It was a classic Marxist tale of the haves versus the have-nots. A ragtag mob of disenfranchised prog fans were loitering listlessly and growing alarmingly in number. They heckled the ticket-holding members of the progressive world's bourgeoisie, who huddled together en mass to escape the rising fury of the poor slobs - er, working class Bolsheviks -- who didn't have tickets. The ticket-holders were safe however, as long as the Bolsheviks' anger reached random peaks and troughs, out of sync with one another's. That changed however, when one callous ticket-holder decided to pelt their wounds with rock salt by waving his ticket in the air and doing an end-zone dance as he sang, "I'm going to NEARfest, I'm going to NEARfest!" In response, the enraged Bolsheviks broke through the police barrier and charged the doors of Zoellner Art Center! In a nick of time, the last ticket holders slipped through the door, which was immediately barricaded behind them.
And so began the historic third NEARfest; historic in that it was the first third NEARfest in all of recorded history. The scene indoors was one of opulence and style, black ties and evening gowns, popping corks and Havana cigars. Any progressive dignitary who was anybody was here schmoozing and rubbing shoulders, while a tuxedo-clad token of ethnic derivation entertained on a grand piano. They regaled one another with tales of open market conquests and stepping on the little people as they snacked on escargot in pernod butter and smoked laborers' liver pâté. The protesters outside were soon forgotten as it started to rain.
The extent of information that can be gleaned from the fossil record never ceases to amaze. Not only have we found enough hollow, light, and delicate bird bones to understand much of the Aves Class evolution into modern birddom, but apparently we can also reconstruct the jams that these birds used to dig. Patterning their music on the tabulated charts of the more dominant birdsongsmiths in the Mesozoic Hall of Fame, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic mines the archives of these traditional indigenous scores from millennia gone by, concentrating particularly on the early Cretaceous period when the Phylum Chordata really started coming into its own. They use a satisfying combination of sounds ranging from soft and natural (grand piano and flute) to rough (edgy guitar and sax) and artificial (electric keyboards and programmed percussion). Their chamber rock music is an adventure of the unexplored and unexpected, oddly evoking "unfound" moods, yet arranged in a reasonably accessible format. Despite the lack of a standard drum kit and bass, the band could be a force to be reckoned with. Alternately, it could be beautifully stark. The stone etchings can prove cumbersome, which provided an amusing moment when Rick Scott fumbled a tablet from his note stand, causing the priceless relic to hit the floor and scatter into pieces! He shrugged his shoulders, grinned sheepishly and played on, never missing a Mesozoic beat. A brilliant beginning.
Off to the vending areas during the 45-minute set breaks, where fortunes were made and broken. As always, they run a tight ship here, so one should never assume a band will be delayed. So after some purchases, lunch from the grill, a beer from the bar, and a visit to the powder room for some unmentionable business, we were waiting for band number two.
Starting the set with the plaintive, harmonizing cry of "yeaaaaaahhhh! . . . . wooohhhh!", I got an ever-so-slightly nagging suspicion that Under The Sun wouldn't top my most favored performance list. Call it ESP, call it prescience, or call it the closed-mindedness of the penultimate prog-snob, but there it is. The set however, was well executed and full of profound lyrical imagery combined with heavy melodic themes to match. Kansas came to mind, especially the vocal and organ tones and styles on "The Time Being". Their sound has a unifying thread that I suspect they find hard to break: their prime opportunity came on "Dream Catcher", which is supposed to incorporate native American imagery, but aside from the tape at the beginning their was precious little to suggest it wasn't just another stadium rock song, as was much of the rest of the set. Nevertheless, as with all bands this weekend they were very warmly received, proving once again that NEARfest has something for everybody.
Things were getting ugly outside, but as long as one stayed away from the broken glass at the front of the building, one was well-protected by the police barrier. So with nary a thought to the filthy peasants outside it was time for a stunning intro by Norwegian folkies White Willow. Sylvia Erichsen's mystically alluring, wordless vocals were absolutely beautiful, floating over a gently flowing backdrop. Throughout the set they displayed their brand of patient dynamics, starting with slow, quiet grooves and very gradually building in intensity. Mostly dreamy and often brooding, they did take a couple of occasions to open up into near Anglagard territory, proving that the band can indeed pull it off together. Unfortunately, that was way too few and far between. I'll have to take a serious detour off the cliff of public opinion here, because while they were very nice, I just don't see what all the fuss is about. I don't know how much of my impression is based simply on the show and how much is mitigated by the reaction of others. It was nice. It was on par with Ignis Fatuus, which I find slightly more exciting and lively than watching guitarist Jacob Holm-Lupo stand in the same exact position while looking at the floor for the entire show. Or maybe it's because I had to go to the bathroom so bad.
Deus ex Machina lived up to expectations, which I guess is saying a lot. Their set was blisteringly manic with entirely unconventional arrangements and change after change after change. I loved how they'd go from wacky, hard to follow themes, to jazzy breaks with noodling electric piano. Alberto Piras is hysterical to watch, always drawing attention to himself whether he's singing or not. Their acoustic set with guitar, bass, and violin was tight and delightful, but the highlights of the night were a couple of songs from their upcoming Cuneiform album: they were the best songs of their show, and were even a little "fahnkay" as Alberto put it. A remarkably intense display of musicianship.
During the 2 hour dinner break, enterprising vendors were offering free chain mail with a nominal purchase to the brave who ventured outside the compound to eat. These rovers were met with burning, overturned cars, exploded fire hydrants, and Molotov cocktails. Better to stay inside and indulge in saumon mayonnaise, turbot sauce mousseline, aspics de foie gras, and racks of lamb with those cute little white thingies on the bone tips. After a shoeshine and an apres dîner cognac (Navarre Pineau Rosé) I was ready for the Saturday night headliner.
Porcupine Tree's selection seemed perhaps more relevant to the neo-psych/modern rock scene than the prog scene, and in that light I'd have to say they were very good. I didn't pick up on a whole lot of Floydisms, a criticism that's been levied in the past (OK, maybe I missed the Floyd part of the set). In fact, I'll take what PT is doing over anything Floyd has done for many, many years. From my perspective I'll have to admit that a lot of the vocal sections had me ready to leave . . . then they'd tear into an instrumental that would coax me to stay (particularly the really great 4th song). Many of the songs' lyrical concepts were interesting and intelligent, miles ahead of my only recorded exposure to them, which was On The Sunday of Life. Steven Wilson has a really nice guitar style and general band focus; the idea that these guys aren't played on rock radio stations should make plain the old boy network at play in the music industry (as if the recent payola scandals weren't enough of an indictment).
The walls had been breached! Overnight a group of marauders gained ground by demolishing the outer wall with a medieval trebuchet flinging 500 pound missiles from a couple of blocks away. They then took a battering ram to the main entrance, but were headed off at Baker Hall by troops armed with mallets and battle-axes. With the outer defenses crippled, this first wave of conquerors wreaked havoc in the common areas. Particularly vulnerable were the vendors: as is always the case when people riot over an alleged unfairness, they root, pillage, and burn the life-sustaining merchants who happen to be in harm's way, so the vendors bunkered down behind sandbag walls and dug a moat for added protection.
Perhaps emboldened by the battle raging outdoors, the crowd seemed much more animated today. Underground Railroad opened the proceedings with some surprisingly tight and challenging music. Unpredictable melodicism and some jazzy chord progressions at the beginning made me think of Echolyn infused with Canterbury, but the moods in general were more difficult and uncomfortable. The meters were in an almost constant state of flux, as was the music in general: one moment, odd, dissonant and quiet, the next a powerful jagged jam. Each member, on G/B/K/D had their moments to shine, quite often at the same time. I was surprised by how challenging their material was and how good they were at playing it. This kind of music requires a rigid focus between band members, so it's understandable that guitarist Bill Pohl would want to keep an eye on the other members, but really, when he played the occasional killer solo it would have been nice if he'd face the crowd so we could marvel at his technique.
Then Djam Karet stormed through the place, led by a big hairy madman on bass guitar. He was quite the focal point on center stage, enlivening the view while he laid down ostinatos for the two guitarists to jam over. He and drummer Chuck Oken drove the songs every rocking step of the way. They were the quintessential jam band, spewing forth melodies and rock solos devoid of directionless self-indulgence. Amazing how thoroughly enjoyable they can make twin guitar jam rock.
Meanwhile, a second wave of invaders was taken care of by archers with longbows shooting from the top of the parking garage (with spring planting out of the way, yeomen for hire were plentiful), while mounted men-at-arms dispensed with the invading foot soldiers. We were safely ensconced in the seemingly impenetrable walls of Baker hall.
California Guitar Trio with Tony Levin. Who woulda thunk it? Expecting a hardened, technical craftsmanship to the exclusion of warmth and charm, this was one of the more intimate performances of the fest, and so far the most warmly received by the crowd. There were dramatic juxtapositions of mood and style: They opened with a Spanish flavor, and they incorporated blues, jazz, classical, and fripperage influences; they played a western with some badass slide guitar, morphing into a beautifully touching Mexican theme; that was followed by a spaghetti western and an excerpt from Beethoven 's 9th. They predictably played a lot of Crimson material, including a traditional Japanese song arranged to encompass 21st Century Schizoid Man. Levin was remarkable, whether running quick unison lines with the guitarists, strumming thundering bass chords, or creating cool percussive effects with his wooden finger extensions. For an encore they even played Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, leaving the crowd chuckling disbelievingly at first, until they revealed the song's considerable melodic charm. Of course numerous voices in the crowd dutifully sang every word, the real treat being the operatic portion. They were a very playful and wonderful surprise, and if you didn't realize it already, you had to admire the striking contrasts Rob and Chad planned with each successive band of the weekend.
After Crying seemed to be one of the more controversial bands at the show, at least among their own fans. With the loss of their original keyboardist a couple of years back, they've taken a different direction, beginning with their album, "6". As a result, those lusting for the Hungarian bleaksters of yore were rather disappointed. Indeed, the bouncy opener was certainly a bit much for me, as were some of the digital synth sounds. But from the second song ("De Profundis") on, they put on a consummate performance. Besides the virtuoso cello, another of their signature sounds is the dissonant, blaring trumpet, frequently dominating the band's pummeling crescendos. Another aspect that really stood out was that they tended to rearrange material, old with the new. The personality with these guys is cellist/bassist Peter Pejtsik, who must have been one of the happiest/friendliest people there. Their sound was massively symphonic and massively received. Incidentally, they were a number of drum solos this weekend, the best of which was performed here by Zsolt Madai.
Now it was time for the band that's been around for almost as long as Jestersaurus Rex: Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, (or "Another Really Big Old Italian Band With a Really Long Name" for short). Opening with a long instrumental (Metamorphosis) allowed for the delayed introduction of "the big guy", adding a little suspense and probably giving goosebumps to more than just one member of the crowd when he finally took the stage. Their performance was riveting from beginning to end, ranging from heart-wrenching melancholy to almost rapturous joy, delivered with a passion and finesse that is unparalleled in my concert experiences. Highlights as would be expected were Francesco DiGiacomo's vocals, Vittorio Nocenzi's keyboards, and the occasional 6-part harmonies; but really, all members were at the top of their game. Newer members kept a fairly low profile as far as presence goes but it must be said that they are great musicians who fit in perfectly. The most recent addition is windsmith Alessandro Papotto. As Francesco introduced him, "I'd like to introduce our newest member, onna woodwinds . . . I don't know the words, he's so . . . ugly!" Ugly or not, his solo was remarkable, bringing the crowd to its feet, as was done so many times throughout the show.
A new behind the scenes addition to the show was a light show, which was a welcome element, often setting up backdrops intended to compliment the songs being performed. The best part was a . . . how does one describe it? It was a big, big, silver ball hung from the ceiling, with dozens of facets, and it spun around while lights shone on and relected off it! They didn't use any lasers indoors but they sure came in handy to blind the enemy outdoors.
Via a steady stream of helicopters, ambulances, and volunteers, the
wounded were evacuated by the dozen. Local hospitals' emergency
protocols rose to the occasion, underscoring the virtue of a
well-rehearsed disaster plan. Fatalities were expected, but the upshot
is perhaps there won't be quite as many callers tying up the phone
lines for tickets next year. This was another world-class event. In
fact, I'd be hard pressed to imagine a "professionally" run event take
place with as few hitches as NEARfest. Thanks as well to the capable
staff of The Zoellner Arts Center, which proved to be a great venue
these last two years; perhaps its former glory can be approximated
from the rubble that remains. But for prog fans, it's time to think
ahead: On to the War Memorial!