May 9, 2014

Friday Review: ROSFest 2014

Last weekend I headed off to the rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania for my fourth trek to the Rites of Spring Festival, aka ROSFest.  Held annually at the lovely Majestic Theater in Gettysburg, the fest was celebrating its tenth anniversary, having developed, arguably, into the premier progressive rock festival in the United States.  All and all, I didn't find this year's fest to be as good as years past, but it was still a great weekend filled with cool music.

Which, for a moment, I thought I was going to be able to hear in my hotel room.  The Gettysburg Hotel, built in 1797, sits across a small alley from the theater.  What I didn't realize until this year is that the hotel actually extends over the alley.  See for yourself:

That's the Majestic marquee jutting out from below my window.

But enough about that - how were the tunes?

First up on Friday was Clepsydra, from Switzerland, who would be the first of three bread-and-butter neo-prog bands for the weekend.  Active in the 1990s, they have only recently reformed and had done a few shows in Europe.  To judge by their Facebook posts during the run up to the fest, they were completely stoked to open ROSFest.  Their main distinction from the rest of the neo crowd this year was vocalist Aluisio Maggini, who is apparently from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland.  His voice and English delivery reminded me of Italian bands like PFM or Banco - not a bad thing!  Overall, Clepsydra were a good, solid way to start off the festival, particularly if you like late Fish-era Marillion.

The Friday headliner was Caravan, one of the great bands of the 1970s and an originator of the Canterbury school of prog.  Since I'd never seen any of the 70s giants live, I was pretty excited, but also a bit worried.  Were they still up to it, after all these years?  Holy hell, were they ever!  They absolutely ripped the roof off the place.  MVP for the band was Geoffrey Richardson, who, in addition to being the main audience conduit, played viola, guitar, flute, penny whistle, and spoons.  Electric spoons!  It is progressive rock, after all.  While I was a little disappointed they didn't do more tracks from a couple of my favorite albums, I appreciated them playing a lot of their new album.  A highlight of the weekend, to be certain.

The weekend split kind of oddly for me this year.  I knew something about nearly all the Saturday bands, but almost nothing about Sunday's.  Would familiarity or surprise work better?

The closest thing to a surprise on Saturday was the opening band, Elephants of Scotland (despite the name, they're from Vermont).  They released their second album earlier this year and I had listened to some YouTube clips, so I had some idea of what to expect.  They didn't disappoint, playing a sometimes heavy, Rush-like kind of symphonic prog.  Good tunes and great playing all around (lots of juicy keyboard bits, always a good thing).  Their downfall, in my opinion, were the vocals.  Lead vocals were shared by the three guys not playing drums, but none of them really have lead vocalist chops.  Their harmonies sounded really good, but I think the band would benefit from a dedicated front man.  Based on some other reviews I've read, I'm not alone in thinking that.  Nonetheless, good stuff and a great kick off to the day.

Thank You Scientist hails from New Jersey and was pulling off a kind of festival double - they emerged onto the scene last year thanks to a spot at ProgDay.  That's why I had their album well in advance of the festival.  I'm glad I did, because it prepped me for their very frenetic, high energy style.  It's a lot of fun, but it's a little wearying over the course of 90 minutes.  The band stands out thanks to some unusual instrumentation - drums, guitar, bass, violin, trumpet, and tenor sax, plus a bearded lead vocalist who prowled around the stage.  They were the closest thing to "weird" at ROSFest this year and the audience embraced them, bringing them back for an honest-to-goodness encore (a riffy version of "I Am the Walrus").  Did I mention that Fantastic Planet played behind them the whole time?  Trippy, man.

Sound of Contact is a project built around drummer/vocalist Simon Collins.  You may know of his father, Phil, of Genesis fame.  Sound of Contact was actually supposed to play ProgDay last year, but their proposed tour fell through.  Now they're out on the road touring their album, Dimensionaut, which they performed in full, front to back, at ROSFest.  I'll be honest, the album hasn't really done anything for me and the live performance didn't do anything, either.  Collins is a decent enough drummer and singer, but the music is too often mush, ballady AOR kind of stuff.  If the album had Phil's name on it, I think the prog community would have panned it, but, for some reason, it's been embraced by lots of folks (including the two women in the front row giving Collins the rock star treatment).  To each his or her own, I guess.

Sweden's Beardfish is another band that broke into the prog consciousness after appearing at ProgDay (albeit several years before Thank You Scientist).  I know that, after reading about that performance, I immediately went out and grabbed The Sane Day, their then-current album.  I also bought their next three albums sound unheard.  Then . . . something happened.  For whatever reason, the furious love I had for this band waned.  Would a headlining set at ROSFest rekindle the fire?  Sort of.  The band, led by the multi-talented Rikard Sjöblom, put on a great show, are great players, and work through some really interesting music.  Nonetheless, I found myself more interested in the old stuff I knew than the new stuff.  It's not much different, but maybe that's the issue?  I can hardly complain, however, as they trotted out "Sleeping In Traffic" in all its 35-minute glory.  A good set and good way to end the day.

So, this being Sunday, I knew next to nothing about these bands coming into the day.  I was hoping one of them might turn out to be a real revelation, along the lines of Sanguine Hum from 2012, but it didn't really turn out that way.

Fright Pig is . . . well, I'm not exactly sure what Fright Pig is, to be honest.  I'm not sure it's a "band," in the traditional sense.  Assembled in Gettysburg for its first ever live performance (a tough assignment, given the Church of Prog time slot), the band itself was composed of two keyboard players from New York (one of whom was the main writer/guru) and a bunch of other players with ties to the Berkley School in Boston, but from all over the globe - Canada, Serbia, Belgium, Mexico, and the United States.  Given the ad hoc quality of the group, their performance (also playing their one album stem to stern) was impressive.  Sadly, I didn't like it all that much.  The music is very riffy and very flashy.  The audience conduit keyboard player (not the same as the guru) praised the Serbian guitar player as playing "as many notes as ants on a Tennessee anthill."  That's not really my thing.  It also didn't help that the group didn't have enough original material to fill their set and ended with lots of not-particularly-proggy covers.  So, a disappointment, but I'll not for the record that I seem to be definitely in the minority on this one.

Red Sand, from Canada (Quebec, if I'm not mistaken), was the second of the neo trio for the fest.  They certainly looked the part.  Bass player arrived with pedals (the only one of the weekend, I think) and a doubleneck, while the vocalist engaged in some patented Gabriel/Fish-inspired theatrics.  It all worked well enough, but of the neo bands for this year I thought they were the weakest.  The longer tracks didn't hang together very well.

I was prepared not to light Subsignal (from Germany).  I had convinced myself that they were a prog metal band and that's not really my thing.  So I was pleasantly surprised by how they actually sounded.  To me, they are a good, heavy, melodic rock band with a keyboard player.  Not overly proggy, but pretty damned good at what they do.  I also thought vocalist Arno Menses won the award for best crowd interactions ("you win a refrigerator!") and had a great voice to boot.  In fact, I'm disappointed that the Subsignal album I picked up afterward (their latest, Paraiso) isn't nearly as good as they were live.  Oh, well.

Collage emerged from Poland in the 1990s, along with previous ROSFest headliners Quidam, as part of the prog revival of that decade.  Unlike Quidam, they split up in 1996.  Guitarist Mirek Gil was at ROSFest last year with his current band, Believe, and the fest organizer asked him about Collage ever reforming.  In spite of initial misgivings, the reunion happened and Collage (with Believe's lead vocalist filling in) came back together specifically for the purpose of being the coda on this year's edition of ROSFest.  It was well worth the effort.  Gil is a fantastic guitarist and the Collage material suits him perfectly.  They were, by far, the best of the neo bunch and an excellent cap on the festival.

Overall, this year's ROSFest had a pair of great headline performances and a bunch of others that ran from really good to just all right.  That's a pretty good batting average, even if I didn't walk out of the theater having been awakened to an exciting new musical obsession.

Hey, there's always next year!

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