Surprising sets from a lost elder statesman and a band that should be much bigger, The Enid & The Pineapple Thief.
They were only the third act on the bill, but The Pineapple Thief stole the day for me with the most atypical set of NEARfest 2010. No extended guitar solos, keyboard orchestrations or complex rhythm designs for this quartet. Instead they concentrated on songs and arrangements, building tension and release through repetition and nuanced, albeit highly distorted sound. This band might have fit better at Coachella, Bonaroo or some more mainstream rock festival, because this was progressive only if you think Radiohead is progressive. And PT has a lot in common with that art rock group, including Bruce Soord‘s vocal style which often echoes Thom Yorke in his more yearning modality.
From beginning to end The Pineapple Thief’s set was the most carefully conceived. They eschew solos in favor of chordal builds and feedback guitar. Soord orchestrates dynamics through repetition, wrenching feedback and distortion out of his guitar. He was at once the most economical player at the festival and the most explosive.
Soord’s guitar accompanies songs of loss, redemption and even salvation as he builds many of his lyrics around hymn-like refrains. The only thing is they’re hymns over a wall of electric energy. They played a lot of material off their new CD, Someone Here Is Missing, which may be their best album, but pales next to their live performance.
Interestingly, this was as close as NEARfest came this year to a true audience splitter. There was nothing like the massive walkouts I’ve seen in previous years for Present or Peter Hammill (but not Van Der Graaf Generator). Iona lost a few souls, but The Pineapple Thief played their encore to about a 2/3 house. Could it be they were too rock for NEARfest? Not too rock apparently for a couple of young fans who had papered themselves with post-it notes in reference to the post-it note covered figure on the sleeve of Someone Here Is Missing.
The real shock of NEARfest 2010 for me was The Enid. This band dates back to the heyday of symphonic prog in the 1970s, but they’ve gotten lost in time and I think many in the audience had little concept of their music. After seeing their performance, I’m still not sure I’ve got my head wrapped around it. The band is headed up by the portly and balding Robert John Godfrey. He looks and sounds like an absent minded college physics professor, but he certainly had the formula down for his keyboards. Technically, it was a performance of Vangelis dimensions as he pulled out strings, horns and more from his keyboards, orchestrating a realtime symphony of sound. He moved from electronic timbres to sweeping Hollywood orchestrations to 101 Strings romanticism. Often in the same song.
Max Read writes the lyrics and sings them in a processed voice with vocoders and harmonizers that turns him into a choir but also masks his words, which from what I could pick up, is probably a good thing.
Despite the moments of Liberace shlock and Ray Conniff Singers sentimentality, I found myself more and more entranced by this band which seems to exist in its own little universe. They reached Holst-like “Mars” intensity, especially when bass player Nick Willis (not sure of this name) started pounding punctuations on timpanis and field drum. They were definitely the Kings of Crescendo at NEARfest this year.
If there’s a spectrum of NEARfest performers and if the Enid is at one end, then Moraine held down the other as the defacto avant-garde entry this year. A quartet headed up by guitarist Dennis Rea (Land, Earthstar, Savant, Stackpole, Hector Zazou), they play a free-driving brand of improvisation that involves so much processing that at times you can’t tell if it’s Rea, violinist Alicia Allen, or reed player Jim DeJoie playing. This is not a band that’s afraid of noise. DeJoie in particular was always processing his baritone saxophone, sometimes creating fuzz basslines, other times orchestrating guitar like solos. Bari-sax is a tough instrument to play in a music that often relies on speed.
For such an edgy band they had a few too many trite moments. Often the violin and guitar would swing back and forth with the kind of pointless stereo panning that rock bands stopped doing 45 years ago. And Rea’s Asian suite was surprisingly corny. But when they dug into a groove provided by drummer Stephen Cavitt, they created some compelling musical moments especially on “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” where a wild driving groove shifted into stop-start rhythms and Allen’s best solo of the morning.
That was Day Three of NEARfest. Next up, the Grand Finale with Eddie Jobson and the Ultimate Zero Project.