Edensong, Singularity, Phideaux, It Bites, IQ,
Persephone's Dream, Syzygy, Glass Hammer, Crack The Sky, King's X
Saturday and Sunday, 8th and 9th August 2009
Pepsi Cola Roadhouse, Pittsburg, PA, US
Article By David Wimer
In terms of prog festivals I’ve been to every NEARFest since 2002 when Nektar and Steve Hackett headlined, and I attended ROSFest 2008 where I was blown away by Credo.
I decided to go to 3RP 2009 partly because I’m kicking myself for not attending the first edition in 2008
because of the stellar lineup and the ¾ Transatlantic reunion that occurred on Saturday night.
The Pepsi Roadhouse is an interesting venue because it’s literally in the woods in the middle of nowhere
and the stage setup is unusual in that there are seats in front of the stage as you might expect but there are also seats perpendicular to the stage.
I was sitting toward the back and I think next year I’ll splurge for closer tickets because there were sliding glass doors to my right
that caused some glare to seep through and there were TV screens above me.
Both of these factors were a little distracting, but I did get used to them eventually.
Another unusual factor compared with other prog festivals is that they kicked everyone out of the venue during sound checks
(although they seemed to give up on this practice later in the weekend) and so a large portion of my time was spent outdoors.
Outside the venue there was a food area and occasionally local prog bands would perform between sets (I can’t remember any of their names).
Speaking of the food, there wasn’t much of a selection but it wasn’t bad and it was somewhat reasonably priced (unlike the infamous $12 box lunches at NEARFest 2002).
Finally, this festival is smaller and more intimate than NEARFest so it’s easier to "rub elbows" with musicians.
For example, I was standing next to Peter Nicholls from IQ in the breakfast line on Sunday morning and we were talking about Kaspar Hauser,
whose story inspired the Subterranea album (by the way, if you like Subterranea you may want to check out a Herzog movie called The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser).
I will now give a very brief band by band report of the bands that performed at the festival – I did leave early on Sunday so I missed Crack the Sky and King’s X.
Very good symphonic prog, and the audience seemed to be into them quite a bit.
I talked to one guy who said they were his favorite band at the festival.
One of my pet peeves about prog is the overabundance of weak vocals, and I had trouble getting into this band because of their weak vocals.
Some people can overlook poor vocals but it can ruin a band’s music for me.
However, I still enjoyed their set and they were also seemed to be well received by the audience.
The highlight for me was when they performed their entire Between Sunlight and Shadow album.
At NEARFest the singer and guitarist from Edensong was giving out free 3RP 2009 samplers and I really liked the Phideaux song on that sampler, Thank You For the Evil,
so I was looking forward to this performance.
This band totally blew me away, partly because it’s not very often that you see a band with 10 people in it!
A large chunk of the set was from their album Doomsday Afternoon.
This band has a very rich, lush sound that’s partly spacey, think Pink Floyd circa Wish You Were Here, and partly folky with a violin
and both male and female vocals, which reminded me of Mostly Autumn in some ways.
I am now a new fan of this band and I hope to see them perform live again someday.
Many fans said they were there mostly to see It Bites, but this band was a little too mainstream for me.
After a few songs I decided to take my dinner break and rest up for I.Q.
However, I must admit that some of their songs were quite catchy and did stick in my head for a while, especially Ghosts.
Aside from Syzygy, IQ was my main reason for attending the festival.
I personally love their new album Frequency and I was looking forward to seeing those songs performed live.
I was also looking forward to seeing their new keyboard player and Paul Cook on drums, he wasn’t with the band when I saw them at NEARFest 2005.
The set list was somewhat similar to the DVD that came with Frequency, with a few exceptions.
During Stronger Than Friction Peter’s mic stopped working so he quickly jumped over to John Jowitt’s mic and continued singing.
However, instead of singing "these hands are useless, they’re not even mine" he sang "that mic is useless, it doesn’t work at all"!
It was a professional way to turn a potentially disastrous situation into something humorous.
A few seconds later the mic got fixed and the show continued without a problem.
Overall the band sounded great and everyone there seemed to be having an excellent time.
If my memory serves me correctly, here was the set list.
The Darkest Hour
Stronger Than Friction
The Narrow Margin
It All Stops Here
This band left a pamphlet with information about their set on every chair in the venue, which was a nice touch.
I also like how it was a Sunday morning and the pamphlets looked like church programs!
Persephone’s Dream did something very bold by devoting their entire set to their upcoming album Pan’s Labyrinth.
I really admire them for doing that, and I absolutely loved the performance.
The female singer came out dressed in various costumes and played the role of several characters in the story;
some of her costumes reminded me of Peter Gabriel from the classic Genesis days.
The music featured lyrics related to Greek& Roman mythology and would have sounded right at home at a Renaissance Festival.
I spoke with the singer after the show and she said that the new album should be out in a few months (fall, 2009).
This review will focus on Syzygy’s performance as it was a major reason why I made the 5 hour drive to attend the festival.
First, however, I will discuss how I discovered the band’s wonderful music and became a devoted fan.
Back in 2003 I read a favorable review of Syzygy’s Allegory of Light album and I decided to order the CD.
I popped it into my CD player, and within 5 minutes I could tell that this band has "it"
– that hard-to-describe level of quality that the best bands are able to tap into and other bands strive for but never reach.
I was hooked. At the time I was attending graduate school near the band’s home base in Cleveland, Ohio,
USA and I was delighted to see that they were doing a performance at the Winchester Tavern nearby Lakewood, Ohio.
At that show the band previewed tracks from the forthcoming album.
It took them a long time to finally release their new album Realms of Eternity, but it was certainly worth the wait.
Anyway, on to the performance at 3RP 2009.
A really nice touch was that before the performance the band left out stacks of free programs that contained a history of the band,
a list of the musicians, the set list, and a description of each song on the set list.
I thought this was a really nice touch, especially for people who weren’t familiar with the band.
Since it was a festival the band was trying to win over people who weren’t familiar with them
and I’m sure this helped somewhat because it added context to the music and it let people know which album certain pieces
were from so they could decide which CD to buy if they liked the show.
I should mention that Persephone’s Dream did the same thing before their 11:00am Sunday morning performance and it added context to their set as well.
During the sound check, guitarist Carl Baldassarre was talking about how the band’s monitors weren’t working and I was worried that this eagerly anticipated performance
in the band’s career would be plagued by sound problems that are all too common at prog festivals, but the problem got cleared up and the show sounded great.
They came out on stage after a classical music intro, a nice touch that added drama and anticipation, and started with an instrumental track from the new album Vanitas,
which I think I heard them play at that Cleveland show years ago under the name Tracker.
I could tell right away that the band was on fire during this show – they received several standing ovations at times during the concert, sometimes in the middle of a song!
The next song was Darkfield, the opening track from Realms of Eternity.
This is when new vocalist Mark Boals made his entrance;
it was a great moment when he first came out on stage as I was struck by how powerful and assertive his vocal presence is live.
He sounds great on the album, but it doesn’t do justice to seeing him sing in person.
I believe that a quality vocalist makes a huge difference to a prog band, and the addition of Mark Boals was the last piece of the puzzle that makes Syzygy a truly great band.
The next track was a pleasant surprise to me – I didn’t expect to hear any songs from the album Cosmos and Chaos from when the band was still known as Witsend, let alone two songs.
On that album, Mount Ethereal is a 2 or 3 minute instrumental track but for this concert the band expanded the song and added lyrics that were originally intended to be on the track way back when.
I‘m a sucker for fantasy-oriented lyrics and JRR Tolkien themes so I really enjoyed this song,
and I hope they release this version of the song on either a live album or a future album.
Before Dreams, Carl talked about how the song has personal meaning for the band because they never wanted to lose sight of their dream to make music.
This is a fun song to see live because of the rousing, sing-along chorus.
Next was another updated-with-added-lyrics song from Cosmos and Chaos, Strange Loop II.
For me, the highlight of the concert was the final two pieces of music (I guess I can’t really call them “songs” because of the length!).
Seeing M.O.T.H. performed live was special for me because it’s the piece that made me a Syzygy fan.
The instrumental portion of this song was absolutely searing, and it was one of the moments that incited a standing ovation from the audience.
Finally, before The Sea Carl talked about the meaning of the piece, and I can’t remember exactly what he said right now but in the program it says
"…an allegory told to loved ones to ease their grief in times of mourning.
It embodies the reassuring promise that as we wave goodbye to our loved ones from the shore, there are others waving ‘welcome home’ from the other side of The Sea."
I am not a particularly religious person, but as a therapist I know the profound healing power that spirituality can have and I believe that the best prog epics have a spiritual,
transcendent component to them (Close to the Edge by Yes, Stranger in Your Soul by Transatlantic, etc.) and The Sea is no exception.
Seeing this song performed live (again) was a wonderful experience, and once again the band was on fire during the instrumental segments.
I think the band had an encore prepared but at this point the festival was running behind so there was no encore.
From my vantage point it seemed like people were really into their set and I’d imagine that Syzygy won over many new fans this day,
and made older fans like me even more engaged with the band’s music.
I believe that Syzygy’s performance at 3RP 2009 vaulted them into the upper echelon of contemporary prog bands,
and I truly believe that Syzygy is good enough to be mentioned alongside contemporary greats like The Flower Kings, Spock’s Beard, IQ, etc.
Mount Ethereal (The Chronicle of the Ascent)
Strange Loop II
Master of the House (M.O.T.H.)
I saw Glass Hammer at NEARFest 2003 and I was looking forward to seeing them again.
The first thing I noticed is that keyboardist Fred Schendel has literally lost about 150 pounds, and he also shaved his head!
He acknowledged this by getting on the microphone and saying, "Where’s the fat guy? He was better!".
Early in their set they played Tales of the Great Wars and One King from the Lex Rex album and things were going along very well.
However, they decided to play a few new songs that will be on their next album and I must admit that I didn’t care for them at all
– one song was by far the heaviest Glass Hammer song to date and sounded almost like heavy metal, another was a pop-oriented vocal piece with a drum machine
and the third was a song that Fred Schendel sang on and he described as "happy".
After hearing these new songs I have a bad feeling that Glass Hammer is on the verge of jumping the shark.
However, they redeemed themselves later by playing an instrumental from Chronometree and the epic A Maker of Crowns from The Inconsolable Secret.
They ended the set by playing their cover of the Yes song South Side of the Sky, which was a great moment except for when the singer completely messed up the lyrics.
Overall this show had some great moments but there were also some disappointing aspects,
and I overheard people afterwards talking about being a little disappointed – some people said they wanted to hear more material from the most recent album Culture of Ascent.
I left early because I had to work the next day so I unfortunately missed the last two bands, although I will see King’s X open for Porcupine Tree in September.
Overall, I had a wonderful time at 3RP 2009 and I will go back next year as long as my schedule and my wallet allow.
It wasn’t sold out so it’s not difficult to get tickets (unlike NEARFest, in which the ticket web site crashes every year).
I recommend the festival to anyone who can make it!
Crack The Sky
Pepsi Cola Roadhouse