Steve’s Gig Diary: 2008 US NEARfest Tour

Harrogate/Manchester, Tuesday 17th June 2008

Spend a busy day at home getting together all those annoying little bits for the trip as the hour of departure draws ever closer. There never seems to be enough time. There's added anxiety as we wait in vain for news from our man in the USA of CD's we despatched ahead of the festival. I sent mine on May 21st, virtually a full month before. They told me it would take 7-10 days. What they meant was it would take that long to reach the USA and then sit in customs unloved and ignored for another 3 weeks. Take my advice and never ever ever use Parcelforce. They are rubbish and like so many other examples of British commerce not only are they rubbish, they are expensive into the bargain. I grab a few handfuls of the `missing' titles from home and stuff them in my luggage before setting off to Manchester to rendezvous with the gear and Duncan and Gary at The Greenhouse.

Equipment whisked off to Gary’s house and the taxi ordered for tomorrow, we're outside the pub in no time.

We decline to take part in the quiz, but of course spend the rest of the evening answering every question and wishing we'd entered. There's also some lively debate about aspects of our upcoming performance that we all agreed on 2 weeks back and that Gary and Duncan now have no memory of whatsoever. "We agreed WHAT ?"

Frantic communication between Mike in the USA and Duncan is still not yielding results on the CD stock delivery. "Nowt we can do about it now" I sigh, philosophically.

Manchester/Philadelphia Pa., Wednesday 18th June 2008

Ah yes, the fitful sleep, the `up too early' nausea, the torrential rain as we load the gear into a taxi driven by a smart-arse, the steamed up cab as we make our way through the depressing morning traffic and the airport trolleys whose wheels have minds of their own, it's great to be on the road again. After establishing with the nice people at the check-in that our flight cases do not contain firearms, ("we're men of peace" I add helpfully), we go in search of breakfast. Soon we'll be at diners in the US with eggs over easy, home fries and rye bread and smiling waitresses to fill our coffee cups endlessly and all for $5 a piece, but for now it's the plastic surroundings of the airport terminal with self-service reheated rubber eggs chasing each other round a pond of grease, tubes of mystery masquerading as sausages and toast at £1.59 for two slices. Yes that really is £1.59 for two slices of bog standard medium white sliced bread, (or $3.20 if you prefer). Until recently you could get a gallon of petrol for that in the USA.

On my I-Pod as we walk down the tunnel to board the plane: `To America' by Joan As Police Woman and Rufus. Sweet. I mercifully refrain from singing along as they welcome us aboard. `To America' indeed, that's if this thing ever lifts off . It's all very well saying we'll be in the air for 6 and a half hours when we've been sitting on the runway for 45 minutes. The three of us are in the middle again (boo) and I'm next to a lady approximately our age, travelling alone to see her friend in Mexico who is more than amused when I attempt to get up to stow my bags with my seatbelt still fastened. Later in the flight as I tip up the remainder of my cheese and biscuits on the floor she says to me "are you always this dozy ?" "Only when in uncomfortable confined spaces for 8 hours at a time" I tell her. "Normally I'm the epitome of cool". When we later establish that the three of us are a band, she correctly guesses that I'm the drummer. No comment.

There’s thrills and spills on the descent into Philly, with some serious turbulence, why does it always feel like the plane’s about to fall from the sky? Gary manages to munch his way through about 4 packets of extra strong mints in his desperation to take his mind off it. Whatever gets you through!

It's boiling hot and humid in Philly, not least under my collar as we are grilled by the immigration guy who spots our flight cases and wants to know why we are coming all this way to perform music if we're not getting rich from it, and starts going on about visa waivers, work permits and other fun stuff. He continues to make me squirm until I ask him what exactly he wants from me and offer to show him a letter from the Nearfest organisers explaining the whole thing, at which point of course he waves us through.


The Philly Skyline

Through the familiar Philly skyline and to the supposedly newly refurbished Best Western Center City which looks exactly the same if not worse than it did four years ago. Gary and Duncan like bloodhounds are already straining at the leash to get downtown to the guitar shops so we cab it down to 8th and Arch so they can go to 8th St Music. I clear off on foot to Aka Music which is about the best CD store in Philly. I'm quietly pleased with myself at being able to find it despite having forgotten both the name and location, and come away with several things from a `wants' list which exists only in my head.

We have a decent and filling meal in town and cab it back to the hotel to get some sleep, calling off any plans to meet people as that's how I got in trouble last time. I hit the hay at 2130 which is still 0230 in the UK and therefore late enough.

Philadelphia/Bethlehem Pa., Thursday 19th June 2008
We have a morning and early afternoon for more Philly related activity before being whisked off to NEARfest central later this afternoon. We head down to the diner we found last time we were here, Mrs K's Koffee House, a little home from home where they remember us as soon as they hear our accents. One fine breakfast later and after promises to return next time we're in town we head on foot to South Street and Bluebond guitars where Duncan and Gary are guaranteed as much time and indulgence as they like. Except that it's not quite open yet, so we walk around a bit instead. We find a great pawn shop with friendly staff, keen to talk football. Everyone we meet in the USA with an awareness of soccer is very happy to remind us that England didn't make the Euro 2008 tournament. That's because none of the best players in the English Premier League are English. The finest the Premiership has to offer is indeed on show at Euro 2008, it's just lacking anyone born and bred in the UK. Left to their own devices without their ridiculously talented and exotic team-mates around them they suddenly look pretty damned ordinary when they huddle together as a team and try to compete on the world stage.

Gary buys a magnificent set of harmonicas in the pawn shop and he and Duncan head back to Bluebond Guitars. As usual I disappear off to do my own thing, and find another CD shop, where I grab some more bargains including a David Kilgour album, the shop girl asks me if I saw him last time he was in Philly, which I did as a matter of fact, which makes me feel very cool indeed. I briefly tell her what we're doing in town and leave her one of our cards too in case she wants to check us out and get us on the shelves.


Aaagh it's closed!

I pick the others up in Bluebond and as we cross South Street we notice that Fish (or Mr. Dick as we prefer to call him, that being his proper name) is playing the TLA (Now The Fillmore but no-one calls it that) here on Saturday after his set at NEARfest on Friday. Pondering the wisdom of nicking your nickname from the bass player in Yes' nickname and therefore having a nicked nickname, we head over to `Larry’s’ bar for a cool beer, or in Duncan's case a Knickerbocker Glory. It's called Larry's because it's where Larry of the 3 Stooges was born. So now you know...and Nirvana played next door too.

Suitably fortified, we head off on foot to pick up a few things and generally take in as much of Philly as we can as we amble our way back through the city and up to the hotel. We've certainly had our excercise for the day by the time we check out and make it to the bar for something to eat. Germany are playing Portugal in Euro 2008, and it's a really good game which at half time we're reluctant to leave.

But leave we must, as Mike Emerson ("great name" I tell him somewhat predictably) is here with the NEARfest bus to take us and our flight cases to our hotel in Bethlehem. Hooray! We pass a pleasant enough journey North, remarkable only for a brief detour into the ghetto and a spectacularly totalled truck which has come off the freeway on the other side of the road and seems to be jammed between big slabs of concrete barrier. Had Mike been any later, we'd have been waiting a lot longer for our 'ground transportation', as the traffic is now backed up for miles as they try to figure out how to get this thing the right way up again.


Totalled Truck

Before dropping us at the hotel Mike takes us straight to the venue (the Zoellner Arts Centre, Lehigh University, Bethlehem) to meet the crew. They're all sitting out the back on some sofas and chairs arranged on the platform of an enormous loading bay. This immediately looks like the cool place to be, and this indeed turns out to be the case. We're introduced to Ray Loboda by Mike ("Look who I found from the UK") who takes us through the door onto the huge stage which looks out upon a magnificent 1000 seater acoustically designed auditorium. "Of course, we're used to playing bigger places, but it‘ll do" we joke. I must admit to being somewhat daunted at this point, a feeling which will gradually pass as we settle in to the festival and get acquainted with the sheer professionalism of the stage crew. There’s also the added thrill of hearing Tony Levin and Liquid Tension rehearsing in the next room, they may be dicking around at the point at which we’re eavesdropping....but it’s dicking around with extreme musical proficiency.

At the hotel our webmaster and all round hero Mike Ostrich, has made sure that when we open the doors to our magnificent king rooms, we are extra delighted by the cans of Boddingtons he has thoughtfully supplied for us, and in my case a huge bottle of Merlot. Words can't express how great that feels when you've come as long a way as we have. Furthermore Mike has got the all important box of merchandise which guarantees we will have something to sell. It's been a close run thing, with Duncan's package arriving literally minutes before the end of Mike's last day at work up in New Jersey . Phew. No sign at all of my package from Uselessforce [webmaster note - it shows up the following week].

I have inevitably been taking all the blame for agreeing for us to do a late night radio session on Bill Fox's show `Galactic Travels' on WDIY Radio here in Bethlehem when we could be sleeping instead, Gary's tactic being that he never reads any of his emails and therefore he can say with impunity "I didn't know anything about it!". My current response of choice: "Don't you wanna be a star?"

We've known Bill for many years now and it is a pleasure to be on his home patch and what with the radio station being just up the road , it's only the lateness of the hour which may prove problematic. We're due to play at Midnight (5am in the UK) but a quick trip to the bar for a hot chicken sandwich and we're just about ready to roll as we load into Bill's car. We're also joined by Dennis Haley, Nearfest keyboard tech who we chat with as we set up at the station.


WDIY Set-Up

When we're all plugged up and ready to go, we venture outside for a cigarette and in search of coffee, and spying a Wendy's burger joint right opposite we arrive at the window of the drive-through just as a bunch of young black guys pull up in a car with half the windscreen caved in (on the driver's side!). We seem to be having trouble convincing the lady (and I use the term loosely) at the counter that we want three coffees. There's a problem serving us because we haven't got a frickin' car! The guys in the car think this is hilarious and shout at us "Dunkin' Donuts just down the street!" looking at each other and doubled up with laughter at these dumb limeys trying to get a coffee without a car. At times it can be quite funny to be the butt of someone's joke and this is one of them, and at least we then get to go around shouting "Dunkin' Donuts just down the street" in that accent for the rest of our stay. In due course we make it to Dunkin' Donuts which is indeed just down the street, where we find ourselves in even more confusing circumstances having asked for 3 white coffees. "Hot Chocolate?" is the nearest the extremely bright chap behind the counter can get to understanding our immediate requirements, but after ten minutes of careful and considered negotiation, we emerge triumphant, after getting the message across that `white' coffee is coffee with MILK in. Phew.


Dunkin' Donuts Just Down The Street!

Back at the station, the midnight hour is upon us, and we shuffle into Bill's studio for a brief interview before performing one of our impromptu radio sessions. As well as the electronics there's an open mic or two to incorporate my percussion and Gary's newly acquired harmonica. Unusually mid-set we've decided to go into go into C Major (much of the work we have done over the years has revolved around C Minor, as this seems to be the ideal key for sequencing in). C Major therefore is the equivalent of 'going pop' or something. With Gary's harmonica to the fore it seems to become an impromptu celebration of Americana: railroads and open spaces .There's even a snatch of 'Dirty Old Town' which escapes before we get a grip and pull it all back into familiar territory. It's a real groove playing on the radio late at night and we conclude an hour long improvisation satisfactorily before shuffling all the gear back down again. Duncan and Dennis put the world of vintage synthesizers to rights until finally back in the hotel rooms we have a chuckle over the recording and sink a few Boddingtons.

Bethlehem Pa., Friday 20th June 2008

Today's the day everyone's arriving in earnest, the pre-festival Friday night starts with Larry Fast who I wouldn't have minded seeing, and Fish who I have narrowly avoided on at least two occasions in the past, once when my teenage band supported Marillion in 1982 in Redcar, (I seem to remember us taking the piss out of their Mellotron choir from the dressing room as they soundchecked, which seems somewhat ironic in retrospect.......sadly the taped evidence of this tomfoolery has since disappeared) and again a year later when I shelled out in order to see one of my vocal heroes Peter Hammill supporting them at Middlesbrough Town Hall when they'd made it onto Top Of The Pops with that record about Fish's ex-bird. The fact of course that Hammill's here at Nearfest too brings that full circle somewhat!

Gary and I go over the road to the little friendly diner for breakfast, leaving Duncan to sleep. We then have a good browse at the old fashioned and shabby looking Bethlehem CD store, which holds many treasures especially for Gary, only problem is, we haven't got any cash until we meet Rob the festival co-host who's flying in today.

On my return I find a message on my room phone from Cyndee (our guest Violinist) with two pieces of news:

Elliott Levin, non car-owning Philly resident and our proposed Sax playing guest is still looking for a ride to Bethlehem, (an hour or more from Philly) but seems satisfied that the earliest the public transport can get him to town is by 1420 Sunday afternoon. Except that our show starts at 1330 Sunday afternoon....that’s fifty minutes before he hits town, assuming the transport runs like clockwork and notwithstanding the fact he has then to find the venue. Apparently as he's only required for the last 30 minutes of the show, this makes it all OK with him. The alarm bells which have been gently jangling for several weeks back home as I waited patiently for an email from him telling me he was definitely sorted out instead of several that told me he wasn’t, are now clanging big time. Premik Russell Tubbs meanwhile, who we shared a stage with in Baltimore last year is available, owns his own car can be there any time we want him, ie in time for the soundcheck. We had to make a decision. Dear reader what would YOU have done?

To the business of merchandising. We now thankfully have a whole shedload of CD's which need counting and snapping together into those horrible little plastic cases. It takes several hours to get it all together and the work is mighty tedious, but we're happy we've somehow managed to get enough stock in to the country anyway despite the chronic efforts of Dismalfarce and the lazy asses at US customs. There are now huge towers of CDs decorating my room, and hold the front page, Gary's even started a spreadsheet.

Around late afternoon I arrange to meet Rob LaDuca up at the theatre to pick up our funds, and set off in baking temperatures uphill towards the location. The hotel is very handy for the venue but walking a few blocks in this kind of humididty really saps the energy. Still, it's good to get my bearings and I'm curious to see what's happening up there anyway. As I'm several hundred yards away, Bill Fox drives past then stops in his car and offers to take me the rest of the way. I soon find Rob, and it's good to meet him for the first time. He's just flown in from Michigan where he now lives, this relocation being one reason why he and Chad Hutchinson are handing over the NEARfest mantle after this year's 10th anniversary. I get a peek at our merch spot for tomorrow, and have a brief word with Chad as he hands over our passes. Access all areas. NEARfest here we come.

I march (slowly) back to the hotel in the dripping heat with our dollars after joking with Rob that now we can eat ("You'll be able to eat a LOT with that"). As I arrive at the lobby, Steve and Joyce Feigenbaum (from Cuneiform our record label) are just getting in . They've been on a sightseeing trip to view the Henry Chapman Mercer museum who Joyce says had the same idea as Gaudi did in Barcelona about coating the outsides of houses with strange things set in concrete. I can't help thinking Joyce would get on very well with Sahra (Mrs D) who has similar interests. They've brought the fabled RMI Rain Falls In Grey T-shirts that Joyce and I deliberated over for many a day in the lead up to this, and the net result is that they look fab! Yellow and black on some kind of light blue the name of which already escapes me. I'm especially pleased with this, what with being colourblind and all. I want one! As we venture up to my room to drop off these fine garments and I open the door, the first thing visible on a hanger is my Gaudi T-shirt.

Steve and Joyce then proceed to give us a 'merch masterclass'. This year Steve has decided that they're not selling their wares as in past years and are instead intending to take it easy, but they're happy to help us when they can. Joyce has brought allsorts of merchandising aids such as nice perspex things to put leaflets in, display cases , hangers for T-shirts, sticky tape of every kind and importantly, pens.....and lots of them. Thick ones, thin ones, black ones, silver ones. This is where merch experience counts and we bow to her superior knowledge.

Convinced that we are now ready to sell to the world and his wife, we venture downstairs to the hotel bar. This is not just any old hotel bar. It has been taken over, as has the entire hotel, by us Nearfest folk which is a very empowering feeling. Our good friend Mr. Tom Gagliardi, presenter of the legendary Gagliarchives Radio Programme has arrived on the scene and will be presenting his show live on air from the bar tonight and tomorrow night. There’s a PA system all hooked up to play the 'heavy heavy groups' we all love so much. "What's this Tom ?" I ask…. "Billy Cobham-Spectrum" "Of course it is..of course it is"

Mike Ostrich arrives on the scene looking somewhat stressed out. Turns out that our Italian friends Banco are proving to be a handfull. "I've had better days" he sighs. Of course we have to dedicate our tune of the same name to him now. “You’ve seen better days”, adds Duncan. The cheeky get.


Duncan & Mike Ostrich

Ah but there's another saga running through this whole day. Gary bought a guitar on E-Bay recently, and rather than get it shipped to the UK, arranged to have it delivered to the hotel, which I'm sure we all agree is good thinking from young Mr/ Houghton. So he gets up at 9am, goes down to front desk and makes them aware that he's expecting this delivery anytime between 9 and 5pm and for them to call him when it appears. By 5 O'clock there's not a trace of this not inconspicuous item. After calling for the manager it's established that someone on the front desk says that he remembers it being delivered this morning and that it left immediately with a lot of other musical equipment (remember there are 10 acts on at this festival and they're all staying here at the hotel). Great, thinks Gary, (well not exactly great seeing as it had his name on it) it's probably up at the theatre, so we put a call in to the stage manager Kevin (obviously busy with the first show by now) and Karl the guitar tech, who do what they can to search backstage. Gary is furious with the hotel, in fact we've never seen him like this, he keeps saying "but it had my name on it!" Duncan's taking this all in a slightly blase manner because he's already been there and bought the T-shirt. Back home when his Midibase (Bass) was nicked it had already turned up at the cop shop before he even knew it had gone, the little rat boy who was selling it walked into a music shop and asked £50 for it, it’s worth a good deal more than that so he was rumbled, and ran off.

So, we eat in the bar against a backdrop of Gary planning to sue the hotel, and messages from up at the theatre that it has not been found up there. As the evening develops, the bar starts to fill up, and I get some quality time with our big bad record company man Mr. Feigenbaum. It’s now four years since Philly in 2004 when Mr F first promised to make us a star. Well, we're playing NEARfest so I reckon he's doing pretty well. Shortly after I'm sitting talking to our newly arrived Violin guest Cyndee and Jeff when through my field of vision Gary flies past with a look of determination on his face carrying a huge cardboard box rather awkwardly. This of course can only be one thing. Turns out that someone at the hotel had stashed the guitar in a locked room for safe-keeping all along but neglected to tell anyone. Gaaaaaaah!

As the crowd from the festival filter down after Fish's show, the bar really gets into full swing, and we take up residency outside at the patio tables along with all the other smokers....well it's one way of weeding out the musicians I guess. There's much merriment and reuniting of old friends, and for us the privilege of many introductions to some fine folks with whom we find an easy affinity. The beer keeps flowing as does the conversation. Happy times on a balmy night a long way from home, but of course we're right at home just where we are.


Bethlehem Sunset

Bethlehem Pa., Saturday 21th June 2008

Wow I wish all hotels were like this, there's Tony Levin in reception checking his e-mail, and the big guy from Banco surveying the scene from the couch. ..a leisurely breakfast in Ginny's diner opposite, and we're ready for the day ahead, glad that we're not playing until tomorrow, we're still adjusting. We amble up to the theatre and manage to procure transport back to the hotel to pick up the boxes of merch. Mr. Emerson asks us to meet him in the lobby at 12 where we can ride up to the venue with Fish and his band who are picking up some stuff before moving on to Philly. We're all loaded and in the bus waiting with the rest of the Fish band until Mr Dick emerges fashionably late and we're ready to go. I'd love to be able to say that the short bus ride to the theatre was a great laugh too, but it wasn't.

The first band of the day Koenji Hyakkei look like a very exciting proposition from what we can see on the monitors outside the concert hall, seemingly Magma inspired and with the intensity to match, they employ operatic female vocals confirming their status as a leading 'Zeuhl' (look it up!) outfit. Shame to miss them by the looks of it, but we’ve got to make a fist of this selling thing.

It's not long before we're setting out the CD's on the table inbetween Discipline and Echolyn both of whom make us feel welcome. Any thoughts of Duncan and Gary sloping off to some guitar shop somewhere are immediately dispelled as we are galvanised into action by some most welcome early purchasers who seem intent on snapping up those hard to find albums as quickly as possible. All goes well until we encounter one shady character who asks "Can you recommend a CD of yours for someone who really doesn't like what you guys do?" It is our label boss getting his own back from the other side of the table, and who can deny him the pleasure after all the oddballs he's likely dealt with over the years? Otherwise we cope with a brisk trade and are grateful for a breather when it's time for Discipline to hit the stage and the merch rooms are closed.

We go outside for a chicken burger and a lemonade before catching the closing half of Discipline's show who are mightily impressive, their singer in make-up leading the band's intricate arrangements from the piano wonderfully well. We'll never know just what they all went through to get there, (stage fright figures highly I'm told) but they go down triumphantly well and it's pleasure to clap them from the wings as they finish their set and fly past us in a state of excitement. Watching from the side of the stage I'm learning a few things, notably that I really don't have to hit the drums all that hard to be heard ...

Back at the merch room, we leave a 'Back In 30 Mins' notice as we disappear somewhere quieter with Debbie Sears to be interviewed for her radio show 'The Prog Rock Diner'. Unable to find a room, we end up doing the interview sitting on the floor in a carpeted corridor. Then it's back down for the 4:15 performance of Peter Hammill. It's great being able to roam freely around the backstage areas with our passes and we find ourselves once again in the wings amidst the crew and by crikey the man himself Mr. Hammill dressed all in white. He's in pre-gig psych mode, pacing up and down, staring at the floor and doing arm exercises that look like the butterfly stroke without the water. There's a brief presentation happening onstage by the Moog foundation with Bob Moog's daughter after which PH is on. There must be 15-20 people in the immediate area but everyone knows the man needs his space. It must be a whole different ball game going on there solo, getting into the zone.

It's nice watching the first few songs close up, and I'm just on my way out into the auditorium to catch the out front view when I'm introduced to Todd the chief drum tech who makes me an offer I can’t refuse. “Care to see the Drum buffet?”. He has his own area of drum delights set out here backstage. “Just tell me what you want, we’ll write it all down and build your kit tomorrow, in fact we can probably do it now give or take one or two bits”. Dear reader I am not used to such wonderful treatment. Like the entire crew, Todd’s a good humoured and helpful guy. After trying a few options I spot a set of Paiste signature cymbals which are what I normally play. I have a superb Yamaha kit chosen (with restraint) to the same spec as I use normally, I want to keep it simple and feel as comfortable as possible and resist the temptation to be the next Neil Peart. Paul Sears our friend and fine upstanding fellow from The Muffins has also promised to look after me tomorrow, so what more capable hands could I be in? He's also been working on his English accent, and could nearly pass for one of the landed gentry.


Todd's Drum Buffet

I catch the latter portion of PH’s show from the auditorium, the sound is crystal clear and with PH it really is a case of 'from a whisper to a scream'. He divides his time between Grand Piano and Acoustic Guitar playing a balanced set the highlight of which for me is probably 'The Lie' from 'The Silent Corner..' one of my desert island discs. It’s sad that there seem to be too many obstacles in the way for Van Der Graaf Generator to get over to the USA, but I hope they find a way. They would be received like gods. Hammill solo is an acquired taste for many, whereas VDGG would be a cast iron certainty to raise the roof.

With a couple of hours to spare before the evening appearance of Liquid Tension Experiment, we soak up some more sun outside and grab another bite of something, and take the chance to have a flit around the other merch stalls. There are several big name vendors and many many CDs to choose from and I do pretty well in a very short time, but I just can’t seem to concentrate somehow! It’s like sensory overload or something. I need more time!

I’ve lost Duncan and Gary, (not that we’re joined at the hip) so I sit at the back of the auditorium as Chad introduces the one and only Roger Dean to the stage. I just need to think back to my teens and this guy’s artwork all over mine and so many others’ walls, to know that this is another very special moment that NEARfest has made a reality. He gives a brief chat about his boyhood experiences painting nudes (or not!) and previews some pages from a book he’s got coming out soon. I had his compendium 'Views' for Xmas when I was 14, and I’ve still got it. He defined album cover art in the progressive era, and as far as I’m concerned you can shove all that ugly punk day-glo xeroxed nastiness where the sun don’t shine, who needs it? Give me 'McKendree Spring' any time.

Then it’s time for Liquid Tension Experiment, a band I’ve never heard but whose reputation precedes them. Tony Levin is the Stick Bass master of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel fame and no doubt veteran of a thousand sessions, including John Lennon’s final album `Double Fantasy'. Guitarist John Petrucci features heavily in those `Guitar Porn’ magazines Gary’s so fond of, so this is obviously going to be a heavyweight show. The intro music ‘Ride Of The Valkyries’ confirms this as it builds towards the entry of the band, and then suddenly............ NOTHING. The music cuts out in its prime leaving a puzzled audience looking at each other, and there’s no sign of the band onstage either. Some wag in the crowd starts his own vocal version of the piece and the audience join in with a spirited rendition, it’s a classic moment. Gary, backstage at this time, fills in the details ....The speed and thoroughness of stage manager Kevin’s investigation was a sight to behold: it transpires that the band supplied the CD with the intro music and that was all there was on the disc. Someone put their end marker in the wrong place and burned an incomplete CD. The reason the band didn’t appear onstage was because they thought the PA had blown and that they’d look pretty daft up there with no sound. Having established that it was their half finished CD which was to blame, the show must go on.

Out front this technical hitch is history as soon as LTE hit the ground running with a stunningly technical show, Jordan Rudess flailing around with his rotating keyboard and Tony Levin right in the groove. Spectacular music, brilliant lights and an ecstatic response from the audience.


I Like This Picture Of Tony Levin

Back at the hotel, it’s a little more subdued tonight for us, as the big day dawns tomorrow. Gary retires early to practice in his room, and I gingerly sink a couple of beers before decding it’s a good time to go, and mercifully I’m actually feeling tired at the right time for a change. Ah! but Tom Gagliardi wants to interview us on the radio. Duncan and I tell him we’re going up to bed very soon and he puts us on after the next record. We sit at the mic at his broadcasting desk in the bar live on air and tell him how much we’re looking forward to tomorrow and what a great time we’re having at NEARfest. It certainly helps build the whole thing up for tomorrow. He then spins `Better Days’ from `Rain Falls In Grey' and we can’t really leave the bar until it’s finished. It wouldn’t be right somehow.

Bethlehem Pa., Sunday 22nd June 2008

We’re being picked up at 0945, and should have met a bit earlier as we’re already up against it in the diner which is unusually busy. Gary’s late out of bed and has to skip breakfast although he does rustle up a couple of bananas from the hotel breakfast buffet. Duncan and I are eating with one eye on the hotel for any sign of Mike with the transport. He’s bang on time of course and we’re whisked up to the venue to load in and start setting up straight away before the Eggs Benedict has had a chance to settle. Exploration downstairs reveals a dressing room with our name on it, not just scrawled in magicmarker in time honoured fashion,oh no, this is in Roger Dean lettering with his new NEARfest 2008 dragon design as a backdrop. These guys really do things properly.

Up by the stage there’s gear being set up all over the place, we plan our riser set up so that Duncan and I are on two of them locked together with all our keyboards. I have a beautiful 88 key Fender Rhodes at the front of mine, and Duncan has a Mini-Moog and AKS Synthi-A. My kit is virtually ready and really needs hardly any adjustments at all, and if it does there’s someone there to do it for me. Heaven.

First band of the day are Morglbl who lack nothing save for a syllable or two in their name and are an astonishingly accomplished trio from France. We decide that now is probably not the best time to appreciate their stunning musicianship, and instead grab Mike to whisk us down to the shop for supplies of the old gig staples, fresh fruit, water and tabs. We buy the shop out of fruit entirely, which doesn't take too much doing.

Premik (Saxophones, Flute) has arrived and is all smiles and handshakes, in the dressing room he tells us about how he just flew transatlantic for one show too. His performance was at the Royal Albert Hall with the Russian songwriter, Boris Grebenshkov. Duncan’s doing keyboard stuff offstage as we’re down in the dressing room. Cyndee gets her Viper Violin ready, Gary warms up and tunes his guitars and I’m pacing a bit as we wait for Morglbl to finish. They’re going down really well and are doing a second encore, which is a bit worrying as we look at our watches and wonder what’s going to be left of our sound check time. What’s even more worrying is that the song they’re playing is `Smoke On The Water’. These crazy French!




Gary, Premik & Cyndee

After that’s over it’s time to swing into action. We have an hour or less to sound check and then the appointed time will be upon us. That never to be repeated moment in history during which man must rise to the challenges laid out before him......OK I‘ll stop this nonsense........ but we need to try and make sure we do a good show alright? We climb the stairs from the dressing room and hit the backstage area where there is much activity. There are keyboards everywhere and my drum riser is being wheeled onto centre stage by about five people. I’m invited to try it all out for position and visibilty. Apparently they can be locked down but currently they move underneath me and I feel a bit like that chump on TV who used to do his weather forecasts using models of a map of the UK floating in water until he fell in and drownded himself. Mr. Sears says they will be locked and sandbagged and if Mr Sears says so, then that is damn well good enough for me. As the final tweaks are made to get everything into position I survey the scene and allow myself a smile as I look out from behind the drum kit to a magnificent concert hall, while in the foreground a Fender Rhodes sits facing the audience and to its left a black Mellotron. We probably spent half of our younger lives dreaming about doing something like this.



Fender Rhodes, Auditorium & Dreamfest

Back to reality Dinsdale, there’s work to be done. The visuals guy Matt takes time to find out what we’re planning and I cobble him together a quick set list with durations as a framework, and give him free reign. (This turns out to be very worth it as the visuals together with Dorian's lightshow are regarded as the best of the weekend). When everything’s all set up there are a few unwanted noises, the detection of which is eating into our sound check time. There’s a major mains hum coming from my Mellotron, so I reluctantly but quickly decide we can do without it (sorry Frank!). With two guests in addition it’s hard for us to get everything done that we need to in the short time, and while we get certain aspects of the monitor mixes right for the performance, we don’t have time to think through some areas of the set which may be problematic. We could have used a bit more time to make sure everyone had a chance to get their sounds sorted out, but the monitor guys to the side are a mightily reassuring presence, and promise to watch us like hawks for any signals we need to give them as to audibility. "We'll be watching your every move" and they take us through a few hand signals to use in times of distress. You don't get that sort of treatment at the Dog and Duck.

Down in the dressing room there’s precious little time to worry, the whole event approaches like a wave of inevitability. I remember struggling with my flashing light T-shirt, all fingers and thumbs as the wires get tangled up, but I don't recall getting back up to the stage or even how we were introduced, I do remember a huge roar, thinking “this is it” but at the same time feeling pretty calm about it all as we strolled on. I try a few Peter Hammill style butterfly excercises as we launch into the bombastic opener `So It Goes' (I wrote that!) and all goes well, although it seems like it goes on twice as long even though it doesn’t...adrenaline's a funny thing. As it settles down into the first `still' section we’re in a trance of concentration, improvising and living the moment as I bring the first sequencer rhythms in and the pace picks up. The monitors are lovely and clear, and just as soon as I can hear my keyboard things are going to be great. Duncan locates my volume on the mixer and I’m in business. I do remember looking down at my hands and seeing that they were shaking but this soon went. At the end of the first 30 minute section when the sequencers have ebbed and faded I’m back at the Drum kit ready for `Syd’ and take a quick mental snapshot of the audience showered in reflected white light as I shake my percussion.


Bathed In White Light

I then realise I can hear our shuddering tremeloed guitar backing loop nice and loud but can’t hear Gary’s live guitar at all, which is a bit of a pity as that's my cue for the next section, and I can see he’s already started the song but I don’t know when to come in with the full drum onslaught as all he is to me is a guy strumming some strings which I can’t hear nor do I know for how long he has been doing such a thing. Somehow we manage to scrap it and start again at the same time as the guitar appears in my monitor after some frantic gesturing to the monitor guys. Cyndee’s flying on Viper Violin too, having materialised at the right time. We finish it sweetly enough and get a good response.

The second section is prefaced by a feature for my Fender Rhodes and Duncan on AKS synthesizer. Tranquillity reigns, and after exploring the sonic palette of the Rhodes and the key of A Minor, I glance sideways at Gary ready to move on to the next section which he starts on guitar. He’s in no hurry though, and instead sits there smiling at me as if to say “just let me enjoy this for a little while longer "...he loves hanging me out to dry, but I ask for it I suppose. It’s straight from here into `Organ Harvest’ which picks up the pace once again and we fill the hall with the signature RMI sound pretty well I think. After a lively sequencer section it quietens down in the middle as Gary makes the patent 'Echoes' howling noises with his guitar. (Out in the audience, a certain Fred Klatz has had a couple of beers and nature calls "I need to go and save the whale" he says to the guy next to him as he excuses himself). This 25 minute section is the last purely electronic `Tranche’ and we’re joined again by Cyndee and for the first time Premik for a rousing rendition of `Better Days’ segued into `Geiger’ a combined thirty minutes of which I can recall nothing other than that I thought it all held together pretty well. Some major thanks to all concerned and we finish with a three piece rendition of Gary's tune 'A Minute’s Silence' to a nice reception. A brief time to enjoy the applause a few bows and it’s over. I’ve got no recording at the time of writing so I really can’t say how we did, but one thing is for certain...we did.


But We Did

After a short recovery time Mike Ostrich hunts us down in the dressing room and we’re whisked upstairs to the signing tables where there is a queue waiting to meet us. We sit there waiting for Duncan who is determined to get all our core gear back into the flight cases backstage and often has little time for such trifles as signing sessions. We send Mikey down to get him with the full force of the NEARfest law ("Tell him it's in the contract!") as it’s getting a little embarrassing sitting there with a queue unable to get the process underway until we have the full compliment of band members. Duncan emerges eventually via a completely different door and walks to the tables alongside the roped off line and amidst enthusiastic applause from all concerned. What a fun moment that is, seeing him smiling as he strolls defiantly towards us. The whole signing thing is really enjoyable, and with so much warmth and friendship from people what’s not to like? We even meet our new `MySpace master’ Travis from LA for the first time. We don't do this everyday that's for sure.


Aftershow

I remember to get some photos taken of the five of us, before Cyndee and Premik say they're off for a well deserved meal in town. There's some food for us somewhere but we never did find it, we're more concerned with getting the gear and the merchandising packed up to see the job through before we can finally relax. There's always no time like the present, otherwise things stack up and before you know it, it's a major hassle. As we leave the dressing room downstairs after the final checks that we have everything out of there , I grab the notice on the door as a souvenir (and what a souvenir) deciding that it would be a great idea to get it signed by Roger Dean. I find him at his stand, entertaining a bevy of impressed onlookers. I butt in as politely as it’s possible to butt in, to ask him to sign it (Gary's departing words to me as I set off were, "ask him if he'll do our next album cover as well") Mr Dean is somewhat nonplussed looking at the notice I’ve given him with our name on it, and says to me "so you've nicked it?" "Well yes" I answer, "but it is from my band‘s dressing room, we just played!” pointing to the artist pass dangling about my neck as he signs it in pencil. "I grew up with your artwork on my wall, like so many of us here did, and it's an honour to meet you" I say as we shake hands. I presume the penny dropped shortly after, but I was already gone. The artwork commission can wait for another less frenetic day.

Somewhere in the midst of all this we catch much of Echolyn's set who are again excellent. They have some great close vocal harmonies going on amidst their finely composed music and it's nice to sit side stage and take them in. This is punctuated by visits out to the loading bay where the crew hang out smoking and generally shooting the breeze. When Echolyn's finished we grab the opportunity to get everything back to the hotel and it is with a sigh of relief that we jump into our respective showers and freshen up for the evening.

Suitably cleansed, we leave a message for Cyndee, saunter up the hill, turn left and along to the theatre once again and see what's going on in the green room downstairs. Bill Fox's band mate Greg Jones has another pot of his legendary, award winning coffee on the go and we grab a cup. It is amazing. We raid the fridge in the crew area as we are by now starving, and find some most agreeable pasta concoctions. Nobody minds. We're all in it together, and when you gotta eat you gotta eat.

Back downstairs in the green room, Dave Kerman (Recommended Records USA boss, and incredible drummer by all accounts) has inexplicably transformed himself into Col. Sanders and spends the next ten minutes or so in character to stunning effect offering Duncan a tasty morsel from a big bucket. We're cracking up at this seemingly impromptu thing he does, until we realise that this is his part in the big farewell to Chad and Rob who are stepping down after ten years of NEARfest. The ceremony of thanks is going on in the auditorium as we sit downstairs. We have a TV monitor with sound in the room, and the coffee guy turns the volume up just in time for us all to hear the next person in the roll call of people invited up on stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Paul Sears“. Now this is interesting, as Paul is sitting right next to us tapping away on a laptop in the corner, and it's at least a flight of stairs and a corridor hop onto the stage from here. Also, he seems to be the last person in the room to notice! It's fun watching how much time it takes from him leaving the room to finally appearing on our little telly. I still don't know where Col Sanders/Dave fitted in with it all, some running joke from past years I think. If only the audience could have been privy to the character study he laid on for us in the green room.


Colonel Kerman

The last act of the festival are Banco, Italian legends and up there with PFM as the prime movers of the awful but just about forgivable `Spaghetti Rock’ genre fashioned by the NME in the ‘70’s. I recall a pic of their singer, here tonight in all his operatic glory, dwarfing Keith Emerson as they signed to ELP’s Manticore label. We settle down to watch them from the back balcony. We see a good forty minutes of stunning musicianship, an olive skinned keyboard player looking not unlike Vangelis using a MiniMoog mounted to his right whilst playing counterpoint on another keyboard to his left. You could call it `Classical Rock’ really. The players are accomplished to a level pretty much unheard of these days. But it’s been a long and exciting day, and grateful to have tasted the Banco experience, we creep quietly away. If we knew this stuff inside out I guess we’d be hanging every note, but we don’t. Respect to them for reminding people where it all started....with Keith Emerson obviously, but guys like these took up the mantle, and for the only time in Rock history, those kids who DID stick with their piano lessons were able to bring something special to the table. Their advancing years doesn’t seem to have diminished their capabilities at all.

We have a somewhat quiet walk back down to the hotel and a chance for a beer or several to pass our lips for the first time today. Steve Feigenbaum meets us as we relax outside on the smoker’s patio asking who among us is the most responsible and wants to count the merch takings for the day. “That’ll be me” I say, as I point out to him that our takings so far are ensconced in my Spongebob Squarepants metal lunch box. We disappear upstairs and I present him with the unsold CDs which I have somehow managed to sort into order and get into one box. He's impressed and rightly so. Whenever there's CD's to be put in order, I'm your man.

Back down in the bar the party gathers momentum as the Banco faithful filter down from the venue. It’s a nice sea of booze from then on, served heroically and under immense pressure by a cute little smiling barmaid who I think must've done pretty well for tips, she certainly deserved to. When the bar closes at 2am we all carry on in the hotel ballroom which they’ve kindly left at our disposal, and as people arrive with coolers full of more beer a group of acoustic guitarists gather around a table and start singing. I know not what, and I’ve just had a big hit of Jeff’s pipe of peace "it's not very good stuff" says Jeff as my suddenly orbiting dope-starved brain begs to differ. As the music comes into focus I realise they’re actually attempting `Supper’s Ready’ the Genesis classic which took up a whole LP side and moves through a lot of lyrics, a million chords and some great tunes in those 20 minutes or so. It's all a bit like a dream as I join in from `Willow Farm’ onwards and realise that I know every word all the way to the end. A joyful experience.

I bump into Mr Tom Gagliardi who also wants to go somewhere for herbal refreshment, and is already on the wrong end of a few. His description of his experience of our show suggests strongly that he’d definitely `taken a little walk round the block' beforehand. His enthusiasm knows no bounds, and I like that!


Big Time Radio Jock Tom Gagliardi w/Personal Cigarette Assistant Ray Loboda

I have a mission to give my 2 litre bottle of red wine to the crew by way of thanks (given that there’s no way it’s going back with me and I haven’t had a minute to drink any of it. Sorry Mike, it’s the thought that counts) I get it from my room and leave it with Paul Sears . I’m told it ended up with the guys who are taking over the festival, so that’s great.


Cyndee, Paul Sears & Steve

Kevin Feeley Stage Manager extraordinaire finds me and offers me a Guinness, and I finally get the chance to tell him what a pleasure this has all been, and what a wonderful crew he has. He is a gent and a true professional, and you don’t meet too many of them. We venture out for some `fresh air’ too and it’s not long before we are being warned firmly but gently by a passing Police Officer that there are certain things that the sniffer dogs in Bethlehem Police HQ can already smell despite the fact that they’re half a mile away. Thank you Officer for the reasonable way you treated us, you could have spoiled a very special night, but reason and understanding prevailed. . Suitably stoked anyway we go peacefully on our way. Bed 3.30am

Bethlehem Pa., Monday 23rd June 2008

Up late this morning, check out's at noon. The next time I'll see a horizontal sleeping situation will be some considerable time into the future, (In fact I still haven't worked out how long it was, but it was) I'm not one of those folks who can sleep on planes.

Some fond farewells at the lobby, a protracted check out process and an even more protracted water buying episode in the reception shop, as Gary attempts to offload every bit of shrapnel he's accumulated. By the end of this pantomime there's a huge pile of change on the counter as the hapless woman picks her way through it, Gary having seemingly given up on the project. (83 cents, 84 cents , 85 cents, 90 cents etc etc).

A quick walk around the block before Ray and Noreen arrive to take us back to Philly airport, and we spend a great hour or two in their company, somehow managing to avoid the topic of music, but instead discussing almost everything else. After they drop us off, we kill the afternoon in the very comfortable Marriott Restaurant before flying off into the night, and back to reality. Damn. We were having such a good time.

Great to see you, thanks and keep in touch to:
Chad Hutchinson
Rob LaDuca
Kevin Feeley
Ray and Noreen Loboda
Mike Emerson
Todd Guerrieri
Paul and Debbie Sears
Matt Walker
Dorian Mancuso
Mike Ostrich
Steve and Joyce Feigenbaum
Mark Chapman
Travis Light-Harris
Bill Fox
Tom Gagliardi
John Garaguso Snr/Jnr
Premik Russell Tubbs
Cyndee Lee Rule
Jeff Nutkovitz
Mike Havern
Jay Rigby
Dennis Haley
Frank Stickle
Karl Eisenhart
Dave Kerman
Keith MacSoud
Fred Klatz
Greg Jones
All at Progressive Ears
Every band on the bill, all of whom were amazing
The audience.


Do Electric Sheep Dream Of Space Rock?

 
This hour long collage of Radio Massacre International material consists of previously unreleased material from various sessions between 2003-15, and might be seen as their version of `The Faust Tapes' in its construction. Endlessly fascinating, playing as a continuous suite, it is an unpredictable journey through many of the places RMI have found themselves in whilst working and improvising together.


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