Carl’s RoSFest Journal
For most of March and April, Salem Hill had spent quite a bit of time in fervent and frantic preparation for RoSFest. Rehearsals were typical SH fare: “I hate that song!” “Well, I hate that one!” “God, do we have to do this one?!” (Pejoratives have been removed for friendlier reading.)
So, after some wrestling that didn’t involve mud but plenty of mud-slinging, we all agreed on a set designed to accomplish several things. First of all, Pat was insistent that it move, move, move. That meant cutting the number of ballads I’d originally wanted from three to one. Second, it had to serve as a kind of “sampler” for any RoSFest attendees who were teetering on the edge of whether or not to become a Hillion. Last, it needed to showcase our strengths as instrumentalists and vocalists.
From the onset of getting the invite for RoSFest, Pat had informed me that he’d most likely have to fly as he had business in Houston the following week. Likewise, Kevin planned on joining him on the flight so he could miss as little work as possible. The plan was for Mike and I to pick up brother Bill in Virginia and make the trek with trailer in tow. However, the week of the trip, Mike found a cheap flight. Kevin called me wondering if Pat had secured a flight for them…uh…why not call Pat? However, Pat had not gotten a flight for either of them. So Kevin decided to take Mike’s place and ride in the van with me and Bill. In typical Henrian fashion, Pat finally got around to getting his Saturday flight booked late Thursday night. Lucky bastard, that one.
We agreed to leave Friday morning at 10:00. Kevin had chosen the time as he had booked a business meeting in my town at 9:00. However, at 11:00 Kevin had still not shown, and hadn’t called. Lovely. Eventually, at 11:30 he crept into my house full of sheepish apologies. Kev is one of those infuriating people that you can’t stay mad at no matter how hard you try. Lucky bastard, that one.
Kevin brought along his Sirius satellite radio system. Gotta get a satellite system. I love the concept. However, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the song selection available as the cuts were, for the most part, very popular ones. From what I’ve heard about satellite radio, the tracks are deep, i.e., not the normal fare one hears on FM radio. Did get to hear Dinah Mo Hum, and some really funny comedy. However, I was left wondering if XM is a bit more “deep” than Sirius. Weigh ins?
After about 7 hours on the road, we picked up Bill in Wytheville, VA. Didn’t recognize him at first as he had his face buried in a copy of CS Lewis’ “A Boy and His Horse.” Also, Bill’s going for the General George Custer look these days, so I had to see beyond all the hair to find him. Sad when one doesn’t immediately recognize one’s own brother.
Quirky bastard, he.
Stopped to get a bite to eat a bit north of the 81/64 split. We were looking for something other than fast food and took an exit that boasted both Annie’s Pancake House and Hilltop Inn restaurant. It was nearly 9PM, so we chose Hilltop Inn. It’s a little restaurant that’s literally atop a hill on a Howard Johnson’s Hotel property. The place were nearly empty…The waitress ushered us to our table and took drink orders. Bill got an iced tea, Kev got a water and I got a Coke. My Coke was fine, but Bill described his tea as “rancid, made with last week’s tea bags,” and Kev had to send his water back. “Please hold the lettuce in the next glass.” God, I wish I was making this up. Not a good sign. Bill got a soda, Kevin got a new glass of water sans lettuce, and we ordered or food. I ordered a mushroom burger with fries. Bill got meatloaf and potatoes and Kev got a sandwich and fries. In the meantime, a waitress brought us a basket and gleefully coaxed us to “enjoy some rolls before your meal.” Peering into the basket sent Bill and I into fits of laughter. We both agreed that the three little bread things lying in the basket resembled rocky mountain oysters, not rolls. However, the best was yet to come. We got our entrees pretty quickly. Upon having mine set in front of me, I had to dab my eyes with my napkin, I was laughing so hard. For several moments I couldn’t even speak. The others were laughing at me laughing, repeatedly asking “what? What is it?” I told them that I wouldn’t be able to eat the fries until they dried. Folks, these things looked like they had been varnished. The burger was okay, tho. By meal’s end, the fries were still wet. Left them alone. Kev did with his too. Bill’s cardboard mashed potatoes went relatively untouched as well. We all left the illustrious Hilltop Inn Restaurant half fed, but without food poisoning. Lucky bastards, we.
Got some sleep in the back as Bill drove. He and Kevin didn’t make it easy as they both were laughing so hard at the various comedians on the Sirius station. Hit the Pennsylvania Turnpike a little after 2:00AM. Toll roads are from the devil. Especially since they’re roads that generate their own income yet are so poorly maintained that you find yourself constantly looking in the rearview mirror to make sure you haven’t left an axle. Another concern was that our directions had us on this toll road for nearly 90 miles. I found myself deliberating as to which piece of gear we’d have to sell to pay the toll. Cool thing was that it ended up being only four and a half bucks. No wonder the roads are crap.
After failing to go north on 100 South, and after failing to ever find the phantom “Howard Road”, we eventually got to the Sheraton at about 4:30AM. The desk boy was named Scott, I believe. I really don’t remember as I was toast, and his absolute lack of competence was the impression that forced a memory of anything else about him out of my brain. I think he was high. “Uh…Mr. Hill, we…uh…don’t have your rooms ready for a few hours.”
“Uh…like three this afternoon, Mr. Hill.”
“That’s over ten hours from now, Scott.”
“Uh…your reservation is for Saturday and Sunday, not Friday and Saturday, Mr. Hill.”
“It’s Mr. Groves, Scott. Salem Hill is my band.”
“Cool, Mr. Hill.”
“We were told we have reservations for Friday and Saturday, Scott. We’ve been on the road for over fourteen hours.”
Scott-or-whatever-his-name-was clicked on the keyboard, giving me a play-by-play on what he was doing in incomplete sentences punctuated by an occasional “whoa!” I read him my confirmation numbers, but he wouldn’t let me see what his screen was showing. After 20 minutes (which seems like over an hour when you’ve been on the road for over fourteen hours), he pronounced that he had found us a room. “I found you a smoking with a king until we check you into your rooms tomorrow, Mr. Hill.”
“It’s already tomorrow, Scott, and one king-sized bed won’t do for three grown men.”
“Then I don’t have anything…but I’ll give you a couple of comps over at the Hampton.”
“Thanks, Scott. We’d appreciate that.”
And with that, he fills out a couple of comp sheets, instructs us to give them at the front desk over at the Hampton Inn and sends us on our way.
I walk into the Hampton and there’s no one at the front desk. A guy sitting in front of the big screen TV in the lobby calls out, “Can I help you?”
“Yes, we need a couple of rooms.”
“We don’t have any!”
“Well, the Sheraton just sent us over with these,” I explain, holding up the comp sheets.
He grumbles and with not a little effort gets to his feet. “They’ve sent half a dozen of you over tonight. They overbooked.”
“Apparently. Can you put us up?”
“No problem.” And he turned into a nice guy, and had us checked into 2 rooms within 5 minutes.
At 7:21 AM (one notices the time on hotel digital clocks), my room phone rings. And they’re loud. I’m expecting it to be Pat telling me his flight’s been cancelled or some other catastrophe has occurred which will ruin the weekend. “Yeah?” I croak.
“This is Paul over at the Sheraton. I’m the rooms manager.”
“Mr. Groves, your reservations were not for Friday and Saturday, and therefore we will not be paying for your rooms there at the Hampton.”
“I see. Well, Paul, can we talk about this later…”
“And you will be responsible for the rooms there at the Hampton.”
“I got that, Paul.”
“I just wanted to make sure we’re square on this, Mr. Groves.”
“Well, we’ll need to talk about this, Paul.”
“You’ll need to take it up with the Rites of Spring Festival organizer if you disagree, Mr. Groves.”
“I see, Paul.”
First things first. Depending on how worn out we were after our show Sunday, we planned on buying rooms for Sunday anyway, so the money part wasn’t an issue. But “Paul The Anal Retentive Rooms Manager” calling me at 7:21 when he knew we’d gotten in at 4:30 was…well, inexcusable. Just a bastard.
Woke up without the help of “Paul From Hell” at a bit after 10:00. Roused Bill and Kev and we all hooked up with Shellyn and Grace. The five of us arrived at the Colonial near the end of Orphan Project’s set. Met George and Tom. Both really nice gentlemen. Tom introduced me to the stage manager, Kevin Feeley. Let’s stop here and say without hesitation that however much praise is heaped upon Kevin Feeley for the weekend (and I’ve already seen quite a bit), it isn’t enough. This guy knows the ends and outs of sound, lighting, venue and prima donna rock band mentality. The great sound of the weekend (and it was infinitely better than 90% of the “name” acts I’ve seen), the cool lighting, and the positive vibe that each band had once they took the stage are all directly attributable to Kevin.
Met up with my favorite Norwegian after my mom, Frode. He’d traveled from Norway for RoSFest. And, true to his word, he was wearing a Miami Dolphins jersey (#54-Zach Thomas for you inquisitive ones). It was great hanging with him. Ran into Stephen and Jo too. As usual, Stephen was a kinetic, barely suppressed human grenade waiting to explode. Gregarious bastard, he.
We set up our merc table under the stairs…a strange Billy Goats Gruff setting that was moved to a much more suitable place Sunday. Got to meet my new “boss”, Shawn Gordon of ProgRock Records. Shawn is one of those people that once you meet him, you feel that you grew up together. Very funny and cool. And he has great taste in beer…which was an absolutely paramount factor in Salem Hill signing with his label. Picked the brain of Little Atlas’ frontman/keyboardist, Steve Katsikas. I love the keyboard sounds on their latest album and wanted to know what he was using. This guy is the real deal. Plus he’s about as nice as they come. Speaking of which, got a call from Jim Robinson. It was his birthday! I had heard that there was a possibility that Jim would come to the venue to say hi to us Saturday, but it just wasn’t to be. It was great talking with him, regardless.
After setting up the merc table and hanging at the venue, we decided to get back to the Sheraton and check in…lest they give our rooms away. After all, it would appear that a precedent had been set. Left Bill and Kev at the Colonial while Shel, Grace and I went to check in. On the way back, they informed me that even as Salem Hill crew members, they had been told that they were not allowed to go into the theatre to check out the other performing acts. Talked with some of the other band members and they verified that George and Tom had told their crews the same thing. Not many complaints about the weekend, but this one stuck in my craw…still does. One would hope that this practice is corrected next year. Crew folks manning merc tables and acting as chauffeurs and such for the artists all weekend should be allowed to dip into the theatre once in a while without having to pay…even on a “prorated” scale.
Checked in at the Sheraton without incident…even said hello to “Paul” who didn’t have a clue who I was. Wish I had his home phone number. I’d give him a call at about 4 in the morning just to say hi and find out how the wife and kids are. Flicked on the idiot box and marveled at the Eli Manning hoopla in ESPN’s coverage of the NFL draft. Shel, Grace and I headed back to the Colonial. Halfway there, it occurred to me that I hadn’t eaten anything since last night’s now infamous Hilltop Inn excursion. At the theatre, Mike called stating he was in Philly and would join us shortly. We headed out for dinner at some pseudo-famous restaurant with a big-eyed waitress. Can’t remember the name. Wasn’t bad, tho. Wasn’t terribly good either. After we’d almost finished dinner, Pat called saying he was almost in Philly (he’d flown in to Baltimore) and wanted to meet up for dinner. Since we’d already eaten, we agreed to meet him at the bar of the Outback Steakhouse, seeing that it is in between the Sheraton and Hampton Inn hotels. Hooked up with him later (couldn’t find him at the Outback). So, just as planned, all four SH members were present and accounted for Saturday night. Still was on edge, tho. Don’t know why.
Saturday night before the midnight meet-n-greet was spent smoking cigars, drinking Guinness and discussing the state of the Earth. I think between the 7 of us (SH plus Bill, Shel and Grace), we solved many of the world’s problems. Sadly, no one every asks us about these solutions. In that way (and more than I would ever care to admit), I feel kindred to poor “Be.” At midnight, we headed down to the lower lobby of the Sheraton to hang with those folks who’d bought the patron tickets. It was really much more cool than I’d expected it to be. They set up a little combo in the corner of the room and several of the weekend’s performing artists (including us) did a tune or two. My favorite was watching Mike perform Floyd’s “Brain Damage/Eclipse” with the Little Atlas guys. Mike handled the black chick ozone vocals admirably. But then again, in real life he IS a black soprano. Didn’t know that, did ya? Got to bed about 2:30.
Next morning, the gals left early to check out their buds Sonus Umbra who had the early slot. The band gathered without Bill (had a migraine—perhaps a sleeper bug from The Hilltop Inn???) a little after noon to grab some lunch before heading to the Colonial with the van and trailer. I was really tense, feeling great about our set save for “So Human” which I was convinced was being sung incorrectly by our lovely drummer. Turns out he was singing his part correctly. I was the one who’d been singing it wrong. We rehearsed it on the way to our chosen lunch place. It didn’t suck. We ate at Cheeburger Cheeburger, and really fun burger joint that I later learned had chains all over America, including one in Tennessee. Our waitress was feisty and sharp. She got into a playful spar with Mike and Pat. Shel and Grace joined us at the restaurant after Sonus Umbra’s set. For some reason I had completely forgotten that they’d planned on meeting us at Outback for lunch…I thought they’d be hanging through the Sonus Umbra set. Regardless, they weren’t real happy that they showed up at Outback (closed until 4 PM, we had learned). But we hooked up and after we received a mini lecture, I believe they forgave us. My edginess hadn’t resolved after the car rehearsal of “So Human” and I was strangely irked with Pat and Mike as they dawdled with our waitress long after we had finished lunch. Eventually they left her (tho Mike stopped by to give her a “Be” disc later???) and we headed back to the hotel to pick up the trailer. Bill had miraculously recovered which gave me quite a relief. It would’ve sucked to have him miss our set after traveling hundreds of miles.
The load in at the Colonial was incredibly fast. Only at our DragonCon show in Atlanta had we gotten such prompt and helpful attention. Kevin had a drum tech that helped him set up, and I had a keyboard tech. We set-up and ran a sound check with time to spare. I was astounded at how competent the stage crew was. Still am. Pat grabbed me and offered a quick prayer before we went on.
Frode introduced us, wearing another Miami Dolphin jersey (#34-Ricky Williams for you inquisitive ones). Perfect. After greeting the audience, we launched into our opener, the “Overture” from Robbery segued into “Between the Two” from the debut album. The sound was big on stage, but I could hear everything. I especially felt good about the vocals after “BT2.” We went right into “Evil One” and nailed it to the wall. After all these years, it’s still one of my very favorites. Donned my guitar, misintroduced the next song (not really my fault as a certain someone had left a pair of thong underwear on my effects pedal board…), and then went into “Riding the Fence.” Mike sang the blankety blank out of it. Felt good. The first bump of the evening came with “Symposium,” our first offering from “Be.” Pat starts this song with a grungy bass riff. ‘Cept he changed it completely and for the life of me I could not find my starting vocal note! After cheating with my guitar, we went on and things tightened up. Nice performance. I actually played the keyboard solo correctly…not an easy thing, folks. We followed Symposium with a couple other “Be” tunes, “I Didn't Come For You” and “Apollyon.” After “IDCFY” some guy in the audience yelled out “Play some more King’s X!” We got a kick out of that. Prog audiences are not just smart, they’re smart assed as well. And that makes ‘em one of us, ya know. Next came The Robbery’s “Revenge”—a tune we haven’t played live since the “TRoM” release party in fall of 1998. Unfortunately, it showed. There were good moments and it was far from a train wreck, but I felt that our performance of “Revenge” was an opportunity missed. Following Mike’s nicely worded dedication to ailing Starcastle member Gary Strater, we performed “Beings” from “Be.” Highlight of the weekend for me. Messed up the lyrics of the first bridge, and it was still the highlight. The audience’s response got me a bit misty eyed. Next up was Mike’s “Red Pool.” Brother Bill later told me it was his favorite of the set. Bastard likes Pat and Mike’s tunes more than mine. Blood is thicker than water, eh? Hardly. Afterwards, I told the guys to vamp. We hadn’t rehearsed anything, but I borrowed a page from Peter Gabriel’s “UP” DVD and introduced the band musically. Then we went into “Peculiar People/So Human.” Worked well, and afterwards my tenseness disappeared. We closed the set with Pat’s “Listen to Me” and our Medley that covers about 12 tunes in 15 minutes. Showing their exquisite taste, the RoSFest crowd called us out for an encore. We played “Invisible.” Low point of the weekend—even worse than the “Paul call”—occurred at the end of this tune. My left hand cramped and froze up. My pinky and ring fingers curled into my palm, and I could not move them. I’ve been playing for over 28 years with much longer sets and much more fatigue without this ever happening to me. It really knocked me for a loop. I’m still afraid to pick up a guitar. Fortunately, I had almost finished my solo and I slunk over to the keys to vamp until we were ready to end the song. A couple minutes later, enough control came back to my hand that I could finish the set.
Got to hang with Mike Koeniger, MB and Sue Sheppard at the Sly Fox after the show and then again after RPWL had closed the fest. Had a blast.
It occurred to me driving home Monday morning that oftentimes music festivals grow beyond just the performer-audience setting. Getting to hang with such genuinely decent people all weekend long is a privilege. Thinking back on the effort that Shel and Grace put forth for us—(and not just this weekend—and, as just a performer, I feel woefully inadequate in finding a way to thank them. What does one say to someone like Frode who has burned a vacation and traveled thousands of miles to see us? And what does one say to the people who look at us as if we really are stars and ask us to sign their CDs? I was sad that the festival was over, yes. But not because I wanted to get onstage and play some more. Rather, it was because I knew that it’d be some time before I got to see these people who give much more to us than we give to them. Lucky bastards, Salem Hill.