs from their wide discography (25 + albums and counting!) at the audience, including some of their best tracks from Jurassic Shift, Strangeitude, and of course their latest The Floor's Too Far Away. Leader Ed led the Ozric's through plenty of space rock explorations with his searing guitar solos and psychedelic keyboards, and the rest of the band joined in the fray as well and seemed to be having a great time. While it did seem like keyboard player Brandi did nothing more than jump around, dance, and smile behind her racks of keyboards (well, ok, she did trigger some samples), the rhythm section certainly cooked throughout the bands set. With the wild light show, the music of the Ozric's boiled, bubbled, and mesmerized. Sure, if you are not really into this type of trippy space rock, all the songs do sort of sound the same, but many in the audience just closed their eyes and let the music take them to planets and universes unknown to man. It was certainly a set that was a little different from the fusion and prog that were featured during the day, and the left the crowd very happy and in anticipation of Sunday's line-up.



SUNDAY, 25TH JUNE

Guapo
Peter Pardo

Guapo is a UK band that has actually been around since the late 90's, but didn't come into much prominence in prog circles until their 2004 release on Cuneiform Records called Five Suns. With their recent release Black Oni gathering critic and fan praise alike, their Sunday morning set at NEARfest was greatly anticipated. The music of Guapo can be a little jarring to some, as they play dark Zeuhl-like tones reminiscent of bands like Present, Magma, and Univers Zero. To some, their crashing and bashing style might seem a little like noise, but really it is more like controlled fury. After walking through the audience up to the stage in a form of "death march", the band ripped into dark and ominous songs from their most recent albums. Featuring vintage sounding keyboards, huge, throbbing bass lines, pounding drums, and jagged guitar riffs, Guapo took no prisoners in their set, regardless of whether early risers where ready for their brand of cacophony or not. Long, undulating bass passages met with ragged, distorted guitar chords while 70's styled keyboard tones floated underneath-all going in seemingly different directions yet always meeting back at some common location. It was frantic, loud, dark, and violent, but most importantly it was the set that seemed to divide many of the fans. You either loved them or hated them-most seemed to love them, and Sunday was underway.


Ange
Steve Pettengill

French legends Ange were on Sunday's second slot and their 90-minute high energy set was perhaps the most polarizing performance of the weekend. Ange have been in existence for over 35 years and have had countless changes in personnel. The current lineup is very strong, although only founding member Christian DeCamps remains from the old days. Extremely theatrical and frequently downright bizarre, Ange delivered a nice mixture of old material along with several new cuts from their latest studio album, ?. Assisting DeCamps on vocals was Caroline Crozat, who looked as if she stepped off of a gypsy caravan in search of Cirque du Soleil. Sprinkling fairy dust, miming, dancing and acting out parts of the songs, she was certainly the visual focus of the show…at least when Christian DeCamps wasn't singing or leering like a madman at the audience.

Ange performed a couple of songs from Le Cimetiere Des Arlequins and Emile Jacotey, as well as the title track from Vu D'un Chien. But the highlight of the show, which NEARfest attendees will probably be remembering years from now was the epic "Le Chien, La Poubelle et la Rose". The sight of Christian DeCamps leading Caroline Crozat around on a dog leash inserting one end of a large dog bone into her mouth and then taking the other end of the bone into his mouth was funny and disturbing. As everything was in French, I'm sure much of the message was lost on the audience, but this only made the whole event even more surreal. Thankfully, none of this took anything away from guitarist Hassan Hajdi's emotional finale. Another terrific surprise was Christian's son Tristan on vocals. While his keyboard playing was fine throughout the set, his operatic vocal performance on "Quasimodo" was nothing short of stunning.


Although some may have found the band's performance over the top, I thought Ange was the most fun band of the weekend. It's too bad they ignored classic albums such as Au Dela Du Delire and Par Les Fils de Mandrin, but kudos to the band for not being just an oldies act. Here's hoping Christian DeCamps and his traveling circus return to North America some day soon.

Michael Manring
Peter Pardo

Here on his own without his main band mates Scott McGill and Vic Stevens, virtuoso bassist Michael Manring wowed the NEARfest audience with his solo spotlight set Sunday afternoon. This was a 30-minute thing of beauty, with Manring creating a myriad of tones, soundscapes, and melodies with his custom bass guitars. I had heard quite few attendees before Manring's set saying how they hated to sit through bass solos, but this was no mere half-hour bass solo set-this was a gifted player creating sounds that many have never heard before. Not content to just rip flashy runs and finger popping exercises, Manring manipulated the neck and tuners of his bass to get a world of unique sounds, even using feedback and string vibrations to create lush soundscapes and waves of sonic brilliance. Along with Niacin's Billy Sheehan, the NEARfest concertgoers were treated to two of the greatest living bassists alive today. While Sheehan provided the flash, Manring provided the subtlety and nuance. Surprisingly, many of the naysayer's were in the audience cheering for Manring at the end of his short but sweet set.

Niacin
Jack Toledano

With some of the very artsy prog bands to appear at NEARfest, particularly "Guapo" and "Ange", it was indeed very refreshing to see the jazz fusion/prog band Niacin make an appearance at NEARfest, to give the 1,000+ in attendance not only something different, but collectively the best instrumental performance of the weekend. Not to take anything away from headliner Keith Emerson, and his guitarist/vocalist, Marc Bonilla, who were equally as phenomenal, but the instrumental trio simply smoked from start to finish. Billy Sheehan, former bassist for David Lee Roth and Mr. Big, is probably the best bassist I ever saw on stage, with his lightning quick walking bass lines. John Novello, keyboardist and Hammond organ player, really added to the sound by mixing the sounds of the Hammond organ with the jazz rhythms. As for Dennis Chambers, jazz drummer extraordinaire, what can I say but easily the best drummer at the festival.


As for Niacin's set, Niacin played a few songs off of their latest CD Organik, with a good sampling from the rest of their back catalog. Some of the notable cover songs that they played consisted of Frank Zappa's "King Kong" , King Crimson's "Red", and Weather Report's "Birdland" (encore) which Sheehan said was his tribute to the late bass great Jaco Pastorius.

Keith Emerson
Peter Pardo

When it was announced that Keith Emerson and his band would headline NEARfest 2006 (and Rob & Chad waited till almost the last minute to make this announcement) all of a sudden this year's festival became a big deal. Not that the rest of the line-up for the weekend were pushovers by any means, but KEITH EMERSON!! The legendary keyboard maestro, world famous for his stints in The Nice and Emerson Lake and Palmer, brought his hot band that included guitarist/vocalist Marc Bonilla, drummer Pete Riley, and bass player Phil Williams. Even though Emerson and the boys have been touring across the US recently, the mere thought that this legend of the Moog & Hammond would be gracing the Zoellner stage brought chills to many spines I am sure.


It's safe to say that the band did not disappoint one bit. Emerson looked every bit the progressive rock icon that he is, with thick longish hair and sunglasses, surrounded by huge racks of vintage keyboards (man, the size of that Moog!), telling old war stories from the many tours and experiences he has had (and many of them were quite hilarious I might add, especially the one about the "secret handshake"). Almost every classic song that the man has been involved in was played, including "Lucky Man" (complete with a neat arrangement by Bonilla and a scorching Moog solo from Emerson), "Karelia Suite", "Karn Evil 9", "Living Sin", "Bitches Crystal", "Tarkus", "Fanfare for the Common Man", 'Toccata", "Hoedown", "From the Beginning", 'Touch and Go", and many others, including a real hot Marc Bonilla instrumental. Speaking of Bonilla, despite his 80's Bon Jovi look, he played some tasty guitar and proved he had the vocal chops to handle all the Greg Lake parts on all the ELP tracks the band played that night. As for Emerson, well, what can you say? The master of the Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer also played a little grand piano as well, but it was just an all around virtuoso performance that took all 1000+ fans down memory lane and entertained the hell out of them. It was practically midnight and after a 2 ˝ hour set that the band finally said goodnight for the last time, and another spectacular weekend at NEARfest drew to a close.

We can only savor the moments and begin to predict what special sounds we might hear next year. See you then.



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