In many ways, the present review is an unexpected little “miracle”, which only a week ago seemed highly unlikely to happen. Though it will be noticeably shorter and not as detailed as those I wrote for past events, I fervently hope that my readers will not be too disappointed.
When ProgDay started, in the late summer of 1994, no one would have probably thought it would become the world’s longest-running progressive rock festival. As for myself, I was living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and would have never imagined that I would one day move to the United States. Since 2010, however, it has become for me and my husband an appointment that we would not miss for anything in the world. Unfortunately, due to an accumulation of stress (caused by a seemingly endless series of setbacks, professional and otherwise), I was in such poor shape that I doubted the wisdom of attending the festival at all. For almost the whole of 2014’s first eight months I felt as if I was being swallowed by a black hole, slowly losing interest in many of the things that I normally enjoy – music being the chief victim of this state of affairs. I dropped out of the East Coast prog scene completely, shunning concerts and avoiding contact with people. Though I tried to keep up with new releases, most of the music I heard just went over my head, and did not make any lasting impression.
Even if, a mere couple of days before the event, I had regained most of my enthusiasm for it, this year did feel different. For one thing, I felt much less inclined to be a “social butterfly”, and spent a lot of time in my lawn chair, safely sheltered from the sun under the main pavilion, with a book to keep me company and help me concentrate on the music – while my notebook stayed safely tucked in one of the pockets of my tote bag. After a surprisingly mild summer with very pleasant temperatures, Labor Day weekend seemed to concentrate most of the season’s worth of heat and humidity, and being on the field for two days did take its toll, though I was wise enough not to overextend myself, and get enough rest at the end of the day.
To be perfectly honest, my lack of enthusiasm for this year’s festival was not only the product of negative personal circumstances, but was also related to the line-up. Compared to the previous editions I had attended, this was surely the most “conservative” line-up assembled by the organizers, and had become even more so when Mexican outfit Luz de Riada (featuring Ramsés Luna, formerly of the brilliant Cabezas de Cera) were forced to withdraw almost at the very last moment because of a visa-related snag (oh, the joys of the US immigration system!). However, unlike those prog fans I so much like to bash, I know that a band should be seen on stage before being dismissed, and that the apparently unassuming Storybook Farm stage has a way to bring out the best in the artists that tread it. Indeed, I am glad to say that none of the bands invited for 2014 disappointed in that sense, even when their music was not exactly my cup of tea.
On Saturday morning we were once again welcomed by the lush greenery and comforting familiarity of Storybook Farm – a bucolic, relaxed setting that took openers Zombie Frogs, clearly much more used to the unrelenting intensity of metal-based events, by surprise. The youthful (and obviously talented) Boston quintet were more impressive for their stage presence (which included a guitarist with a superb head of reddish-blond dreadlocks) and infectious enthusiasm than for their riff-heavy music, which I found rather hard to get into, and a tad too reminiscent of Dream Theater for comfort. However, they were just what the audience needed to get going at a relatively early hour – and let us not forget that progressive metal (like it or not) remains the best vehicle to introduce the younger generations to the prog scene.
Highly awaited Spanish quintet Kotebel – among the foremost standard-bearers of modern symphonic prog, with enough of an edge to appeal to the notoriously hard to please Avant-Prog set – came on stage next, providing that sharp contrast that is one of the hallmarks of a successful prog festival. Fronted by the engaging father-daughter keyboard duo of Carlos and Adriana Plaza, they performed their latest CD opus, the marvelous Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble, holding the audience captive with the sheer beauty and effortless complexity of their music – which completely eschews the pretentiousness all too often associated with classical-inspired prog.
Minnesota’s Galactic Cowboy Orchestra proved to be one of the highlights of the festival for me – in spite of the limitations of occupying the dreaded third slot, when most of the audience are feeling the effects of the increasing heat. A four-piece fronted by the dazzling smile and chops of violinist/vocalist Lisi Wright (whose voice reminded me at times of the incomparable Moorea Dickason of MoeTar), those rightful heirs to Dixie Dregs were probably the most eclectic band on this year’s line-up. Most importantly, they are one of those bands whose music (though already good on CD), truly comes alive on stage, emphasizing the individual members’ skills as well as their flawless ensemble playing.
Though founded by Florentine guitarist/composer Franco Falsini, and part of the original RPI scene of the Seventies, Sensation’s Fix have always been more of an international venture than a genuinely Italian one – and that was also reflected in a sound that evoked historic Krautrock bands such as Ashra Tempel and Agitation Free. Even if perhaps not the best choice as a closing act on a hot and humid day, the Italian-American quartet (again featuring a talented female musician, keyboardist Candace Miller) performed with evident pleasure, the hypnotic, laid-back vibe of the music and Falsini’s riveting guitar tone occasionally bringing to mind Pink Floyd circa Meddle. The band also stayed for the whole of the festival, and seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly.
Climate-wise, Sunday was very much a repeat of the previous day – tolerable in the morning, much less so as the day progressed. The musical menu started somewhat earlier, as openers Backhand had asked for an extra 15 minutes to play all the material they had put together for the occasion. To me and most of the audience, the Venezuelan outfit were an unknown quantity, though each of its members could boast of an impressive résumé. The songs on the ProgDay website pointed to a prog-flavoured classic rock/AOR outfit, and their performance did not belie that impression – though they sounded immensely better on stage, with Dutch-born keyboardist Adrianus van Woerkom a particular highlight. Vocalist Phil Naro proved a consummate frontman in the Robert Plant/David Coverdale mould, his high tenor sharply bringing to mind the Led Zeppelin singer. Although his trim, lion-maned presence (complete with large belt buckle and mirrored shades) may have been quite at odds with the stereotypical prog canon, there is no denying that it added entertainment value to a context that tends to take itself way too seriously.
With a modern prog legend such as drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson at the helm, it is no wonder that Necromonkey were eagerly awaited – especially by those members of the audience who favour the more experimental side of the genre. The presence of two out of four members of the wonderful Gösta Berlings Saga (keyboardist David Lundberg, who is the other official half of Necromonkey, and guitarist Einar Baldursson) created an unmistakable link with the haunting post-rock-meets-Zeuhl sound of the quartet that in 2012 took NEARfest by storm. As good as Necromonkey’s two studio albums are, being performed by a four-piece band (including bassist Kringle Harmonist) took their music to the next level, lending it a well-rounded, quasi-orchestral quality. Though driven by Olsson’s uncannily precise time-keeping and Lundberg’s mellotron and other keyboards, the band’s performance also spotlighted Baldursson’s stunningly beautiful guitar work. For all their very low-key stage presence (quite a contrast with Backhand’s flamboyance), Necromonkey’s set delivered all we were expecting, and more.
In spite of a 15-year-long career and six albums, Travis Larson Band are not exactly a household name in prog circles – very probably because their music is not exactly what most people would call prog. A classic power trio fronted by the tall, lanky Travis Larson, they delivered an energetic, enthusiastic performance that emphasized not only Larson’s dazzling six-string work, but also Jennifer Young’s stunning skills in wielding a bass almost as big as she was, and Dale Moon’s seamless drumming. Unfortunately, by that time the heat and humidity were taking their toll on the audience, and after a while I started finding it hard to concentrate on the music. Thankfully, I will have the opportunity to see the band again in October at the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend, and I am quite sure that an indoor setting might do more justice to their music.
The celebration of a milestone such as a 20th anniversary needed to end with a bang, and I am happy to report that my fellow Italians Alex Carpani Band (featuring legendary ex-VDGG saxophonist David Jackson) provided plenty of fireworks. Again, while their latest album, 4 Destinies, had not made much of an impression on me, in spite of its obvious quality, the live dimension brought the very best out of the Bologna-based quintet. Fronted by the charismatic Joe Sal, whose impressive pipes were honed by his early years as a hard rock singer, the band performed 4 Destinies in its entirety, though alternating their own material with VDGG classics such as Darkness, Killer and Man-Erg. In spite of that, and possibly because of Jackson’s endearing yet unconventional character, ACB’s set avoided the feel of a nostalgia-fest – also because of the remarkable stage craft of each of its members. They sent the crowd into fits of ecstasy by performing PFM’s timeless Impressioni di settembre, followed by an exhilarating version of George Martin’s Theme One. Though the solo spots were a tad overlong, Jackson’s performance alone was worth the price of admission.
As cheesy as it may sound, this 20th edition of ProgDay marked a sort of rebirth for me, after a long period of darkness in which music had become a mere footnote. In the past few years, my tastes have gradually evolved, and I have found myself moving away from a lot of “traditional” prog. On the other hand, though this year’s ProgDay line-up was definitely lighter on the cutting-edge side of things, the overall level of quality was as high as in previous years, offering a nicely balanced mix of subgenres that reflected modern prog’s increasingly diversified nature. And then, the beauty of the setting and the genuinely friendly vibe of the festival have fortunately stayed the same, getting newcomers hooked so that every year there are new additions to the event’s core of loyal supporters.
In any case, in spite of this year’s less than auspicious circumstances, my ProgDay experience was an all-round success, and I want to thank the organizers from the bottom of my heart for their hard work on behalf of non-mainstream music (or, as Travis Larson put it, non-commercial – a better definition to me than the ever-debated “prog” label). As usual, it was wonderful to see friends (that we had not seen for quite a while, and spend quality time with them – which included sampling the delights of local Mexican and Indian restaurants. A special mention goes to HT Riekels and Melissa Palmer, two of the newest converts to the joys of ProgDay, and both also excellent music writers.
This review was written, first and foremost, as a tribute to all the people who made ProgDay’s 20th anniversary such a memorable occasion. I do not yet know whether I will ever go back to writing on a regular basis, as (besides having other priorities) the kind of pace I kept for the past few years is likely to get anyone burned out after a while. However, what truly matters is that the “curse” seems to have been broken, and that I can still appreciate music and feel the inclination to write about it – even if not as much in detail as before. In the meantime, I will continue contributing to the weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, doing my best to spotlight new bands and artists who deserve to be heard. We will see what happens next…