After our highly enjoyable experience at Dunellen’s quaint Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse during last year’s Columbus Day weekend, this year we were looking forward to a repeat – and that in spite of the stress of the past 12 months. The stellar lineup, friendly vibe and gorgeous, early fall weather had made the first edition of New Jersey’s own “small is beautiful” festival an unforgettable occurrence, and things looked very promising for its sophomore edition when the lineup was announced – featuring two iconic US bands such as Echolyn and Discipline as headliners, together with a wealth of up-and-coming progressive talent.
Unfortunately, the unexpected withdrawal of Echolyn not even two months before the event had threatened to put the festival in severe jeopardy, and definitely impacted the overall attendance. US prog fans – even more so than those from other countries – need to see big names on a bill before they will commit money and vacation time, as the sorry tale of ambitious yet aborted ventures such as NEARfest 2011 and FarFest more than abundantly proved. The turnout, however, even if obviously lower than last year, was satisfactory – which (as a silver lining of sorts) allowed a more intimate seating arrangement that made for a more comfortable viewing experience.
Saturday morning felt more like November than early October, with rain, grey skies and rather chilly temperatures that did not encourage lingering outside. In spite of that, a nice crowd gathered before noon to witness the performance of openers Pinnacle, a group of seasoned musicians well known in the North East prog community, with ties to the NJ Proghouse organization. The quartet introduced their newest member, vocalist/keyboardist Matt Francisco, who handled his frontman duties with remarkable aplomb, doing justice to the band’s accomplished songwriting. Of all the bands who trod the Roxy and Dukes stage on Saturday, Pinnacle were probably the only one that could be labeled as “traditional” prog, and they rose well to the occasion, interspersing their own original material with an homage to Marillion’s “Script for a Jester’s Tear”. Although their music (a modern take on the classic Neo-Prog sound) is not exactly my cup of tea (being a modern take on classic Neo-Prog), their enthusiasm, professionalism and warm stage presence won over the audience.
South Jerseyans Out of the Beardspace were already a known quantity for those who (like us,) had attended ProgDay 2013. At the time, I had found them promising and quite entertaining, albeit a tad unfocused. However, the youthful six-piece (none of them is older than 24) had grown by leaps and bounds in the intervening months, with the help of a massive amount of gigging. In fact, they had played until 4 a.m. that morning, and were headed for another show a couple of hours after their NJ Proghouse set. Brimming with energy, the band members bounced unceasingly about the stage; their music, however, while retaining the jammy, spontaneous vibe that had endeared them to the ProgDay crowd, was noticeably tighter. Fronted by the charismatic Kevin Savo – whose impressive stage presence and piercing vocals belie his diminutive size – these modern-day hippies, staunch supporters of a DIY ethos and dedicated environmentalists, showed that there is ample room for the younger generations on the stage of a prog festival – provided the audiences are willing to step out of their comfort zone. Chock full of psychedelic goodness, the band’s musical approach is occasionally reminiscent to that of jam bands, but is clearly evolving in a more focused direction from a compositional point of view. While out of the Beardspace may not be your parents’ prog, they definitely belong under the ever-growing umbrella of modern progressive rock.
Though vaguely familiar with the name, I had not heard any of Lo-Fi Resistance’s music prior to the event, and lack of time prevented me from exploring further. In fact, the comments I had heard about their music being more in singer-songwriter vein than in a conventional prog one proved to be at least partly true. The quartet fronted by young and gifted guitarist/vocalist Randy McStine (also a member of Sound of Contact’s touring lineup) deals in song-based, prog-tinged rock that on more than one occasion reminded me of U2, though without the Irish band’s flamboyance and charisma. While a couple of tracks towards the end of their set contained some interesting instrumental passages, the bulk of Lo-Fi Resistance’s music failed to connect with me, in spite of the band members’ obvious enthusiasm and skill. The crowd, on the other hand, seemed to really appreciate their set, and treated them to a standing ovation.
As I wrote in my review of ProgDay 2014, I was curious to see whether California-based power trio Travis Larson Band’s music would work better in a more intimate setting than it had in the tropical heat of Storybook Farm at 3 p.m. My hunch proved to be correct, as the trio’s set was for me the highlight of a rather low-key day. Travis Larson’ engagingly friendly between-songs banter added interest to the blistering yet fluid music – driving rock-fusion with some warm bluesy undertones, always tight and never descending into pointless shredding. Larson’s on-stage chemistry with diminutive dynamo Jennifer Young – a gifted bassist genuinely in love with her instrument, and a heartwarming example of an attractive woman using her musical talent rather than her looks to impress – was a joy to behold, while powerhouse drummer Dale Moon made quite a few members of the audience wonder whether he was related to another drum legend bearing the same surname. The band’s stagecraft is obviously honed to perfection, and their set provided a welcome shot of pure rock energy.
After a delicious (and way too plentiful for us to finish) dinner at a Peruvian restaurant a few miles down the road, in the company of our friend Robert James Pashman of 3RDegree fame (whom we had not seen in quite a while), we got back to Roxy and Dukes just one or two minutes after The Sensational Francis Dunnery Band had taken to the stage. At the end of a long day of music (and, in my case, not having got enough sleep the previous night), it would have taken something special to hold our attention until 11 pm, but unfortunately this was not the case, and we ended up leaving about half an hour later in order to get some rest. While Dunnery is a very accomplished musician, songwriter and frontman (even when sporting blue tracksuit pants, as he did on this occasion) of a very eclectic persuasion, his music did not particularly resonate with us, and his constant complaints about the sound system came across as rather jarring after a while. On the other hand, having had to replace Echolyn as the Saturday headliner would undoubtedly have been a thankless task for anyone.
After a much better night’s sleep, on Sunday morning I was feeling refreshed and ready to tackle another day of music. The much nicer weather also encouraged us to arrive early to spend some time outside the venue, chatting with people and enjoying the sunshine. I was looking forward to opening act Schooltree – a band I had selected as one of my earliest contributions to DPRP’s Something for the Weekend? feature, and recommended to a few people. The Boston-based quartet, led by another pocket-sized, yet hugely charismatic young woman – the very talented Lainey Schooltree, decked in a half-demure, half-provocative outfit of white blouse and black, tightly laced corset – delivered an hour of delightful art-rock with intriguing Baroque arrangements that owed to Kate Bush and Queen as much as to classic prog. Lainey’s powerful, expressive vocals and keyboard mastery often made me think of a more carefree version of Tori Amos. Alongside songs from the band’s excellent debut album, Rise, we were treated to some very promising material from their forthcoming ‘rock opera’. Lainey and her bandmates deservedly made many fans with their exciting music and friendly, engaging demeanour.
Of all of the bands on the lineup, MVP (Meridian Voice Project) were definitely the most obscure, though I had managed to find enough information about them to learn that they were a jazz-rock-oriented four-piece from New York City who had performed at the NJ Proghouse in 2013. Led by ebullient keyboardist Lloyd Landesman, an obviously experienced, very accomplished artist with and the added bonus of a talent for stand-up comedy, the band played a fiery set of classic, keyboard-driven jazz-rock with plenty of melody and energy that featured a lot of their own material, as well as a few covers (such as Bruford’s famed “Hell’s Bells”, a showcase for the amazing talent of drummer Dana Hawkins) and. With their seamless musicianship and easy stage manner, the band made a splash with the crowd, and many rushed to buy CDs after the show.
The East Coast debut of Los Angeles five-piece Heliopolis was eagerly awaited by many an audience member – especially those who had loved Mars Hollow’s soaring melodies and exhilarating stage presence, and mourned the quartet’s untimely demise. The band did not disappoint, delivering a set that (while somewhat shorter than we were expecting) showcased both the individual members’ considerable skills and their collective chemistry, doing ample justice to the material featured on their recently released debut CD, City of the Sun. With irrepressible bassist Kerry “Kompost” Chicoine prowling the stage, tawny locks swinging and faithful Rickenbacker getting a good workout, and Jerry Beller pounding away at his drum kit, the band went through the five tracks of their album with panache. Keyboardist Matt Brown – looking as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself – lorded over his keyboard rig with abandon, while guitarist Michael Matier cut a more sedate figure, and vocalist Scott Jones swung his microphone stand about in tried-and-true rock fashion, his well-modulated high tenor well suited to the band’s intricate yet upbeat music. Heliopolis also regaled the crowd with an encore – a barnstorming version of The Beatles’ “Help”.
Even though Echolyn had pulled out of the festival, their vocalist Ray Weston had stayed on the lineup to provide a short but well-attended interlude before the Sunday headliners came on. Known for his songwriting skills as well as his soulful, somewhat plaintive voice, the long-haired and bespectacled Weston – accompanied by a sizable acoustic guitar – looked very much as if he had stepped out of grunge’s heyday. His 40-minute set – which included stripped-down versions of Echolyn’s “Headright” and “The End Is Beautiful”, as well as Discipline’s very creepy “The Nursery Year” – offered a break from the orgy of instrumental complexity that is at the heart of every self-respecting prog festival, and was occasionally arresting, though as a whole it probably went on a bit too long.
As I wrote in my review of their 2011 album To Shatter All Accord, I am a relative newcomer to Discipline, one of the trailblazers (together with Echolyn) of the US prog renaissance in the Nineties. However, that long-awaited album was enough to make me a convert, and I spent the past two years kicking myself for having missed the Detroit band’s performance at ROSFest 2012. The praise heaped upon them by some of my friends made me even more impatient to experience them on stage. I am glad to say that my patience was amply rewarded, because on Sunday night Discipline played a blinder that made me forget my ever-present tiredness and the slight burnout that often follows a weekend full of music. The black-clad figure of Matthew Parmenter (wearing his customary white makeup) sitting behind the keyboards was a magnet for everyone’s eyes. His singing voice (quite different from his speaking one) is simply one of the best I have heard in a long time, and his oddly endearing, deadpan humour contrasts with his somewhat forbidding appearance. With distinguished-looking Tiles guitarist Chris Herin subbing for Jon Preston Bouda, and Mathew Kennedy and Paul Dzendzel providing a flawless rhythmic background – ideal for the band’s complex, yet often crushingly heavy mid-tempos – Discipline delivered a perfect two hours of music as powerful as it was devoid of unnecessary flash. Having left his costumes and Gabrielesque performances behind, Parmenter now relies on his measured gestures and facial expressions to convey a depth of emotion than makes many other frontmen seem hopelessly overwrought. Needless to say, I will be counting the days until I see the band again at the Orion Studios on November 8.
As a whole, the second edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend was as successful as the first, even though I believe that having five bands instead of four in an indoor setting can be somewhat taxing for the average music fan’s attention span. On the other hand, the organizers are to be commended for reaching outside the boundaries of conventional prog, and showcasing the many different forms of the genre in this second decade of the 21st century – even if I would have liked to see at least one “cutting-edge” band on the Roxy and Dukes stage. In any case, the third edition of the festival is already in the works, and the first two bands were announced on Sunday night – MoeTar and Necromonkey, both firm favourites of mine.
As usual, at the end of my review I would like to thank the NJ Proghouse “staph” for all their hard work and for allowing us to enjoy a wonderful weekend of music and companionship with like-minded people in very friendly surroundings. I hope that, sometimes during the next 12 months, we will find the time to head to Dunellen again.