Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Chris Monk, Jason Becker: Jason Becker Fest review

A Big thanks to my brother Chris Monk who wrote his own review of the show, having been so moved by an amazing weekend. He would like to thank all the guitar players and people associated with the show for bringing this magnificent event to the world.

Jason Becker Fest Review - Chris Monk

Its 06:30 in the morning and Mr Truth in Shredding (Laurie Monk) is outside the house in his car with his eldest son, Dan aka Shred Medium. I jump in the car and we head to Bristol Airport.

After a quick coffee and a croissant we’re on the plane and 55 minutes after that we’re on the tarmac at Schiphol. From there we get the courtesy bus to the hotel and that’s where the insanity starts.

As we exit the bus we meet Andy James, there’s a quick greeting and then he’s off on the same bus. Next we enter the hotel and sign in. Whilst I pick up my room key we’re accosted by Mattias Eklundh. I babble something fan-boyish and cringe-worthy about the latest Freak Kitchen CD, Mattias takes it in good heart. After a quick conversation about all things guitar he’s off to the dining room.

Laurie phones festival organiser Kris Claerhout and arranges to meet him in a short while. Just enough time to chuck our bags in the rooms and make our way back to the hotel reception. Shortly we meet up with Kris and he introduces us to Marco Sfogli who’ll be joining us on the trip to the rehearsal rooms. Been in the country less than two hours and already met three guitar heroes.

We hop in Kris’s rental van and he drives us to Hilversum and Hillywood Studios. The rehearsal space is owned by Vengeance bassist Barend Courbois, it’s in an ex-military base and it’s above an art gallery. Before entering the studio I briefly talk to Marco and tell him that I really like his playing on the James LaBrie albums, I’m totally sincere but it sounds anything but.

 The rehearsal rooms are quite spacious and full of musicians. I spot a couple of guitarists I don’t recognise; Laurie tells me they’re Kiko Loureiro of Angra and Timo Somers of Delain. They’re both practicing on guitars and they’re both awesome. In fact I think it’s fair to say that Timo is rarely seen without a guitar the whole day, he’s shredding away nearly all the time.

After a short time Kris tells us that, if we’re quiet, we can watch the bands rehearsing in the next room. We sneak in and sit ourselves on a conveniently placed sofa. The band is made up of Stephan Forte and Marcel Coenen on guitar, Franck Hermanny on bass and Atma Anur on drums. They are quite literally jaw-dropingly good.

Amongst the tracks they play are one from Stephan’s soon to be released solo album Shadows Compendium and it’s brilliant, all chunky riff and fluid soloing. I make a mental note to put the CD on my Christmas list.

They also play some of Marcel’s music and I’m very impressed. That’s more to add to the list. They finish by playing Jason Becker’s Opus Pocus and it’s a note perfect rendition. We shake hands with Stephan and Franck, a big thrill for me since I’ve been a fan of Adagio since their first album; Sanctus Ignis. Fortunately I keep my mouth shut and there are no embarrassing utterances.

Stephan and Marcel leave the room and Marco is ushered in. Whilst he sets up his equipment we chat briefly Guglielmo Malusardi, a guitar-nut like us and Italy’s version of Laurie. It’s fair to say that Mr Malusardi is our entertainment for the weekend and his banter continually keeps us amused.

Marco starts rehearsing his set for the show and his playing is superb. Must add some of his solo CDs to my Christmas list too. He’s accompanied by Franck, Atma and Fede Solazzo on keyboards. At this point we are also joined by Martin Miller, the young German guitarist, on the sofa which we’re using to watch the musicians play.

Next up is Marcel again but this time he’s joined by Joop Wolters on guitar, Barend Courbois on bass and Atma once again on drums. They rehearse several songs the last of which is Jason’s Altitudes. At the end of the song I’m in tears and so is Laurie, a fact that’s not lost on the rest of the audience. It’s one of my favourites, it means a lot to me and it’s played simply perfectly. Who wouldn’t be moved?

The band finish and just before the players leave the room Atma compliments Barend on his playing and he’s right too.

Next into the rehearsal room is Mattias Eklundh closely followed by Stu Hamm. We are in the presence of Shred Royalty here, the room suddenly fills up with guitarists and there is a respectful hushed silence in the room.

Atma, Stu and Mattias briefly discuss the next song they’re going to play and then they’re away. The song in question is La Bamba and it’s played with lots of energy and fun. Sadly Mattias is playing with his back to us, so he can see Atma and Stu, but we can’t see clearly what he’s playing but it sounds great. The band are clearly enjoying themselves and at the end of the song Mattias moves as if to trash his guitar in the amps but pulls back at the last moment.

They play another couple of songs including Happy Hour and it all goes without a hitch. Mattias is having fun, playing a drum solo on the guitar with his teeth and tongue which has the assembled crowd in stitches. At one point he also checks the ceiling tiles to see if Bruce Willis is hiding there. It’s over all too soon and we withdraw to the room across the hall for a breather.

Whilst there we encounter Guthrie Govan and we chat to him for some time about various bits and pieces. I mention to him what a stroke of genius it was for him to play in the Dizzy Rascal band and he relates how he travelled back from the London O2 Arena on the tube after the show and nobody from the audience recognised him. We also talk to him about the fate of many an old Blues player.

Part way through our conversation someone opens the case of one of the hand-made guitars that will be auctioned later. It’s beautiful and Guthrie can’t help but take a look. He listens to it, checks the neck, the action and even sniffs it.

Soon after that a second guitar case is opened and a genuine Fender ‘64 Strat is produced. Apparently it belonged to Eric Gales and it looks beautiful. Once again Guthrie can’t help himself and he inspects it in minute detail.

The break is over and we make our way back to the rehearsal room. Michael Lee Firkins is playing now and putting on a great display. He does a great version of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs which is played on slide guitar. We marvel at the sounds emanating from the guitar and wonder how he does it with just one peddle.

When he finally finishes it’s decided to break for some much needed food. We all pile in to a selection of motor vehicles and head to a nearby Chinese restaurant. We’re sat next to Guthrie and the poor lad has to endure more talk about guitars. I have to say though that he’s jolly good company.

After dinner we all head back to Hillywood Studios to listen to Guthrie rehearse with Atma and Stu. Once again its awesome stuff, Guthrie is clearly fired up by our boring conversation during the Chinese and is venting his frustration on the guitar.

When they finish their rehearsal it’s decided that maybe Atma has had enough for the day, he’s only been playing for over 12 hours that day and that was after a 14 hour session the previous day. To me he still seems full of energy and happy to carry on. In fact he has been totally amazing all day and totally lives up to his legend. Kiko Loureiro, who’s due to rehearse next, looks a little crestfallen but he’s promised a little rehearsal time the following day just before the show.

With play over for the day some of the equipment is broken down. I help to carry some of the amps and heads down the stairs so that it is ready for picking up the following morning. It seems the least I can do and I would have been happy to do more.

Once the gear has been stowed we all pile into Kris’s van and head back to the hotel. We’ve been given a selection of guitars to look after, one is Michael Lee Firkin’s and we briefly wonder what we would get for it. Just as well that he’s not with us.

Back at the hotel Kris is keen not to leave anything in the van over night so the gear is parcelled out amongst us. I’m given one of the auction guitars that has yet to be signed by the guitarists. This gives me the opportunity of walking with the guitar through the hotel foyer like a true rock star. Sadly it’s in the early hours of the morning and there’s no one to see it.

The next morning we have a hearty breakfast and then meet up with Kris and Guglielmo. Again we all pile in the van and head back to Hillywood Studios. At the studios we load up as much of the gear as is possible into the van. At one point I’m given Guthrie’s pedal-board to look after and it’s quite a responsibility. My mind is full of “what ifs”. Fortunately it’s not for too long.

With the van full of gear we then head for the venue; The Patronaat in Haarlem. We get there just before mid-day but it is still closed so we wait in the sun and listen to Guglielmo’s anecdotes. I take a few photos whilst we wait. Eventually someone comes to let us in.

The van is driven into the loading bay and we then unpack the gear and load it into a lift. After several trips up in the lift, the gear’s all in. However not all the equipment is at the venue so Kris, Laurie and Dan disappear off in the van.

Whilst they’re away I spend some time watching Atma assemble his kit which is an art in itself. Eventually he’s ready and he starts more rehearsals, at this point we’re ushered out of the area. Shortly the van returns and there’s more gear to bring into the hall.

Once it’s all in place we retire to the back stage area. There are assorted musicians all over the place. We try to not get in their way but many seem quite happy to take time out to chat. One such is Joop who tells me that one reason he wants to play the Festival is that it is one of the few chances he’s had to play for Laurie. I tell Laurie this later and he’s quite humbled.

We also spot Daniele Gottardo and Martin Miller, two phenomenal players themselves.

Occasionally we run errands for Kris but it’s nothing too arduous. We let various members of the bands and road crew in and out of the building and also carry boxes. Eventually we’re allowed back near the stage area and we catch the end of Guthrie, Stu and Atma’s rehearsal.

It’s at this point that my elder brother, Lyndon, arrives. He had been partying the previous evening and flown out to Holland earlier in the day and he looks remarkably sprightly. We sit and chat for a bit before meeting Mr and Mrs Gottardo, Daniele’s parents. They’re here to support Daniele, obviously, and also the Festival. They very generously hand over a bag of goodies which we eventually pass on to Kris.

Finally the show is about to start, but first we have to move the steps leading up to the stage, which is fine since it gives us a place to sit. I also spend a few moments to buy a few t-shirts, some guitar picks and donate some spare cash. That’s why we’re all here after all.

We’re sat on the steps as Timo Somers takes the stage with Berend Courbois and Atma Anur. Timo is playing the show through a Marshall amp and cabinet, it’s beautifully hand painted and belonged to his recently departed Father. His obviously fired up and plays with lots of passion. During his set Laurie informs us that we can watch the show from the balcony so we head up stairs.

Next on stage are Marcel Coenen and Joop Wolters. They are fabulous again. Joop Wolters has a few problems with the sound early on but they are soon rectified and then he’s playing beautifully. Part way through the set they play Jason Becker’s Altitudes and once again I’ve a tear in my eye.

Andy James takes the stage next. He’s a man on a mission and playing like a demon, fingers flying up and down the neck of the guitar. I’m not too familiar with his music and, despite watching him rehearse the previous day, I’m blown away. He pauses mid-set to say a few nice things about Jason Becker and why we are all here, then he’s off again, his fingers a complete blur.

Stephen Forte and Marcel Coenen are up next, they play a fast and furious set which includes a new track from Stephen’s up-coming solo album and a flawless rendition of Jason’s Opus Pocus. It’s brilliant stuff. During the set they are joined briefly by Mattias Eklundh and end the set with Daniele Gottardo on stage. They both contribute excellent guitar solos and there’s one sublime moment when Stephan, Marcel and Daniele are shredding away together.

Daniele stays on stage for the next set, whilst Marcel and Stephen take a well earned break; he’s joined by young German guitarist Martin Miller. Martin plays rhythm guitar and doesn’t get a solo spot but it’s hardly a walk in the park, this is shred after all. Daniele is a revelation, displaying some amazing tapping techniques.

At one point in the set he plays Jason’s End of the Beginning to a backing track, not very surprisingly Kris hasn’t organised an orchestra. He has a couple of false starts, mainly because he can’t hear the music through the monitors, which is a slight disadvantage. When he can finally hear the backing he plays a flawless solo over the top of the music, it’s very emotional.

Marco Sfogli is up next. His performance is restrained and slightly subdued; his guitar playing is anything but. He’s clearly a master on the fret-board and allows his music to do the talking. He has a lovely melodic and fluid playing style. His set is over all too soon.

Next on stage is Kiko Loureiro and he brings with him fellow guitarist Hedras Ramos and bass legend Stu Hamm. Hedras’s job, like Martin before him, is to play rhythm guitar but this is no gentle strumming in the back-ground, in any other form of music this would be a full on guitar solo. Kiko’s playing, like all of the guitarists this evening, is superb, a little more Heavy Metal than most but he displays a wonderful selection techniques.

Soon after Kiko and Hedras leave the stage Mattias Eklundh makes his entrance. His set is just good old plain fun. It’s clear that Atma and Stu are really enjoying it. Stu is even prompted to improvise for a short while much to Mattias’s surprise. Mattias’s playing is as freaky as ever, he coaxes a wide variety of sounds from his guitar and occasionally indulges in a serious amount of shred. You can’t help but be entertained. Amazing that he does all this with just two pedals.

After Mattias has left the stage to rapturous applause, it’s time for Michael Lee Firkins turn and a total change of style and pace. Michael’s set is full of slide guitar and guitar picking that is almost like banjo playing, but in a good way. Is this what they call Southern Fried Boogie? He does storming versions of War Pigs and Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile. To outdo Mattias he plays with just one pedal, a volume control pedal.

The final act of the Festival is Guthrie. He comes on stage and dazzles with his amazing variety of styles. I don’t know how to describe it; it veers from Blues to Jazz Fusion to Reggae and back again, always with a large element of shred. At one point his rig stops working and for a moment I’m worried it’s something I’ve done to his pedal-board but it turns out that he’s blown the amp. Obviously it can’t handle the large number of notes that are being played.

Finally it’s all over. Nearly six hours of music have just flown by, without a single dull moment. To pick a favourite guitarist or moment is impossible, they all played with extreme precision, each with their own particular style of playing. It’s been an exceptional evening.

One other event to mention is that, between two of the sets (I forget which two), a young man called Philippe de Lange is introduced to the audience by Guglielmo. He’s a guitarist who also has ALS. He gives a very passionate speech about the disease, the inspiration Jason has given him and to promote his own charity (StopALS.nu). It hard not to be deeply moved.

With the show over, we make our way back stage. We offer to help pack the gear away but are told that our help isn’t needed so we shake a few hands and make our way back to the hotel.

Not much more to say except that it was an exceptional weekend; I met lots of very talented musicians and have huge number of very special memories. Also special mention must go to Atma Anur, who played for well over 30 hours in the three days of the festival and Jason who inspired the whole show. Roll on the DVD.

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