By Joel Barrios, Rock At Night Miami Correspondent
Venue: Majestic Theater–ROSFest-Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Last weekend I headed off to the historic and ghost-enchanted town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for my first ever trek to the Rites of Spring Festival, also known as RoSFest. Held annually at the lovely Majestic Theater and now in its 13th year, RoSFest, the brainchild of George Roldan, has firmly established itself as arguably the premier festival in the United States (and likely among the most important worldwide as well) to celebrate the progressive-rock music scene. The weekend was a memorable one, filled with excellent music and the company of my prog-friends, to the point I would say my wife that I have been awakened to a new and exciting musical obsession which will bring us back every year.
The Festival runs like a well-oiled machine, every single performance starts with clockwork precision and each band plays a minimum of one hour. The sound in the Majestic Theater is perfect from wherever you sit, there’s not a bad spot in the house, and the lighting was one of the best I’ve seen. One of the many things catching my attention was the generous breaks between each show, allowing the attendees to relax and recharge batteries for the next musical journey. We almost immediately compared this with the hectic and frenzied experience of ProgPower, the other big festival we’ve been attending for the last three years. Being at RoSFest as a music fan and also as a photographer/journalist, the three-day-event represented a genuine physical challenge for me, and at the end of the third day my legs were sore as hell from the consequence of all the squatting and dragging in the front of the stage for the duration of the first three songs of each set and running up and down the stairs to be able to snap shots with a different perspective from the balcony.
This year George Roldan and his staff had to overcome a real myriad of difficulties. Firstly, was the sudden and tragic passing of Riverside’s guitarist Piotr Grudziński, an incident that shocked the prog-rock community to its roots, and brought sadness and tears to many hearts, mine included. Riverside held the Saturday’s headliner spot and were later substituted by the US stalwarts Spock’s Beard, marking their second appearance in a row after they headlined last year’s Saturday. Secondly, Electric Strawbs was on the verge of almost cancelling their participation due to logistical obstacles while obtaining their visas in time. They were meant to be Friday’s headliner and ended up playing a near-to-an-hour set on Sunday, after Bent Knee and Zebra gave up some of their set time allowing the UK legends to play their four show in 48 hours–dedication and passion deeply acknowledged by the crowd with the standing ovations they received.
This review will be quite a bit different than the norm. Instead of trying to write about over 15+ hours of music that was the RoSfest weekend, as well as the interactions between sets and at the after parties, effort that will render this article long in excess, I’ve decided to redact a brief comment of each band’s enactment. Remember that this is just my opinion, music is a subjective listening experience and my thoughts are no more valid than yours if we are on opposite sides of the fence.
KINETIC ELEMENT: Kinetic Element is a neo/symphonic progressive rock band from Richmond, Virginia and they were meant to be the Saturday’s after party band, ending up as the festival openers. I was not familiar with their music and the overall impression was very good, even though they can’t be compared to other more established acts in the genre. Dimetrius LaFavors of Odin’s Court handled the vocal duties and his bagpipes proved he can sing as well as the best in the genre. The driving force behind the group is keyboardist Mike Visaggio who was positively brilliant, and their show was enjoyable and filled with great keyboards work, beautiful melodies and appealing sound.
MAGIC PIE: I’ve heard a lot about Magic Pie but I have never seen them live. They are a Norwegian band and their music embraces a wide range of styles, from soft emotional parties to full scoop and sultry heavy metal riffs–think of a high wire act balancing the neo-prog sounds of The Flower Kings with the heavier elements of classic Uriah Heep. They were introduced by George as a “favorite of the house” and in effect they have played at the Gettysburg festival numerous times. Their set was… mind-blowing. Their sound is founded on strong melodic tunes, mixed with powerful vocals, sparkling guitar riffs, 70’s organ and synthesizers, and a solid bass and rhythm section. Their stage presence exhibited a complete confidence and they ripped through fans favorites coming from their entire discography (“Motions of Desire”, “Circus of Life” and “The Suffering Joy”), closing the set with the whopping 27 minutes long title track of their latest record “King for a Day”. The audience cheered them, standing to their feet in several occasions for long running applauses and yells of joy. One of the highlights of the three nights’ music-fest.
NO MORE PAIN: My friend Jim Mason had been heralding the greatness of this novel band through social media in every imaginable way for the last couples of months. “The Professor”, as I call him because of his deep knowledge of music contrasting his relative young age, seemed really excited about this band, and I for sure, wanted to see what the whole fuzz was about. They had the difficult first time slow of Saturday which happens at 11:00 am, and I’m happy to say they became the revelation of RoSFest for many of the attendees. They are four young guys from central New Jersey and their stock in trade is a musical landscape of progressive arrangements with a grungy epicenter; standing on the thin line between rock and progressive, where hard hitting riffs and emotive vocals combine with complex harmony, rhythm, and thought provoking lyrics. Front-man Mike Roman led the band throughout a set played with the utmost degree of confidence, live real veterans. They introduced a new song from their upcoming EP entitled “Spader” which was a lot of fun. Definitively a band with a very promising future and worth checking out.
CIRCULINE: Another band I was unfamiliar with, and to my complete surprise they have in their ranks none other than the amazing world-known jazz guitarist, pianist, and composer Beledo (born in Montevideo Uruguay) with whom I had a very nice conversation with during Cruise to the Edge last year. Circuline is not your typical prog-bad, their music lies somewhere along the lines of cinematic rock and classic progressive rock. Employing two theatrical lead vocalist like Natalie Brown and Billy Spillane along with other remarkable players like keyboard’s wizard Andrew Colyer and drummer powerhouse Darin Brannon they are a band deserving a close attention. They refuse all kind of labeling and are not afraid to show their ideas without taking the easy route. A delightful vocal performance mixed with AOR prog accents and instrumental fusion.
DAVE KERZNER BAND: I enjoyed the heck out of the Dave Kerzner Band performance at The Spinnaker Lounge during Cruise to the Edge, that time including Randy McStine on bass. I had never heard of Fernando Perdomo before and his playing blew my socks off that day, hence I was very much looking forward to their set. This time as a four-man piece, with Matt Dorsey on bass and Derek Cintron handling the drumming duties, Dave and his partners in crime took the Majestic Theater by storm. Their set was mainly based on the music from New World (Dave’s first and only album under his very own name), a spellbinding modern progressive rock kaleidoscope of sound, colors and textures; but apparently this time they had decided they would close their US tour (this show was their last one) in the highest note possible. Since the very first note it was apparent they were firing in all the cylinders, and Fernando probably offered the performance of his life, mesmerizing the audience with his guitar licks and his peculiar guitar style where melodies and speed are mixed in the perfect recipe. He stole the show when, after losing his hat in a heated and never-ending soloing sprinkled with back-bends and every imaginable guitar gesture, ended up kneeling down and ripping off his Fender Mustang guitar strings in a true climax of musical madness. It was f…king amazing!
It was customary that George Roldan appear on stage to make a brief introduction to each bands. However, some minutes before the Spock’s Beard set the big screen behind the stage came to life, and the scenes of a video containing images of Piotr Grudziński’s life with his Riverside’s bandmates started to roll before our Raffle to help family of late Reiverside guitarist Piotr Grudzinski eyes. It was a very touching and sad moment (you can watch the video in the link above). The video ended with the phrase “Forever in Our Lives” and George came forward to explain there was a raffle going on with all the proceeds going to Piotr’s family. The raffle items were a guitar signed by all the musicians taking part of the festival and a beautiful black and white paint of Piotr made by the artist Christiaan Rodi and based on a picture taken by my friend and excellent photographer Peter Rajaniemi during Riverside’s performance at RoSFest in 2013.
SPOCK’S BEARD: This is most probably the band I’ve seen the most play live, and I have a long and loving relationship with their music, owning all their Neal Morse and Ted Leonard albums in vinyl and CDs. Their shows are always memorable and their musicianship and stage presence is second to none. They are up there among the three more important progressive bands to ever emerge in the US during the last 25 years; and four of their first six albums featured in the Prog Report’s “Top 50 Prog Albums 1990-2015″, with the “The Light” and “Snow” featuring in the top ten. Coincidentally they will be presenting next July their landmark, highly-revered and never-played-live album “Snow” during the third iteration of the Morsefest Festival to be held in Nashville, Tennessee. Their latest album “The Oblivion Particle” was one of the 2015’s album highlights for me, a truly astounding and complex musical landscape, with each band member showing plenty of their own virtuosity without the songs breaking down into a chaotic mess of one-upmanship. Their live shows are always a fest to the eyes, and this time apparently they felt pumped after the astonishing performance offered by Dave Kerzner and decided to up the ante even more. Their set was a highly octane and awesome mix of intense technical sophistication and melodic beauty which really shows off the dynamic range that they have to offer, served up by Ted Leonard soaring vocals, Alan Morse’s luscious harmonic guitar’s sceneries, Ryo Okumoto’s keyboard wizardry and uniquely funny stage presence, Dave Meros’ powerful bass lines and Jimmy Keegan’s thunderous, hard-hitting and flawless drumming, also including the surprising presence of their founder member and former drummer Nick D’Virgilio who joined them on stage for a couple of songs. As usual they enamored the crowd; with the whole venue jumping to their feet and cheering for more than 5 consecutive minutes even after they have disappeared backstage.
THE FRINGE: One of the bands I was very much looking forward to see live as they are a trio comprised of musicians I am very fond of. Guitars are handled by Randy McStine, whom I have been following since I discovered his Guitarizm album, half of which was recorded when he was merely 12 years old, and have seen live as part of the Dave Kerzner Band in 2015. Swedish bass guru Jonas Reingold widely considered among the finest artist of the four strings instrument and featured in the Cruise to the Edge’s poignant tribute to the late Chris Squire; full time member of the Swedish prog-gods The Flower Kings along with his own long-running project Karmakanic, joined by Tomas Bodin and Felix Lehrmann in the instrumental super progressive trio Barracuda Triangle and recently recording with Jon Anderson and Roine Stolt in their upcoming Anderson-Stolt Project (to name a few of the countless recordings he has taken part of) and Nick D’Virgilio (one of the three top progressive rock drummers for me, former member of Spock’s Beard, current drummer for the UK progressive band Big Big Train and also guest musicians in more records than I can even remember) on drums. The sum of the musical pedigree in this trio is simply flabbergasting. On what probably was The Fringe first live performance for a big audience they came out and blew the roof off. Their music is a blend of more straight-forward rock and pop with some progressive elements thrown in, and while Jonas Reingold and Nick D’Virgilio offered their usual stellar executions, the real star of the show in my opinion was Randy McStine. This time he really showed up how creative and accomplished player he is, delighting the audience with some sick guitar licks and driving The Fringe sound in a presentation which exceeded the expectations of many. They were selling his debut album at the venue (it won’t be officially released until June) and they also graciously signed it for the long line of fans formed in the theater lobby.
ELECTRIC STRAWBS: I already mentioned the tribulations Dave Cousins and his bandmates went through to be able to take part of the RoSFest 2016 line-up. Strawbs started back in 1964 and while their music initially veered towards bluegrass they eventually moved on to other styles such as folk rock, progressive rock. Strawbs are often mentioned in the same breath as progressive rock bands like Yes, King Crimson, and The Moody Blues. The current incarnation of Strawbs line-up comprises Dave Cousins, lead guitarist Dave Lambert, bass player Chas Cronk, and drummer Tony Fernandez, who recorded and toured together in the 1970s. They are joined by keyboard virtuoso Dave Bainbridge of Iona. They came to stage and the multitude received them with a long applause. Despite being around more than 50 years the music flame is still well alive on them and for a little less than an hour every soul present at The Majestic Theater enjoyed their mystical blend of rock, folk, Celtic and ambient music which has endeared them to audiences across Europe and North America for the last 25 years. Props to George Roldan to allow younger fans of progressive rock who weren’t even born when this band was already sowing success to enjoy this musical experience.
BENT KNEE: This was the only band I missed during the three day festival. My friends Bruce Allen and Jim Mason had reserved a dinner at Garry Owen Irish Pub (hands down the best Reuben money can buy) and obviously we couldn’t be in two places at the same time. Nonetheless I can write about Bent Knee’s music a little as I’ve been enjoying their latest discographic effort entitled “Say so” for some time. Someone wrote about them “Bent Knee is a band without frontiers. The Boston-based group seamlessly connects the worlds of rock, pop and the avant-garde into its own self-defining”. The above statement pretty much summarizes the core nature of this uncommon band. What Bent Knee does is fuse the most extreme ends of pop and avant-garde music together. It’s rock for the thinking person. The group’s lyrics are dark and infused with themes focusing on the emergence of personal demons, unwanted situations and the difficulty of conquering them. Its mercurial sound matches its subject matter. It’s a thrilling aural roller-coaster ride with arrangements designed to make listeners throw their arms up in wild abandon as they engage with them. I asked some of my prog-friends who stayed to enjoy their show and all of them concur in a single sentence: “These guys tore it up”. Next time they play; dinner will have to wait.
COMEDY OF ERRORS: Back in The Majestic Theater it was the turn of this Scottish band. These guys formed 25 years ago in Glasgow, yet their first album Disobey didn’t hit the shelves until 2011. The year 2013 saw the release of their sophomore effort Fanfare and Fantasy and last year welcomed album number three, the ambitious Spirit. With their second album the band moved from the fine neo-prog of Disobyey towards a more symphonic approach, and Spirit completed that migration. Influences as diverse as Marillion, Yes, IQ, Genesis, Spock’s Beard, and many more could be noted in their sound, but there is at the same time a true sense of originality here, of the band recording something they feel they can be proud of without necessarily craving the recognition they truly deserve. Front-man Joe Cairney was the most prominent figure on stage, singing his lines with a strong sentiment, and sometimes moving all the way to the front of stage almost on top of the photographer in the pit. They are a band growing in their sound and their music treats the listener to a thought-provoking musical journey through the experiences provided in the lyrics and musical forms.
The audience was ready for the closing performance of the festivalwhen George came to stage one more time, in this occasion accompanied by Glen Fitzgerald, and pulled out the raffle-winning tickets, which surprisingly included a framed poster of the festival in addition to the painting and signed guitar.
ZEBRA: Maybe considered by many some sort of an oddball, Zebra took the stage with the difficult task of facing a progressive audience without being themselves a progressive band. The US trio, formed in 1975 in New Orleans, Louisiana by Randy Jackson (guitar and vocals), Felix Hanemann (bass, keyboards and vocals) and Guy Gelso (drums and vocals) proved capable of offering a superb performance with their hard-rock sound (sometimes sounding reminiscent of early Rush) playing their crowd-pleasing originals with Gelso’s pounding drums and Hanneman’s bass and keyboards backing Jackson’s amazing vocals and jaw dropping guitar riffs. Their songs sounded as great as they should have had 30 years ago, taking many presents back in time, when their hit “Take your fingers from my hair” sounded in every single bar in town. Being a Sunday and coincidentally also Mother’s Day the Majestic was nowhere near full, however Zebra put out a fantastic show performing with the same amount of enthusiasm and respect for the audience like they did in their heyday.
All in all, RoSFest was a religious musical experience of the highest caliber, once which will see us come back every year from now on. If progressive rock in any of its variants runs through your veins and you haven’t experienced the Gettysburg’s fest, you are missing one of the best weekends of your life. Prog-rock doesn’t get any better than RoSFest.
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