NEARFest: The North East Art Rock Festival, Photos and Memories
The North East Art Rock Festival, commonly called NEARFest, was an annual progressive rock music festival that held its first Festival in 1999 and its last in 2012 (though the 2011 Festival was cancelled). The Festival was typically held at the Zoellner Arts Center on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania over a three day period (Friday night through Sunday night) at or around the last weekends of June. Aside from Lehigh University, it was held twice at the Patriots Theater at the Trenton War Memorial in Trenton, New Jersey (2002, 2003), and once at Foy Hall at the Moravian College (1999).
As my readers know, I am a big progressive rock fan and when I learned that there was a reputable progressive rock festival in more-or-less my backyard (I am in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), I had to check it out. Unfortunately, I missed the first Festival in 1999 but I did go to the second one in 2000 and every one after that. Not knowing what to expect, I did not bring a camera to the first one, nor did I stay overnight. I quickly learned that even though Bethlehem and Philadelphia are reasonably close to one another, they are far enough away to make an overnight stay worth it if one intends to spend two consecutive long days there. The Festival began as a Saturday/Sunday event (11am to about 11pm each day) but quickly expended to Friday evening as well. At first the Friday evening portion was presented by a different entity than NEARFest (though controlled by roughly the same people), eventually NEARFest itself expanded to include Fridays as well. The schedule for each year was similar though tweaked as the years passed. At first the event was five bands per day (with two or possibly three on the Friday night). After experiencing serious delays between bands due to set up and whatnot (especially obscenely long waits at the Trenton shows for the headline acts) the lineup went down to four bands and a solo feature on Saturdays and Sundays, but even that was problematic and the lineup was diminished ultimately to four bands per day, which progressed rather smoothly.
The music presented at the Festival was top notch. Even in the earliest years the headline bands were reasonably well known. As the years passed, the Festival was able to book headline bands that were classic and very, at one time, popular. Although I loved getting to see some classic prog rock bands, bands which I never thought I would be able to see because I am too young to have seen them in their hey day and/or they’ve been broken up for years, part of the great allure of the Festival for me, musically speaking, was the fact that a lot of new and/or modern prog rock bands would be featured each year; bands which I would not really ever have opportunity to hear or discover otherwise. Very quickly it became a tradition for me to look for two or three CDs to purchase from new bands each year which I could go on to enjoy and watch for years into the future.
One of the great features of the Festival was that its organizers tried very hard to get a band or musician which represented most of the various sub-genres to prog rock so all of its fans could find music that is within his own brand of prog rock preferences. So, each Festival included a spectrum of prog rock sub-genres like Canterbury scene, progressive metal, avant-garde progressive rock, symphonic rock, Wagnerian rock, neo-progressive rock, space rock, krautrock, zeuhl, Italian progressive rock, Art rock, hard rock, ambient, Berlin School, arena rock, Rock in Opposition, progressive house, avant-garde, experimental rock, jazz fusion, Psychedelic rock, progressive pop, baroque pop, and progressive folk.
Although we did not stay overnight in 2000, the environment was so intimate and wonderful that it led me to want to stay overnight the next years regardless of the travel times. Starting with the second Festival, I had the good fortune to attend every Festival thereafter (and got tickets for the one that was cancelled), usually getting pretty similar seats each year. As much as I loved the music at the Festivals, the people, the location, the environment, and the event itself became just as much of a draw for me as the music. My Uncle Jim went with me almost every year and, of course, I enjoyed the opportunity to spend a couple of days of quality time with him each year as well. The locale around Lehigh University was quaint, quiet, safe, and walkable. Not only did the Festival attendants explore the town, so did all of the merchants and musicians and other Festival workers as well.
The University is in a little town with a lot of local quaint eateries and grassy areas that makes it enjoyable simply to walk around and explore. Against this backdrop was the relatively new and attractive Festival theater which seated a little more than 1000 spectators (I think it maxes at 1002 seats). At about 1000 seats, there really was not a bad seat in the house, though I usually got the last two seats at the end of the third or fourth row each year. After the first few Festivals, NEARFest offered a “patron program” which, for about three times a typical seat price, one could get an “advance” ticket and get seats selected by lottery, with the the cost above a typical seat being a tax deductible charitable donation (NEARFest was a non-profit organization).
Within the theater building were multiple rooms and common areas. Some these rooms and areas were occupied by multiple merchants selling music and related items. At least one room was always reserved for art. In addition to the bands, NEARFest always featured at least one prog rock artist. Roger Dean, notably the artist for Yes, Asia, and others, attended the vast majority of the festivals, but so did Paul Whitehead, and Mark Wilkinson. Each designed the logo for the Festival for the years they attended. In addition, Renaissance vocalist Annie Haslam sold her art work as well at a handful of festivals. Aside from the merchant rooms, the common areas in the theater, and sometimes at a few locations immediately outside it, other merchants and musicians would peddle there wares as well. I remember one year the musician known as Second Sufis played looping guitars outside the theater and another year a band member from Starcastle was promoting their reformation.
Of course, each band had a table in one of the rooms or areas to promote themselves and this, I think, is one of the best and most unique parts of the Festival. People could meet, talk to, get autographs from, and purchase things from the bands directly. The band members often strolled around the theater and the campus and sometimes at the various eateries nearby. In fact, in 2001 I remember I had the opportunity to eat breakfast one table away from Tony Levin at the local Perkins; that was a real treat (for me, not so much for him, I’m sure)! At some point, fairly early on I think, the Bethlehem Brew Works somehow got associated with the Festival and became a hang out for attendees, and they eventually started making a special craft beer dedicated to the festival each year.
A couple of blocks away from the theater was the Comfort Suites, which is where the bands and the Festival workers would stay. This hotel had the advantage of having a bar and that bar would hold the after party each night, generally DJed by the prog rock program Gagliarchives. Many of the musicians from the Festival would attend the after party and interact with their fans. Of course, if one stayed in the hotel, the bar was an excellent feature as one could – shall I say – imbibe with abandon and not have to drive anywhere. I was not always able to get a room there, but I did for at least half the Festivals or so, which was no easy task. Once the people running the Festival realized that the rooms would be booked by fans rather quickly, it would reserve the entire place and only slowly would rooms become available when the Festival determined it did not need them. A couple of times I was only lucky enough to squeak in a room at that point, which caused me to change my approach. I would make a reservation for every weekend in June and July for the following year the day after the Festival (or as soon as the they took reservations that far in advance) in order to ensure I had a room the next year.
Of course, what really made the Festival fun were the other people. As the years passed, the Festival developed “regulars” who, like me, where there year after year and we started getting to know each other and “catch up” like old friends at each Festival. It was great arriving on Friday night and looking for those familiar faces and to try and find them in between sets or at the bar(s) to see how their lives had been over the previous year. Even the guys who founded and ran the show were always out and about and accessible. The camaraderie and fun I had with my Uncle and all the other people are perhaps what I miss most about the Festival. There are few places in the world where you can find 1000+ hard core prog rock fans, but NEARFest was one of them. About a year ago one of the NEARFest founders posted on Facebook that he allowed the NEARFest corporate documents to expire, which means NEARFest as a corporate entity is no more. For him, I am sure it was more meaningful, but even for me that was a sad day. It meant something that was a part of my life for 12 years was gone and I miss it, especially this time of year. I do hope for an anniversary, say 5 or 10 years, after the last NEARFest someone can organize another one for old times’ sake.
So, in recognition of all of the great times I had at NEARFest, and in honor of it being clearly the greatest of all prog rock festivals, over the next several weeks (maybe months), I will be posting various photographs, memories, and other materials from each Festival I attended. I hope my readers enjoy it and I hope they bring back great memories for those who have been a part of NEARFest.