Chad Hutchinson, co-organizer of the annual North
East Art-Rock Festival in Bethlehem, Pa., reflected on the event’s 2006 edition with Progression Editor John Collinge in the following interview. Look for a full review of the festival in issue No. 51.
Progression: What is your overall assessment of this year’s festival?
Hutchinson: “One of the best to date. The schedule was kept very well and the musical quality from top to bottom was excellent. It really turned out to be an even better musical weekend than I originally thought. Two bands that blew away my expectations were Riverside and Ange. And the headliner performance by Keith Emerson goes without saying. I still can’t believe he was on our stage.”
Progression: Any glitches at all?
Hutchinson: “To be honest no, not really. That in itself was pretty amazing. Our production manager, Kevin Feeley, does an amazing job preparing for the show. This year, he had four rolling risers backstage which made it easy for our guys to set up and swap out keyboard rigs and drum sets. Beyond that, we had a few new crew members that worked out very well, especially our guitar tech, Chris DeRose.”
Progression: The crowd seemed to have a different “feel” to it this year. Did you sense that as well?
Hutchinson: “Yes, actually, I did. I felt like there were more musos in the crowd. By that I mean, there seemed to be more attendees that were interested in more bands — or the festival in general itself — and less people there for one or two bands.”
Progression: One of your solo spotlight artists seemed a curious choice, the acoustic guitarist Richard Leo Johnson. He was certainly talented but didn’t seem to be a progressive artist per se. Why was he chosen?
Hutchinson: “I first heard of him through Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records. Steve sent me the Richard Leo Johnson Trio CD from a few years ago and it was quite good. It reminded me of the California Guitar Trio with a violin. Richard’s guitar prowess and technique shined through and Rob and I [festival co-organizer Rob LaDuca] thought his very artful and intricate playing would make for a cool solo spotlight. After Richard was announced, he released his steel guitar CD, The Legend of Vernon McAllister, which was a departure from the trio stuff. His set at NEARFest was a eclectic mix of his guitar stylings on a variety of guitars including the steel, which I think threw a few people for a loop — in a good way. I’ve heard a lot of great comments about Richard’s set, which is awesome. He’s a very, very nice guy.”
Progression: “Wasn’t this the first NEARFest without a Scandinavian band? I suppose that might be a hard string to continue over many years.
Hutchinson: “First one since 1999! Hungary was the closest we got then, with Solaris. There are a lot of great Scandanavian bands. However, it’s a hotbed for metal, which doesn’t go over as well with our crowd. Riverside may have changed that a bit though!”
Progression: So do you think you might be open in the future to progressive metal bands?
Hutchinson: “We’ve never been closed to them, per se, we’ve just been selective. In fact, we’ve had discussions with Fates Warning and Opeth in the past.”
Progression: What about South American bands? They seem to have fallen off the radar screen in recent years.
Hutchinson: “We’ve only had one, and that was Nexus in 2000. Shame on us. We have our eye on a few. We’ll see what transpires for 2007.”
Progression: Any changes in store for the festival in ‘07 that people should know about?
Hutchinson: “Not that I can think of. I am going to lobby the Bethlehem Brew Works to actually brew a special beer for us next year. They were great with the NEARFest Special Bitter this year, though it was essentially their house ESB with our name on it. Nonetheless, it was really cool of them to welcome us like that.”
Progression: As long as we’re on the subject of consumables, some folks weren’t pleased with the caterer that was charging $7 for three fried chicken fingers. Do you see any improvements there?
Hutchinson: “Well, I can’t do anything about that guy’s prices, but I am planning on getting him some competition next year. We need another one or two outside food vendors out there. It was a little tougher this year with all the construction going on at Zoellner [the arts center venue on the Lehigh University campus, where the festival occurs].”
Progression: Excellent idea. So, what can people expect to be seeing in the way of CDs and DVDs from the festival, this year and past years?
Hutchinson: “We just released Steve Roach from 2005. I’ve had immediate interest from FM to put out their set, but I need to stay on those guys about it. Niacin and Keith Emerson have shown interest in buying their multi-track recordings, but I’m not sure of the intent of each of those bands. Niacin may consider a NEARFest Records release, and I know that Emerson’s management originally talked about wanting to get a live DVD out of the NEARFest performance. We will be releasing a NEARFest 2005 DVD, hopefully yet this year, with Studio M. We have a few bands to wrangle in, but we’ll get ‘em. It’s more formalities and technical stuff at this point. We filmed again in hi-def this year, so we’ll work on a NEARFest 2006 DVD at some point soon, too.”
Progression: How many discs will the NEARFest 2005 DVD have? Do you expect some bands to be left out?
Hutchinson: “At this point, it will be one DVD, with about 15-20 minutes per band, on average. We think we’ll get everyone except Steve Roach actually, but his music will back the on-screen menus. He didn’t want to be part of the video due to the fact that the guy who created his backdrop movies recently passed away, and he’s not comfortable going to the family and asking for permission to use the footage on the DVD.”
Progression: Will we ever see any of the bands’ full performances on DVD?
Hutchinson: “Kenso and IQ are releasing theirs.”
Progression: And you mentioned that Keith Emerson might as well.
Hutchinson: “That was their initial intent. I can’t speak for them.”
Progression: So that one would come out on their own label, not yours, if it does, correct?
Hutchinson: “Right. We also hope to get Anglagard to agree to release their set from 2003. There’s a big petition going to suppor that effort.”
Progression: Let’s focus on that Anglagard release for a moment. Is that for DVD or CD? And why is a petition necessary? Who is doing the petition?
Hutchinson: “CD, NEARFest ‘03 was not filmed. I’ve approached the band numerous times about a CD release and each time they’ve nicely declined due to reasons related to their personal satisfaction with the performance. Anglagard’s unofficial web master, Jutze, set up the petition. It’s been promoted by a guy named Steve on the Progressive Ears web site, as well as Frank Stickle.”
Progression: Do you feel the petition will make a difference? How many signatures so far?
Hutchinson: The petition is run by Johannes Schult, and currently has 1035 signatures. It’s at http://www.petitiononline.com/anglagar/petition.html.”
Progression: What was the band’s problem with its performance?
Hutchinson: “Typical artistic complaints — flubs, gaffes, etc.”
Progression: Rob mentioned concern over it becoming harder and harder to find headline bands for this festival. Do you share that worry?
Hutchinson: “Yes, I do. We have a lot of seats to fill. If the lineup doesn’t have the pull to fill those seats, we could lose money, and a sizable headliner is a big contributor to that. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe ticket buyers just want a solid lineup. It’s hard to gauge. Maybe your readers can e-mail us with their thoughts. Based on the crowd this year, that may be more the case, which would settle our nerves a little bit.
“Again, we’re not in this for money; it’s about the music. However, losing money is a bad thing.”
Progression: Did the pre-show with Hatfield and the North and the Tony Levin Band sell out this year?
Hutchinson: “No, I think the tally was 880.”
Progression: And the capacity is how many?
Hutchinson: “1002, so it was 88 percent filled. Not bad, really! I was happy.”
Progression: Do you think there might come a time where you do away with the pre-show and use those acts for your headliners?
Hutchinson: “Not necessarily. There are some bands that the festival can’t afford. There are also bands like PFM that don’t want to be on a festival lineup, but want to play a show in the U.S. The festival comes first and foremost. The pre-show gets a different consideration.”
Progression: So you’re settled on the number of bands in the three-day lineup at this point in time?
Hutchinson: “Well, NEARFest will be 10 acts. The pre-show has more flexibility. We did one band, The Musical Box, in 2004, and two for ‘05 and ‘06. Before that, we only organized one pre-show and that was in 2000 with Echolyn and Priam. That was before Progressive Arts [the independent NEARFest-related organization which sponsors the pre-show] was formed, too.”
Progression: One thing people have wondered about is why the vending areas must be closed during the solo spotlight sets. Might you reconsider that policy? Those seem to be more “intermission” performances that a lot of people skip anyway.
Hutchinson: “No. The vendors are all fans and all have tickets. They want to see the shows too.”
Progression: Have you set dates for next year yet?
Hutchinson: “Yes, June 23-24, 2007.”
Progression: When will the full lineup be announced, and who has been signed so far?
Hutchinson: “We don’t announce the lineup as a whole. We announce who has been signed as we go. So far, La Maschera di Cera from Italy, Indukti from Poland, Pure Reason Revolution from England, Izz from the U.S. and Nebelnest from France have been announced. We have talks going on with five or six other bands at the moment.”
Progression: How about a Pink Floyd reunion?
Hutchinson: “Wanna cough up a few hundred grand?”
Progression: It seems you guys are doing quite well …
Hutchinson: “You think the show makes a lot of money?!”
Progression: Care to share any of that info?
Hutchinson: “Well, I won’t give you exact numbers.”
Progression: Suffice to say that you’re running in the black and are confident of signing a solid lineup each year, correct?
Hutchinson: “Fair to say, yes.”
Progression: So, when do tickets go on sale?
Hutchinson: “Let it be known that if we feel we have surplus in the budget, we try to feed it back into the production. Tickets will go on sale in March. An exact date will be announced later on.”
Progression: You and Rob compensate yourselves for your time and effort, right?
Hutchinson: “Very little.”
Progression: How much sleep did you get over the weekend?
Hutchinson: “Funny you should ask. Thursday was good, maybe eight hours. Friday not so good, about four. Saturday about six. Then Sunday, the cold that my wife and son had got a hold of me. Around dinner time I felt all my energy get sucked out of me. I was under a blanket for all of Emerson’s set. After the show, I had a whole half a beer, very unlike me, and went to bed before the parties around 1:30 a.m. with severe chills. I slept about nine hours and felt a little better on Monday. I’m still very disappointed about not being able to hang out with everyone Sunday night. That’s the one festivity of the year that I really look forward to.”
Progression: Where were you sitting under a blanket?
Hutchinson: “Row A, dead center. Bright red blanket.”
Progression: OK, we’re about done. I’m wondering, with the fact that this festival has sold out for eight straight years, do you think it is getting the mainstream notoriety it should? Have the newspapers and national press outside of the prog community taken notice?
Hutchinson: “No, I don’t. I’d love to see this music get more attention. Very little mention of NEARFest has made the small smattering of prog-rock articles in the mainstream music mags.”
Progression: But it does seem that awareness of progressive music, in general, is growing. Would you agree?
Hutchinson: “Awareness of the term, not so much the music that defines it. Bands like Radiohead, Tool, Sigur Ros, etc., have had the word ‘progressive’ thrown around in reviews and feature articles, but bands that define that scene — like a lot of the bands NEARFest features — do not get the attention they deserve. Therefore the general public is not aware of them.”
Progression: There does seem to be hope, however, with bands like Porcupine Tree, The Mars Volta and Pure Reason Revolution holding their own.
Hutchinson: “Porcupine Tree straddles the line — great band, but not typical prog-rock. Mars Volta reminds me more of punk at times. I personally don’t get them. Pure Reason Revolution is great. We’ll see where they go.”
Progression: Anything else you’d like to make folks aware of?
Hutchinson: “NEARFest.com is getting a major overhaul. Other than that, stay tuned for more band announcements as well as the NEARFest ‘05 DVD!”
Progression: “OK, Chad, thanks. And congratulations on a terrific edition in ‘06. It’s running like clockwork at this point.
Hutchinson: “Thanks John.”