The concert was part of a weekend progressive rock festival which is held annually in Phoenixville, PA - just a few miles away from where my brother-in-law Brni lives, with whom I stayed for the weekend and attended the festival with. It's known as the Rites of Spring festival, and this was its third year. Of the bands playing, I really only knew two prior to attending - Pallas and The Pineapple Thief.
The festival kicked off on Friday evening with Ephemeral Sun, a somewhat gothy prog-metal affair from Virginia with a young lass on vocals. The vocals and the music didn't seem to gel particularly well, and I was left a bit cold frankly.
The next band planned had been something called Harmony In Diversity, featuring Peter Banks, the original guitarist from Yes. Some sort of evil airline homeland security paranoia happened, and he was unable to get on the flight at Heathrow. At the last minute, keyboard player John Young filled in. After a couple of light songs that didn't capture my attention, he started doing more "proggy" numbers, and was really pretty good. I'm quite keen to see him with a band.
The headliner for Friday night was something called Neo. Americans like labels, so the British prog from the 80s is sneeringly called "neo-prog" even when it sounds virtually the same as later American "symphonic prog". Neo is a kind of "supergroup" come cover band made up up of a core of musicians from IQ and Arena, but with other neo-prog guests. This, their first outing, had Alan Reed of Pallas and Nick Barrett of Pendragon as guests. They did songs by IQ, Arena, Pallas, Pendragon and Shadowland. It was interesting to see other musicans play the songs, and great as an encore to hear Alan sing IQ's tricky The Enemy Smacks. A unique and very cool show.
Saturday kicked of with the reunion of 1970s New Jersey band Mirthrandir. We arrived a bit late, and the band had already come on stage. As we walked to the theatre from the car park, another person was walking towards the car park and said "I take it you dodn't like them either". We explained that we were late and on our way in. "Oh", he said, "I didn't like them at all - too jazzy, not at all prog". Mirthrandir sounded not unlike the prog their day - Genesis, Gentle Giant, even a little like Yes in parts. Not at all jazzy. The singer (who had a cracking voice) did play the trumpet a couple of times, so perhaps that's where the confusion came in. As Brni said, he might as well have confused them for Ska on that basis. It's a shame this band never made it and split up before they really got going back in the 70s. They were very good.
Next up were Hamadryad, a Montreal band with a heavier sound not unlike Rush in places but with a more symphonic flow. Their guitarist Denis Jalbert was stand-out. From time to time you could hear early Genesis in the arrangements and even in bass player Jean-François Désilet's vocals, and indeed they treated us to an encore of Firth of Fifth.
Karmakanic, who followed, were a band that included the bass player and former drummer from The Flower Kings. Bass player Jonas is a real virtuoso. Technically they were superb, and they were even quite jazzy in parts. Heh. Most of the performance was wonderful, with some clever and complex numbers, but once or twice it felt almost mechanical. Their new epic "Send A Message From the Heart" was bloody fantastic. I'm looking forward to the album it appears on.
There was usually an hour and a half between bands, and we'd usually head across the road to the bar for refreshments. The upstairs of the sports bar had the vendor tables, and the bands' own merchandise. Pallas' overworked Mike Bentley (he has dozens of roles, not least artist and graphic designer) was manning the table. For some reason the bands were being housed at a Sheraton hotel ten miles away, and he was having trouble finding official transport. We decided to skip Polish band Satellite and give Mike a lift.
Pallas had been asked to play at an "after party" in the hotel, and they said we should come along. Turns out the event was designed for "patrons" of the festival and guests of the bands only, and the organisers felt that they couldn't accomodate us. Alan and Graeme from Pallas ran off and got the guest passes from the sleeping Pallas family and crew, temporarily upgrading us to official guest status for the duration of the party. We got to see and hear Pallas become Deep Purple Mk. 10 for the evening. They played cracking covers of Black Night and Highway Star. We also stayed for a very nice jazz improvisation by Karmakanic (with Harmony In Diversity's Andrew Booker on drums) and some more Neo madness.
Sunday began with the astonishingly good Magic Pie. This is a Norwegian band who released their debut album last year. Although they're a pretty new band, the musicians are all very experienced, and it shows. Particularly impressive were the vocal harmonies and the layers of guitar. At points all three guitarists, the bass player and the keyboard player were singing in unison. I'd heard the album through once before the show and had high expectations, but they easily exceeded them live.
The Pineapple Thief stood out as the most unusual sound. Bruce Soord's vocals are reminscent of Thom Yorke, and the Radiohead sound isn't absent from their music either. There are elements of space-rock intertwined with catchy pop-rock hooks and melancholia, and you can hear elements of Muse, Porcupine Tree and even Pink Floyd, U2 and Coldplay. They were good, though I think they need to play live more, and the polite seated American prog crowd wasn't helpful to a band that could probably have used more feedback.
Pallas took to the stage next. I knew in advance this was going to be a very special gig. As a treat they had come not with one lead singer, but two. As well as their current singer Alan Reed, we were treated to a 22 year flashback to former singer Euan Lowson. Euan has huge stage presence, he's very theatric and has a rich, earthy voice. Alan's more of a dynamo - full of energy, and with a more versatile singing voice that's absolutely at its best when singing soulful and passionate pieces. Not surprisingly, each of them has the best voice for the songs of their particular period. Having some of the most recent songs played alongside some of the oldest was great. Not only did we have two lead singers, but they played Invincible, which contains some of the best vocals bass player Graeme has done. As ever, Pallas were excellent live. They're progressive ROCK, and you know it from the minute they hit the stage. Two hours was not enough, and they left us wanting more.
The final band were an Italian group called The Watch. I had been told that they sounded like early Genesis, and the tracks that I had heard certainly bore that out. Simone Rossetti sounds exactly like Peter Gabriel used to sound in Genesis. I suspect that even Peter Gabriel couldn't sound like that today. These guys aren't copying Genesis or trying to be a tribute band. They're channeling the spirit of Genesis and making new music, and its quite wonderful. They played an excellent set and it too was over too soon. For an encore, Simone jokingly announced that they would play an old 70s cover - a track by Deep Purple. They then proceeded to play Genesis' Get Em Out By Friday instead. They had in fact run out of music to play, and when pressed for another encore, first apologised, then decided to play one of the songs they'd already played. I think it was even better the second time round too.
It was a weekend of great music, great conversations, with old friends and new, and I'm pretty sure I'll be up for more next year, irrespective of who's on the list of performers.
I have some pictures of the bands here.