Published on 28th December 2019
The Musician, Leicester
29th November to 1st December 2019
For the uninitiated, Danfest is a prog festival invented, curated and promoted by Danny Mayo, so how the festival gets its name is a complete mystery! But seriously, any fans of new and interesting progressive music within striking distance of the East Midlands generally, or Leicester in particular, should really give this festival a go. There’s always something familiar, always something new, and it’s always intimate, friendly and fun – and there’s proper beer! I couldn’t be there on day two as I had a sixtieth birthday to celebrate with family, so apologies to those bands who played on Saturday, but here is a taste of how this year’s event went on the opening and concluding days.
Day 1 – In The Beginning…
This band hail from Stoke, and I’ve never heard of them, but that is about to change. Kicking off the festival on Friday evening is perhaps not an enviable task. Will folk turn up early enough to catch the first band? Well, it seems the answer is yes, as there’s a fair few fans here, and Encircled are a good choice of opener, with their brand of accessible neo-prog-pop. Is that a thing? It is now. There are definite proggy shades here and there, but also some ’80s pop and indy edge which is quite appealing. Guitarist and singer Busby (I think that’s how he’s referred to) isn’t very imposing to look at, but he has a strong voice and presence which commands attention, while the songs are melodic and memorable, not outstaying their welcome.
The one lengthy effort whose title I can’t recall provided some real prog credentials, with interesting mood and tempo changes throughout its span, and it hung together well. I haven’t a clue what it was about, and in fact Busby pretty much suggested as much when introducing the piece, but nevertheless it was a mesmeric few minutes, and on the strength of this performance, I’ll be investigating further. A good start.
Gareth Evans – Guitar
Scott Evans – Bass
Mark ‘Busby’ Burrows – Guitar, Vocals
Conor Chambers – Drums
The Emerald Dawn
After a short break, The Emerald Dawn amble onstage looking every bit as though they have just arrived from Stonehenge welcoming the Winter solstice three weeks early! Well, nearly actually, they played Glastonbury the day before to be accurate, in their first gig outside Cornwall, so Leicester must seem like a bit of a trek for them. Ok, it’s not like they’re wearing bells around their ankles and flowers in their hair, but they are obviously in tune with Mother Earth. To be honest, it’s as well that someone is, given the state of the world, but just as I was girding my loins for an onslaught of hippy nonsense, what we actually get is a swathe of slightly dark and moody keyboard-lead music which is rather captivating, evoking Dartmoor at dusk perhaps? The striking young lady on keys is called Tree apparently, and she leads the band through a few selections from the most recent release Nocturne. Much of the music, but not all, is instrumental, and the songs tend to be quite lengthy explorations, with Alan Carter providing guitar and sax, the whole underpinned by David Greenaway’s bass and Tom Jackson’s drums. The result unlike anything else I can put my finger on; they remind me of Greenslade one moment, and Caravan the next, then there are classical overtones and almost folky bits. Overall, there are enough ideas going on to convince me they have more than a little originality to offer. The audience seem particularly taken with them, and I agree, they are worth checking out. During their improvised moments, it’s heartening to see them pushing themselves to the edge of their comfort zones. Sometimes it works and occasionally not, but they aren’t afraid to experiment rather than play safe, which is highly commendable. We need this mob to venture beyond the West Country more often in the future, and given this reception, I’m sure they will.
Tree Stewart – Keyboards, Vocals
Alan Carter – Guitar, Saxophone, Vocals
David Greenaway – Bass
Tom Jackson – Drums
Headlining the first night of Danfest is the first band I’ve seen before, Hekz. I caught them about four years ago supporting John Mitchell’s Lonely Robot, and they impressed me with their extremely youthful exuberance and hard-hitting prog metal. To be fair, they are probably more metal than prog, but some of the more intricate and involved songs have very definite prog leanings. Well, four years or so on, and they are still youthful, still exuberant, but they do seem to have acquired a more rounded and accomplished sound. Visually, as soon as they hit the stage, Matt Young commands attention, asserting himself totally. Wearing his microphone as he pounds his bass, he is unencumbered and free to roam. The twin lead guitars of Al Beveridge and Tom Smith are both savage and melodic at turns, not unlike Maiden in approach, and the songs are accessible and memorable. Kirk Brandham is rock solid on drums, but with a lightness of touch when necessary, and the band is completed by Mauro Zarattini on both modern and traditional keyboard sounds. For someone like me who was raised on metal, this is great stuff indeed. Not particularly original for the most part, but well played, and their enthusiasm is infectious. If they can maybe diversify a little to bring a new slant to this formula going forward, they could make headway. There’s no doubting the talent this young band have, and their love of the music shines out. Towards the end of the set, Matt announces The Black Hand, a song I remember from the previous show, and one of their strongest tracks. I head into the night with a smile on my face, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
Matt Young – Bass, Vocals
Al Beveridge – Guitar
Tom Smith – Guitar
Mauro Zarattini – Keyboards
Kirk Brandham – Drums
Day 3 – Cut To The Chase…
Eyes of Albion
As I arrive, having negotiated the busy Sunday Leicester traffic, Eyes of Albion are cranking out some energetic psychedelic rock to kick start the entertainment on this final day of Danfest. It isn’t really what I was expecting. I thought with a name like that, they’d probably be some kind of Celtic-tinged folk prog, but you can’t judge a band by their name obviously! They’re a four-piece, basic guitar/bass/drums/vocals set up, but they come over like some kind of acid-drenched stoner band. The Eastern flavoured Experiment No.5 sounds like it would go down well in a Bedouin desert camp, accompanied by dubious inhaled substances. There are chanted mantras, fuzzed-up bass and slabs of reverb-heavy double-neck guitar action. It’s all quite effective and I find myself drawn in. Next song The Dreaming is a slow blues in contrast, and provides a welcome change of pace. Endearingly, they don’t take themselves too seriously, assuring us after a false start to one song that they ‘do know it really, having played it a hundred times’! They finish their set with a bit of a fuzzy epic complete with bowed guitar! These guys can play, the frontman is strong, and we are well entertained. Worth checking out.
Davy Clinton – Vocals
Robert Kemp – Guitars
Johnny Muzz – Bass
Andy Mullins – Drums
Viper Soup Complex
One of the reasons I always try to attend this lovely little festival is that every year without fail, a band I’ve never heard of turn out to be a real find, a diamond in the dirt just waiting to be discovered. This year it was Viper Soup Complex. Amazingly they had travelled all the way from Malta to play this one gig. If a band can be bothered to go to those lengths to give themselves some exposure, the least we can do is turn up and check them out, right? Well, those who did were treated to a stunning show, and I do mean show. Front lady Anne Marie Spiteri is not only a great singer, she’s also something of a mime artist, and I imagine Kate Bush must be an influence. The band are tight and dexterous, and endlessly inventive, playing some quite heavy jazz-tinged prog, while Anne Marie acts out the song stories, which are quite bizarre but mesmerising.
The band are clearly enjoying their moment, with drummer Melchior Busuttil beaming from behind his kit, having endeared himself to the crowd by wearing a Leicester City shirt! His playing is fluid with a lightness of touch one moment, and full of raw power the next. He could perhaps do with a few spare sticks, as he is reliant on keys man David Ciantar passing lost sticks back to him mid-song! Guitarist James Horton and bassist Michael Spiteri who write the music work well together, and never play the obvious it seems. The songs tend to be long but are utterly spellbinding. Anne Marie writes the lyrics, and quite what she’s on I’m not sure. Choking Swans is a case in point, during which she sings to the ‘swan’ (a feather boa) before turning on it and plucking the scarf apart in a tantrum. Having calmed down a bit, she then picks up the pieces and stuffs them into some kind of pouch she has around her neck. No, I’ve no idea either, but you can’t look away for a minute, and the music simply sweeps you away. This band are going places. Worth coming for the weekend for this act alone.
Anne Marie Spiteri – Vocals
Melchior Busuttil – Drums
David Ciantar – Keyboards
James Horton – Guitars
Michael Spiteri – Bass
Mother Black Cap
A replacement for an act which pulled out a month ago, Norfolk’s Mother Black Cap have been around for years, and are known to most of us. Their experience is quite telling, and they put in a very solid performance, with some lovely self-deprecating humorous banter from guitarist Martin Nico between songs. Their playing is more workmanlike than dazzling, but their brand of very English pastoral prog goes down well with an appreciative crowd. We even have crowd participation during the fun Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down, with bassist and singer Andy Bye wandering through the audience encouraging us to sing along. During one of the proggier numbers, there’s a mad midsection where Bob Connell plays some daft but nifty runs. Martin holds aloft a sign saying “This is the silly bit!”. Andy then holds up another saying “Even Supper’s Ready had a silly bit!” It’s a genuinely amusing moment, and I can’t help admiring their approach, even though it has all been done before! Considering they are playing with a stand-in drummer for this show who has only had two rehearsals, they are remarkably together, and I enjoy their set much more than I imagined I would.
Martin Nico – Guitars
Andy ‘Fizz’ Bye – Bass, Vocals
Bob Connell = Keyboards
Late sub whose name escapes me – Drums
Another prog friendly band with some history and pedigree is Jump. I’ve seen them a few times, and found them entertaining at HRH prog a couple of years back. They have some good songs written about real issues and real people delivered with conviction and honesty, and that counts for a lot. John Dexter Jones is an enigmatic frontman, all tall thin and angular with his regulation dark glasses and attitude! His song intros are legendary, and he comes over rather like a Welsh Fish! One of his stories involves Fish actually and is both funny and touching. Anyway, the music is tight but comfortable, with the sort of empathy between players which only really happens with heavy gigging. The Danfest attendees love them, and could probably have listened to them all night.
There’s a special mention for bassist Mark Pittam who is apparently moving on to pastures new after this show, which is a pity, as he has a deft touch, but it’s guitarists Ronnie Rundle and Steve Hayes who take most credit for the tasteful solos and licks, ably backed up by Mo on keys and Andy Barker on drums. I believe they are booked for next year’s Summer’s End, and they’ll go down well there I know. Great band who deserve a bigger following.
John Dexter Jones – Vocals
Mark Pittam – Bass
Mo – Keyboards
Ronnie Rundle – Guitars
Steve Hayes – Guitars
Andy Barker – Ddrums
We’re running late. Technical issues have been causing Kyros problems well before they hit the stage, and when they do finally launch themselves into their opener, it seems Adam Warne’s vocals are way too low in the quiet sections. It’s a problem I assume will be quickly remedied, but it isn’t really. Nevertheless, when playing full tilt, as is often the case, they sound much better. There’s no doubting the musicianship and daring sense of adventure in their songs for sure, and we are treated to a couple of new songs tonight which auger very well for their next album, which I assume will emerge next year. Similarly, the selections from their last masterpiece Vox Humana are dazzling in scope and ambition. Adam’s writing is never obvious or easy, but hugely rewarding to repeated listening, and his international band are stylish and masterful in interpreting the music.
Mid-set we have another disaster, with some backing sounds sadly and inexplicably packing up, causing a calamitous and quite lengthy break in proceedings, and earlier momentum is all but lost, but most of us stick with the band as they battle the gremlins, and eventually we can resume. To be fair, although it must be frustrating, the band seem to take it in their stride and carry on stoically. Given the circumstances, I can’t say they were as impressive as at Summer’s End two years ago, but they certainly did enough to convince that they are a force to be reckoned with, and deserve to be heard.
Adam Warne – Vocals, Keyboards
Joey Frevola – Guitars
Peter Episcopo – Bass
Robin Johnson – Drums
And so another Danfest concludes, and it has to be said it’s a lovely little celebration of underground progressive-friendly rock. Hats off to everyone involved in making it happen, and when you’re planning your gigs around the beginning of December next year, just bear in mind this event will be celebrating its tenth year; worth thinking about folks.
All photos by Stan Siarkiewicz (Progpics by StanS), used with his kind permission.
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