NEARfest 2000

With: Transatlantic, Happy the Man, Par Lindh Project, Anekdoten, Il Balletto di Bronzo, Iluvatar, Thinking Plague, DFA, Nexus & North Star

June 17th & 18th 2000 at the Zoellner Arts Center, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

By Jack Luminous - Night Vision

As far as I was concerned, this one topped last year on every count; a much better venue, the schedule was more conducive to getting bands on and off stage in a timely manner, the sound was WAY superior, and I liked the selection of bands a bit more. The vendor areas seemed a little more cramped, but that was probably due more to the mad rush of CD buyers than not having enough table space. The thing I disliked was the fact the the Bethlehem Brew Works was no longer walking distance from the 'Fest! Here's my brief review of the acts at N2K...

Day One

North Star - A good choice for openers. Local, talented enough to keep people's attention, but not so much as to take any thunder away from what was to come later. It was cool to see the "musical chairs" routine of band members swapping instruments during the set. Singer Joe Newnam's stage presence, to me at least, had all the redeeming qualities of a car wreck!
Seeing a big sasquatch going tippytoes in workboots is not how I get entertained..... The guy doing lights was snoozing on the job, pretty much the story for most every band. That should improve for next year, I suspect...

D.F.A. - I liked them more than Jason appeared to. A really tight fusion outfit with spacey keys. The guitar player was the weak link in the band, but it was the rhythm section that really impressed me. Some flashy fills but not a real lot of overplaying. The bass player stayed right in pocket the whole time, never lost the groove. Outstanding... They brought Gianni Leone from Il Balletto Di Bronzo to sing for one tune, and it was then that I thought, "Oh dear, this can't be good". Light in the loafers is a good way to describe him, but the dude can sing! That gypsy outfit of his has gotta go....

Illuvatar - Underwhelmed to say the least. They had good lights, though! It helps when your own guy is doing it and is familiar with your music. The sound was way too loud, as if to make up for the fact that what was happening on stage was too dull for words. I can't say that they were the disappointment of the weekend, because honestly, I wasn't expecting much. Rush goes neo, but with less talent. I know the band has a lot of fans, and they showed up in force and were pleased with their set. But some had said that they've heard Illuvatar do better.

Anekdoten - Marrone Mia! Time to turn into fanboy for the first time this weekend! Out-friggin-standing the entire set. The sound guy knew what he was doing, because each band member was mixed perfectly. Even the lights weren't horribly done. If you've never heard them, describing them doesn't quite do them justice. Suffice it to say they were dark and loud, and if I may be a pig, cellist/keyboardist Anna Dahlberg was a striking bit of eye candy! The mood and atmospheres were a nice change of pace from the fusion and neo prog that had been going on, but by this time I was getting close to sensory overload. A dinner break was in order...

Dinner - Bethlehem Brew Works - Even though it was a 25 minute wait to get a table, it was worth it to quaff a frosty IPA or two with one of their burgers. Talked NEARfest stuff with a couple of guys from Baltimore at the next booth over, and it was a consensus; we were all glad to be there! The vendors were making us poor and the bands were raising the anticipation level.

Happy The Man - My favorite of the whole weekend. I hadn't heard much from them and knew even less about them before they played. The curtain went up, and they got a standing O before they even played their first note!
Obviously, somebody knew who they were and had been sorely missed. When they launched into their opening number, I immediately knew why! I went to school that night! I can't say enough good things about HTM, and it was apparent they had been rehearsing ever since January for this gig. Flawless performances, and just killer guitar tone from Stan Whitaker. Finally, someone who can use vibrato tastefully! (That had been my one bugaboo about every band that day, except for Anekdoten. That was only because Nicklas Berg doesn't use vibrato in his playing!) Stan switched guitars for every song, which got kind of annoying, because he only had two of them. Sweet sounding PRS's though... New kid David Rosenthal did get a bit showy, but his playing has got so much taste. His piano solo was fun, and with Stan doing pirouettes across the stage it just added to it. The band as a whole was having fun up there, which should be the main reason to make music anyway. Drummer Ron Riddle was just a fireball, and at first I couldn't be sure if it wasn't Terry Bozzio. An incredible show and a perfect way to end Day One.

Day Two

Nexus - Major, major disappointment. I had only heard one song from them before, and was suitably impressed and was looking forward to their set.
They did have a great stage presence and lots of energy to go around, I can say that about them. But as someone said, life is too short to have to put up with keyboard solos like that! There was simply way too much wanking going on. Maybe because the last band I saw blew me away, and the expectation of another Nathan Mahl had my sights set a little higher, but I didn't get from Nexus what they were selling up there. Not to say they didn't try, but they need more substance and less fluff. That's all I got from them, I'm sad to say....

Thinking Plague - I walked out on them during their first song. What's the appeal of a tone-deaf singer anyway?

Il Balletto Di Bronzo - Cross Freddy Mercury with Billy Corgan and give an even more effeminate Rudy Gallindo flair, and you've got Gianni Leone (even down to the skater's outfit). Goofiness aside, his musical chops were absolutely killer. Brilliant keyboard playing and a voice with a range almost unheard of in a guy approaching 50. I know about as much about their music as I did HTM, which was one of the reasons I attended this NEARfest. I like discovering new bands, and this was another pleasant surprise. The bass player, Alessandro Corsi is only 21 and a complete monster. This kid can play! Really, the whole band is a complete package. Good stuff...

Par Lindh Project - Knowing that NEARfest president Rob LaDuca is also PLP's manager, the only surprise to me was that they didn't play last year. If Par's schedule would have permitted it, they would have! I was looking forward to seeing them (and Magdalena, but I won't go into that) for a while. New additions to the touring band, Joe and Bill Kopecky, gave PLP a bit more feel IMO. The band has always flirted with the type of sound that could quickly be bogged down with heaviness if it weren't for having just the right touch to bring it back. It's not such a precarious thing for them now, because the Kopecky's bring more taste to their playing. Anyone can shred, if you know what I mean. The only downfall for me was Magdalena Hagberg's violin playing seemed stiff and unmusical. Her voice is kind of frail, but she uses what she's got very well. And Par Lindh was sublime. Technically superb without being a show off. Drummer Nisse Nielfeld gets the award for hardest hitter of the 'Fest! Every time he hit his china cymbal, I thought he was gonna knock the thing over... Al Lewis (of Alaska) donated his kit for the weekend, and he must have been crapping his drawers watching his drums take a beating like that!

Dinner - Wawa's Pizza/Steak Stromboli - Want pizza and steak filling to go with your onions? Just the thing you DON'T want to eat if you have to be in an enclosed vehicle for a long ride home. A barge full of Altoids couldn't even begin to cut that stuff.... Sincere Mea Culpas to all the people in Row H, Grand Tier. And possibly Row I, J, and K....

Transatlantic - OK, so they didn't open the doors when planned. What else would you expect? It was only about, what 20 minutes or something late? Again, like HTM the night before, curtain goes up, and an immediate standing O. The energy level was red-lining! No spoilers, but I will say that the band looked to be having a blast (when things went right). Mike Portnoy gave N2K a Father's Day twist by having his kids come out during a couple songs which shall remain nameless to prevent spoilage. His oldest, and I don't know his age, but he can't be more than 3, is one well behaved kid! He's been right next to Dad's drums before, methinks... My heart goes out to Neal, he really got the crap end of the stick that night. Granted, it was their first gig and the sound check was hurried, but still some things you don't expect to have happen. Feedback from your headset mike is one of those things you don't want to deal with. There's no pulling it back from your face when it acts up, and this thing was a real gremlin. It eventually died halfway through one song, and a roadie had to get a couple of mikes set up in front of him. He only did one. And Neal had to contort at one point just to get to it. Neal was visibly frustrated by the whole thing and the headset did a nice bounce on the stage! His voice held up extremely well, and all of the guys were in top form. Their encore was a fitting closer to N2K, and an excellent way to end off an excellent weekend. Kudos to Chad and Rob (I had to put Chad's name first, because he was always getting shafted in the thank-you's!) and Jim Pitulski for an outstanding festival! You guys are the man!


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