NEARfest 2008

NEARfest celebrates 10th Anniversary.
I’ve only been to 4 NEARfest festivals, and you can read my previous postings for 2007, 2006 and 2005.  Their 10th anniversary still found a festival happily wed to a 70’s Prog sensibility of fret burning guitar solos, complicated time signatures and pitch bending keyboard runs. The only group that served as a departure from that was England’s Radio Massacre International. However, like every NEARfest, there were a couple of pleasant surprises from unexpected directions. If I had come Saturday night for Liquid Tension Experiment and left around noon after Morglbl, it would have been one of the most exhilarating high energy concerts I’d ever attended.
Liquid Tension Experiment is something of a Prog supergroup with drummer Mike Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci, founding members of Dream Theater, former Dixie Dregs and current Dream Theater keyboardist, Jordan Ruddess and King Crimson/Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin. I thought it would be all shredding fury and rhythmic overkill, and there were certainly more notes in their 90 minute performance than you’ll hear in a month’s worth of Echoes, but such delirious fury and overkill has rarely been this rapturous. Reputedly playing on only two days practice, LTE navigated hairpin rhythm shifts and unison melodic flights that would leave an orchestra gasping. Just when they might have reached the tolerance of shredding, they delivered two showstoppers. The first was a cover of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. (Coincidentally, Italy’s Banco did a drive-by quote from it on clarinet the closing night). LTE turned it into an epic storm of swirling rhythms and whiplash guitar that truly updated this classic. This is New York City in the 21st Century. That was followed by their own epic, When the Water Breaks, which left the audience in tatters. Other than Rudess’s pointless keyboard stand that let him rotate it 360 degrees, their set was perfect.
As was Morglbl [pronounced MORE-guh-bull]. They’ve been around for 10 years, but this French power trio has eluded attention. That changed for at least the 1000 people at NEARfest. Playing classic, shredding metal prog, they added their own touch with stage antics and mugging that would normally be annoying but came off as charming and self-deprecating here. They’ve got a touch of Frank Zappa‘s humor, but it’s Christophe Godin’s guitar playing that would have made Zappa an admirer. Playing his lime green guitar, he spun out squeals, squonks, whammy bar bends and wild flurries that sounded like bees being lassoed. Opening Sunday’s show, they played not just one encore, itself a rarity for a NEARfest opening act, but two encores, including a spirited romp through Deep Purple‘s Smoke on the Water.

The rest of NEARfest could be described as overwrought and overlong.

Koenji Hyakkei is a Japanese band in the tradition of Magma. Lead singer Kubota Aki sings in a fabricated dialect with a piercing operatic soprano that quickly became grating. Instrumentally compelling in an Art Zoyd kind of way, I could’ve used more of Komori Keiko‘s swirling Steve Lacy-style soprano saxophone leads.

Discipline was a favorite of festival attendees, but I found them to be excruciatingly tedious. Their compositions are overwrought and singer and writer Matthew Parmenter‘s keening voice and melodically rambling, verbose lyrics of mental torment were aural torment to my ears. Write a book.
Peter Hammill is an old favorite from Van Der Graaf Generator and his early solo albums. I stopped listening to him years ago, and this performance reminded me why. Like Parmenter, Hammill has trouble landing on a melodic hook and while his lyrics of inner turmoil hit closer to home than Parmenter, Hammill’s lay-it-all-on-the-line theatrical performance of cries, yelps, grunts, shouts and octave leaps seemed unsupported by the spare accompaniment he provided himself on piano and acoustic guitar. Attendees made a steady stream for the exits during his set.
Radio Massacre International is much better than what they presented at NEARfest. The retro-space music trio delivered an unfocused and often amateurish performance that was wrong for this setting and crowd, and possibly for any crowd. The guest performers were a distraction at best. As one of the only stylistic departures of the festival besides Larry “Synergy” Fast, they left little reason for the festival to deviate from the Prog Rock norm. I think RMI tied Peter Hammill for clearing the room.

Echolyn is another band I never got. Fine musicians, charming stage presence, but songs that seemed ill-suited to Prog and not immediate enough for rock.

As an Italian, I always feel conflicted about Italian bands who always seem too wordy and to bombastic.  Banco del Mutuo Soccorso is another of those bands.  They’re great musicians with dynamic songs, but the operatic Italian vocals of the rotund and bearded Francesco DiGiacomo, looking like Burl Ives, always seemed – have you heard this before – overwrought.

I didn’t attend the Friday night show of Larry “Synergy” Fast and Fish. For me, the 10th Nearfest was the only disappointing one I’ve attended and also the most narrow stylistically. Where was the edgier progressive rock of past years like Present, Univers Zero, The Muffins, Steve Roach, Richard Leo Johnson and Michael Manring? Where were the artists pushing the boundaries of Prog like Riverside and Pure Reason Revolution? Although I grew up on Prog, sometimes, not always, at NEARfest, I feel like I’ve moved on, but people are still playing hide ‘n’ seek and Dungeons & Dragons.

Despite my misgivings I look forward to next year, even without the leadership of Chad Hutchinson and Rob LaDuca who passed the leadership baton. They and their crew, as usual, did a beyond outstanding job.

John Diliberto

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