By Mike Flavin
Another RoSFest has come and gone, and now that the dust has settled, the body has rested, and the brain cells have resumed an almost normal level of functioning it’s time to collect the thoughts and try to appraise the weekend. Trying to review this past weekend is both difficult and easy. Easy because, to put it simply, all of the performances were excellent, and difficult for the very same reason!
I like to approach a weekend like RoSFest with a certain amount of advance homework, but I also like to leave myself room to be surprised. Without fail, the groups I was familiar with outdid themselves, and the groups that I hadn’t heard before were most impressive. It’s safe to say the only real disappointment of the whole weekend was the constant rain, but that was more than made up for by the sunny disposition of the audience and the smooth sailing of the festival itself.
Friday, May 1, 2009
Other than the weather, the biggest disappointment for me was missing most of Iluvatar’s set due to traffic. Unfortunate for me, because this fine American prog band has been making some excellent music for nearly two decades and I was really looking forward to hearing more than their last two songs. Their atmospheric Yes-influenced sound appeared in good form and their new recordings will be at the top of my future purchases list.
The Syn is a band with a history dating back to the mid-60s when vocalist Stephen Nardelli teamed up with pre-Yes Chris Squire and wound up with a string of gig at London’s legendary Marquee club. The Syn of 2009 consists of Nardelli with guitarist Francis Dunnery and keyboardist Tom Brislin, augmented by Brett Kull and Paul Ramsey of Echolyn (and a female keyboardist whose name I did not catch).
Their set was an easygoing affair, with Nardelli’s relaxed vocal style perfectly complimented by Dunnery’s kinetic acoustic guitar and Brislin’s familiar orchestral sound. Most of their set was taken from their excellent new album Big Sky, with one of the highlights for me being a very nice version of “The Reason”.
Nektar is another group with a long history. Not as long as The Syn, but certainly impressive in the number of albums and their successes over the years. Led by original guitarist/vocalist Roye Albrighton through a raucous, almost bluesy yet tight set, they rocked much harder than one would expect from a prog band with a 30-plus year history. Albrighton is a master guitarist very much in the classic rock style who relies on phrasing and melody and a cranked up tone rather than fingertaps and whammy bars. Their set was very enjoyable except that their enthusiasm seemed to be matched by the sound mixing, and the volume seemed to creep up considerably as the night went on.
Although they weren’t officially part of RoSFest, this Jethro Tull tribute band definitely deserves a mention for their set at the Friday after party. Their enthusiastic renditions of some of prog’s most classic material was a perfect way to bring the night to a close – or get the real party started, depending on one’s perspective.
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Kicking off the Saturday festivities was the California based quartet Moth Vellum, a group that achieves the difficult task of wearing their classic prog influences proudly while at the same time developing a unique and distinctive sound all their own. Dressed all in white, and featuring the tenor of vocalist/bassist Ryan Downe, Moth Vellum treated the audience to a set of melody and harmony reminiscent of Steely Dan combined with the extended compositions and very tasteful instrumentals. A very classy and sophisticated set by a band with a bright future.
Speaking of bands with a bright future, Abigail’s Ghost youth stormed onto the Keswick stage with such youthful hard rocking exuberance and pure musical ability that many of us older audience were left thinking that the future of our prog is in good hands. Somewhat reminiscent of Porcupine Tree in the use of light & shade in their arrangements Abigail’s Ghost also gave Rosfest a taste of dropped-D power chord crunch. Especially entertaining was watching wildman guitarist Randy Paul bound about the stage in contrast with singer/guitarist Joshua Theriot’s calm demeanor. I hope George & Tom can continue to find talented young bands like Abigail’s Ghost to bring to future Rosfests.
One of the most anticipated bands of the weekend for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the band’s lineup. Take a virtual who’s who of the UK prog scene, then add Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard for a one-time performance, and you have the makings of a truly memorable event. Having seen the original four piece lineup before they were temporarily disbanded in 2006, I was still flabbergasted by the wall of sound they created for this show. The addition of Dec Burke from Darwin’s Radio on guitar and vocals allowed bandleader Jem Godfrey to concentrate on his innovative keyboard work, while having an excellent guitarist with one of the finest voices in the business is certainly a plus. If anything, I would have like to see more guitar interplay between Dec and John Mitchell, but Frost*’s music isn’t really set up for jamming. NDV was much more than a sideman on drums, driving the band with confidence while also contributing vocals and even a short keyboard solo. Frost* was incredible by any standard, and the fact that the set was put together over a few days rehearsal makes their performance nothing short of astonishing.
Saturday’s last, but by no means least performance was the innovative French group Lazuli. In complete contrast to Moth Vellum’s white outfits and jazzy style, Lazuli were dressed in all black and sported the wildest hairstyles and facial hair of the weekend. With multiple percussionists and a bassist playing a huge Warr Guitar, their sound was monstrous, to say the least. Charismatic frontman Dominique Leonetti covered a lot of bases, at times stalking the stage menacingly, and at others charming the audience with his acoustic guitar and quiet demeanor. The only fault I could find in their set was that many of the up tempo numbers tended to rely on the same tribal percussion rhythm, but the times they broke from the format (such as to engage the audience in a rhythmic clap-along, or a group performance over the xylophone) showed what an extremely talented group they are. A visually arresting performance coupled with innovative instrumentation made for a great close to the first full day of the festival.
Saturday VIP Party
Anyone who’s ever gone to the Rosfest VIP party doesn’t need a reviewer to describe the goings on, but those who haven’t should really consider giving it a try. It’s a great opportunity to meet and chat with friends and performers, and the jam session is a chance to see some great players have a little fun and sometimes it even gives a non-performer (such as yours truly) a little playing time alongside some Rosfest legends. I can’t honestly say the largely improvised version of “Supper’s Ready” was a highlight for the listeners, but it was sure fun to be a part of!
Sunday, May 3, 2009
The Hot Seat…Sunday morning.. The Church of Prog! After seeing so many great Sunday morning performances, this particular slot has gone from a performance for however many bleary-eyed festival goers could drag themselves out of bed, to the most anticipated and closely watched set of the weekend. Touchstone, a melodic and hard rocking group from the UK, did themselves proud by upholding the tradition of Sunday morning bands kicking ass. This was another band that I had seen previously a little over a year ago, and the growth in their presentation was remarkable. The rhythm section of drummer Al Melville and bassist Moo (no other name needed – he’s “Moo”) is as tight as any, with the added funkiness of Moo’s fretless playing, while Rob Cottingham works big keyboard sounds reminiscent of classic 80s groups like Duran Duran and Talk Talk around Adam Hodgson’s shred-worthy guitar. And what more can be said about vocalist Kim ‘Elkie’ Seviour? This young singer has not only come into her own as a frontperson, working the entire stage (in heels, no less), but possesses a voice that is simply stunning. Not only can she hit the high notes, she can hit them with power and in the very next line give them a delicate touch. Touchstone is a band whose melodic sound has a lot of commercial potential. I think it’s safe to say this band could be on the way to something very big.
This could be a one-word review: Wow!
Professional obligations suggest I expand on that, so I’ll give it a try. Sweden’s Moon Safari was a highly anticipated group for many of us who picked up any of their CDs ahead of time and heard their amazing vocal harmonies. My thought was that if they could pull off that sound live, they would blow the Rosfest crowd away much as Black Bonzo surprised us the year before. Again, I can only say Wow! Mind you, they aren’t the New Christy Minstrels or N’Sync, these guys could play as well as sing. Not only did they harmonize to perfection, they incorporated their vocals into some really terrific extended pieces reminiscent to my ears of classic Genesis. There have been a lot of amazing performances over the years, but Rosfest had never heard anything like this. Stunning, and Wow!
This Italian group was one that I had not had a chance to look into beforehand, and was I ever pleasantly blown away by their performance. With singer Bernardo Lanzetti’s operatic vocals over one of the tightest bands of the weekend, their set was musically dynamic and full of passion & drama – call me crazy, but I’ve heard the Italian people know a little bit about those two things. The two very talented guitarists worked well together to create a sound that reminded me of Mick Ronson’s days with David Bowie, in that they worked a lot of melody and harmony into their rhythm playing. Those who found Lanzetti’s mannered vocals off-putting missed out on a set that had the audience on its feet for more. During their encore, Lanzetti sang a beautiful piece in Italian that showed just what a great singer he is. Magnifico!
John Lee’s Barclay James Harvest
Being primarily a new prog listener, I confess that I had not heard of this group until their announcement as Rosfest headliners, and once again I received a very pleasant surprise. Like The Syn, their history stretches back to the 60s, with over a dozen albums and probably as many members through the years. The 2009 incarnation of the band consists of original members John Lees on guitar and keyboardist Woolly Wolstenholme with Kevin Whitehead and Craig Fletcher on drums and bass (with an additional keyboardist whose name I again did not catch). Whitehead in particular was one of the most tasteful drummers I have ever heard, providing perfect accompaniment to the band.
BJH has often been compared to the Moody Blues for their symphonic sound, but the similarities are the natural result of having developed at a similar time & place, with similar influences from folk and classical music. Their set was a complete contrast to Mangalla Vallis, with the five band members simply singing and playing, while letting some of the most beautiful songs of the weekend speak for themselves. Wolstenhome remarked that when people mention Barclay James Harvest the response is often “Are they still alive?”. Very much so! For their first performance in the US since the Bicentennial, they were remarkably confident and relaxed. A thoroughly enjoyable set, and let’s hope it doesn’t take another 23 years for them to return.
Final thoughts on Rosfest 2009
There is so much to say about this year’s festival, and all of it is good. Musically, this was one of the strongest in the four years that I’ve attended, and technically the weekend was as close to flawless as once could conceivably ask for. It was good to see a female fronted band take the stage and deliver a powerful performance, as diversity can only serve to help the prog community by increasing attendance. There was also more musical (and age) diversity as well, from the metallic crunch of Abigail’s Ghost to the veteran songcraft of Barclay James Harvest, and Lazuli performing almost entirely in French.
I have been trying to pick a theme for this year’s festival, and where I referred to last year as the Rites of String due to all the incredible guitarists, I may have to refer to this year as Pipes of Spring or maybe Voxfest thanks to the incredible singing we were treated to this year. If anyone can come up with a better play on words, please let me know!
A simple thank you is not enough for Tom & George and all the staff at Rosfest and The Keswick for this great festival, but thank you just the same. Everyone make sure to Bring a Friend to Rosfest 2010 for a slice of Magic Pie!