Concert Review Archive

 

ROSfest 2006

Ephemeral Sun, John Young, NEO
Mirthrandir, Hamadryad, Karmakanic, Satellite
Magic Pie, Pineapple Thief, Pallas, The Watch

28th, 29th & 30th April 2006
Colonial Theatre, Phoenixville, Pennysylvania.

By
John Morley

A very welcome return visit across the pond for the third annual Rites Of Spring Festival. It's fair to say that the event is now well established in the progressive calendar, and looks set to be a permenant fixture.

Friday is traditionally a preview day, and usually kicks off in the early evening. It's a sort of taster for the events of the weekend to come, but still manages to showcase some quality music.

First up on Friday were Ephemeral Sun. Having heard their Broken Door album, which is a somewhat dark slice of neo-gothic prog though very enjoyable, I have to say their appearance belied their music somewhat - a very young group of musicians indeed though extremely capable and professional. I enjoyed their set, though occasionally lead singer Laurie Ann Haus operatic vocals could be a little samey and indistinct. I would say also they would benefit from concentrating on their stage appearance a little more.

Unfortunately Peter Banks could not make the trip due to a visa mix up, therefore Harmony In Diversity were unable to appear. However, replacement John Young was a more than capable replacement. I have seen John live a couple of times, both solo and with various bands. An excellent keyboard player, singer and songwriter John here played a solo set of his songs with a single keyboard and his usual backing band contained in a minidisc player. Though John does have a more commercial sensibility in his songwriting, he does have a very strong progressive element in his music which he treated us to in the shape of Childhood's End. His in-between song banter also helped to endear him to the Rosfest crowd, and considering he stepped in at short notice he did very well indeed.

Headliners for Friday were NEO, a project put together recently comprising of Clive Nolan, John Jowitt, Andy Edwards on drums and Mark Westwood on guitar. This was to be their debut performance, and they were joined by Alan Reed of Pallas, Nick Barrett, and would have also been joined by Peter Banks had he been able to make the trip. For this performance the band would give us material by the various bands that they were all involved in, so we got a few Arena numbers (sung very capably by John Jowitt), Pallas songs such as Crown Of Thorns and Arrive Alive, and even a few Shadowlands numbers. Nick Barret treated us to some Pendragon songs, The highlight of which being the rousing singalong Stargazing - the sheer sense of fun that was evident between the band members on stage was ably communicated to the audience, making a perfect end to the evening.

Though that was not quite the end as it turned out...an extra performance has been arranged in a bar across the street after the main event for a local band called Divided Sky, who were launching their new album. Things were not looking too good at first, the band did not actually start playing until after midnight, and on the first number they blew the power out twice.
But once they got started they turned out to be a superbly talented bunch of guys, playing a very powerful combination of metal and jazz fusion. And there were a couple of bonuses for the Rosfest crowd in the shape of covers of Porcupine Tree's Blackest Eyes and Yes' Heart Of The Sunrise.

Saturday's opener Mirthrandir were something of a coup - this was a band that had first formed in 1973, released a single album (For You The Old Woman) and disbanded shortly afterwards. So here they were on the Rosfest stage after 30 years. And considering the hiatus they were extremely tight and professional, playing a somewhat quirky style of prog with echoes of Crimson, Yes, and Gentle Giant. Lead singer John Vislocky III was a very striking, charismatic frontman, with a very powerful range that took in falsetto on occasions, and also proved himself a very capable trumpet player. The crowd loved them, and I was impressed enough to invest in their CD as soon as the performance was over.

Hamadryad were one of the highlights of the festival for me, they took a little while to warm up but were very impressive when they did. Lead singer and bass player Jean-Francois Desilets was a dead ringer for Geddy Lee from Rush, though despite also hailing from Canada I would not say they had any particuarly overt Rush influences. They could be very heavy and yet very proggy at the same time, and to sign off with gave us a pretty good version of Firth Of Fifth.

I had been reacquanting myself with Karmakanics two CD's in preperation for their performance, and initially was very impressed - a tight and extremeley talented group of musicians indeed. When they stuck to playing the main songs they were excellent, but after a while the dreaded solo spots kicked in. Now for me, with a band that is already comprised of some of the best musicians around and who get the chance to strut their stuff and solo during the songs themselves, I cannot understand why you would want to stop the show and risk losing the momentum by having seperate bass, drum and keyboard solos.

The last band on Saturday were Satellite, another much anticipated band for me. Initially things looked promising, with the drummer kicking up a storm and even the guitarist Sarhan Kubeisi joining in on a second drumkit. But when they started to get going, something was not quite right. Some of the band members seemed distracted and were either fiddling with their amplifiers or gesturing and having conversations with the backstage crew. To me they sounded ok, so I could not understand what the issue was - but they also looked uncomfortable and slightly uneasy. This proved to be a little distracting for the audience, and a further caveat was that they appeared to be using backing tapes in places. From vocalist/bass player Robert Amirian's occasional talks between songs it was clear they were very happy to be there, and his sincerity and emotion was evident even through his limited use of English. A shame, because when they were on form they were very enjoyable indeed.

Saturday night is the traditional Rosfest 'meet and greet' party which takes place at the Sheraton hotel. The idea of the party is for people to relax and have a drink afterwards, and the function room also has a small stage with drums, bass and a keyboard so that any musicians who want to get up and have fun, jam etc are welcome to do so. This year we were treated to "Deep Pallas", a familiar group of Scottish musicians essaying rousing versions of Black Night and Highway Star, with their own Arrive Alive thrown in as a bonus. John Young also treated us to a couple of numbers, as did Karmakanic, though Jonas Reingold and guitarist Krister Jonsson did outstay their welcome a little and got somewhat indulgent. Thankfully Alan Reed came to the rescue and got the NEO guys up on stage to give us an interesting version of Yes' Time And A Word, which is one of the numbers they would have played in NEO's set had Peter Banks been able to make the trip.

Despite having partied into the early hours, I was determined to be up in tome for Magic Pie's set on Sunday morning. The omens were good for this band - I have been playing their Motions Of Desire CD a lot over the last 6 months or so, there was a buzz about them at the festival among the fans and they had the same slot that Cryptic Vision had last year, and they proved to be one of the highlights of the festival.
True enough, they did not disappoint. A tighter, more disciplined and accomplished group of musicians you would be hard pressed to find. They basically gave us all of the Motions Of Desire album plus one new epic track called Welcome To The Circus. Standouts were the title track from Motions Of Desire, and the epic Changes, but in truth every single track was exemplary and was met with a standing ovation by the whole crowd. Honourable mentions to Alan Olsen for his extremely powerful voice, Kim Stenberg's effortless guitar pyrotechnics, and top marks to see a band with almost every member bar the drummer able to sing backing vocals too. The band had huge grins on their faces throughout the set, they really appreciated the audience reaction and it was certainly well deserved.

Pineapple Thief were a band I had seen live a few times in the UK, and to be honest they really do not do very much for me. I did stay for about 30 mins of their set, but I am still not sure they were a suitable band for this festival. They have kind of a more indie/simplistic sensibility to them, and there is very little that is progressive about them. No doubting the commitment and musicianship of Bruce Soord and his band, and they did have a lot of fans there who enjoyed them so fair play to them.

Pallas were certainly the liveliest and probably loudest band of the weekend - Alan Reed was determined to see if he could get the normally seated Rosfest audience on their feet, and he did succeed up to a point. (I will digress here slightly, as there have been many discussions on the cultural differences between European audiences preferring and being used to standing venues as opposed to the US being mostly seated. I think a standing venue can help to generate more atmosphere and get a crowd dancing, clapping etc and Pallas are certainly a band that would prefer that sort of reaction, however at Rosfest when you are there from 11.00am until often gone midnight, you really do appreciate that seat, so it's a compromise I guess). There is certainly nothing sedate about the band, they usually give a very lively, energetic and powerful live show and this was certainly no exception. As a special treat for Rosfest, they had brought original singer Euan Lowson across to do a few numbers, and he got quite a bit of stage time with the the epic Atlantis Suite being handed over to him, as well as Queen of the Deep and The Ripper. I think it says a lot for frontman Alan Reed that he was magnanimous enough to give up the stage for a lengthy period of time in this way. Mind you, I would like to have heard more from their latest album The Dreams Of Men - we did get the Bringer of Dreams, Ghostdancers, Invincible and Warriors plus Niall Mathewson's short but welcome guitar piece Northern Star, so should not complain really. Talking of The Ripper, that is certainly one dark, disturbing slice of prog and had Euan Lowson on stage dressed in an all-over white boiler suit with a face mask on, and usually culminates in him disfiguring himself at the end of the track, though on this occasion the stage props did not quite work as well as they should have - which was probably a relief to the first few rows! A stunning performance, and only slightly marred by the inconsistency and technical problems with the slide show on the back screen, rather comically bringing up the standard Microsoft "Do you want to escape?" warning at one point!

A chance for a bite to eat and a beer or two and then is was back for the final band of the day, Italy's The Watch. I cannot say I was much impressed with their Vacuum album, it straight away shouted 'Genesis clone" at me, and I was not sure how I would react to them. Mind you the bands keyboard set-up caused some interest before the show even started, with a vintage mellotron and what looked like an original Hammond organ complete with the Leslie speaker cabinet. Sure enough, when the band took the stage the early Genesis comparisons were obvious, and the singers voice was a dead ringer for Gabriel's. Despite this, had the songs been interesting and not sounded like every Genesis record you have ever heard I might have took to them more. They did seem to polarise the audience, some found their sound appealingly nostalgic and got a kick out of it, other like myself just thought what's the point of it? They were very good at what they did though, and I kind of wondered why they did not go all the way and become a Genesis tribute band, frankly. I did not stay for all of their set, but I hear they did a decent version of Get 'Em Out By Friday for the encore.

Overall I probably did not enjoy the event quite as much as last year, but only because some of the bands did not live up to my personal expectations. But once again I have to praise the organisation of the event, it seemed much smoother this year, less waiting around for the bands, and a much needed new bar/restaurant that has opened a couple of doors away from the venue called Jesters that had the friendliest and most accommodating staff, and were geared up for the festival crowd too. Another advantage of this venue was the large room upstairs which held the merchandise stalls, a vast improvement on the tiny shop the stalls had to squeeze into last year. This bar basically became the official meet-up place for the festival, was open all hours and negated the need to trudge up and down the street to see what other places were open as per last year.

It really cannot be stressed enough the sense of camaraderie that permeates Rosfest, the ability to be able to hang out, talk prog and relax with like-minded people from all over the world is just as important as the music itself. I made many new friends last year and have a few more to add to that list this year too. The icing on the cake is the ability to be able to book into the same hotel as the bands and chat to the band members over a drink or two.

Once again major thanks must go to festival organisers George Roldan and Tom Smith for putting the whole thing together.

So, 3 days of solid prog, good food, cheap beer, a chance to hang out with like-minded people and chat to band members...put me down for a ticket for next year!

 


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