NEARFest: Progressive Rock in Pennsylvania

I went to NEARFest again this year, and it was overall more pleasant than last year, though attenuated in every sense.

It wasn’t as loud (good), the seating wasn’t even close to as uncomfortable (good), the food wasn’t as good (bad), and I didn’t hate or love the acts as extremely (good and bad). The lighting, if possible, was even better–really good when the bands used NEARFest’s own crew, that is.

Read on for the full blow-by-blow, if you care about that sort of thing.

Saturday

Yezda Urfa (aaargh, beware the blink tag on that site), the first band, was my big discovery of the festival. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether it was the hour (11 AM) or a lack of rehearsal, but they just weren’t quite tight enough for the music–the CDs I bought are much better, though their group singing isn’t great there, either. Still, the classically prog (from Indiana, no less) will probably stick with me longest of any new band from this year.

Pallas was next up, and supposedly “symphonic” prog, but it just sounded neo-prog to me. The music was OK, but kind of bland. Still the monkey-boy look and earnestness of the lead singer combined with the groovy Scottish accents and between-song repartè were fun.

This year NEARFest had shorter sets for solo acts that didn’t require a lot of setup. First of these was Richard Pinhas. He did a Fripperesque set with a video collaborator…very European art-like, but I enjoyed it.

The best performance of the festival was clearly the Mike Keneally Band, featuring Spock’s Beard‘s drummer, Nick D’Virgilio. They were tight. I mean, this was a level of musicianship I rarely see in professional classical musicians–skillfull, versatile, and incredibly well integrated–as good as the absolute top jazz groups, and better than all but the top chamber music groups. Unfortunately, it’s just not my style of music. I appreciate Zappa, but after a while, the music just isn’t there for me–too ironically removed. But that didn’t stop me from being blown completely away by the performance.

Univers Zero, Saturday’s headliner, was the band whom, upon the announcement of their participation, clinched my attendance at this year’s NEARFest. Not only are they really creative and like no one else out there (“Chamber music for the apocalypse” was a memorable description of the music), but they kept progressive music alive during the Bubble Gum hell of the mid-Eighties. Plus, where else can you find oboe, bass clarinet, and bassoon in rock and roll?

Sunday

Once more the Finns were out in force, this time with trippy space music and mary jane pics with Hidria Spacefolk instead of acid Klezmer. Also enjoyable and good players, it’s just a style of music I like to groove to occasionally, but extended listening wears thin. It’s basically the Hawkwind of the Naughties.

Metamorfosi are classic Italian prog. They remind me that, yeah, I do like over-the-top pomposity sometimes…it was so over the top that it was no longer pompous and moved into some sort of metapompous universe where long white-haired operatic singers giving you Dante lyrics in Italian with drums, bass, and keyboards…well, it just works. I bought it and got it signed. It was that cool.

Sean Malone was Sunday’s short solo set, and he did cool looped stuff with a Chapman Stick and some sort of six-string bass. Great moody stuff, but not something to listen to over and over and over, unless you’re in that mood. Helluva player, and I appreciated the Jaco tune.

The biggest disappointment of the show, and the only band I walked out slightly early on, was Planet X, the rather self-impressed Dream Theater keyboardist’s attempt to redo Brand X or something. Whatever, they were so self impressed with their own talent that they schooled the worst excesses of 70’s prog rock (and hopefully educated every rock critic on the planet) as to what the term “self indulgence” really means. The technique was great, the music complex, but it wasn’t musical and the 15-minute drum solo had about 90 seconds worth of ideas. After a while, lots of jazz fusion tends to sound the same, because it’s pretty much about the chops, the solos, and the groove. There’s not much “there” there, and there wasn’t here, either.

The Strawbs were the final headliner, and a pleasant experience. However, the occasional minimoog and a few bars of Mellotron don’t make them prog. They were electrified prog-influenced folk rock, maybe, but folk nonetheless. Still, it was pleasant, though the main singer had an odd voice.

As usual, I got a couple of Roger Dean pieces and chatted about traveling in Croatia with his daughter and about architecture with him. I will hire him to design my house if I win the lottery. Unfortunately, by the time I have enough money through earning and saving, he’ll be dead. Possibly I will as well.

The other star of the show was Yuengling’s fine lagger, which kept selling out. Eastern Pennsylvania’s, and America’s, best lagger. This one we can export to Germany with no shame, it’s that good. Now if only the stupid Virginia ABC would allow importation of all their beers instead of just a couple…

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3 Responses to NEARFest: Progressive Rock in Pennsylvania

  1. Dave-O-Rama says:

    Yeah, I thought Camel last year was folk-influenced prog. Enjoyable, though.

    Yeah, Planet X was going for the testosterone brand of prog, where its a full-blown AUDIO ASSAULT, MAN!!! I actually heard guys using that in their enthusiastic praise after the set. I’d have been happier with a full blown MUSICAL assault. T’woulda been awesomer. And less tedious. I didn’t stick around for their second encore.

    Beer nerd speaks: Its possible though, that Yuengling wouldn’t pass beer muster in Germany. I would not be suprised to find out that they use some adjuncts, such as rice in the recipe. Still a good smooth beer, but not meeting the German standard. Normally I’m opposed to needless regulation, but I’ll give a little slack to a beer purity law that’s been around for 5 centuries. But screw the EU.

    Beer nerd should keep his mouth shut: The German spelling of ‘lager’ is correct. It’s odd, but we never put the second ‘g’ in to make it phonetically correct in English.

  2. Sandy Smith says:

    My spellchecker didn’t like “lager”. Go figer.

  3. There was a pretty good article in Inc. magazine this month about Yuengling and how decisions they made in the mid-90s have turned them into one of the country’s largest breweries:

    http://www.inc.com/magazine/20040701/yuengling.html

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