Though the title of this review is not meant to spark a debate on climate change, it is an apt description of the kind of atmosphere that characterized the 18th consecutive edition of ProgDay. If my first time at the festival, back in 2010, had been perfect climate-wise, and the second marred by a rather uncomfortably hot and humid Saturday, this year was record-breaking, and not in a good way. To put it bluntly, the past weekend on the lovely grounds of Storybook Farm felt like being in Bangkok or Singapore in the middle of the summer, with temperatures in the mid-90s (especially on Saturday), and humidity close to 90%. For a hot-weather hater such as myself, it was a nightmare scenario. After this weekend, I believe I know how chocolate must feel when melted slowly on the stove… The last hurrah of this long, hot summer – quite unexpected after a rather mild August – might have wreaked some serious havoc on the festival, and indeed the unrelenting heat affected many people’s enjoyment of a spectacular weekend of music.
Adverse climatic conditions notwithstanding, ProgDay 2012 was fulfilling in every sense, and even the physical discomfort of trying to find relief from the onslaught of the heat pales in comparison to the wonderful musical offer and overall atmosphere of the 18th edition of the world’s longest-running progressive rock festival. Many of the observations I made in my review of the 2011 edition hold true for this one as well, so I will spare my readers a repeat and try to include some new insights. If last year’s ProgDay had been a success, this one was nearly a triumph, from many different points of view. The musical aspect, of course, is fundamental in any such event, and the festival seems to be going from strength to strength in assembling lineups that manage to capture the best of the contemporary progressive rock scene. However, no event can exist in a vacuum, and the human factor is of paramount importance whenever the arts are concerned.
On Friday morning, the leisurely, four-hour drive from our Northern Virginia home took us down the familiar, tree-lined corridor of Highway 85, a quiet and sparsely frequented route in comparison to the unceasing bustle of the Baltimore/Washington area. For long stretches of the road, no cars could be seen ahead of us, and the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere was somewhat eerie, but also deeply charming in its own way. The last two hours of the drive prepared us for the unique ambiance of the festival, where the attractions of nature and music are magically fused together, and nourished by friendship and the joy of being almost removed from “civilization” and the demands of everyday life.
We reached Durham in the early afternoon, just in time for a satisfying lunch at the BBQ place across the road from the hotel. Then, after some well-deserved rest, it was time for us to meet friends that, while separated from us by geography, are a constant part of our lives thanks to modern technology. Unfortunately, the oppressive heat was getting worse by the hour, and on Saturday morning it was immediately clear that things were going to be anything but pleasant weather-wise. That suffocating blanket of humidity was something I had hardly ever experienced before – and I come from a country where summers can get quite hot. When we got to Storybook Farm, the grass was wet with dew, and a very faint breeze blew from the trees. The high humidity made the surroundings even more beautiful than usual, and the occasional hawks circling overhead added to the almost magical atmosphere. However, as the day progressed, the discomfort caused by the heat was compounded by the misery of feeling sticky and dirty. Beneath the corrugated metal roof of the stage, the heat must have been unbearable, and a large fan had been strategically placed at the back of the stage in an attempt to make things marginally more comfortable for the bands and the crew.
Though they had landed the somewhat awkward opening slot at 10.30 in the morning, the music of Northern Virginia’s finest, Ephemeral Sun, would have made a perfect soundtrack for what T.S. Eliot called “the violet hour”. The young and personable quartet, led by the impossibly fresh-faced John Battema (an outstanding keyboardist and a real gentleman) have transitioned from a Gothic-metal, female-fronted outfit to a much more distinctive, hard to label brand of cinematic, ambient-laden instrumental prog, rich in melody yet laced with heaviness. In some ways, they reminded me of last year’s opening act, Fibonacci Sequence – though the Wisconsin band’s sound is more muscular and not as atmospheric. The band as a whole proved to have an impressive mastery in the build-up of surging waves of sound, driven by the impeccable rhythm section of Charles Gore and Jeff Malone, with Gore’s deep, powerful bass lines occasionally reminiscent of Geezer Butler’s genre-defining style. Guitarist Brian O’Neill’s occasional bouts of razor-sharp riffing injected a healthy dose of remarkably uncheesy heaviness in the fabric of Battema’s lush keyboards – at times unleashed to resemble a modern-day Keith Emerson, at others relying on stately mellotron samples to bolster and lend symphonic fullness to the soaring, Gilmour-tinged lead guitar parts. While at first communication with the audience was kept to a minimum, it did not take long for the band to open up, and for Battema to display some of his endearingly self-deprecating sense of humour. All in all, it was an excellent opening set from a band that has definitely a lot of potential for future greatness.
By the time Montreal-based quartet Karcius got on stage, the heat and humidity were starting to get out of control. Before the start of their set, I had forced myself to eat some of the rather tasty food on offer, then sat down again with my notepad – only to realize that the heat was badly sapping my enjoyment of the music. I had heard a lot of praise about the band, who – in spite of their young age – already have four albums and a number of high-profile live appearances under their belt. Though I had seen them described as jazz-rock, they sounded all over the place, reminding me of those bands who, like Umphrey’s McGee, straddle the line between the jam scene and progressive rock proper. The jazz-rock matrix was conveyed by the emphasis on the sleek interplay between Sylvain Auclair’s bass and Thomas Brodeur’s drums, but other influences cropped up with regularity. While Auclair’s blues-tinged voice was undoubtedly good, I felt that it did not actually gel with the rest of the sound, and the instrumental parts (such as the excellent opening track) were a much better representation of Karcius’ collective strength. While I usually appreciate eclecticism, there was a sense of lack of cohesion in the way the band handled their diverse sources of inspiration, which ranged from metal (with a couple of frantic passages verging on speed metal) to King Crimson by way of Steely Dan, and a lot of other stuff – including hints of reggae and other ethnic music, as well as evident pop touches conveyed by the vocals. On the other hand, the chemistry between the four musicians was outstanding, with the ease born of a long collaboration and plenty of stage experience. Mingan Sauriol manned the keyboards with aplomb, rounding out the dynamic rhythm section, while guitarist Simon L’Espérance contributed a nice rock edge. The band also catered to the nostalgia-inclined members of the crowd by performing a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” (perhaps not the best choice, seen the song’s running time and somewhat depressing subject matter) almost at the end of their set.
After waxing lyrical for months about Kublai, their sophomore release, and raging about their aborted participation to the ill-fated 2011 edition of NEARfest, I had been elated to learn of my fellow Italians Accordo dei Contrari being selected for Progday 2012. Needless to say, theirs was my most anticipated set of the whole festival, and – even if they had the bad luck to perform in the worst slot of such a miserably hot day (though a breeze made things temporarily more bearable in the afternoon, before the blanket of humidity descended again) – the Bologna-based quartet delivered the goods in abundance. The audience was held captive for the best part of their 90-minute set, which comprised a selection of tracks from their two albums, plus two new numbers that will be featured on their third release. With its trademark blend of jazzy, Canterbury-inspired elegance, uniquely Italian melodic flair and sinuous exotic touches, solidly anchored by Cristian Franchi and Daniele Piccinini’s seamless rhythm section and spiced by Marco Marzo’s fluid guitar, the band’s music manages to sound modern even when paying homage to the past. Keyboardist Giovanni Parmeggiani (the band’s main composer and driving force) acquitted himself splendidly in handling unfamiliar gear (kindly provided by Ephemeral Sun’s John Battema, in an admirable example of cooperation between musicians from different backgrounds), and his rich, heady textures were at the heart of Accordo dei Contrari’s complex yet smoothly flowing sound. Their exhilarating jam with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic’s Ken Field guesting on saxophone was definitely one of the highlights of the whole weekend. Though their music may elicit comparisons with D.F.A. (especially for those who had witnessed the latter band’s highly acclaimed American performances), Accordo dei Contrari sound even tighter and more focused in their approach. The band members were absolutely elated to be there, and – even if a bit shy at first – won the hearts of the audience with their professional yet warm attitude. On a personal level, it was a real pleasure to meet them at last, and to have the opportunity to speak my native tongue with like-minded people.
When Birdsongs of the Mesozoic – another instrumental quartet, though one with considerable experience and a respectable back catalogue (their first incarnation dates back from the early Eighties) – took to the stage, the breeze had died out, and the majority of the attendees were wilting in their seats. Of all the past weekend’s performances, this was the one most negatively affected by the hostile weather conditions, as people seemed to have no energy left – which obviously did no favours to the Boston ensemble’s beautiful, highly idiosyncratic music. I was feeling so drained that, about half an hour through their set, my attention started to wander - even though my brain perceived the beauty of the music and desperately wanted to enjoy it. In any case, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic are one of the most genuinely intriguing musical offers I have heard in the past few years. Blending jazz, rock, minimalism and classical music, they have all the hallmarks of a chamber ensemble without using classical instruments, privileging instead Rick Scott’s eerie electronic effects and Erik Lindgren’s stunning piano, whose rippling, liquid sound gently accompanied the slow setting of the sun. Michael Bierylo’s guitar and Ken Field’s woodwinds complemented the keyboard textures with elegance and emotion; while percussion was added rather sparingly by a drum machine and, very occasionally, a floor tom. The hypnotic, often soothing cadence of their sound – intricate but without the knotty, daunting feel of the average RIO/Avant band – had a cinematic yet touchingly intimate quality. When I was still able to concentrate on the music, I mentally compared them to The Muffins, who had headlined my first ProgDay in 2010. Though the Baltimore band have more of a rock flair, with percussion playing a bigger role, the two outfits’ approach is in some ways similar. All in all, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic regaled the audience with some astonishingly beautiful moments, and I would love to listen to them again in more favourable circumstances.
Like other attendees, we had bought tickets for the Dead Can Dance concert in Durham on the same evening. However, we both realized that we were so exhausted that all we wanted was a quiet meal followed by some well-deserved rest. In any case, we were in no shape to enjoy the show, even in the comfort of an air-conditioned theatre. So we headed back to the hotel, had dinner and went to bed, in order to be in properly refreshed for the following day.
On Sunday morning, the temperature was marginally more comfortable than on the previous day, and the cloudy sky promised at least some respite from the sun. The humidity level, however, was still very high, and did not encourage moving around too much. At 10.30, right on schedule, New Hampshire trio Dreadnaught took to the stage, and treated the audience to a set that someone aptly described as “how Yes would sound if they played country music”. Led by Bob Lord’s massive Rickenbacker sound, the trio are one of the best-kept secrets of the US progressive rock scene – in spite of having been around for over 10 years. Clearly comfortable in a live setting, the three members moved around with plenty of energy, and their highly eclectic take on the classic power trio format combined sterling chops with a friendly, relaxed attitude that put the crowd at ease. The American roots of their sound – country, bluegrass and also a hint of blues – got added spice from some heavier touches (which occasionally put me in mind of Rush’s instrumental output) – somewhat similar to Karcius in approach, though more focused and with better songwriting. Drummer Rick Habib complemented Lord’s powerful yet intricate lines with his dynamic though never overstated drumming, and also supplied occasional lead vocals. As in the case of Karcius, Dreadnaught work best as an instrumental trio, with Justin Walton’s guitar contributing melody and a bit of a sharp edge to the complex patterns laid out by the rhythm section. Such demanding music can easily become a chore for listeners if not supported by an adequately light-hearted attitude, but Dreadnaught looked as if they were thoroughly enjoying themselves, and communicated their visible enthusiasm to the crowd in spite of the draining heat.
By the time Doctor Nerve made their appearance on stage, the sky had turned very dark. Sparse drops of rain began to fall, thunder rumbled overhead, and the sense of relief from the heat mingled with worry. Summer storms in that region are not to be taken lightly, as they can be extremely violent, and being caught by one of them in an open field was a potentially dangerous situation. However, the New York-based ensemble’s pyrotechnic performance managed to drive the clouds away. Led by charismatic guitarist Nick Didkovsky – a consummate frontman with an endearingly spunky attitude and wacky sense of humour – the veteran eight-piece had been introduced as a brain-melting experience, which was not far from the truth. Definitely the kind of band that is bound to send traditional-minded prog fans running from the exits at high speed, they delivered a set that, while characterized by a high level of energy, also offered moments of exquisite beauty – as in the slow, meditative track dedicated to the memory of Niall Coti-Sears, Paul Sears’ son, killed in Afghanistan at the end of June. Doctor Nerve was also the only band that included a woman in their lineup – keyboardist Kathleen Supove, a classically-trained pianist with a remarkable stage presence in spite of her petite frame. While Didkovsky’s blistering guitar infused a strong metal component in the band’s music, the impressive horn section (featuring Yves Dubois on soprano sax, Ben Herrington on trombone, Rob Henke on trumpet and Michael Lytle on bass clarinet) propelled the sound in a thoroughly exhilarating way, while the rhythm section of Jesse Krakow (bass) and Leo Ciesa (drums) adroitly set the pace, keeping up with the music’s unpredictable shifts. Indeed, in my mind I described Doctor Nerve as “a big band with a solid foundation of metal riffs, mixed with some seriously punk attitude.” Though their music is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, many of the attendees thought they were one of the undisputed highlights of the festival.
With a storm threat successfully averted, the heat and humidity had already made their comeback when Consider The Source’s turn on the stage arrived. The three young band members, all dressed in white, loose-fitting clothing that gave a nod to the Eastern component so prominent in their music, were not exactly well-known to most of the crowd, in spite of being very active on the live circuit of the New York/New Jersey region. Like other bands invited to perform at prog festivals for the first time, they were not familiar with the progressive rock scene, as they had previously associated the genre with the symphonic bands of the Seventies and their devoted followers. With four albums under their belt, and extensive touring experience both in the US and abroad, they were obviously very much at home on a stage. Dashing guitarist Gabriel Marin, his blonde mane hidden beneath a quirky cap, sported an obviously custom-made contraption – a fretless double-necked guitar – that allowed him to produce a wide range of sounds. Like many modern instrumental bands, they had a hard, almost metal edge that elicited comparisons with the likes of ProgDay alumni Canvas Solaris and Scale The Summit, though tempered by the warm, organic sound of ethnic percussion. The Indian influence, though less evident than in a quintessential “Indo-prog” band like Shakti, came often to the fore, seamlessly intertwined with fiery fusion and hypnotic space-rock cadences, driven along by bassist John Ferrara and drummer Louis Miller, who tackled elaborate, King Crimson-style polyrhythms with consummate skill. Like a bare-bones Mahavishnu Orchestra (stripped of violin and keyboards) on massive amounts of steroids, modern enough to appeal to the younger, jam-band set, but also with a clear jazz-rock bent – occasionally laced with a funky swagger – that emerged particularly towards the end of their set, Consider The Source took no prisoners, and their blistering performance earned them many new fans.
We had seen headliners Ilúvatar barely two months ago at the Jammin’ Java, so when their turn came (somewhat late on schedule) we were in a relaxed mood, knowing that their set would be not as demanding than most of the other bands, though definitely every bit as good in terms of quality. The Baltimore quintet were the only band on the lineup to fit the conventional prog mould, though laced with classic and hard rock influences, and solidly song-based – in this respect almost paralleling 2010 Saturday headliners Flash. This was in some ways an even stronger performance than the one witnessed in early July, with lead vocalist Jeff Sirody increasingly at ease in his frontman role. The set opened with longer, more complex compositions, where the influence of Genesis (especially their late Seventies period) was unmistakable, and Jim Rezek’s masterful keyboards got their chance to shine and wow the audience, then moved on to the more streamlined material, in which Sirody’s voice was allowed to rock out. The rhythm section of Dean Morekas (the barefoot bassist) and Chris Mack provided a solid foundation for Rezek and Dennis Mullin’s clear, melodic lead guitar. Unlike other so-called “neo-prog” bands, Ilúvatar avoid sounding cheesy or overtly derivative, and their keen sense of melody makes them eminently listenable, even for those who – like myself – prefer more spice than sugar with their music. With extensive experience as a live outfit (festivals included), Ilúvatar were like a well-oiled machine, and each member gave his best on stage. All in all, it was a very enjoyable performance – which ended when the sun had already disappeared from the horizon and darkness was setting in – and the perfect conclusion to a day characterized by a high intensity quotient.
After helping with the clean-up, we headed back to the hotel to get changed and have some dinner before the customary end-of-festival poolside party. Unfortunately, the weather was not yet done with us, and treated us to a veritable display of pyrotechnics – a fierce heat storm with wild streaks of lightning in the night sky, copious rainfall, and the added excitement of a tornado warning. Needless to say, there was no going near the pool in that weather, but – thanks to the kindness of the staff – the party was held in the hotel lobby, and a great time was had by all.
It was with a touch of sadness that we said goodbye to our friends on Monday morning, before we headed home again. The past weekend was not one that will be easily forgotten, in spite of the weather’s lack of cooperation. Everything else had been perfect, from the music (as usual, enhanced by the pristine sound quality) to the choice of caterers, far superior to the previous years. However, probably the most positive feeling I brought home from the festival was seeing the much-reviled US prog community rally together and decree the edition’s unqualified success, with an almost unprecedented amount of tickets sold, and the presence of some new, younger faces among the audience. The realization that NEARfest is over for good and the FarFest cancellation must have sounded a wake-up call for those who want the scene to thrive, and it was enough to guarantee the festival’s survival for at least another year – and hopefully much longer.
Interestingly, the majority of the bands on this year’s lineup were not easily tagged as “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. On the other hand, their music owed very little to the newfangled (and often soporific) “post-prog” trend spearheaded by Porcupine Tree and their ilk, and offered instead an exciting blend of raw energy, endearing quirkiness and serious chops, liberally spiced with world-music influences. In particular, the power trio format seems to be a perfect fit for the ProgDay stage, as proved by this year’s lineup as well as last year’s, which saw spectacular performances from the likes of Mörglbl, Zevious and Freak Kitchen.
Even more so than the previous editions I had attended, ProgDay 2012 was a celebration of the sheer power and joy of live music. The very atmosphere of the festival, by encouraging bands and audience members to mingle before and after each set (and not just at the hotel bar for the often cliquish “after-parties”), does not foster the self-centered antics that have occasionally marred higher-profile events. Spending a whole weekend together reinforces the impression of an almost family-like occasion that the larger scale of the other festivals does not allow. And then, even if the open-air setting makes it easy to “tune out”, so to speak, it is also much easier to concentrate by just sitting in your chair and letting the music sink in without the restrictions of a theatre – however comfortable it might be. There is also very little resembling the painstaking dissection of every single note or stage moment that accompanies the bigger festivals. Even if ProgDay may look like a country picnic rather than a “serious” event, the people who attend it year after year are as seriously into the music as those who crowd the hallowed halls of the Zoellner Arts Center.
As usual in my event reviews, the final paragraph is dedicated to all the people who made the festival a success – first of all, chief organizer Michael Bennett and his far-reaching vision, the organizing committee, all the volunteers who worked hard in spite of the punishing heat, the ultra-professional sound and stage crew, and obviously all of the bands. On a personal level, I would also like to thank the collective members of Ephemeral Sun and Accordo dei Contrari, Kathleen Supove of Doctor Nerve, Bob Lord of Dreadnaught, John Ferrara and Louis Miller of Consider The Source, Debi Byrd, Paul and Debbie Sears, “Romantic Warriors” José Zegarra Holder, Adele Schmidt and their daughter Paloma, Mike Potter of Orion Studios, Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records, Lew Fisher, Jeff and Coralita Wilson, Rick Dashiell, Jon and Andrea Reed, Noel Levan and Laura Dent, fellow Stranglers fan Steve Astley, Chris Lamka, Chris Buckley, John Hagelbarger, Mike Visaggio Missy Ferguson, Connie from Missouri (with whom we had a nice talk about cooking), Judson J. Patterson and his fantastic Italian-style sodas, our dear friends Michael Inman and Djalma Carvalho, and – last but not least – the lovely Helaine Carson Burch, who provided some of her outstanding photos for this review.