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Progressive Rock Concert Reviews

Iona

Live in Bethlehem, PA (NEARFest, 2010), June 2010

Review by Julie Knispel

English band Iona took the Zoellner Arts Center stage on 19 June 2010 as the third of four bands scheduled for the first full day of NEARfest 2010.

Compared to other bands that have played the festival in the past, Iona seems a bit of an off-center choice.  While their music can certainly offer up some flights of instrumental fancy, much of their material tends to have a much more laid back, gentle, moody feel.  Their material has a Celtic or Irish feel to it, but it’s more a flavouring rather than a distinct constant element of their sound.  Finally, they are openly and unrepentantly a Christian band; while their lyrics and material certainly don’t push into areas more typically embraced by Neal Morse, it is an important part of who they are as people and who they are as musicians.

It is the gentler, moodier feel of their material that I think would be their biggest stumbling block, especially following on from Astra and Forgas Band Phenomenon, who performed before them.  Leading in to Three Friends, the band featuring two former members of Gentle Giant, was no cherry picked position on the bill as well.  They had a lot to overcome right from the outset.

Fortunately for them, they do have a few aces up their sleeves.  First, band founder Dave Bainbridge is an excellent keyboardist and guitarist, filling their songs with lush orchestrations and washes of colour.  New member Martin Nolan shone on whistles and uilleann pipes; I actually wish he’d had greater opportunity to step out on the pipes, because their distinctive sound is one not often heard in progressive rock music (or rock music in general). Frank Van Hessen is a fluid and understated drummer, but he really shone on violin, of all things.  We’re so used to seeing drummers singing, or even handling lead vocals from behind the kit, but when is the last time you saw a drummer break out a violin and actually play it fluently?  It’s probably been a very long time, if ever. Phil Barker has a warm bass tone, and while his playing wasn’t blazingly fast, he played what was right for the song, subsuming his talents for the betterment of the piece.


Bill Knispel
 
Bill Knispel
   
Then there’s Joanne Hogg.

At a festival where instrumental prowess seems to be the dish of the day, it’s not often that singers get singled out for special praise.  Mostly, I find, prog fans will take just about anyone on stage if they sing without making a fool of themselves, and I can count maybe 10 performers, 12 tops, where the singer was every bit as important as the band that was playing behind him.  Joanne Hogg is one of them.  Her vocals are alternately slightly smoky and crystal clear, singing in a warm, inviting tone that is calming and immensely satisfying and beautiful.  She also contributes acoustic guitar and additional keyboards to the mix in a sort of singer-songwriter manner.  In so many ways, hers was the vocal performance of the festival.  She was also incredibly funny, rolling out stories about the trip over, their experiences live in the UK and in the US in the past.  She gently ribbed new member Martin Nolan, who apparently has a bit more of a pub band kind of experience playing, and he gave back as good as he got.


Bill Knispel
     
It was one of her stories that really comes to the point of their performance.  She talked about how Iona isn’t necessarily a typical prog band, and I think that her comments belied a bit of concern over how they were going to come across to an audience that would be expecting mile a minute guitar solos, Wakeman-esque keyboard flourishes, and 25 minute dueling drum solos.  For some people (myself included), this actually drew my attention more to the fact that the majority of their set had been quieter, more restrained pieces, rather than drawing attention away from it.  It’s a similar, but opposite, situation to one that I think plagued Mike Keneally’s set in 2004; he instead picked a collection of his quirkiest, cleverest pieces, rather than just playing a Mike Keneally set.

The band’s set drew from albums throughout their career, including tracks from their first, self-titled album from 1990, but opened with a pleasant improv and an emotional take on the traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision.”  There would be little doubt that the band would change up their material for the audience; thankfully save for the comments and stories, they played this as an Iona concert.  Oddly, they played nothing from what is perhaps their best known album, The Book of Kells.  For a lot of North American fans, …Kells was the album that introduced Iona, and the absence of pieces from that release was noticeable.


Bill Knispel
     
They more than made up for it by pulling the longest composition, “Encircling,”off Journey Into the Morn.  An 11-minute long battle prayer, it offered some glimpses of Iona in a much more progressive songwriting style, including shifting moods, tempo changes, and a lot of dramatics.  I know it impressed a lot of the audience.  Unfortunately, it proved to be one of a select few moments where the band really seemed to “rock out,” and by the time they worked in more of the “traditional” sounding reels and jogs that I think a lot of people were expecting, it might have been a bit late.

In the end, I’m not sure how many new Iona fans the band made at NEARfest.  Those who didn’t bite are missing out, as the band’s studio albums do have much to offer, assuming a willingness to put expectations aside and listen to them for what they are…emotional and personal albums filled with insightful lyrics and smouldering music.  One hopes that enough of the audience was willing to do just that.  Time will tell.

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Bill Knispel
     
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.
You'll find concert pics of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
 
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