Summer's End Festival 2016 - Drill Hall, Chepstow (UK) - 30 September - 2 October 2016
Summer's End has been going for twelve years, but due to timing and resources issues arising from our own Firefest shindig this was the first time I'd been able to attend, odd considering Prog would be my preferred musical genre. It may be a small event in comparison to Firefest but it's very well run and gives consideration to the fans and the headliners of days two and three by the inclusion of a substantial break so punters can get a meal and the band sound check in peace.
Friday 30 September
Friday night featured just two bands but they get proceedings off to a terrific start. Ghost Community may be a new act but they're all experienced players, one could say a Prog "super-group" and their set of Hard Rock-based Prog was both terrific and very well received. In vocalist John-Paul Vaughan they have a great singer and front-man. One of the main reasons I was at the event was to hear Magic Pie and they didn't disappoint. Their set was filled with fantastic melodies, vocal harmonies and playing of the very highest order. They know how to construct epic tracks that flow seamlessly with delicious recurring themes. I pitied the bands across the rest of the weekend who had to compete with that. The only downside was the lack of an encore due to guitarist Kim Stenberg suffering with a major back issue.
Saturday 01 October
Saturday started with another incredible high in the form of Tiger Moth Tales, featuring the amazing multi-talented Peter Jones and his cohorts from Red Bazaar. The crowd were enthralled by the music and Jones' wonderfully humorous banter. Jones has a knack of producing songs with pathos, a wonderful sense of Englishness and humour, all of which were in evidence during the set. It was a fabulous lunchtime treat for all those in attendance. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Sylvium from the Netherlands. Their brand of brooding Modern Prog became rather tedious with each song sounding very similar to the last with little in the way of dynamism in the vocal delivery.
Next up were Seven Steps To The Green Door featuring, not for the first time over the weekend, Marek Arnold. They kept things interesting as they moved between sub-genres of Prog such as Neo-Prog and Metal touching many points in between. The dual male/female vocals also presented a pleasing angle to their music. This was an accomplished and highly enjoyable set. Replacing late dropouts, Knight Area, were the Heather Findlay Band. Not unexpectedly, the set consisted of songs from Findlay's time with Mostly Autumn and the recent Mantra Vega album. It was great to hear Angela Gordon again, her voice worked so well in conjunction with Findlay's, plus she provided splendid piano, flute and recorder accompaniment. From my perspective it was a fine, entertaining set.
The day's headliners were the much anticipated IQ. Let me be clear, I like IQ a great deal, I have all their albums and DVDs and have seen them live many times, however this show will not rank amongst their best. They arrived with extra lighting, back projections and their own crew but the moment they started I had my doubts. The new song they opened with was rather ponderous and came across as unrehearsed, whilst Pete Nicholls' vocals sounded terribly out of tune, which was a feature throughout the set. I began to worry that I was wrong about this with the partisan crowd greeting the end of each song with heroic cheers and applause. A case of blind (make that deaf) allegiance perhaps? However, my view was vindicated when I met up post set with our revered former Reviews Editor, Paul Jerome Smith (PJS), who unbidden commented "great songs ruined by terrible vocals". The following day I asked the view of one of the in-house crew whose diplomatic response was "Let's just say I love their albums". Enough said!
Sunday 02 October
On Sunday organiser Stephen Lambe rightly commented from the stage that Prog is a broad and varied church and to prove the point they'd booked the eclectic Firefly Burning to open the day's proceedings. With a stage strewn with unusual instruments it was anyone's guess what we were doing to get and frankly it's incredibly difficult to put a label on what the band played. Their own website proclaims "Firefly Burning are a five-piece ensemble from North East London creating impressionistic music – part Art-Folk song, part minimalist Chamber music. Evoking sounds of Sufjan Stevens, Steve Reich and Kate Bush, the band draws on Avant-Pop, Experimental Folk, Classical minimalism and Javanese Gamelan". I couldn't put it any better. The bottom line is that they were extremely impressive, even if they were a bit "off the wall" at times with some unusual violin and cello notes. Vocally they were tremendous and the young lady fronting them had a great voice.
Next up were new band, Damanek, another Prog "super-group", this time fronted by Guy Manning and featuring Sean Timms (Unitopia, Southern Empire) who'd flown in from Australia for the event. Guesting on guitar was Luke Machin who displayed the ability to play in many different styles. I thoroughly enjoyed their set but I know others found Manning's lyrics rather too earnest at times with ecological and man's inhumanity themes. Favourites of the Classic Rock Society Strangefish fell off the grid back in 2008 but after a charity gig their spark was reignited and they're back. As always their live set was lively, fun and full of great tunes. The enjoyment of the moment flowed from the stage. The addition of Jo Whittaker as vocal foil to Steve Taylor was an inspired step and added significantly to their sound. Several new songs were aired all of which bode very well for the upcoming album, my only slight criticism being a somewhat disjointed mid-section to an otherwise superb song about the cult of celebrity perpetrated by the likes of Simon Cowell. A more than welcome return.
Penultimate act of the weekend were Karnataka and they delivered in spades where front-woman Hayley Griffiths demonstrated both energy and a great set of pipes. I have to question one aspect of their performance and that was the number of songs that featured the chorus being repeated many times thus elongating matters unnecessarily. It felt as if every song ended in this manner. Their cover of Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir' that rounded out their set was impressive.
My friend PJS expected Karnataka to take the "band of the day" plaudits, but in their own different way RPWL justified their position of headliners. They ran through an almost chronological list of tracks many of which evoked Pink Floyd, hardly surprising when they started life as a tribute to the mighty Floyd. Indeed, they closed with 'Embryo', a monster of a track that Floyd played live but never recorded. The band's guitarist, Kalle Wallner, was absolutely exceptional throughout.