Concert Review: The Crescendo Festival 2014, France

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 Crescendo Festival – 21-23 August 2014

Saint-Palais-sur-Mer, Royan, France

Words and images by Andy Read

Day 1: Flight 69, Accordo dei Contrari, Hoggwash, Gens de la Lune

Day 2: Fred Schneider, RTD, Yuka and Chronoship, The Band of Hope (feat: Roine Stolt and Jonas Reingold)

Day 3: TDFC, Aranis, Opyke, The Enid

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They do things differently in France. The Crescendo Festival De Rock Progressif was created in 1999 by two local Prog Rock fans: Sebastien Monteaud and Jean-Claude Adelmand. The first event was indoors and featured three bands over one evening. Now in its 16th year, the event stretches over three days with 12 bands appearing in a big festival stage over-looking the massive Gironde estuary and Atlantic Ocean. Prog-By-The-Sea would be a good alternative name.

In previous years bands have included: Hawkwind, Focus, RPWL, Anglagard, Mostly Autumn, Sylvan, The Pineapple Thief, White Willow, Djam Karet and Nemo. In 2005 Pain of Salvation was the headliner. Two years later it was Lazuli.

The event is run by what in France is known as an “association”. A not-for-profit membership organisation with public benefit aims. Similar in many ways to an English charity. The idea is to introduce an audience, new and old, to Progressive Rock music. The focus is on the quality of the performances rather than on a commercial outcome.

Thanks to significant funding from local and regional councils the whole event is free including parking, a programme and limited camping right next door.

As a result, the crowd is an eclectic mix of ProgRock fans who travel from across France and beyond, and tourists who seem to stop out of curiosity and linger if they like what they hear.

This stretch of coast is about a three-hour drive from my home. I wasn’t really familiar with any of the bands on the bill and had only heard of five of the artists before. However, wishing to support such an event and also out of pure human curiosity, I was keen to give it a go. This is what I discovered.

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Day One:

Flight 69 (French Guiana)

The first of many firsts of this weekend: the first Prog band I’d ever heard from French Guiana – bizarrely next to Brazil, yet a part of France and the EU. This was a young, power trio mixing alt rock, hard rock and Prog in a high energy show. Playing live for two years, there was a quiet confidence based on all three clearly being skilled musicians.

Throughout this set there were some lovely instrumental details where I thought: “Wow, that’s nice”. However whilst the vocals started off okay, after about four songs some tuning issues started to emerge. Whether this was down to a technical problem or inexperience I’m not sure, but it lessened the impact of their music for me. A good start though.

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Flight 69 – Prog from French Guiana

Accordo dei Contrari (Italy)

I had actually listened to the new third album, AdC, from this Italian quartet thanks to a recommendation from the DPRP’s Raffaella Berry in our Something For The Weekend feature. Helped by the blue skies and the sound of the lapping waves, this Bologna foursome and their slightly ambient take on the jazz rock fusion style, fitted my mood perfectly.

The music is composed by the band’s keyboardist, Giovanni Parmeggiani. He provides a smooth backdrop to showcase his colleagues’ dazzling prowess. Rarely have I seen a band perform such technical music so precisely, yet with an almost jam feel to it all. The occasional blend of Canterbury stylings and some more exotic, nay avant-garde moments kept it from becoming one dimensional. There is a melodic core and dynamic variety at the heart of AdC’s music which many bands of this style tend to overlook in the rush to instrumentally impress.

The band-name translates as ‘council of the opposites’. However I found an unwavering unity in both their playing and direction which was a joy to witness. The high-energy encore, an improvisation which developed a spirit of its own, was a highlight of the weekend.

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Accordo dei Contrari

Hoggwash (Ukraine)

Adding an extra ‘g’ doesn’t stop this from being an appalling band name, offering many easy analogies to the unappreciative listener. Thankfully band leader, keyboardist and singer Anthon Kalugin has developed a solid reputation with his two other projects; Sunchild and Karfagen – both of which have previously played at Crescendo.

Musically there is much to enjoy from the two albums that have come out of the (Hogg) wash so far. It’s a mixture of classic melodic Prog, keyboard-driven electronica and a more modern pop sensibility, which offers plenty of groove, hooks and variety. In a live setting there was an almost trance-like groove that I hadn’t expected, with the band veering off into more Coldplay/Radiohead territory as the set developed.

The problem I had, was that as a live entity it lacked a focus. Kalugin was centre stage but segregated by his keyboards and a guitar – often both. I wasn’t really sure whether Victoriia Osmachko was a backing singer, lead singer or percussionist. Neither offered much crowd interaction and neither singer was able to properly project their voice, meaning the vocals were constantly verging on being out of tune or buried in the mix.

A proper front man or woman would have taken this performance to another level.

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Hoggwash

Gens de la Lune (France)

Francis Descamps is probably as close to French Prog Royalty as you can get. The eccentric keyboardsmith composed the music on Ange’s 25 albums from 1969 to 1995. With both feet and hands firmly in the 70s school, of Genesis-inspired Prog, Gens de la Lune (people of the moon) has so far released three albums. The discs received mixed reviews but have recruited the band a cult following in France – especially from Ange devotees.

If my thoughts about Hoggwash’s need for a good frontman required any confirmation, then the performance of Jean Philippe Suzan here was all the evidence needed. Very much in the theatrical school of showmanship, the deadlocked singer had a massive stage and vocal presence which commanded one’s attention. Descamps added contrast with his eccentric vocal contributions and elongated song introductions. There was a joie de vivre among the rest of the youthful-looking band.

A big chunk of the set was taken up with a section of their most recent concept album, Epitaphe. I enjoyed it a lot more than I’d expected.

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The festival campsite. Not a bad view to wake up to?

Day Two:

Fred Schneider (France)

There’s a long standing debate about the merits of drum and guitar solos in a live set. But this is a Prog festival, so how about an hour-long bass solo?

The bassist for long-standing French progsters Eclat, Fred Schneider is also developing a solid discography of solo albums, the latest of which is entitled, Voyage.

With the early evening sun setting in another blue sky, the first part of his set was perfect mood music. I sat down and closed my eyes. Fred’s solo bass compositions proved gently moving and inventive.

However the second half of the set featured a full backing tape of tracks, I think from Voyage, with Fred alone on stage playing along. Do the solo thing a la Matt Stevens or recruit a full band. Playing to a backing tape on a big festival stage was, I’m afraid, just a bit sad. The point being proven when for the encore (?) a whole band of guests came out, and the quality of the show rose twelvefold.

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RTD (France)

A group of friends from the centre of France got together after 25 years apart and formed a band back in 2007. Playing fully instrumental progressive rock with guitar to the fore, I’m not sure they’ve yet released an album. Whilst I could appreciate the fun the band was having on stage, musically this was too bland for my tastes.

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Festival food French style – there’s a boulangerie right next door to the festival site.

 

Yuka and Chronoship (Japan)

Another first. My first live experience of Japanese Prog. A week before, I had edited the DPRP review of the second album, Dino Rocket Oxygen, from this young Japanese band. A look at some of the video clips, plus Geoff Feakes’ positive comments in the review, had pricked my interest.

Having received a standing ovation after their first French appearance at the Prog Sud Festival, the band, formed by keyboardist and songwriter Yuka Funakoshi was given an invitation for a quick return visit to Crescendo.

Theirs is a very sharp, modern take on old, symphonic, instrumental progressive rock. Positioned centre stage, Yuka is the centerpiece but her slick band of Takashi Miyazawa (guitar), Shun Taguchi (bass) and Ikko Tanaka (drums) produce an endless barrage of musical textures and details to keep the eye and ear constantly moving.

There was sympathetic appreciation from the French crowd for Yuka’s incomprehensible attempts to communicate to them in broken, giggly English, before another standing ovation brought them back for an encore. In short, this was probably the most impressive ‘new’ band of the weekend for me. Judging by the fact that the ‘Sold Out’ sign quickly went where a pile of their new albums once stood, I think it was an opinion widely shared.

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Yuka Funakoshi and one of her chronos

 

The Band of Hope (Roine Stolt, Felix Lehrmann and Jonas Reingold)

Another first – and probably a last at the same time. This was due to be the showcase for Barracuda – the new power trio collated by Tomas Bodin (The Flowers Kings) with Jonas Reingold (TFK, Karmakanic, Kaipa et al) and Felix Lehrmann (TFK). Unfortunately the keyboardist had a bike accident a few days before the festival and was confined to a Swedish hospital. To save the organisers the headache of finding a headliner at two days notice, he made an SOS phone call to fellow Flower Kinger Roine Stolt (Kaipa, Transatlantic et al) and asked/begged/pleaded with him to step-in.

So with just two days of planning and a short rehearsal, what we had was an hour or so of extended jams based around a handful of Karmakanic and The Flowers Kings themes. The band name was given by Stolt as, in his words, ‘hope’ was the main ingredient banding them together.

A unique one-off for the many fans of TFK who had turned up and top marks for the trio for putting something like this together at impossibly short notice. True professionals.

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Phew! Only one day to go.

 

DAY THREE:

TDFC (France)

To show that the Crescendo mission of inspiring people to get involved in progressive rock was working, the final day opened with this new jazz fusion trio from the local area. All three had apparently attended the festival which inspired them to form a band. Led by bassist Lionel Lahondere, a teacher at a nearby music college, it featured two young musicians.

And what an impressive performance they put on, winning a huge ovation and an encore. Guitarist Jonathan Geradin is a real name to watch, able to combine memorable themes with highly technical playing across numerous styles. There is a need for him to show as much fluidity about the stage as his fret board but that will come with experience. Impressive.

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A nice ocean view for all the bands

Aranis (Belgium)

Billed in the programme as ‘not-quite-Prog-but-we-like-it’, this Belgian classical, avant-garde, folk combo with punk spirit, swept the audience away with their stylish take on musical performance.

The group consists of Jana Arns (flute and soprano), Liesbeth Lambrecht (violin), Marjolein Cools (accordion), Ward de Vieeschhouwer (piano), Stijn Denys (guitar), and main composer Joris Vanvinckenroye (double bass). Their seventh album, In Rood, came out last year. All three of their efforts that have been reviewed by DPRP have received a ‘recommended’ tag.

This is a genre I know nothing about. All that I can say, is that it was a bit like a roller coaster ride. We had some calm uphill pulls accompanied by some classical finesse, then the downhill screams of a rock concert. Amazing musicians. Amazing show.

One half of Aranis

One half of Aranis

 

OPYKE (France)

Opyke is an international combo featuring a Chapman stick player amid a cultural cacophony of Tull-style flute, fusion guitar and an array of traditional and tropical percussion. I do love a bit of ‘le stick Chapman’ and it did work a treat in this setting. There were some great grooves and great playing.

However this was the seventh (mainly) instrumental band in a row. I must admit after the musical whirlwind that was Aranis, I would have preferred something with a singer/frontman for a) variety and b) someone to guide me through another hour of complex music.

To prove the point (again) my spirits were raised when, for the encore, the band was joined by singer/guitarist Franck Carducci and Francis Descamps for an anthemic, proggy sing-along of Carducci’s Alice’s Eerie Dream.

ODYKE: Le stick Chapman mixed with tropical percussion

OPYKE: Le stick Chapman mixed with tropical percussion

 

The Enid (England)

“The most majestic rock band of all time”. “The quintessentially English Prog group”. “The symphonic masters” and “Among the pantheon of Prog Gods.”

Those are just some of the recent plaudits placed upon the laps of this much-loved English musical institution.

Myself? Well I’ve never really heard them. I played a track from their 13th and most recent album, Invicta, on the DPRP Radio Show. But to be honest, when the lights dimmed and the first symphonic booms echoed over the ocean, I really didn’t have a clue what to expect.

An hour and a half later though and I’d rather fallen in love with Robert John Godfrey and his eccentric cocktail of instruments and generation-spanning members. And here is why:

Diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s earlier this year, Godfrey appears to have moved into ‘legacy’ mode. There is time for a final flourish and some succession-planning to ensure his 40 plus years of creativity lives beyond him.

It’s clever. Many of the old Prog bands who shared their emergence with The Enid are slowly shedding members – replaced by stand-ins of a similar generation. Their creativity has long since hemorrhaged; little more than self-tribute bands.

From what I saw on stage at Crescendo, The Enid has done a Dr Who. The three younger members are regenerating from the front – with a respectful nod and open ear to the experience behind them. There is a hunger. There is a vision from the music of today, not the past. There is a youthful spring in the step. There is a craving for risk – maybe a bit of danger.

Guitarist Jason Ducker, with head down, has a uniquely modern tone and style to his playing. Progressive, but by starting with the music of Metallica, Steve Via and Opeth and working backwards.

Singer Joe Payne was probably the sort of five-year old who stole the show at the school nativity play. There’s a theatrical, Freddie Mercury camp machismo about his stage presence that only someone overflowing with self-confidence and talent can get away with. His voice bellows with soul. The party-piece is a falsetto that required a double take when he (she?) first sang.

Godfrey made a couple of oracle-like introductions – including an appropriate ode about the future of Prog having to be into the hands of the young and noting the large number of young people in the crowd.

Although admitting the band doesn’t do covers, they bowed to a request from organisers to play Barclay James Harvest’s Mockingbird as an encore.

And so, I fetched the chair and bag that I’d long since left behind for a stage-front view, and wandered off into the night with a new collection of music to acquire.

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and finally

Well what a fabulous festival. It was well organised, ran to schedule, there was a lovely, friendly atmosphere, the sound and lighting was perfect and even the beer was good.

Personal musical highlights were Accordo dei Contrari, Yuka and Chronoship, Aranis, and The Enid, but none of the bands put in poor performances. The line-up was a bit heavy on the instrumental and fusion bands; eight of the twelve being vocal-free. For an event seeking to promote progressive rock, some may feel more styles could have been represented. Also I feel, French cuisine has much more to offer than sausage and frites, a crepe or a bag or Haribo sweets. A wider food offer is needed.

But the biggest selling point for this festival is its ocean location. Take a chair. Sit and enjoy a band. Then when they’ve finished, turn your chair around and watch the sea breeze and soak up the sun. Repeat 12 times.

Crescendo takes place on the third weekend every August. The music runs from 17:00 to midnight giving you all day to explore Royan, one of France’s big tourist spots. There’s holiday parks, tourist attractions and miles and miles of big sandy beaches. Next year why not try a summer holiday with three free nights of great Prog-by-the-Sea?

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Aranis

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Catching up on a good book in between sets

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Flight 69

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Aranis

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“… allons-nous rendez-vous ici l’année prochaine?”

 

Festival on the web: http://www.festival-crescendo.com/

Festival on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Crescendo/257668421635?ref=mf

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