Uploaded to Aural Innovations: April 2004
Having made the very worthwhile journey to central Germany to see a reunited Nektar perform in front of many thousands at Burg Herzberg 2003, I knew that a simple 40-minute train ride to catch Nektar once more was a no-brainer. Winterthur is a small city just on the other side of Zürich from my current home, and the Gaswerk club is a place where many interesting bands have come to play in recent days. Previously, I'd only seen concerts in the smaller Foyer room that comfortably holds no more than 150 or so. The bigger hall just a few feet away looks to accept 300-400, and the show was advertised to have taken place there. Which would have made perfect sense, especially since it also features a very high ceiling and a high-tech lighting rig permanently installed, which would have made for a nice lightshow (something that Nektar has championed since the early days, of course).
Thus it was a surprise to me when I arrived at the club to find a stage-full of equipment on the Foyer stage. For a minute I thought that it must mean that the opener would play here and Nektar next door, but then I entered the larger hall to only find the bar (the smaller one in the Foyer was shoved aside to create more standing room) and the merchandise table, the stage showing a noticeable lack of music gear of any kind. I inquired to the guy behind the table, and learned that it wasn't their (Nektar's) idea, but rather the club's, based on lower-than-expected pre-show ticket sales I surmised. Well, I admit to being initially disappointed (no lightshow forthcoming), and the advertised opening band scrapped... but by the end of the night, I had forgotten all that. Nektar proved to me in no uncertain terms that they can be both a wildly successful Open-Air festival headlining "big band" and also a stipped down 4-piece "bar band." So the atmosphere on this night couldn't have been different than that of July 2003, but one thing was constant... great music performed by a phenomenally-tight and talented progressive rock band. Oh, and the other good thing about being crammed into the tiny Foyer was that the main show (effectively) started earlier and I got to see all 2 hours and 15 minutes of it, before hurrying out the exit to catch the last train back home.
The setlist promised a few 'new' pieces added to last year's set as well, though in the end some of them were cut out (e.g., "That's Life") because it was already plenty long I guess. Naturally, having them recreate (in two separate parts, four songs removed) the entire "Remember the Future" album was a highlight of the night. But when you add this in with the 20-minute "Tab in the Ocean" piece as an opener, it leaves you with less options of what else you can cover, even in two hours. But I wouldn't have suggested them to shorten them artificially... the pieces are so well-crafted and full of wonderful variety, that to excerpt (or "medley-fy") them I think would be a mistake. Same can be said of the closing number, "Recycled," which suffered a bit here in the club environment without the orchestral keyboards and supporting cast from last year, but it nevertheless provided a climactic finish.
My opinion of Roye Albrighton has always been very high, but until recently I had no way of knowing firsthand what sort of live performer he was. On this night, he proved to me to be one of the all-time greats. His guitar-playing was outstanding at every turn, light and nimble during the 'spacey' passages, and then suddenly rough and dirty when the riffs kicked in. And the newly-revived "Preacher" from "Sounds Like This" showed off a more high-energy bluesy style that was also a staple of the long Nektar saga, partly forgotten amongst the better known 'proggy' works. And this really came off especially well in the club environs.
The other members were also up to the task on this night. Bassist Mo Moore recently retired from the band due to personal reasons (he's staying involved with the reissues, etc., though), but newcomer Randy Denbo has already stepped up to be a perfect fit. In fact, he played everything virtually identically to how it was on the original albums. I might have found that less interesting than having a more 'personal' touch, but I think he'll have that to show off soon enough, once the new album is out with his contribution included. Keyboardist Taff Freeman was travelling with just a pair of digital synths in lieu of a true organ, but managed to have them mimic well enough the old 'analog' sound. And importantly, he wasn't at all being lost in the mix, which had been a problem on the festival stage. And drummer Ron Howden... I hadn't made much notice of him at Burg Herzberg to be honest (probably because he was so far back from the front of the stage), but here you could almost reach across Albrighton's guitar and shake his hand. And he was also very impressive, and I was surprised to note that he did some vocal contributions at one point (as did Taff a few times). Howden looks every bit like one of those original Apollo astronauts (I imagine a border guard examining his papers and thinking "rock musician" unlikely), and indeed he still seems to have "The Right Stuff." He seemed to be drumming effortlessly, like the music had always been part of him since the day it was made and he was just doing it all from rote memory. Which I guess is probably true.
The other surprise was the triple-loading of tracks from the 'Man in the Moon' album that signalled the end of Nektar's (original) career, the first two done in a more acoustic style but the title track performed as a very powerful and dynamic piece. I think this album is a bit underrated, and so I was happy to hear the quiet and introspective "Telephone," though it came across a little awkwardly as Roye had altered the phrasing and it seemed to trip up the others at the outset. More aggressive guitar work was heard during the excellent "King of Twilight," done separately this time from its 'intro' piece "Crying in the Dark." With a full two-hour set already under their belt, Nektar understandably offered just "Fidgety Queen" up as an encore. To say the least, the band has never been a 'singles' act, so there's no obvious choice in this spot (quite refreshing, I must say!). But I think something like "Do You Believe in Magic" would have been appropriate and nice to hear (or even "Astral Man," to note something else from 'Down to Earth'). And next time they come around, I'm going to lobby (ahead of time) for *something* from 'Journey to the Centre of the Eye,' and especially "The Dream Nebula/It's All in the Mind." But for now, I'll be content with the fact that Nektar put on a brilliant show, maybe the very best show I've seen in such an intimate environment. Qualitatively, there wasn't anything here that wouldn't have measured up in a football stadium (see Floyd, Pink). So, what a great opportunity it was to be so 'up-close and personal' to the performance, as if I'd hired them to play in my own living room. And rather than seem 'put out' by the cramped stage and relatively few patrons, instead Nektar seemed all the more energized, just as we did. Which means maybe they'll decide to come back, even (?)... I hope so!
A word about the merchandise... in addition to the RTF-design tour shirts and the excellent NEARFest DVD, the table also offered brand new CD versions of a few of their classic albums. I had never replaced my old vinyl copy of 'Recycled,' and so I picked this one up, plus the new improved reissue of 'Journey...', the first and arguably most 'space-rock' album of Nektar's discography. Both come with a "5.1 Surround Sound" mix, but are some sort of hybrid disc that is playable on any system, big or small. I won't write full reviews, because I lack any such system to play more than two channels. But it's not surprising that the band is embracing this advanced technology to present their music in a new way, given that they had made quadrophonic versions of their albums even in the 70s. Whether or not these releases are (partly) derived from those old quad mixes or completely new, I can't say (I didn't catch that in the liner notes). The most interesting thing is the alternative "Geoff Emerick" mix of the 'Recycled' album, which is included here in its entirety. Wow, is this thing strange!! I have to say that I agree with the opinion of the band (in 1975) that it wasn't at all "right," such that it was done over in full. But it's a great thing to hear in retrospect and a wonderful idea to include it, not to diminish Emerick's name mind you, but just for historical purposes you might say. I still remember fondly Nektar-cohort Larry Fast's audio presentation at the very first NEARFest event in Bethlehem PA, when he 'lectured' (essentially) on how musical ideas evolve in the studio, sharing his experiences with Nektar and Peter Gabriel among others. Similarly, the new 'Recycled' follows up on this "behind the scenes" look.
Reviewed by Keith Henderson