ROSfest 2011 – Prog Is a Battlefield

Since I moved to the USA two and a half years ago, progressive rock festivals have always been one of the highlights of the year for me and my husband. However, we had skipped both of the previous editions of the Rites of Spring Festival (aka ROSfest) – mainly on account the general musical direction of the event, since our tastes tend to lean more towards the more adventurous side of prog. We both pride ourselves on our open-mindedness, though, and the cancellation of this year’s edition of NEARfest was the catalyst that made us decide to take the plunge. As it is often the case in life, a very positive experience came out of a negative (and quite unexpected) occurrence.

The 2011 edition of ROSFest was organized, for the second year in a row, in the small historic town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. One of the prime US tourist sites, Gettysburg is known worldwide for one of the bloodiest battles of its time, the clash between the Union and Confederate armies that occurred on July 1-3, 1863, and pretty much decided the final outcome of the Civil War (hence the title of my review). The town itself exudes a quaint, out-of-time vibe, with plenty of antique and craft shops, as well as fine eating and drinking establishments, though hardly any stores catering for everyday needs (such as pharmacies or grocery stores), and no taxis or any public transportation except for some vintage-looking blue buses.  The drive from the official festival hotel to the town centre goes through part of the huge battlefield, a sobering sight dotted with markers commemorating all the different regiments that fought on those fateful three days, said to be haunted by the ghosts of the over 50.000 soldiers who lost their lives there. In the month of May, the countryside is at its very best, the colours fresh and bright, flowers growing by the roadside, the road lined with quaint houses and bright red barns: however, it is hard not to think of the bloodshed and wholesale slaughter, and when driving through the battlefield at night it is easy to imagine ghosts wandering in the misty darkness.

The festival venue was a treat – a gorgeous Art Deco theatre with an excellent seating arrangement, crystal chandeliers and plenty of that old-fashioned charm that seems to have been banished by the spread of modern multiplexes. Though not as spacious as Bethlehem’s Zoellner Arts Centre, and lacking in enough seats for people waiting in the lobby between sets, it offered nicely appointed spaces, with the gallery taken over by vendors and band merchandising (though I think the bands might have used a bit more room), and a nice table set up in the lobby for CD signing after each show. The abundance of eating places in the immediate vicinity, as well as the generous breaks between sets, made it easier for the attendees to take their time without having to rush about in order not to miss anything; the bar was also fairly priced as things go, and manned (or perhaps I should say ‘womanned’) by a couple of very nice ladies. The theatre also employed a group of equally nice ladies as ushers (something I had not seen for a long time), though I have to admit I missed the very convenient wristband system implemented by other events.

Unfortunately, in spite of the NEARfest cancellation having redirected some would-be attendees to ROSfest, there were quite a few empty seats in the theatre. The crowd, however, made up in enthusiasm what was lacking in numbers. Some people had chosen to get tickets only for Saturday and Sunday, but there was still a fair attendance on Friday night, mainly on account of headliners Moon Safari. On the whole, it can be estimated that the Majestic Theatre was 70-75% full – not bad per se, but neither the sell-out that some were anticipating. Times are still tough for many people in the US, and the splintering of the ‘prog community’ in a myriad of sub-groups does not help matters. Not all the NEARfest orphans had  chosen to support ROSfest, and for a very simple reason: as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, ROSfest mainly caters to what I often call the more conservative set of prog fans, those who like melody, vocal-oriented compositions, and, more often than not, anything that seems to recreate the magic of the Seventies (a slant that was reflected by many of the CDs on sale in the vendor area). Nothing wrong with that, of course: there are plenty of bands and artists on the current scene that prefer to look to the past for their main inspiration, and many of them do it very well. Even if my loyal readership might sometimes get the idea that I am biased against ‘retro-prog’, there are quite a few acts falling under this category that I enjoy a lot, as long as their music ‘speaks’ to me somehow.

This year, organizers George Roldan and Krista Phillips and their team had made a somewhat bold move, and dispensed with any nostalgia acts in favour of a rather intriguing range of relatively new bands, about half of them hailing from the US (which, knowing the audience, might have been a factor in the relatively low attendance). In particular, Sunday headliners Quidam, though familiar to devotees of neo-prog and Polish prog in general, did not possess the clout or vintage credentials of last year’s headliners Renaissance. However, judging from what was seen on stage over the past weekend, in musical terms it was a move that paid in spades. Both my husband and I were impressed by the diversity of the acts selected for this year’s edition, and were also pleasantly surprised on several occasions. Needless to say, the sound quality and the lighting were first-rate, and the intimate feel of the venue made for a nice community experience, further enhanced by the warmth and professional attitude of the organizers.

The festival kicked off at 5 p.m. of Friday, May 20, with local band Epiicycle, featuring George’s son Anthony Roldan. A young quartet, though already with three albums under their belt, they sounded somewhat out of synch with the event’s general musical direction, sounding more akin to the likes of Porcupine Tree, Tool and other ‘alt-prog’ bands than Yes or Genesis (though their last song, which featured violin and cello, had a more conventional proggy feel with shades of Anekdoten). In spite of some obvious weaknesses, especially in the vocal department, their enthusiasm was endearing, and the event obviously provided a great chance for them to play in front of a considerable audience, as well as to grow and refine their sound.

Though I was not familiar with Tinyfish’s music, I remembered guitarist/vocalist Simon Godfrey as one of the old-time members of the progressive rock forum where I started my ‘career’, and had often seen the band mentioned there. However, even if I had never had the opportunity to check them out, their set (which, regrettably, we had to leave early due to a prior engagement) was one of the real surprises of the weekend for both of us. Simply put, Simon Godfrey is an incredible vocalist, probably the best heard over the weekend (no mean feat, since there was quite a bunch of fine singers on display), with a strong, passionate voice that adds depth and interest to the band’s classy musical output. With a sound harking back to the glory days of vintage Neo-Prog, clean and melodic yet with a nicely sharp edge – more Pink Floyd than Genesis – immaculate musicianship, a powerhouse of a drummer in Leon Camfield,  and a liberal sprinkling of that wonderful English humour, they delivered a flawless set that left the audience deeply impressed.  The narration (courtesy of lyricist Rob Ramsay) of the background story to their latest album, The Big Red Spark =  an elaborate sci-fi concept that has gained a lot of critical acclaim since its release – also injected a welcome dose of theatrics into the proceedings. Tinyfish would definitely have deserved to play a longer set, and I would love to see them again in the future.

After a two-hour dinner break, the theatre filled up nicely for the eagerly awaited Friday headliners, Swedish six-piece Moon Safari, ROSfest alumni (they had performed at the 2009 edition of the festival) and firm favourites of the audience. A bunch of tall, good-looking young men with impressive stage craft and a bit of a swagger, they were greeted deliriously by the crowd, who seemed to lap up every single note they played and sung. Unfortunately, I have to admit that their set was one of the low points of the event for me, though not due to any lack of talent on the part of the band. Having read reviews of their three albums, I was aware that their music was probably not going to be my cup of tea – and, in spite of my open mind, this time I was not wrong. True, the band members are extremely gifted, and their vocal harmonies – hinting at early Yes, Queen and (obviously) The Beatles and The Beach Boys -  are nothing short of stunning, with some state-of-the-art a cappella parts; while the impeccably executed instrumental passages reminded me of Collins-era Genesis. Even if some might view Moon Safari as purveyors of ‘prog for the ladies’ (a stereotyped definition that I loathe), they seemed to appeal in equal proportion to many of the men in the audience. Their music is a melodic, airy confection, easy on the ear, with a smooth, nearly effortless flow – yet not enough to hold my attention, though I liked the nod to Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” (a rather unlikely artist to be quoted by a prog band). Anyway, even if their optimistic, upbeat set came across to me as rather underwhelming, it was undeniably performed with genuine enthusiasm and flair, and anyone who is into melodic, accessible prog should definitely give Moon Safari a try.

Due to physical tiredness (I was never at my best over the whole weekend, which occasionally affected my enjoyment of the music and the company), we missed Going for the One’s performance at the after-show party, though we heard quite a bit of commotion from our room, which was located close to the party premises. Though I am personally not a big fan of tribute bands, I have read some very positive comments on their show, and I am glad their show went down so well, especially in these times when it seems so hard for bands to find gigs.

The Saturday bill was introduced by Polish quartet Osada Vida, whose latest album, Uninvited Dreams, I had reviewed for the website with which I was previously involved. As was to be expected after the night’s partying, many people skipped their set, which was a pity, because the band – a group of seasoned performers with an interesting contemporary bent to their sound – put up an excellent show. As I pointed out in my review, the closest term of comparison would be their fellow countrymen Riverside, whose outstanding performance I had enjoyed at last year’s edition of NEARfest – though Osada Vida have less of a metallic edge, the occasional bouts of heaviness in their music used as a complement rather than the main event. Obviously overjoyed at having been invited to play in the US in front of a sizable crowd, the band treated the audience to a nice selection of tracks from their back catalogue, interspersed by bassist/vocalist Lukasz Lisiak’s friendly, self-deprecating banter. He was quick to stress that he was not a true singer (something that I had observed when listening to Uninvited Dreams), his voice perhaps more suited to metal than prog. However, he acquitted himself well,  while the instrumental interplay was superb, with searing guitar leads, and hard-hitting drums complementing Lisiak’s fluid bass lines, everything rounded up by Rafal Paluszek’s unobtrusive but essential keyboards. All in all, it was a very enjoyable set from a band that I would not mind seeing again soon.

In the past five years or so, especially owing to their appearance in theRomantic Warriors documentary and the sheer quality of their releases,Phideaux have attracted a lot of attention in the prog world, and – judging from what was seen on the Majestic stage – very deservedly so. As far as I was concerned, they were one of the main draws of the whole event, and they did not disappoint me at all. Led by the volcanic mind and considerable songwriting talent of Renaissance man Phideaux Xavier (an extremely nice, articulate gentleman whom I met at breakfast together with some other members of the band), they are a mini-orchestra of 10 people rather than a conventional band, which makes for a full, genuinely symphonic sound, very melodic but never cheesy or overtly poppy, enhanced by consistently thought-provoking lyrical concepts. Though not necessarily to everyone’s taste, it is hard to deny that they do not really sound like anyone else, which is a rarity in this day and age. While watching their show, I kept being reminded of Roger Waters – not so much for the actual musical content as for the emphasis placed on the creation of veritable concept-based ‘rock operas’, as well as the presence of an extended lineup. With a wonderfully humorous twist on the supposed ‘end of the world’ that was expected to occur at 6 p.m. on that same day, their set revolved around their breakthrough 2006 album, Doomsday Afternoon, and also included a sizable chunk from their most recent release, the critically acclaimedSnowtorch. In any case, Phideaux’s performance was one of the undisputed highlights of the festival. With splendid vocals, top-notch instrumental performances, Phideaux’s set was a big, ambitious achievement with lots of depth, many of the songs driving to exhilarating crescendos and featuring plenty of light and shade. While there are hardly any sharp edges to Phideaux’s music, it comes across as deeply emotional rather than overly sweet, definitely melodic yet powerful, with a nice balance between the acoustic and electric component and a gentle folksy edge tempering the intensity of the more orchestral parts. Definitely one of the high points of the weekend, it was magnificent performance from one of the most distinctive acts on the current prog scene.

After a nice (and much needed) late lunch at a nearby Irish pub, it was time for us to head back to our seats for the following performance – which might have been the biggest surprise of the whole weekend for both of us. Erik Norlanderand his Galactic Collective, a group of fine musicians from the Cleveland area, were introduced by Michelle Moog-Koussa of the Bob Moog Foundation, as Norlander’s appearance was meant as a celebration of what would have been Moog’s 77th birthday on Sunday, May 22. The right side of the stage was taken up by a huge stack of modular synthesizers, affectionately dubbed ‘ the wall of doom’ by Norlander himself (a truly warm and genial host) – which led us to expect an orgy of electronic music in the style of Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze. We could not have been more wrong, because, after three rather interesting instrumental tracks, Norlander introduced on stage his wife Lana Lane (as well as another backing vocalist), and things took a decidedly heavy turn. Accompanied by a sci-fi-themed slideshow which complemented the music quite nicely, the musical offer might be described as ‘Pink Floyd on steroids meets ELP backed by an 80’s hair metal band’. It was bombastic, over-the-top, with more than a whiff of cheese, and as subtle as a sledgehammer – the guitarist even played a brief solo spot with his teeth! – but, in some perverse way, hugely entertaining. Though I found the instrumental stuff more captivating in purely musical terms (especially the excellent “Trantor Station”, inspired by Asimov’s Foundation series), as a staunch hard rock/classic metal fan I could not help being impressed by the “Astrology Suite”, a powerful, anthemic number showcasing Lana Lane’s bold yet clear vocals that sounded like something out of the Rainbow/Ronnie James Dio songbook. Pity that the band finished their set some ten minutes late on schedule – the only instance in an event characterized by superb time management.

Led by legendary keyboardist and composer Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin fame),Daemonia might be construed as a tribute band of sorts, with a repertoire based on Simonetti’s iconic horror-movie soundtracks as well as homages to other influential musicians. Mainly a live act, they have a strong progressive metal bias, powered by Titta Tani’s thunderous drums complementing the dramatic sweep of Simonetti’s keyboards. A classically-trained musician, risen to international fame thanks to his movie scores, Simonetti is a very nice, down-to-earth guy who obviously loves his craft, and is genuinely grateful for the success he has achieved over his career. Meeting him and the rest of the band was one of my personal highlights, as all of them hail from my hometown of Rome, and it was great to be able to exchange views and jokes in my native language. Since I was expecting an all-instrumental set, I was somewhat surprised when Simonetti introduced a singer on stage – a petite, very attractive young lady by the name of Silvia Specchio, who proceeded to belt out a few songs (including a Nightwish cover) with a powerful, self-assured voice. As impressive as she was, however, my preference went to the instrumentals, and I particularly appreciated the tributes to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” and Keith Emerson’s towering Gothic masterpiece, “Mater Tenebrarum” (from the soundtrack to Dario Argento’s Inferno). The impressively lit show, accompanied by footage of the movies themselves (including a favourite of American audiences, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), climaxed with the highly awaited main theme from Dario Argento’s cult thriller, Profondo Rosso, and its sinister, immediately recognizable keyboard riff. As in the case of Galactic Collective, perhaps not the most subtle music around, with a fair amount of bombast and a high heaviness quotient, but very powerful, and a fitting conclusion to the second day of the festival.

The Sunday opening spot – affectionately known as the Church of Prog – was reserved for our most eagerly awaited band, Los Angeles’ very own Mars Hollow. Having followed them right from the release of their debut album one year ago, through their first performance on the East Coast at last year’s edition of ProgDay, we were thrilled to be able to see them again. “Voices”, the preview track posted on the band’s Facebook page, promised great things to come. We had also been impressed by their high level of professionalism – coupled with a truly friendly, level-headed attitude. The Mars Hollow guys (who are all close to me in age, creating an even stronger personal bond) love making music with a passion, and this is very clearly reflected in their overall approach. Their set (which, in my opinion, would have deserved a higher billing) was a flawless combination of first-rate musicianship, gorgeous tunes, warmth and accessibility, showing a band that has grown by leaps and bounds since their already excellent debut. Fronted by the dynamic duo of vocalist/guitarist John Baker and irrepressible bassist/vocalist Kerry Chicoine, with stately yet magnificent keyboard work by Steve Mauk, and powered by Jerry Beller’s tireless, immaculate timekeeping, Mars Hollow treated the audience to a set comprising material from both their debut album and the new one, World in Front of Me. The growth and maturation of their sound was evidently displayed by their new material, definitely more challenging and subtly layered while keeping its listener-friendly quality. I found myself singing along the likes of “Midnight” (a song with serious airplay potential, at least in a perfect world) and the epic “Dawn of Creation”, which wrapped up the set accompanied by Mars-themed images. While Chicoine’s remarkable showmanship and the massive sound of his black-and-white, vintage Rickenbacker captivated the audience’s attention, Baker projected a more sedate presence, his soaring tenor perfectly in control, his lead guitar breaks clear and fluid. All in all, an absolutely superb performance, and the undisputed highlight of the whole event for me.

The presence on the bill of the much-touted District 97 was undeniably one of the biggest draws for a large part of the audience. After months of reading enthusiastic comments about the band being “the future of prog”, their debut album, Hybrid Child, had left me rather underwhelmed, in spite of the obvious talent involved. However, being aware that the live setting often brings out the best in a band or artist, lending more depth and dimension to music all too often emasculated by the recording process, I was looking forward to their set, even if not with the same attitude as their core of die-hard fans. The Chicago-based band, even though unable to avail themselves of the presence of cellist Katinka Kleijn) did not disappoint their followers’ high expectations, and delivered a very strong set that included some new material from their forthcoming second album, as well as excerpts from the “Mindscan” epic, the fast and furious “Termites” and  the superb power-pop tune “I Can’t Take You With Me”. The fresh-faced members of the band are indeed top-notch musicians, with a special mention for powerhouse drummer Jonathan Schang and guitarist Rob Clearfield, and the band as a whole is extremely tight, even if their musical output occasionally gave me the impression of being somewhat overambitious. At times the music suggested the frantic intensity of extreme metal, and it was funny to see the same people who thought Osada Vida were too heavy rave about District 97. The main focus of attention, however, lay in vocalist Leslie Hunt, a diminutive bundle of energy with an impressive stage presence that, in many ways, breaks the mould of the stereotypical female prog singer. I have to admit that, at first, I was a bit annoyed by her constant jumping and dancing about the stage, which seemed somewhat out of synch with the music, but, as the set progressed, the two aspect coalesced with striking results. Odd as it may sound, while watching the band on stage, I could not help thinking that District 97 might very well be considered a 21st-century version of Queen – on account of a very similar, fearlessly genre-bending attitude, blending theatricality, memorable tunes, finely-honed technical skills, melody and sheer heaviness. Like Freddie Mercury, Leslie is a very physical frontwoman, though her performance did not hinge on sex appeal even when wearing just duct tape from the waist up (a matter of comfort rather than titillation). On the whole, even if I cannot say to have been completely converted, now I view District 97 in a much more positive light, and am looking forward to hearing more from them.

Back to the theatre after another visit to the Irish pub, it was time for British band The Reasoning, another act eagerly awaited by quite a few attendees. Formed by bassist Matthew Cohen after his split from Magenta, and fronted by his wife Rachel Cohen (née Jones, formerly with Karnataka), it is one of those bands that I usually tend to bypass in spite of their undeniable talent, and  (as in the case of Moon Safari) their set did nothing to change my views. Though The Reasoning are clearly an accomplished band with plenty of experience under their collective belts, most of their set was marred by the piercingly loud guitar, which felt like having a hole drilled in your brain, and obviously covered the rest of the instruments, as well as the vocals. Rachel Cohen, an attractive young woman with long dark hair and an endearingly witty banter mostly focused on her brainy pursuits, danced around the stage on bare feet, banging her tambourine and delivering an excellent vocal performance, occasionally assisted by keyboardist Tony Turrell. Surely the most typically ‘feminine’ voice heard on stage during the weekend (together with Phideaux’s outstanding Valerie Gracious), her ethereal soprano, though lovely to hear, sounds a bit too similar to a number of other female vocalists. The band’s set hovered between a decidedly heavy direction (sometimes dangerously teetering on the edge of symphonic/Gothic metal) and more subdued, atmospheric numbers with a more melodic bent – skilfully executed and excellently interpreted by Cohen, but ultimately not exciting enough to keep my attention going for two hours. Anyway, even if they are not my cup of tea, The Reasoning are a very proficient outfit whose brand of prog has a dedicated following, and they deserve to find opportunities to perform away from their home turf.

As I already pointed out, Sunday headliners Quidam were not the kind of band that many of the festival regulars would have expected as a fitting conclusion to the event. Though excellent examples of the high level reached by Polish prog bands, as witnessed by their fellow countrymen Osada Vida the previous day, unlike former headliners such as Renaissance, Pendragon or Nektar they are not a household name – and, as proved by the unfortunate NEARfest cancellation, for many fans the names on the bill are the decisive factor, rather than the pleasure of discovery. As with Osada Vida, I had got acquainted with Quidam through my review of their live album, The Fifth Season, a well-rounded, very pleasing effort that had left me much more impressed than I had originally expected. Anyway, any misgivings on the part of some members of the audience notwithstanding, the band played an impressive set, though tinged with special poignancy on account of the news that frontman Bartek Kossowicz had received on the same day from Poland – his wife had lost their first child. With admirable professionalism, Kossowicz – a warm, appealing frontman with a strong voice and a stage presence reminiscent of an old-school metalhead rather than your typical progger – delivered a great performance, doing his best to involve the audience, and conveying the excitement and gratitude of the whole band for having been invited to the event. Their own classy compositions, sung both in English and Polish, blended stylish, Camel-influenced prog, enhanced by the contribution of flutist Jacek Zasada and violinist Tylda Ciołkosz, with classic rock and hard rock undertones in a strongly emotional, melodic package – magnificently embodied by their closing track, the stunning “Alone Together”, a low-key, somewhat somber number featuring a riveting dialogue between keyboards and violin. The band also performed a few covers, as they have been doing for some time during their concerts: King Crimson’s “Red”, The Doors’ magnificent “Riders on the Storm” (very enthusiastically greeted by the crowd), Deep Purple’s “Hush”, and a lovely version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, with the audience singing along in a very moving ending to a great weekend of music.

Before I wrap up this very long and detailed review, I would like to acknowledge the wealth of female musical talent seen on stage over the weekend. The ladies are really making headway into the progressive world, ad this is also borne out by the increasing number of women in the audience. Next time the old, worn out cliché of “girls don’t listen to prog” comes up, the facts will prove it wrong. I would also like to encourage the organizers to seriously think about having at least one American band as a headliner for the festival’s next edition. There are so many gifted artists in this country that deserve recognition for their tireless work on behalf of progressive music.

Now it is time to mention all the great people I met during the weekend: Chapman stick wizard Rob Martino, James Byron Schoen of Edensong, our dear friends John Fontana and David Bobick of Shadow Circus, Alan Benjamin of Advent and his lovely wife Amy, Mike Visaggio of Kinetic Element, Greg Walker of Syn-Phonic (with whom I talked about his recent visit to Rome), Jim Hoffman,  the lovely ladies Sonya Kukcinovich-Hill (aka Spock’s Babe), Amy V. Simmons, Evelyn Chote and Melissa Palmer, the indefatigable Jose Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt (who filmed the whole event, assisted by their daughter Paloma), the members of Phideaux, my fellow Romans of Daemonia, and, of course, our friends of Mars Hollow. Once again, a huge thank you to George, Krista and everyone else who worked hard for months in order to put together such a fantastic event, three unforgettable days of music and fun with like-minded people. We will be sure not to miss ROSfest 2012!

http://www.rosfest.com

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