From Aural Innovations #24 (July 2003)
Ah, the legendary Burg Herzberg! Or Boorg Hairz-bairg in 'American-phonetic' representation - I have to keep reminding myself how the proper German pronunciation of the letters go. Because otherwise, when you actually want to get yourself to the event, the locals wouldn't understand what it is of which you speak. "Castle Heart-Mountain" if you wish a simple translation. No matter that the event is no longer held at that original location which lent the fest its name (well, the spin-off "Cornberg" festival yet to come isn't held at Kloster Cornberg either, for that matter). But the festival organizers, the Think Progressive label headed up by Kalle Becker, managed to find another suitable location, in the vicinity of their homebase in Eisenach, for this 12th (or 13th?) and sadly final Burg Herzberg fest.
My trip there was a boring six-hour trainride via Basel (Switzerland) and Frankfurt, arriving in Eisenach on Friday around noon. There was something on the website about a shuttle bus to the festival grounds, but I neither saw nor heard anything about it at the station depot, but I managed to find a commercial one that went as far as Wilhelmsthal (the as-advertised host town). However, the actual grounds were a good 5 km further down the road, adjacent to the sleepy town of Eckardtshausen (I hope the residents *could* sleep!). So the weekend kicked off with a little backpacking trip, and with the help of two other wayward fest-hunters, I eventually located the bedouin city of some ten- to tens-of-thousands (hard to tell really) strewn across acres of freshly-harvested farmland. Coming in the back entrance, it was still some doing before I realized where the actual main gate was, and only then managed to gain official entry and find the small remaining open area for camping. Which was eventually filled to capacity, and more.
My temporary home seemed miles away from the stage (and impossible to ever locate once again), but there was a strange organization to what seemingly should have been chaos in the self-governing of the Tent City. With not a hint of hard-line intervention, festivalgoers themselves created impromptu rows and alleys through the fields, and certain caravans and tall flagpoles presented useful landmarks for navigation. No problem at all in the end, and I was near a row of port-a-potties, which was nice come morning light. The freshly-plowed loose dirt and 10 cm-high stubby stalks of straw made tent camping a bit less than ideal, but after a brief weeding session, my campsite became tenable and I was firmly entrenched by 2:30 Friday afternoon. I'd already missed all three bands from Thursday night of course, but I knew with as many as 16 bands to see in 48 hours, I might suffer from aural overkill as it was. And in the end, I'd miss Sunday's music program too (Karthago was a surprise late edition, which may have been interesting to stay for, but...), as that day was again for travel, and recuperation.
It was already a hot afternoon, and so by the time I'd gotten a cool drink to quest my thirst (and wash the inhaled dust down the pipe), I'd missed most of the set by Friday's opening act, a band called Elis (perhaps the only band I've ever seen from the principality of Liechtenstein!). They were a competent goth-flavored heavy rock band, with a female singer that could carry at least something of a tune. But also, their music just "laid there" rather lifelessly in the hot, motionless air, and with only a scattering of folks showing up that early, they really didn't have much of an opportunity to get things moving along. Next up were Sweden's Ritual, who entered onstage with five minutes of raga-like swirliness and such (the vocalist's wordless coos and chants decidedly feminine) but then continued straight into more standard metallic material. It was then I finally realized the singer was a guy. Again, their energy level didn't seem to penetrate far out beyond the stage, but then later it didn't matter as they put in a long section of acoustic "Bron-y-aur-ish" stuff to fill out most of their remaining time. However, but for one great cosmic-flavored jamming track entitled "Dinosaur Spaceship," I really didn't get much into Ritual's performance. But again, the heat may have had something to do with it.
Around 6 PM, it was beginning to cool off a little bit, but the stage was then set to heat up. American guitarist/vocalist Carvin Jones brought forth his blues trio (out of Phoenix, oddly enough) and cranked out about 90 minutes of standard numbers easily familiar to nearly all in the audience. The only question was... was he more a copy of Jimi Hendrix, or of Stevie Ray Vaughan? He had the looks of Hendrix and borrowed many of his antics, but then he was right-handed and strummed the rhythms a little more like Stevie. His repertoire overlapped heavily with both, and with the inevitable appearance of "Voodoo Chile" right near the end of his set, managed to cover both simultaneously. Well, anyway, not a hint of originality to be seen, but still he managed to penetrate the previously stagnant air with a blaze of riffs and reckless abandon upon the frets. And hence, an audience grew where little had been before previously, and Burg Herzberg was (for me) finally off and running.
However, not before a brief episode of banality. She's China, a band from Berlin that seems to have made quite some number of albums, played another 90 minutes of music with hardly so much as an interesting musical note or passage among them. Their songs were ordinary and flat (the vocalist had a voice to suit, though!), and most were padded by long repetitious run-on's of the main theme from the chorus or something (not as bad as 'Freebird' but you get the drift). And pathetic attempts at audience participation... ok, one time I can put up with, but three or four times really gets on my nerves. They did have a fair-sized contingent of fans that danced and sang along to their stuff, but I doubt they drew much interest from those who came to see the main acts. Ugh. And worst of all is that they all were dressed in psychedelic tie-dyes and such, and their amps were all painted up with Day-Glo, and yet here was this crap watered-down pop music.
OK, so that over with, we could now head to the main festivities of Friday night. To highlight the evening, Herzberg presented a pair of classic rock stalwarts from (many) days gone by, Ten Years After (thirty years later) followed by Vanilla Fudge. OK, I have to admit that going in I knew almost nothing of either of these (I'm sorry to suggest) 'second-tier' bands, apart from their (respective) lone American super-hit singles "I'd Love to Change the World" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On." But I did know that along with the name Ten Years After goes Alvin Lee, and so when I discovered that while the group boasted three original members, the one key person was not among them. Fill-in guitarist/vocalist (and 'younger guy') Joe Gooch was certainly a capable player, and perhaps he even could mimic Lee's style, I dunno. Like I said, I don't really know their old music. But all I can say is that there wasn't anything particularly noteworthy about the keyboards and rhythm section... so it was basically the Joe Gooch show. So, to me, I saw the Joe Gooch Band playing Ten Years After tunes. Which weren't bad... up-tempo blues rock with heaps of winding guitar solos. I see now that Alvin Lee tours with his own band full of hired hands behind him... interesting debate which act comes off as more "legitimate." More on this later.
Vanilla Fudge was completely intact on the other hand... the names Carmine Appice (D) and Tim Bogart (B) still within my state of recall given their post-Fudge power-trio formulation with Jeff Beck. The others (organist Mark Stein and guitarist Vince Martell) simply looked the right age to be 'vintage' but I still needed to look on the internet to confirm they were part of the original foursome. The Fudge did manage to put forward a powerful performance, and maybe after all these years of indifference and neglect, I should actually try to listen to their classic early albums one of these days. But then, since my introduction to Hawkwind in 1980 (and all things wild and alien soon thereafter), I haven't really bothered to delve deeper into the depths of classic (radio) rock, apart from the Deep Purple family tree. Appice, as a flashy, hard, and intricate percussionist in the vein of Terry Bozzio, is really the star of the band, though I think maybe he thinks so himself a little too much. And he's a bit too fond of his 'crashier' cymbals for my taste too. But anyway, I enjoyed their set just fine and I know there was another song or two in the set that I recognized (apart from the Donovan-penned "Season of the Witch," which I swear I can't ever remember hearing before, but I guess they made a popular cover version... frankly, I didn't care so much for it), but now I was getting tired from a long day of traveling and heat exhaustion. And so, just as they were firing into their finale song (I think), the aforementioned "YKMHO," I began to make my way up and over the hill towards my campsite. This was 2:05 AM already, and I knew I would be missing the final two acts of the night (or early morning I guess)... but really the schedule was only about 40 minutes behind at this point! I swear I could still hear them playing the encore even by the time I reached my tent somewhere beyond where the curvature of the Earth started to take effect. So both Living Blues and Adaro, the latter a German 'world music' group that might have been interesting to see (on another day), I was forced to forego for the sake of sleep and a clear head come morning.
The morning came early, too early... and when the sun rose high enough above the horizon (just after 8 AM), suddenly it was 40°C inside the tent, and one could no longer sleep in such conditions even with the flaps opened. So... luckily I had gotten six hours such that I could make it through most of a marathon Day Two. I bummed around all morning, browsing at CD vendors and sitting in the (cooler) woods with the book I brought (ironically, a Simak novel about eschewing technology in favor of a simple life where one takes the time to listen to the 'music trees'... and I was thinking that of all the possible uses for our 21st century technology, having a big non-commercialized rock festival in the middle of the countryside was probably the very best thing one could do). As I walked around the grounds, I was struck by the number of complete families that had come, but then because the organizers had gone to great lengths to have activities (playgrounds, puppet shows, etc.) for the kids, I guess it all made sense. I wish my parents had taken me to open-air rock festivals when I was a child, but I can't see my folks would have ever carted me off to Woodstock or anything. Oh, perhaps just as well.
The food court, that lay just off to the side of the oddly-shaped hill (that provided the natural amphitheatre for the music), had a nice selection of cuisine, especially for those vegen types that like Asian food and other things with funny names. But for me too, there was bratwurst, pizza and burritos to be had, plus the Slush-Eis stand that I frequented (to then be faced with the maddening battle of thirst vs. patience, in order to avoid those painful brainfreezes). It was a welcome sight to see a huge event like this be free of corporate banners and logos. The beer tent was supplied by the local and independent Schwalm Brauerei, and the security force by the Thüringer Stahlpakt. This biker gang looked like they may have been turned down as a Motörhead stage crew ("you guys make Phil Taylor look too pretty"), but then once I saw one of them strolling about with a triple-scoop ice cream cone, their appearance softened greatly. I knew then Altamont wasn't going to be breaking out anytime soon. Really, this whole festival had an atmosphere like... "we trust that everyone here is a responsible adult, and you're all free to go about your own business and do your own thing, and if everyone respects their neighbors, then we won't stand in your way." Though some people doing their 'own thing' I never figured out. This one guy (with helpers) spent all weekend stringing up line after line of colorful plastic tubing from one scaffolding over to the one with the sound equipment. For no bloody reason that I could imagine (I kept waiting for it to become *something*, but it didn't)... but it seemed to be what it was all about to him, and who was I to say it was pointless? I never observed a single moment of 'heaviness' the whole weekend, though I did notice the ambulance crew loading up somebody on a stretcher down near the main road late Saturday. Though that may have simply been a traffic accident of some kind, I can't say. I saw one or two Polizei strolling around inside the grounds once or twice, but they didn't seem to be bothering anybody and I don't even know if they were even looking to bust people for marijuana.
Alright, back to the music. Just as Friday's was, Saturday's line-up card had been jumbled up a time or two, arrows drawn here and there with a black magic marker on the poster board by the soundtower. The German band Trigon (say "tree-gone") had apparently been a no-show on Friday, so then were rescheduled to kick off Saturday's schedule, only to then get tied up in traffic and arrive late. So then Caravan stepped up to the plate and got themselves going by the 2 PM start time expected. Having these legendary proggers begin your day's event (while seemingly insulting) is sure to be a boost to early attendance numbers, and in fact a crowd perhaps five times the size of that from the previous day's opener had blossomed by set's end. Caravan is a band that I've quite liked for many years, and I was eager to see them play live finally. Some of their songs (especially the newer ones) were unfamiliar to me, and the lilting sweet ones aren't so particularly interesting. But even then, I do like Pye Hastings' singing voice, the sort of super-delicate voice that is like a pair of expensive champagne glasses that one is afraid to set out on the dinner table lest someone clink them together too hard. And while someone might have thrown Jon Anderson's name out there, I really can't come up with anyone else who really sounds like him. Anyway, for me, it was just important to cut to the chase and hear the two 'songs' that I was really waiting for... songs in quotes 'cause both are really extended suites that together amounted to about half the performance timewise. Of course, these are "Nine Feet Underground" and "For Richard" both of which they dutifully played to great acclaim and satisfaction from the crowd of four-figures (at least).
In both cases, Hastings (with at times help from lead guitarist Doug Boyle, ex-Robert Plant) really impressed me with the power of his dirtier guitar riffs, something that Caravan is hardly famous for but yet here they were. But then, partly that was due to me standing right in front of the enormous speaker towers on stage left, that were intended to throw sound outward some several hundreds of meters. Throughout both suites of course, were also the interplay of the solo instruments, including the various keyboards of Jan Schelhaas (who actually came into the group for Dave Sinclair way back in 1975) and the viola (and occasionally flute) of Geoff Richardson, in addition to Boyle's super-fluid leads. The rhythm section (Jim Leverton on bass and Richard Coughlan on drums) was flawless too, and Caravan hasn't seemed to skip a beat (unless it happened to actually be written into the score, that is) after all these years. On what was becoming a picture-perfect day (with a few big white puffy clouds that Richardson dubbed "Simpsons' Clouds" for obvious reasons), we were all treated to a really fine performance to bask in the sunshine. (Although the smart ones were trying to huddle in the few shaded areas, as it was getting rather hot again.)
The all-instrumental prog-metallish Trigon finally did pull up their van and were thrust into the mid-afternoon slot. To their credit, they were lighting quick putting their gear up and tearing it down, such that they were able to get their hour's worth of stage time without setting back the schedule. As on Friday, my mind just wasn't much interested in this sort of music in the middle of the afternoon, and would have preferred something 'happier' like reggae. So while I thought Trigon were talented players I really can't say I paid much attention. Especially since I went over to the food court to satisfy both hunger and thirst. I arrived back at the stage at some point during Wishbone Ash's set, another name I've known for years, but a band I know absolutely nothing about. I guess they've been going on for 30 odd years without stop, and with a constantly-evolving lineup that now only includes guitarist/vocalist Andy Powell from the band's early days. They had quite a big contingent of rabid fans as I rather expected, and one song in particular seemed to be their anthem of choice, perhaps it was "Blowin' Free" (that title seemed to ring a bell as I looked up some background info just now). A solid classic rock outfit that could hold their own in a jam contest, no doubt, but I was a little left out by not knowing a single song of theirs. So I found a nice shaded corner to sit and relax and just let the music soak in via osmosis.
Tony Joe White is a Louisiana-born bluesman who these days is based in Nashville, TN, and came onstage with a guitar in hand, a mounted harp around his neck and only Boom-Boom behind him on a drumkit. He sat in front of his mic and "Got Swampy" (in his words) for much of his set. So while most of the acts on this weekend were heavily tied to or derived from the blues, here we were hearing it in its truer "deltaic" form. A bit slowed down, and a bit gruff and grungy, with a hint of scowl in White's voice as one might expect. Good stuff. After a long set-change break that started to eat away at the intended schedule (at least we all got to enjoy the spectacular sunset!), Eric Burdon's New Animals finally alit upon the stage around 9-something. OK, here we had the reverse situation to last night's Ten Years After... the most recognized character of a famous old band fronting a group of unknown ringers. So no Hilton Valentine nor Alan Price (who were part of a reunion once in the early 80s), and obviously no Chas Chandler (d. 1996). But yet because of Burdon's voice, which amazingly was still quite strong and effective, the New Animals were no travesty but instead delivered a few goods. Physically though, I guess Burdon has not aged quite so well, as he started out sitting in a chair (doctor's orders, I'm sure it was). But still, after the first two songs, he spent most of his time on his feet. The set was kept pretty short, however, seemingly just over an hour, and so they mainly just hit upon the highlights from old British Invasion days. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" was partly overhauled into a reggae beat, which was at first odd, but actually worked rather well in the end. "Don't Bring Me Down" also was a high note, and they wrapped up with "House of the Rising Sun," which was no surprise to anyone.
Nektar's set-up also took quite some time, perhaps more understandable given that they had extra percussion, multiple keyboardists, and the lightshow to prepare. And they ended up playing nearly two hours I think, which really pushed the schedule far into the overnight hours (with still two bands to go). But I wasn't going to complain, as Nektar's appearance here was the one thing that brought me this far. After a hiatus of 25 years (since Roye Albrighton had first left the group), it was just last year when the entire original lineup reformed to debut at NearFest in New Jersey (a land where many of them had settled following their move from their "original" home here in Germany). That show has since been released as a DVD, and here they stuck to pretty much the same set of music, now perhaps a little more rehearsed. I don't remember the lightshow being so clearly visible on the DVD (probably it didn't come across to well to the cameras), but here it shined brightly and magnificently. In the old days, Mick Brockett was given equal membership to the band because of the importance of his lights to the group's performances. Hence, it seemed strange to me that during both introductions of the band (by bassist Mo Moore and then later Albrighton), neither remembered to point out Mick (who I think was running the lights from directly in front of the stage). Simple oversight I imagine... both had turned around to find (and point to) all of the members spanning the stage behind them. Guesting was old cohort and studio-whiz Larry "Synergy" Fast, as well as a pair of female backing singers and the extra percussionist Scott Krenz (complementing Ron Howden).
Nektar has always been famous for lengthy multi-dimensional works that spanned whole album sides (and ones that were actually full of excellent ideas, as opposed to just wasting vinyl!). And they managed to play several in their entirety, including the opener "A Tab in the Ocean," the whole "Recycled" suite that Fast was instrumental in creating, and at least a large section of their most famous work "Remember the Future." Albrighton, who is only a few years away from a life-saving liver transplant that forced the delay of this reunion, looked rejuvenated and played classic riffs and licks and soaring leads like he'd never been away from the "game" at all. And his singing voice held out strong too, though he took some breaks during the challenging parts of "Recycled" and let the women take over. From where I was standing, the sound was clear and powerful, but I couldn't hear Taff Freeman's keyboards particularly well. So eventually I abandoned my position for one on the other side of the stage where he came through much clearer. By now, the entire hillside was cluttered with people, numbering into the many thousands I could see.
For me, the highlight of the show was the back-to-back pairing of "Nelly the Elephant" and "Desolation Valley," the latter perhaps being my favorite of all Nektar tunes (well, apart from "The Dream Nebula" from the first album, which I hope they bring back soon). The narration bit on "Nelly" (that Robert Calvert originally offered in his usual 'over-the-top' manner) was done by Krenz in a way that was rather less so, but still the lumbering riff was cranked out excellently by Moore and Albrighton. As an interesting sidenote: in (presumably) an act of appeasement of the current political situation, Mo Moore left his custom American-flag bass (as seen on the DVD) at home and stuck with a black-and-white Rickenbacker. The encore, which I expected to be brief given the time situation, was actually triple-loaded with "Crying in the Dark/King of Twilight" followed immediately by "Fidgety Queen," all of the while growing louder and faster to the final climax. Brockett's lightshow was among the best I'd ever seen, with some film clips being inserted adeptly into the swirling patterns and flashing lights. And somehow, he managed to reproduce the merging of the old footage of Roye singing on the BBC in c. 1973 with the live performance of the same song onstage, just as the engineers did on the DVD. In the end, the whole show was a roaring success and now I can cross one more name off my list of seminal prog/space rock acts to someday witness. Seeing them in their original 'homeland' (ignoring for the moment that they're all British natives... hey, Mo still remembered some German) with a huge throng of their old (and new) fans, and on such a beautiful evening (the temperature was now just right), just made it that more special.
Now it was nearly 2 AM when Epitaph, another old classic group from Dortmund, W. Germany, took the stage. Still, even though quite a few had wandered off to their campsites to power down for the night, many fans were still waiting to hear more music. That was nice to see, as Epitaph also put on a strong show. They were originally going to be playing during the day, but I think this worked out much better for them. After about a dozen years of activity in the 70s and early 80s, they too had a long hiatus before returning in the year 2000. I'm pretty certain I have their first CD sitting somewhere in my collection back in the US, and a couple songs did seem rather familiar. But no matter... theirs was a brand of old-style heavy rock in the vein of Atomic Rooster, Captain Beyond, and that sort of thing. Bassist Bernd Kolbe and guitarist Cliff Jackson shared vocal duties and both could belt out a tune. The lightshow was now back to just simple combinations of colored spotlights, but the energy of the band was high and the crowd too. My stamina was started to fade though, helped on by one too many of those Schwalm Braü's.
OK, now we got into serious late night action, when at something like quarter-to-four the Man band appeared. I admit that I had fallen asleep on the grass, but then Deke Leonard's blaring slide guitar shook me awake as they opened with the lengthy blues number "The Ride and the View." I staggered to my feet and headed back down toward the stage to get a photo or two, and there were still several hundred folks hanging around down front and more on the hill... really dedicated fans I tell you. I wonder if any of them were around for Caravan though? Well, I only lasted a few more minutes, because I knew that I would be seeing Man again just one week later at the Finkenbach festival. As I strolled back up the hill as Man continued on into Track #2, I passed many folks that had simply brought down their sleeping bags and were crashed out on the lawn. I dunno, perhaps some of them were awake and still enjoying the music. It was funny though, trying to navigate amongst these little pockets of cocoons scattered about in the pitch dark. By the time I'd reached my tent, I think I started to see a hint of brightness coming over the eastern horizon, which didn't bode well for a full night's sleep. Sure enough, the bright sunshine came in the morning and literally 'baked' me awake once again.
Sunday morning I managed to have an ersatz 'dump-over-the-head' shower from the cold fresh water that was easily found around the campgrounds at various points. And then I got a few melted granola bars out of my backpack for breakfast. It would have been nice to stay for the Sunday bands too, but it was going to be seven hours on the train to get home (an extra hour 'cause German trains are always late getting into Basel, and Swiss trains are never late, coming or going). So I packed up and headed into town (Eckardtshausen), to look for transportation. The idea of a shuttle bus (advertised also from the stage) was a good idea, but in practice it didn't work 'cause there were never enough people at one time to warrant calling the thing to come. But one of the festival staff was nice enough to arrange a taxi for me that I shared with two other car-less travelers, and so it was not so expensive to get back to Eisenach.
I'm very sorry that this will be the last Burg Herzberg festival, 'cause it was really a great experience. Having so many people come from so far, and having an "unusual" headlining act like Nektar play was really extraordinary. Plus all the other great bands, other activities, and alternative shopping to be had. And I was amazed that the staff cleanup crew got together each morning to pick up every scrap of trash from the fields, rather than just do it the easy way and wait until the very end. That was just one more little thing that made it such a pleasant event for everyone. The weather was a tad too hot during the day, there was a lot of dirt in everybody's shoes (and all over many people's cars!), and nobody got enough sleep, but that's all part of the experience I guess. I loved every minute of my time in the Thüringer Wald and I look forward to all the other open-air fests I manage to attend (starting tomorrow actually!). Like I suggested earlier, it really just doesn't get any better than this!
My Burg Herzberg 2003 All-star lineup:
Vocals: Eric Burdon (New Animals)
Rhythm Guitar: Carvin Jones (Carvin Jones Band)
Lead Guitar: Roye Albrighton (Nektar)
Slide Guitar: Deke Leonard (Man)
Keyboards: Jan Schelhaas (Caravan)
Bass Guitar: Bernd Kolbe (Epitaph)
Drums: Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge)
Viola/Flute: P. Geoff Richardson (Caravan)
Lightshow: Mick Brockett (Nektar)