NEAR Fest--Prog-Rock is NOT DEAD!
Submitted on behalf of Phil McKenna
NEAR Fest (North East Art Rock Festival)
June 23-24, 2001
Zoellner Arts Center Lehigh University
Well, here we were, a rag tag bunch of prog loving souls descending on bucolic Lehigh U. and causing the locals to wonder if they were being invaded by some bizarre cult that worshipped Mellotrons and Hammond B-3 organs, and renounced 4/4 time and sappy love songs forever. Mostly, they were right!! Despite what the major record companies and the so-called "critical intelligentsia" (whose intelligence I question more times than not) would have you believe, there IS an audience for prog-rock, and always will be, AND THERE'S NOTHING THEY CAN DO ABOUT IT BUWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! More so, not all prog rock is pompous grandiosity in 27/8 about fairies and cosmic events either.
Rather than attempt and extremely detailed review of each band that played, I will offer up some overall comments.
Birdsongs of the Mesozoic: Great way to open!! For me, they were what would happen if Stravinsky or Bartok watched Sat. morning cartoons, over all it was great fun!! And any band that would do themes from "Rocky and Bullwinkle" or "The Simpsons" is OK in my book!! My only quibble, a live drummer would've been great, sequenced electroniuc drums just don't have the OOOMPH this type of music needs. Outside of that, great show from our Boston boys (right friendly folks too)!
Under The Sun: I lasted about 2 songs here, to me it sounded like Marillion trying to be U-2, or vice-versa. Neo-prog just never did much for me I must admit. Or as I quipped to a couple folks, using my Hans & Franz voice: "Gurly Prog".
White Willow: I LOVED these guys! From first note to last, I was entranced by the beauty of Sylvia Erichson's voice and the subtle, shifting colors of their Nordic folk tinged symphonic prog. They did a couple very beautiful acoustic songs as well. Another reason I loved it, was the fact they weren't trying to blow you away with displays of chops, but really worked as a whole band, creting very vivid colors and textures, kind of made you feel like you were out in the woods at times. In a word HAUNTING!!
Deus Ex Machina: Holy reviving dead languages Batman!! I had to scrape myself off the floor after watching this amazing Italian band! This was a very unique take on fusion, complete with a frantic lead vocalist who sang in Latin!! The ensemble playing was so deadly accurate, lots of dense, intricate lines and harmonies, yet the songs also had breathing room, so I didn't feel like I was being smacked over the head. At times, they made me think of Area meets Mahavishnu Orchestra, very mesmerizing and powerful (kudos also to the keyboardist and his wonderful use of vintage gear like a Mini Moog, Rhodes piano and Hammond organ, gotta love those old analog sounds!)
Porcupine Tree: Flame suit ready for this one. I have to be honest, I don't understand what all the fuss was about. It struck me as just simplistic Pink Floyd (90's era) meets techno. I chose to sit this one out after a couple numbers. Otherwise, I would've been seriously SNOOZING!
And this is what happened on stage on Day 2:
Bright eyed and bushy tailed after a resolutely unhealthy breakfst (DINERS RUUUUUULLLLLEEE!)it was time for round 2(ding!!)
Underground Railroad: WOW!! These guys on just sheer musicianship floored me!! To me, it was like 70's Gentle Giant meets 90's Allan Holdsworth!! Great guitar and keyboard interplay and a lot of cool, mysterious sounding harmonies and chords eminated here. My main quibble though was that this band needs either a full blown lead vocalist (as the vocals were not very strong at all), or to just go completely instrumental altogether (the option I'd personally prefer). It definitely shows great promise if they just make a decision on that one point.
Djam Karet: In short, I would describe them as a high-energy heavy metal instrumental outfit with definite King Crimson influences and they just rocked the house! Sporting a new bassist who never had contact with the stage at all (he was a scream to watch), Djam Karet just tore it up with a good sampling of over ten years of their repetoire. In KC-like fashion, there were tasteful interjections of keyboards where needed, tight ensemble play and just the sense they were having a blast on stage!! Metal shards abound!!
California Guitar Trio w/ Tony Levin: WOW again! 3 former students of Robert Fripp's Guitar Craft Seminars team up with my favorite tall bald camera wielding bassist/Stick maestro to do a show that was musically very full and substantial and HILARIUOUS as all get out too!! Particular highlights included melding a Japanese folk song with "21st Century Schizoid Man", a rousing rendition of Yes's "Heart of the Sunrise" which precipitated an audience singalong, "Dance of the Maya" by Mahavishnu Orchestra (with some cool bluesy slide guitar), KC's "Discipline" a number or intricate original pieces, lots of hilarious dance steps, an amazing treatment of segments from Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with another audience singalong!! This was great fun! Bravo!!
After Crying: I lasted about two songs here, for me, it was a lot of relentless pomp with no let up at all, add to this, cheesy 80's synth sounds (GACK!!). Here, I really felt like I was being smacked over the head. Such a shame, these guys are actually excellent musicians, incorporating Bartok, ELP and chamber music into their palette, but just take themselves WAY too seriously. The lack of contrast and variety in the music definitely sent me looking for some quiet!
Banco: NOW THAT'S ITALIAN! In short, they tore the roof off the joint!! Combining classical, fusion, funkiness and Italian operatics in just the right doses, this was a great way to end!! Unfortunately, I don't have the familiararity with their repetoire that some folks do, but suffice it to say, I loved what I heard. Francesco DiGiacomo is a really fun and very inviting frontman too, and what a voice!! Great playing by everybody! I was floored!! The audience was very moved indeed, and I personally was left with the conviction that indeed the recod companies have it all WRONG about us prog loving folk.