The day started and ended with the two highpoints for NEARfest Apocalypse.
Despite a more than 90 minute delay, and about 10 minutes of a dimly lit stage and no music or musicians, UK finally hit the stage a little before 11PM. They lived up to their reputation as the last great band from the classic Progressive Rock era. I’d seen the trio edition of the band with keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson, bassist/singer John Wetton and drummer Terry Bozzio eight weeks ago at World Café Live-Wilmington. I thought that performance was tepid, overlong and a bit overwrought. Wetton seemed to be pushing his voice. Bozzio was definitely pushing his drums with lots of clamor but little musical effect.
But at NFA, Gary Husband took over the drum chair and Alex Machacek was added on guitar, replicating the original instrumental line-up of the group. The difference was nothing short of astounding. Husband is the perfect drummer for UK driving and propulsive with enough of Bill Bruford’s coloristic approach to create that immersion-in-rhythm effect. Machecek, an Austrian guitarist of some note, was under-utilized in the band but his sustained leads and bass-doubling gave the group the edge it needed. Perhaps ironically, Machecek recorded an album with Terry Bozzio as BPM.
Both Jobson and Wetton responded to the change. Wetton has never been in better voice. And he showed it on the suite of “In the Dead Of Night/By the Light of Day” You might have thought it was 1978 when he sang the yearning, almost choirboy lead. When the band exploded into the instrumental section, it was obvious there was a new energy here. The group went through most of the first album and tracks off Danger Money as well as a couple of King Crimson covers tearing through “Starless” in hurricane grandeur. Machacek played that slowly menacing minimalist line that finally explodes with Jobson nailing a banshee wah-wah violin solo that seared the track. Wetton’s Krimson past appeared again when he played a plaintive solo rendition of their “Book of Saturday.” Some of UK’s actual songs often sound like failed attempts at pop, but even light-weight tunes like “Danger Money” and “Caesar’s Palace Blues” ignited once they dropped the pop song pretense and ripped into the instrumental sections. Jobson, in particular was a whirlwind playing two keyboards and spinning out mini-fugues and florid solos. A very underrated keyboard player, he’s dropped the “Theme of Secrets” keyboard suite he’s played at previous shows but he still retains the violin showcase of cheap faux-guitar virtuosity and pointless effects. But when he bent his slender figure into his violin solos or built driving orchestrations behind the band, he was easily the most impressive musician, and certainly keyboardist, of the festival.
If UK ended the day with bang, the trigger was primed in the morning by Gösta Berlings Saga. They take their name from an epic Swedish novel, but take their music from King Crimson, Univers Zero and fellow countrymen, Änglagård. But unlike many of their contemporaries, including Änglagård and Aranis, they aren’t afraid to hit a groove and work it, and they’ve got a great drummer to do it in Alexander Skepp, a piston driven rhythm machine. “354” was a typical piece for the set with an intricate, minimalist keyboard cycle from David Lundberg, sliced by Einar Baldursson’s guitar over a groove of doom from Skepp. The song builds to a ringing, exhausting climax with swirling organ and Jannick Top-style bass from Gabriel Hermansson. Playing a Fender Telecaster, Baldursson had a different tone than most NF guitarists with an appealing surf-twang in his playing. While in the mode of other bands, GBS had a varied sound that employed vibraphone cycles and even a metal-flamenco mode on “Gliese 58Lg.” Änglagård drummer Mattias Olsson, joined them on their last song playing percussion. Gösta Berlings Saga was definitely the WOW! band of NEARfest Apocalypse.
Although most of the band looks like they’re 15 years old, they were in-sync with the NEARfest zeitgeist. When Skepp introduced one song as being inspired by Dungeons & Dragons’ 20-sided dice, squeals went up from the predominantly male audience. Opening with a 3 song suite of tunes from their latest CD, Glueworks Skepp opined, “When you play three songs together you have a Prog Rock epic.”
In between these highlights were Il Tempio Delle Clessidre, an Italian symphonic prog group. They were overly histrionic and borderline operatic in that Italian Prog way.
They struck an interested contrast next to most NF groups. They wore stage costumes, and Montaldo in particular was striking in a florid black Victorian gown and hair-comb that made her look like a goth widow.
The band was charming in their way, but also corny. Every NEARfest has a Spinal Tap moment. The honor this year went to Il Tempio Delle Clessidre. For one song, inspired by witches, they all donned masks and hooded capes and engaged in pantomime fights. If there’s always a Spinal Tap moment, then there is also an always an element of Frank Zappa at NF. That was carried by former Zappa sideman, Mike Keneally.
He plays a brand of fusion art pop in which the sum is never equal to the parts. The tunes were often banal and forgettable and the instrumental interplay by the book. Keneally is a really good guitar player, but lacks distinction in his keyboard work and should not sing. It’s not a bad voice, it’s just a voice free of personality, which could be said of a lot of his music. There might be a great fusion ensemble in The Mike Keneally Band, but this wasn’t it. It was the old and the new, UK and Gösta Berlings Saga, who made the last day of NEARfest as memorable as any. I’ll have some final NEARfest Apocalypse thoughts shortly. Click on the links for more of Mike Montfort’s photos of Gösta Berlings Saga, The Mike Keneally Band, Il Tempio Delle Clessidre UK were camera shy. ~© 2012 John Diliberto ((( echoes ))) You get great CDs like Todd Boston’s Touched by the Sun by becoming a member of the Echoes CD of the Month Club. Follow the link and see what you’ve been missing. Join us on Facebook where you’ll get all the Echoes news.