Nearfest-Night One Hatfield & the North and Tony Levin Band

Technically, this isn’t the first night of NEARfest, but the Progressive Legends Concert.
Tony Levin opened. The brilliant bass & Chapman Stick player is well known for his work with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson and he makes the most of that, covering tunes from both.
Levin’s latest album is Resonator and he takes a left turn into vocal music with himself doing the singing. Levin’s songs have a Zappaesque sense of humor, but not even Zappa’s voice. During the show, my producer, Jeff Towne, leaned over and said, “I feel like I’m listening to Kermit the Frog sing.” Levin’s set was an uneven mix of pyrotechnic playing, especially from Levin and shredding guitarist Jesse Gress, mixed with interminably hokey songs. One of them laments the state of radio and asks “What would Jimi do today?” My first thought was, write better songs. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, who never followed his own fans’ admonishment, shut up and play yer bass.
Hatfield and the North are a nearly legendary band from England’s Canterbury scene which spawned Soft Machine, Caravan, National Health and a few others. Three of the four original members remain, guitarist Phil Miller, drummer Pip Pyle and bassist and singer Richard Sinclair. Keyboardist Dave Stewart is gone, but he’s ably replaced by Alex Maguire who has all the classic Canterbury keyboard sounds down, notably the nasally fuzzed organ. This was their first US concert ever. Echoes executive producer Kimberly Haas was instantly seduced by Sinclair’s poignant tenor voice as he intoned songs with lyrics Cole Porter might have written after an acid trip. I was a little bored by the songs and instrumental work which was technically brilliant but a little noodling. I was reminded that Hatfield was really a jazz group trapped in Rock clothes. But toward the middle of the show they hit another gear, and started playing songs from The Rotter’s Club, their second and final album.
The Rotters\' Club Guitarist Phil Miller switched from his polite jazz timbres, and locked in some sustain and fuzz and Maguire played havoc with the keyboards. Pip Pyle made his complex rhythms seem easy. Along with Bill Bruford, he’s probably the best of the English Prog drummers. Finally, my Hatfield itch got scratched. It wasn’t a transcendent show, but it made me realize how challenging this music was some 30 years ago.

Comment posted by
at 10/21/2006 4:45:06 AM

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s not the kind of thing most of us are hoping for from Tony Levin, especially at a prog-rock festival!

Comment posted by
at 6/26/2006 5:32:42 PM

I made a similar Kermit comment to the buddies I was there with, I was getting a big kinda ‘Rainbow Connection’ vibe from the solo piano tune.

I love Tony like an uncle, but I feel like the new vocal-heavy approach is pretty seriously misguided.

Comment posted by
at 6/25/2006 10:36:27 AM

Just to be scrupulously accurate, the comment I made about Tony Levin’s singing was that one piece he did “sounded like it should be sung by Kermit the Frog.” Tony accompanied himself on keyboards for a song he’d written about the experience of playing music with an ape at a primate research center in Altlanta. The tune was actually quite sweet, and had that simple, childlike quality of a song one might hear in a Muppet movie. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s not the kind of thing most of us are hoping for from Tony Levin, especially at a prog-rock festival!

As for the singing in general, it’s not that Tony has a terrible voice, he doesn’t, and drummer Jerry Marotta can sing quite well. And the neo-barbershop, 4-part a cappella interludes they did prove they all of them can hold a note. It’s just that none of them can sing at the level that they’re playing their instruments. They’re all consummate professional musicians, playing in groups and in sessions at the absolute top level of the rock world, and the instrumental playing last night was quite spectacular, as you might guess. Sadly the singing wasn’t quite up to the same standard, and marred the overall experience.

And one has to wonder if the world really needs a barbershop-quartet version of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t GIve Up”?

–jeff towne

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