You cannot get lucky all the time, as this year’s edition of ProgDay abundantly proved. Indeed, while last year the weather had been as perfect for early September as anyone could have wished – sunny yet cool, breezy and dry, which made spending two days outdoors a real delight – this time, especially on the festival’s first day, we got a nice taste of typical Southern US summer weather, with relatively high temperatures made much worse by humidity close to 80% . Every time I checked the weather forecast in the days before the event, my heart sank lower and lower, and I have to admit that – as a staunch hot-weather-hater – I was more than a bit worried. Thankfully, nothing bad happened, at least to me (one of my fellow attendees suffered heatstroke and had to be taken to hospital), though most people’s enjoyment was somewhat marred by the unrelenting onslaught of the heat and humidity.
Despite the lack of cooperation on the part of the weather (which, considering the recent hurricane threats on the US East Coast, might have been far worse), ProgDay 2011 was an unqualified success. With a top-notch lineup representing the very best of modern-day prog, plenty of variety to satisfy even the most jaded fan, and – most important of all – lashings of humour and pure fun (two words that are not often associated with the prog scene), the festival managed to wipe out the bad taste still lingering months after the traumatic cancellation of NEARfest (whose future, at the time of writing, still hangs in the balance), and restore at least in part my faith in the future of progressive rock. No event can survive for 16 uninterrupted years without good reason – in this particular case, a healthy mix of humility, dedication and open-mindedness. Even if ProgDay has never aspired to the grandeur of other events, with their state-of-the-art theatres and “prestigious” lineups, it has acted as a showcase for a wide range of subgenres within the prog spectrum, and provided a springboard for up-and-coming bands, both domestic and international. And then, last but not least, the festival has been able to create – much more so than its higher-end cousins – an authentic community spirit, where everyone brings something to the table, avoiding the cliquish atmosphere that has often spoiled the experience of other events for those who are in some ways outsiders.
This year we set out on Friday morning, in order to avoid the Labour Day weekend traffic later in the afternoon, so were able to spend some quality time with friends at the renovated Comfort Inn Hotel – and eat way too much food, as often happens in such happy occasions. The anticipation for the event ran high, and attendance was noticeably up from last year, when the festival had been penalized by the lack of the coveted “international” bands, in spite of a superb lineup showcasing some of the finest acts on the North American scene. This year, the NEARfest cancellation had encouraged more people to head South, and – even if still far from the record highs reached on previous editions – the increase was noticeable as soon as we reached the festival grounds on Saturday morning. In spite of their constant fight with financial strictures, the organizers had managed to put together an incredibly tight lineup, catering to all progressive tastes. Even the two cancellations – first Czech band Uz Jsme Doma, then Sunday headliners Quantum Fantay – did not undermine the strength of the musical offer.
The heat building up on Friday afternoon did not show any promise of abating the following day, though when we reached the beautiful festival location at Storybook Farm things were still relatively pleasant. Photographs do not do full justice to the beauty of the surroundings, the green field ringed by woods where you can hear the echo of the music if you walk far enough from the stage area. The lack of rain in the summer months was made particularly evident by the clouds of dust raised by the cars approaching the festival premises (hence the title of my review), and the dry, prickly feel of the grass. Thankfully, in the morning and early evening a breeze blowing from the trees made things bearable, and my lightweight folding chair allowed me to move around in order to catch it. There was no respite from the sun, however, and leaving the shelter of the covered pavilion meant being hit by the full force of its rays, especially in the early hours of the afternoon.
Half of the bands on this year’s lineup were instrumental, and Milwaukee-based quartet Fibonacci Sequence introduced the festival in style. After having braved a 15-hour drive to reach North Carolina, the four musicians treated the crowd to almost 90 minutes of intricate yet effortlessly flowing music that showed an impressive level of maturity. Though their debut album, the excellent Numerology, had been recorded as a trio with a guest bassist (former Portal/Cynic member Chris Kringel), the band now feature the considerable talents of bassist Chad Novell, who looked more like a member of a modern metal outfit than a prog musician. However, for all the keen edge present in their compositions, Fibonacci Sequence are a full-fledged progressive rock band whose remarkably clean sound was flattered by excellent acoustics that allowed each instrument to be heard clearly and distinctly. As I wrote in my review of Numerology, they are one of those rare bands that have managed to achieve a sound of their own – even if they jokingly refer to themselves as “Rush with keyboards”. Like the Canadian trio, their music is eclectic but deeply cohesive, built on the solid foundation of the outstanding rhythm section of Novell and drummer Tom Ford (whose sleek interplay was riveting to watch), which allows Mike Butzen’s guitar to unfold all its melodic range, with Jeff Schuelke’s keyboards adding layers of depth. Their warm yet inobtrusive interaction with the crowd revealed their experience as a live act, and their heartfelt tribute to Kopecky drummer Paul Kopecky, who passed away two years ago, was particularly touching. In today’s materialistic, cutthroat world, it is heartwarming to see musicians from a particular region form a bond and work together towards the diffusion of non-mainstream music. Kudos to Fibonacci Sequence for being part of this trend, and for sharing their appreciation of their fellow Wisconsin artists with the ProgDay crowd. All in all, they are a very tight unit, who deserve as much exposure as they can get, especially among devotees of instrumental prog.
Another fine example of the thriving New Jersey prog scene, The Tea Club had been the last band to be announced, a mere couple of weeks before the event. Having followed them for the past three years, I had hoped to be able to see them on stage for a while, and was elated on their behalf at the announcement, as a festival slot can be a turning point for a band, exposing them to a much larger audience than their normal live appearances. In spite of their collective young ages, the fresh-faced members of The Tea Club – now extended to a six-piece – are accomplished musicians and songwriters, their music astonishingly complex and multilayered, even if not always conforming to traditional prog standards. After the departure of drummer (and founding member) Kyle Minnick, brothers Pat and Dan McGowan recruited a new bassist (Charles Batdorf), drummer (Joe Rizzolo) and third guitarist (Jim Berger), while original bassist Becky Osenenko (a classically-trained pianist) took charge of the keyboards, which on their second album Rabbit had been provided by Tom Brislin. Because of Minnick’s involvement in the writing of their 2008 debut album, General Winter’s Secret Museum, they chose not to play any tracks from it, and concentrated instead on Rabbit and some new material. While The Tea Club clearly tread the post-prog path of bands like The Pineapple Thief and Oceansize, with bouts of intensity that may bring The Mars Volta to mind, the complexity of their songwriting goes way beyond most alternative bands.While I had found Rabbit a bit of a step backwards, as it sounded somewhat one-dimensional if compared to the boundless energy of General Winter’s Secret Museum, the material taken from the band’s sophomore effort came positively alive on stage. Enhanced by the seamless instrumental dynamics and the striking stage presence of the McGowan brothers, each of the songs possessed a deeply intriguing quality, with “The Night I Killed Steve Shelley” deserving a special mention. Even the relentless assault of the heat and humidity could not detract from the band’s brilliant set. The new songs reprised the atmospheric, laid-back mood evidenced on Rabbit, though spiked by instrumental surges exuding a keen sense of tension. The McGowan brothers are also fine vocalists, capable of delivering soothing harmonies as well as more aggressive parts, while steering clear of the excessively plaintive tone of post-prog icons such as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke or The Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord. With their sheer enthusiasm and obvious dedication to their music, The Tea Club have enormous potential, and their performance won them many new fans.
Though the weather certainly did no favours to The Rebel Wheel, the Ottawa-based quartet, led by guitarist David Campbell and featuring a highly awaited guest appearance by keyboardist Guy LeBlanc (of Nathan Mahl and Camel fame) delivered a stunning (though somewhat short) set, featuring a slightly modified version of the 30-minute epic “The Discovery of Witchcraft”, the centrepiece of their 2010 album We Are in the Time of Evil Clocks. Being familiar with the album, undoubtedly one of the standout releases of last year, I was looking forward to the band’s set, which was a delight to start to finish – even if, by the time they got on stage, I was feeling somewhat faint, and lay half-slumped in my chair. The music, however, was so riveting that it was impossible not to listen intently. Like a well-oiled machine, the band churned out flawless tune after flawless tune, their choppy, jazzy Crimsonian vibe well complemented by Campbell’s powerful, expressive vocals and LeBlanc’s masterful keyboard sweeps and rumbling organ flurries, while relentlessly driven forward by the splendidly pneumatic rhythm section of Andrew Burns and Aaron Clark. The dark, angular “Death at Sea”, from a 2005 Gentle Giant tribute album, was a particular highlight, with echoes of King Crimson’s “The Great Deceiver”. Though the epic was adapted to the absence of vocalist/saxophonist Angie McIvor (on leave following the birth of her first child), it lost none of its punchy, gutsy effectiveness. An impressively professional outfit, oozing confidence and flair, The Rebel Wheel manage to sound thoroughly modern while paying homage to the great Seventies tradition. I really hope to see them again in the very near future, and will be looking forward to their new album.
In the interval between the third and the fourth set we were treated to an impromptu acoustic guitar solo spot by Jimmy Robinson of Woodenhead (whovwere due to play the traditional festival pre-show at a local club, this year extended also to the Saturday evening). Robinson displayed an astonishing mastery of the instrument, his short but intense performance including versions of Led Zeppelin’s classics “Kashmir” and “When the Levee Breaks”. It was a fitting introduction to another dazzling display of guitar fireworks, this time of the electric variety – courtesy of Mörglbl, introduced by one of the festival’s elder statesmen, Paul Sears of The Muffins. A classic power trio in which Christophe Godin’s scintillating guitar is supported by the hyper-dynamic rhythm section of Ivan Rougny and Aurélien Ouzoulias, the French outfit have often been tagged as jazz-metal, and, while the metal element is an unmistakable component, there is a lot more to their music than just ultra-technical noodling. While listening to their set (in spite of my extreme physical weariness) I could hear a lot of different influences in Mörglbl’s sound, such as funk, blues, Latin music and reggae, besides the obvious rock matrix. Technically awesome and very tight from a compositional point of view, their set was highly energetic, heavy but consistently fluid and never jarring, and, above all, extremely entertaining. With his shaved head, distinctive white goatee and fluorescent yellow guitar, Godin is a consummate frontman, throwing all sorts of funny shapes during his solos, his warm, amusing on-stage banter delivered in excellent English. The band are known for concluding their shows with covers of rock classics reinterpreted in their own inimitable style, and this time was no exception – their lounge-jazz version of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” (the only number featuring Godin’s excellent vocals) was one of the most hilarious moments of the weekend.
After a good night’s sleep, on Sunday morning we felt ready to face another day of great music, and this time the weather was definitely more helpful, with lower humidity levels and a nice breeze making things more comfortable. And a good thing it was, because the second day of the festival promised a lot of intensity, and the audience had better be in their best shape to fully enjoy what was on the musical menu. Opening act Zevious also belonged to the group of bands I had had the pleasure of reviewing in the past two years or so, and I had found their second album, After the Air Raid, one of the most impressive releases of 2009. A power trio based in New York, unlike Mörglbl they projected a rather serious image, in spite of their youth, and proceeded to deliver a set of astounding complexity, chock full of asymmetrical rhythm patterns overlaid by Mike Eber’s clear, piercing guitar, and propelled by Jeff Eber’s monstrous drumming. While not too high on melody, the band’s music never once descended into mere dissonance, and the sheer amount of sound produced by a trio of musicians employing very basic instrumentation was nothing short of astonishing. The unceasing flow of dynamic bottom end provided by Johnny DeBlase’s Fender Jazz bass complemented Jeff Eber’s unbelievable polyrhythms, delivered with effortless simplicity, without the antics that might have been expected from such a gifted drummer. As good as they sounded on CD, Zevious’ music acquired a new dimension on stage, and, when fully unleashed, the band sounded like King Crimson to the power of 3 – despite the “math-rock” or “RIO/Avant” tags so often (and awkwardly) stuck onto them. They are clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, and, although incredibly nice offstage, they were not as communicative towards the audience as most of the other bands – hence my use of the term “serious” at the beginning of the paragraph. Their music, however, speaks for itself, and they have all the time in the world to hone their stagecraft.
Those who, like me, were sitting under the pavilion during Zevious’s set had the opportunity to watch the members of Persephone’s Dream set up their gear on one side of the stage. Though I was not familiar with the Pittsburgh-based outfit’s music prior to the festival, I had read enthusiastic accounts of their latest album, Pan: An Urban Pastoral, released in 2010 – which I knew the band were going to perform in its entirety for the very first time. I anticipated a treat when I saw the incredibly elaborate array of percussion instruments being carefully arranged on the lawn, including a gong and bells and chimes of every description. And, indeed, a treat it was, both musically and visually, even if – as can be expected – the show suffered a bit from being squeezed on a relatively small stage without the use of lightning and the appropriate backdrop trappings. The band, a seven-piece, might have used a little more space, especially the two female vocalists, Josie Crooks (a really beautiful voice, powerful yet melodic) and Leah Martell (who twirled and danced all over the place), who had to change costumes, chase each other and run up and down the stage for most of the set. However, Persephone’s Dream pulled it off superbly. Though by far the most conventionally “prog” of the bands on this year’s bill, they were anything than the kind of derivative, snooze-inducing neo/symphonic fare that sends some fans into fits of ecstasy – as a matter of fact, their sound was quite heavy at times, with Jim Waugaman’s powerful keyboard excursions almost out of ELP’s heyday, accented by John “JT” Tallent’s brilliant percussion work (which has elicited comparisons with Jamie Muir of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic fame). The “urban pastoral” setting – reminiscent in some ways of Peter Gabriel’s vision in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – was also imbued with genuinely menacing overtones, offset by pauses of quiet and gentle birdsong. The dramatic, larger-than-life music had more than a whiff of Italian prog to it – as well as nods to Celtic folklore and even early 20th-century classical music – and the band as a whole sounded more European than American. While those festival attendees who favour the more left-field stuff assessed the band’s performance rather harshly for being a collection of all the worst prog clichés – such as the mythological inspiration and the over-the-top instrumentation (in stark contrast to the minimalistic approach of bands like Zevious or Mörglbl), Persephone’s Dream’s set had an often mesmerizing quality, their music obviously tailor-made for the live dimension.
When people were still in a relaxed mood, following lunch and the consumption of quite a few excellent beers (which, unfortunately, I could not enjoy because, for me, heat and alcohol do not mix well), German quintet Panzerballett, ontheir first US visit, took the stage, and woke everyone up with their unique brand of “wellness death jazz” (I kid you not). In the seven years since their inception, the young but extremely proficient outfit have already earned a fearsome reputation among lovers of the more experimental branches of progressive rock for their highly energetic brand of avant-garde, metal-tinged jazz-rock served with liberal helpings of humour – debunking the commonly held myth of the dour, humourless Germans. Some of the song titles alone were worth the price of admission – “A Vulgar Display of Sauerkraut”, anyone? The on-stage banter of guitarist Jan Zehrfeld (whose English may not have been as fluent as Christophe Godin’s, but still effective in interacting with the audience) was delivered in quiet, polite tones that contrasted with the manic urgency of the music – unabashedly eclectic, cramming a lot of diverse influences in the space of a single number, and spiced with a healthy pinch of irreverence. Nothing is safe from Panzerballett’s imaginative reinterpretations (or rather deconstructions) – the love theme from Dirty Dancing, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” (rechristened “Fake Five”, and played simultaneously in two different tempos), Weather Report’s “Birdland”, all got the Panzerballett treatment, to the audience’s delight. As in the case of Zevious, their music is clearly not for the faint-hearted or those who crave melody and catchy hooks, but their enthusiasm is infectious, and you have to admire a band that proudly claims to improvise every time they are on stage, dispensing with setlists. Though all of the band members were brilliant, powerhouse drummer Sebastian Lanser deserves a particular mention for his unflagging energy and perfect time-keeping.
After such an exhilarating performance, as the evening drew near and the temperature cooled down, the audience was well stoked for headliners Freak Kitchen – currently touring the US as Mörglbl’s opening act, and drafted in at the very last moment after Quantum Fantay’s cancellation (due to airline woes following in the wake of Hurricane Irene). Though I was not familiar with their music, what I had read around the Internet had whetted my curiosity, and I realized that we were in for a pyrotechnic conclusion. Yet another power trio, active since 1992, with seven albums under their belt, the band consists of a guitarist (Mattias Eklundh, aka The Axemaster of Sweden) and drummer (Björn Fryklund) that embody the Scandinavian archetype of tall, lean frames and flowing blonde manes, and a bassist (Christer Ortefors) that was a sight to behold, with his heavily tattooed arms, braided beard, combat helmet and low-slung bass in pure Lemmy style. All in all, Freak Kitchen are the opposite of every prog stereotype, looking (and sounding) like an Eighties thrash metal band with progressive undertones. Extremely gifted in a technical sense, they wrapped up the festival with a bang, combining sheer heaviness with plenty of infectious hooks and a bit of a funky swagger, whipping the crowd to a frenzy, getting the notoriously staid prog fans to get up and dance, headbang and sing along in a cathartic explosion of pure fun. With song titles as wacky as “Teargas Jazz” and “Chest Pain Waltz” (one of the highlights of their set), and influences ranging from Megadeth and Metallica to King’s X and Living Colour with a sprinkling of punk rawness (mostly evident in the vocals), they have a commanding frontman in the soft-spoken Eklundh, who treated the audience to a constant stream of funny quips and anecdotes (like the one about the vibrating dildo belt), and poking gentle fun at the average progger’s obsession with odd time signatures. A memorable ending to ProgDay 2011, even though purists would have been positively horrified.
Although the lovely bucolic setting and general laid-back vibe, reminiscent of a family picnic complete with children, games and dogs, might lead outside observers not to take ProgDay too seriously in musical terms, the consistently high quality of the lineups assembled by the organizers throughout the years gives the lie to this impression. The members of the band selection committee are to be commended for their forward-thinking attitude, which allows attendees to sample a broad range of the many subgenres to be found under the welcoming “prog” umbrella, always striking a perfect balance between accessibility and cutting-edge potential. Unfortunately, it is also true that ProgDay can get away with having a full-fledged metal act as a headliner only because it is basically perceived as not quite as prestigious as the indoor festivals. The cancellation of NEARfest 2011 proved all too clearly the danger of overestimating the open-mindedness of prog fans, and booking anything with dubious prog status can be the kiss of death for even the highest-profile event. However, in spite of the overall lack of support from the US prog community, ProgDay soldiers on, thanks to the help (financial and otherwise) of a core of loyal patrons, and getting better and better with time, as demonstrated by this year’s stellar lineup. This past weekend, on the stage at Storybook Farm, I saw the future of progressive rock – a future that may not look like the Seventies bands that are still widely worshipped, but that is surely every bit as exciting and musically worthwhile. It is up to us to let it prosper, or kill it slowly but inexorably with our obsession with the past.
At the end of my review, I wish to thank everyone involved in the success of ProgDay 2011 – first and foremost the organizers, the band selection committee and all the volunteers (a particularly big thumbs-up for providing a “quiet room” for the numerous prog ladies present at Storybook Farm). Then, as usual, a shout out to all the great people that made our weekend special: the collective members of Fibonacci Sequence, The Tea Club, The Rebel Wheel, Mörglbl and Zevious, John Tennant of Persephone’s Dream, ProgDay founder (and purveyor of musical goodies) Peter Renfro, Michael McCormack, Alan and Amy Benjamin, Helaine Carson Burch, Debi Byrd, Lew Fisher, Doug Hinson, Michael Bennett, Jeff Wilson, Paul and Debbie Sears, Mike Visaggio of Kinetic Element, Rick Dashiell, Eyal Amir – and, last but not least, our dear friends Michael Inman and Djalma Carvalho. Here’s to ProgDay 2012, and many more years of great music!
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