The North East Art Rock Festival, better known as NEARfest, comes to an end this weekend with the final edition, dubbed NEARfest Apocalypse.
That kind of ostentation is so Progressive Rock. But that’s what Nearfest was all about. I went to my first Nearfest in 2005, expecting clones of Yes and bands past their prime. And the first night lived down to that with the wanking prog fusion of Proto-Kaw and PFMs embarrassing attempts at blues. (They made up for it in their 2009 performance).
The next day had it’s squirmy moments as well. IQ, Frogg Café and Wobbler were, in different ways, capable and even virtuosic, but ultimately making music that could’ve been made in 1975. But then there was Present, more than full-filling expectations with their dynamic electric chamber rock which one NEARfest attendee described
as the music you’d hear at the gates of hell. Beautiful. And Steve Roach played what might be the most successfully different set of anyone at NEARfest ever. The operative words are “successfully” and “different” as he condensed his wide ranging sound into a tight 45 minute set of electro-techno-tribal space music music ecstasy that was unlike anything at NEARfest. You can hear it on the album that NEARfest released, Storm Surge-Live at NEARfest.
The next day, Le Orme disappointed with their overbearing and overwordy (in any language) music. Matthew Parmenter writes books, not lyrics and Knight Area, again, made proficient classic prog but we’ve been here before. Japan’s Kenso, however, put on a powerhouse set and The Muffins were exhilarating in their mix of high energy grooves and jazz improvisation. I saw both my memories of Prog past and my belief in it’s potential for life-changing music affirmed.
Pretentious isn’t a pejorative at NEARfest. Bands at the festival aspire to something higher in their music. Higher than “It has a good beat and you can dance to it.” Higher than Bruce Springsteen’s everyman’s music, higher than Norah Jone’s confessional songs, and punk rock’s anger and heavy metal’s aggression. When you listen to progressive rock it painted pictures of worlds both Utopian and Dystopian, worlds of technological advance and fantasy imaginations. And the musicianship is simply stunning. I don’t know why any drummer would want to play anything but Prog. They are the nuclear fusion plant of this music. And while 60s rock and jam bands go for the endless solos, proggers weave melodic inventions and stories with their guitars and keyboards. (Allan Holdsworth and Niacin aside.) A Steve Hackett solo is like a symphony. An Ed Wynne (Ozric Tentacles) solo is a psychedelic roller coaster.
For 14 years, the festival, held in Bethlehem, PA has gathered together these progressive rock bands from across the spectrum of the genre. It’s notable for booking heritage acts that still walk the earth like Van Der Graaf Generator, UK, Gong, PFM, Hawkwind, Steve Hackett, Magma and Keith Emerson.
But they have also been responsible for reuniting groups who we might have had no hope of seeing in our lifetime like Happy the Man, Nectar, The Strawbs, Änglagård, FM and Yezda Urfa (who?)
The heritage acts are joined by their musical children more than willing to pick up the sacred torch like Porcupine Tree, Ozric Tentacles, and Echolyn.
Besides these veterans NEARFest is also known for breaking hitherto little known bands from across the world. Poland’s Riverside and Indukti, Frances Mörglbl, Japan’s Kenso, Mexico’s Cabezas de Cera and England’s Pure Reason Revolution and Pineapple Thief all had their most significant exposure at NEARFest.
But now NEARfest is drawing to a close. After selling out for 12 years running, NEARFest 2011 was cancelled due to poor ticket sales. The line-up lacked the star power of past events with Umphrey’s McGee (USA), The New Trolls (Italy) and Supersister (The Netherlands) headlining the three nights. None of them were prog superstars and the undercard was possibly too adventurous with some fascinating but obscure groups like Karmakanic (Sweden), Gösta Berlings Saga (Sweden), simakDialog (Indonesia), Accordo dei Contrari (Italy), MediaBanda (Chile), Half Past Four (Canada) and vonFrickle (USA).
Original founders Chad Hutchinson and Rob LaDuca, who had passed the keys to the mellotron over to another group, took back the festival and decided to give it a fond farewell on a high note. You can hear their story on their Echoes interview in our podcast.
They apparently hit the right chord. The festival once again was an instant sell-out with headliners Van Der Graaf Generator, Renaissance and UK, the latter a last-minute replacement for the German group Eloy.
NEARFest has always been a labor of love. It’s an official non-profit 501(c)3 charity and no one gets paid beyond “tips” to the staff. According to LaDuca and Hutchinson, only the headlining acts actually see money beyond travel, room, board and CD sales. According to Hutchinson, bands are happy to get the NEARfest seal of Approval.
The festival only holds a thousand people, which by festival standards, is pretty small. Bonnaroo, for instance, hosts over 75,000 fans. But you will not find a more passionate, informed and attentive audience than the 1000 Prog Parishioners at the Church of NEARfest. It’s a wonderful festival and they are taking it out in style.
I should be blogging and tweeting from NEARfest Apocalypse this weekend.
Here’s some links to previous NEARfest Blog postings.
~© 2012 John Diliberto ((( echoes )))