NO SLEEP (AT) TILL NEARFEST (A savage journey to the heart of the American Dream)

Chapter 1: "Dude, where's my Drumsticks?!.."

It was a fairly uneventful journey by Pallas standards. Les, soundman, sans kilt this time, and I settled quietly into our seats for the long haul to Newark.. The fact that you were actually expected to PAY for booze on this airline (note to self: don't book Continental next time) may have had something to do with it. Though we did help celebrate the 22nd birthday of Lori, a lovely dance instructor from Lousiana who was (un)fortunate enough to be sitting next to us (Uneventful however was not the term that could be applied to Niall's spillage on the Aberdeen parties flight!)


Despite my nervousness at entering Fortress America in these security-conscious times, we sailed through immigration with a friendly "Good Luck with your concert" from the lady who stamped our passports, and staggered outside into the afternoon sunshine to await our chariot to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. We waited and waited.. The Aberdeen team were flying British Airways (free booze!!) but should have arrived by now, as should the lovely Christine Holz - whom we'd previously met at Bajaprog - who was to drive us to the gig. Then it struck me.. The arrivals board was only showing Continental flights.. Being one of their hubs, they had their own terminal. All other international flights came into Terminal B. !!!

So we trogged over there on the shuttle, noting the two BA planes parked on the taxiway, only to find an empty arrivals hall. We didn't have Christine's number, but we did have that of Mr Nearfest, Rob LaDuca. But he didn't have Christine's to hand either.. Looked like a long walk to Bethlehem for Les and I. But just then Mike B turned up - we'd been chasing each other around the terminals.. The van was just outside..


But we'd got off lucky.. Seems BA had mislaid Colin's bag, so he had no fresh clothes - and NO DRUMSTICKS!!!

Now, we could probably put up with Colin smelling a bit, but a drummer without sticks is a percussionist.. Nice in its way, but NO DAMN USE TO US!! Colin was doing his best to shrug it off, but it wasn't the best of starts as he's pretty particular about what sticks he uses. Anyway, believing we probably had time enough to sort this out, we headed for Bethlehem.


Quick pit-stop at the hotel to check in and down a refreshing beer before heading to the venue to check out the lie of the land. We were particularly keen on getting there in time to catch "The Musical Box" a French-Canadian Genesis tribute band, who recreate early Genesis performances right down to the costumes and between-song banter.

Accuracy was very much part of the game - even to the point of "Tony Banks" having an EKO 12-string (horrible budget guitar that most people ditched as soon as they could afford to). Tho I believe the mellotron was a fake (shh, don't tell the enthusiasts).

Musically these guys were spot-on, but I think the French-Canadian approximation of Peter Gabriel's stories sounded a bit weird at times. Might just have been the jet-lag, but it all felt a little cold to me (Graeme later said - having seen the real thing - that Gabriel used to be just as distant), but the audience absolutely loved it.

But hunger was setting in, and "Supper's Ready" seemed the perfect cue to go find some food. Les and I found ourselves at a student haunt across from the hotel, and were just about to enter when a man approached us from the shadows.. "Got ID, buddy?" he asked. We scratched our heads.. It was late, we were tired, and now a bouncer stood between us and (food and) beer, because we couldn't prove we were old enough to drink!! He seemed strangely reluctant to accept that we were both the wrong side of 40, but after flashing my BBC press card (THE Access All Areas Pass for members of Her Majesty's Press) he relented and even waived the $3 cover charge.. A very nice man.

Still later, we bumped into Allen Gunnison from Progression magazine (another Baja veteran) and there were more beers and tales from the golden age of Brit-prog into the small hours.. Ahh the nostalgia..


Couldn't sleep for more than a couple of hours. It was 7am, but my body thought it was lunchtime.. Breakfast and time to round up the troops and find out what the day ahead had in store. Fortunately for us we were second band on, which meant a show time of 1pm local - around 6pm UK time. Suited us fine.

The backstage area at the Zoellner Arts centre was abuzz with activity. Each band needed stuff hired in, and there were about 3 drum-kits, several keyboards, and more guitar and bass amps than you could shake a (I was going to say stick, but Colin had gone off with their drum-techs to get some).

The set-up was a little different than any festival we'd been to. Instead of rigging and soundchecking everyone in reverse order -starting with the headliner - , each band would have exactly one hour to rig, line-check and soundcheck. An absolute recipe for disaster in my view - no way could we do it in that time. Having said that we could pre-rig as much as possible backstage.. They'd even managed to find Graeme some proper Moog Taurus pedals (thanks owing to Illuvatar I believe)!!!

It has to be said that the crew were incredibly friendly and professional. Swarming over us like friendly bees, Kevin, Dennis, Bob et al (there are far too many of you to mention) assessed what we needed and did their best to accommodate.


Yezda Urfa (band one) finished their set and their equipment was being de-rigged even as people cleared the hall. The race was on.. 45 minutes to be ready for doors open and a strict on-stage time of 1pm EST. Ronnie had some MIDI problems, and we had to change to another keyboard.. I ditched the acoustic guitar (I've got a 12-string programmed in the VG-8 anyway) and soon we all stood there waiting for the last mic to be rigged. We literally had the world's quickest line-check and a half a verse of "Cross", before Kevin the stage manager kicked us off-stage and opened the doors. NO time for a monitor check. We have NEVER played a gig this technically unprepared before (even at a festival).


A very few minutes later and Rob Laduca's on-stage doing the intro, and we're off. We've been planning this gig for half a year and now is the moment of truth.

It's a tough room.. 1100 dedicated (and I mean that.. Tickets were like gold-dust apparently) American prog-fans (and some Canadians) sat tier after tier in their comfy chairs. The Zoellner is an Arts Centre - not a sweaty mosh-pit like the Astoria. There was a sense of collected arms folded and an expression of "Go on .. Impress me!".

So we gave it our best shot. Eyes front and head down, while we struggled to get some sort of monitor mix established. Everyone was nevertheless playing very well. After a couple of numbers you could feel the mood begin to change. Our on-stage banter got a few chuckles (I'm amazed they understood us), and you could feel the place loosen up a bit. Now we're getting somewhere. The applause is getting better and better with each song - we're definitely connecting now.


And then things go truly "Jazz Odyssey".....

Graeme and I had just been explaining about the varied and complicated time-sigs involved in "Tower of Babble" (11/8 and 14/8 if you must know). However, we hadn't planned on the power going in Colin's headphones just at that point!!! TOB is one of those songs where we sequence the choir and a few other bits and pieces, so Colin needs to play to a click to stay in sync. No click means confusion all round.

Sooo.. Niall and Graeme are spot-on and tight together, but possibly half a bar out with the sequencer.. Ronnie's in with the click.. And Colin does his best to keep step with what he can hear.. BUT which one do I follow.. Somehow we manage to get to the organ section in the middle and get back in control.. That was truly interesting.. Big sections of the audience here are turned on by atonal, experimental music anyway, so they probably thought this was our best number!!


Fortunately this was the only major technical screw-up on our part, and we motor on towards "the Atlantis Suite" (which however often we try to retire it, there always seems another good reason to do it one "last " time). By the end of this the room is on it's feet.. We've obviously made a lot of new friends.

..So much so that we're allowed an encore.. Pretty rare stuff.. And we hurtle into "Cut and Run". By the time we reach the "John Doe.." spoken mid-section, we've got pretty much the whole room clapping out the beat.

As I eyeball the punters looking for a suitable victim to concentrate on I clock Mr Nearfest dead centre.. And so it is that Rob Laduca becomes a temporary "enemy of the state" - much to the amusement those around him.

All too soon, it's over and we're backstage with beers while our gear gets broken down for next band on the bill..

Chapter 5: HOBBITS ARE GO!!!

The refrain of the rest of the weekend from this moment on seems to be "You guys were awesome!!.." (in a variety of North American accents). We join Mike B and Ken and Lisa (old friends from the Wardour St Marquee days - Lisa was also responsible for the 6' cardboard Chessmen we used on my first couple of tours in 84/85!!) who are being besieged at our merchandise table by people wanting things signed. There's a lot of "I hadn't heard you guys before, but I love your stuff" - which is really the best kind of compliment you can get. The pressure gets so much that we're edging the band on the table next to us out of the way. There's also a shortage of pens, so we start a production line of signings, with stuff being passed down the table from one to another while the recipient follows down the line of Pallas members to pick it up the other end. It's like one of those official receptions where the hosts meet and shake hands with each guest in turn (no champagne though).

After about an hour of this it's time to slip into something more comfortable and take in a bit more of the festival. Our work here is (contractually) done. There's some interviews and a bit more ligging in prospect, but from here on in it's PAARRTTY TIME!!!!! Pennsylvania has some restrictive laws on alcohol - must be bought from specialist outlets etc - but Les has thought ahead and supplies have been obtained. Out on the terrace for a bit of rum and sunshine it is.


Some time later we've ferried the equipment back to the hotel and Christine has us under her wing again as she steers us towards a decent meal. Nearfest has a deal going with the local micro-brewery for a dollar off every pint - we intend to save a lot of money. However they are unable at this time to seat our large-ish party, so we set off in search of another venue.

Can this be true.. The venue on the corner is called "The Ripper Pub" - it can only be fate!!! No signs of fresh blood stains or any sounds of screaming, and the food is just what we needed. The plan is to get back to the venue in time to catch Saturday headliners "Univers Zero", but in the end we only just make it back to the hotel..

The tequila ban for me is over and I'm enjoying a rather fine marguerita in the lobby , when a flurry of guitar cases heads past me into an adjoining room. A rather imposing chap by the name of Chris (from Illuvatar I think??) asks if we want to come and join them for a jam session. It's apparently a bit of a Nearfest tradition, and he bought me another marguerita, so how could I say no!!!

And so it starts.. A six-string and a 12-string.. A dozen or so people huddled round a table with some beers, and any old song we can remember. I end up doing a bit of 'Biko', 'Jump' and various other bits and pieces till my brain no longer works. Chris does a v funny version of the theme to Gilligan's Island to the tune of "Stairway to Heaven", and quite a creditable acoustic readers' digest version of "Tales from Topographic Oceans (I didn't believe it either). One of my personal favourites is "All Good People", with Chris on lead vocals; Ronnie, Lisa, Ken and various others on the "Doo doo do doo doo" counterpoint, and me whistling the recorder part. It's rumoured there may even be a video recording of Whitesnake's "Ain't Gonna Cry no more" which features Lisa on vocals and me on 12-string.

By this time the numbers in the room have swelled somewhat.. bit by bit we're joined by more musos, including Mike Kenneally (x Zappa Guitar whiz, and a very nice man) and Nick di Virgillio from Spock's Beard. Hey man, it's turning into Glastonbury...

we get to bed..eventually...


Once again I awake in plenty of time for breakfast.. I'm absolutely shattered, but my body refuses to sleep. Got some interviews around lunchtime, so head up to the venue in time to catch a bit of Finnish band "Hydria Spacefolk" (they do exactly what it says on the tin). Think Norse crusties and you're most of the way there. We thought we'd been hard done by when our drumsticks didn't turn up - BA managed to lose ALL their gear.. and to cap it all the van that had been sent to collect them from the airport late at night had managed to pick up a whole different set of scandinavians instead. Not a great start for them!!

Despite this they'd managed to cultivate a reputation as the most laid-back band on the bill.. the fact that their equipment turned up an hour before they were due to take the stage just added to the legend.. lots of positive karma. The disruptions didn't seem to disturb their on-stage composure at all.

One of the last-minute surprises of the weekend was that there would be film-crews lurking about over the weekend gathering a few tapes-full of festival flavour for a proposed documentary on the twisted, sinister and secretive world that is progressive rock (sorry, I lapsed into TV news feature mode there for a second). As part of this, we were to be interviewed on-camera for our views on this strange and shadowy world (and of course how wonderful it was to be at Nearfest, naturally).


1230 was the allotted time.. I'm already on-site, Colin and Graeme arrive a fashionable 5' late; but of Niall and Ronnie there is no sign... It later emerges they've wandered off in search of a café that sells decent tea and have lost track of time. Rock'n'roll eh?! Any road up, Colin, Graeme and I pontificate meaningfully for the cameras like on one of those TV clip nostalgia shows (Graeme doing the Phil Jupitus role, me being the blonde actress who looks vaguely familiar from some series or other).

A few more interviews and then we're free to entertain ourselves. I hitch a lift back to the hotel and try and grab a couple of hours kip. I've a feeling the evening could be a long one.

Back to the venue - sadly having missed Planet X. Colin was particularly excited about this as Virgil Donati had a similar problem with sticks as he'd had, and had borrowed Colin's. Mr Fraser said they were very good indeed. Time for a bit of hero-worship all round as Pallas touch base with Roger Dean (of Yes album artwork fame). Given the Eddie Offord connection, there's much trading of tales.. There's also a trading of signatures with an autographed special edition Sentinel being swapped for some of Roger's prints. He also takes a copy for Patrick Woodroffe.


Out in the hall we bump into Larry Fast of Peter Gabriel band fame.. This is the man responsible for some of the weird and wonderful noises on PG 3 and 4. We reminisce about the joys and limitations of equipment past (sshhh!!.. don't let the mellotron-lovers hear us!!).

Time for tea, and the ever-cheerful Christine ushers us into the bus, but there's an additional pit-stop at a (relatively) nearby Wal-mart to gather replacement clothes and toiletries for our devastated drummer. It's like Supermarket Sweep. Colin has 15 minutes to load up on clean clothes if we (and Christine in particular) are to make it back into time to hear the Strawbs.

.. But organising a band is like herding cats.. Returning to the hotel, everyone stops for a beer and prevaricates until it's well after Ten pm. At last we find a basic-looking Mexican café-restuarant. The food is fine, but we have to ship in our own beer, and the TV entertainment is a little unnerving.


Don't know what channel it is, but first of all it's some sort of Mariachi-band karaoke at a rodeo somewhere. This ends to be replaced by cock-fighting. There's something surreal about eating refried beans to the sound of screaming (and dying) poultry. I'm off back to the hotel as soon as I can manage.

There's a bit of a party going on at the hotel. As well as the bands and attendees who remain, the stage-crew and organisers are now in a position to relax and enjoy themselves. There's also take two of the jam session in the adjoining room. I do my party -pieces again - including a solo rendition of "Who's to Blame?" and a fairly poor version of Eric Bogle's "Green Fields of France" (I had a brief phase as a folkie in my younger days).

I remember that I have a fridge full of beer (thanks to Allen Gunnison) and as it's quite clear that I'm not going to drink it all, Ronnie and I heave it all downstairs and deposit it centre of the room for general consumption (apart from a couple of bottles pushed under Mike Keneally's nose - he's mid -jam and he'd miss out otherwise).

Suddenly it's 5am (!!!!!) and we head towards bed.. We're leaving for Newark at 0900!!!

Around 6am there's a phenomenal thunderstorm, and it rains continuously from then on. I'm up in time for breakfast and we say our farewells before Christine rounds us up one last time to take us to the airport. And then the journey home (there were various adventures in a nearby rain-sodden New York, but that's far too complicated to get into aside from the revelation that the Virgin Mega-store on Times Sq stocks Pallas Cds.

A fine weekend away.. We had a great time, and made many new friends.. Thanks again to Rob, Chad and everyone associated with Nearfest. Let's do it again soon..


Cell Block No 9
Camp Delta (not quite Cuba)

Dear Mum,

I've been here "DELETED" "DELETED" . Seems I've fallen foul of some law against Progressive rock. I'm sharing a cell with "DELETED". He belongs to some extreme cult or other. Says I'm not of the true faith. Says anything with a tune in is against the Prophet (or the Lord Moog). He says it's blasphemous to count anything with even numbers as it's too close to the devil's music.

I've been made to stay up all night reciting "Lark's tongues in Aspic" while hopping in 25/8. I must not show any enjoyment while doing so. The Prog is a serious music and I must reflect this in my demeanour. Every 4 hours they beat me about the ears with a Chapman stick.

Otherwise it's fine.. The soldiers feed me hamburgers and let me listen to their Van Halen records...

Mellotron Bin Hammond - who used to work in the video shop in the High St - is here too.. He sends his regards.

Inshallah, I'll be home for Christmas

Your loving son,