Though 2016, unlike the past couple of years, has been a relatively positive year for me, I am still suffering from an overload of stress. As a consequence, in the weeks leading to the festival I was not really “feeling” it as I usually do. Coupled with a few minor physical issues, this state of affairs might have resulted in a definitely lower-key ProgDay. However, I am happy to report that, even if I was not at my best, my enjoyment of the festival as a whole did not suffer at all. Things might have been much worse if the weather had been a repeat of 2012, with its killer heat and humidity – something I deeply feared, after two very hot months. However, the weather was the best I have ever experienced in my seven years as a ProgDay attendee – even better than last year. Being able to wear a lightweight jacket on Saturday morning and evening felt almost like a luxury, and even Sunday’s warmer temperature was thoroughly pleasant and comfortable.
The days leading to what has become one of the bright spots of the year for us and a lot of other people were rife with uncertainty because of the whims of Mother Nature, embodied by a pesky hurricane/tropical storm named Hermine. Forums and social media abounded with posts of people following every twist and turn of the weather situation, while the organizers, already on site, were pondering whether to move the first day of the festival to the back-up venue – something that could have proved to be a much bigger headache than the rain. While we had left our Northern Virginia home under a sunny sky, the cloud cover intensified as we drove south, though the rain only made its appearance as we were nearing the hotel. On Friday afternoon, it rained on and off, but never excessively, and everyone was elated when the decision to hold the first day at the farm was announced. ProgDay’s idyllic outdoor setting is one of the festival’s biggest charms, especially for people who come from urban areas and see too much asphalt and concrete in their everyday life.
Entering the lobby of the Comfort Inn and seeing familiar faces after a year or more is always a rewarding experience. This year we were particularly happy to find our friend Michael Inman, back in the fold after a year’s absence. The afternoon was spent reconnecting with friends and acquaintances, as well as a bit of shopping. We left early for dinner at our regular Friday night spot – the excellent Mexican restaurant just down the road – and, after some more after-dinner socializing in the lobby, we headed off to bed.
Saturday morning dawned nice and cool, cloudy but with no rain in sight. Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the first day was impaired by an almost sleepless night, and during the second set I was feeling rather down. Thankfully the cool breeze helped clear my head a bit, though I would be lying if I said that I was able to revert completely to my normal self.
Though Luz De Riada had been scheduled to perform two years ago, some snag intervened to prevent their participation. A project by former Cabezas de Cera member Ramsés Luna with a revolving cast of gifted musicians from Mexico and other Latin American countries, the band has released a trilogy of albums titled Cuentos y Fábulas. Since everything Ramsés touches seems to turn into gold (as witnessed by Pascal Gutman Trio’s stellar performance at last year’s edition), they were one of the bands I was most interested in seeing. The presence of bassist Luis Nasser (of Sonus Umbra/Might Could fame) was an added bonus, as I had never been able to see him on stage, despite having known him for a few years. My expectations were not disappointed, because Luz De Riada played an outstanding set. Luis’ spirited introductions were entertaining as well as informative, and the music possessed all the qualities I look for in a progressive rock band – mysterious, edgy yet melodic, and full of tantalizing ethnic influences, not to mention very original. Though some echoes of King Crimson surfaced at times (not a bad thing at all in my book), there was no whiff of derivativeness in the band’s performance. They also put up a great show, with Ramsés playing woodwinds and at the same time triggering intriguing MIDI effects, and Luis dominating the scene with his impressive bass playing and charismatic figure. Guitarist Aaron Geller (also a member of acoustic guitar quartet Might Could) and drummer Brandon Cameron were no slouches either, each of them contributing to the tight, heady fabric of the music. Luz De Riada were definitely one of the best openers ever seen at ProgDay, and a band I hope to see on stage again soon.
The second band on the Saturday menu was a completely unknown quantity to me and to most of the other attendees – rather unusual for a group of people who tend to be knowledgeable about the most obscure acts under the “progressive” umbrella. Jonathan Scales Fourchestra brought to the ever-eclectic ProgDay roster the sound of an instrument not generally associated with “our” genre, the steel pan drums. The talented trio (not a quartet, in spite of the name!) from Asheville – featuring Scales together with bassist Jay White and drummer Chaisaray Schenk – played a set of eclectic jazz-rock driven by the distinctive sound of the steel pans – a mainstay of Caribbean musical genres such as calypso. Like most other idiophones, the steel pans can be rather overpowering, and after a while my attention started to wander a bit – a situation not helped by the fact that I was suffering from lack of proper sleep. However, a lot of people (including my husband) loved them, and I believe they were a great way to expose the ProgDay crowd to something different from the usual progressive rock fare.
As I had committed to helping José and Adele (of Romantic Warriors fame) with interviewing the members of Deus Ex Machina for their upcoming RPI feature, I completely missed Eye’s set. Judging by the music I could hear from the back of the field, where we had retreated to find a quieter spot, I could detect Hawkwind, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath influences – which, as a fan of classic hard rock, made me regret what I was missing, especially after hearing about how keyboardist Lisa Bella Donna had rocked the Hammond organ, one of my favourite rock instruments. What I had heard of the band’s recorded output had left me rather cold, but I suspected (and rightly so) that they would deliver the goods on stage. Most of the people I spoke to when I came back to the field found them hugely entertaining, and thought they were an excellent addition to the festival. Retro-oriented music, when done properly, and with an eye (pardon the pun) to entertainment, is something I can enjoy as much as more modern stuff.
Because of the above-mentioned interview, I had got to know my fellow Italians Deus Ex Machina quite well before they stepped on stage for their long-awaited set – the first on US soil in over 10 years, and 20 years after their first ProgDay. With an excellent new album (Devoto) out, the first after an eight-year hiatus, the Bologna-based six-piece had lost none of the energy and drive that had made them firm favourites of the US prog audience. Fronted by charismatic vocalist Alberto Piras, the band performed at the top of their game, their flawless proficiency put at the service of the music rather than the other way around. While they would never claim to be the most innovative of bands, their intense yet melodic brand of Mediterranean-flavoured jazz-rock (with an emphasis on the second part of the word) translated seamlessly to the stage, and provided a perfect closer to the day. As a native Italian speaker, I especially appreciated the way Alberto wraps his stunning voice (reminiscent of the late, great Demetrio Stratos, but also very much his own) around the syllables of the often long, complex words he uses in the song lyrics. All the six members interacted with the ease of a long association (made even stronger by the bonds of friendship), without once giving the impression of sacrificing spontaneity on the altar of technical skill. All in all, Deus Ex Machina’s performance was every bit as good as I expected, and ended the day on a very satisfying note. For me it was also a real pleasure to spend time with the band members, speaking my native tongue and exchanging impressions on a wide range of subjects.
After a lovely Japanese-Korean dinner with a group of friends, we retired relatively early, and I was able to enjoy a refreshing night’s sleep, which definitely made the festival’s second day more enjoyable. The weather was as gorgeous as it can be in early September – sunny yet breezy, and blissfully dry. By 10.30, the first band of the day – Philadelphia quartet In the Presence of Wolves – were ready to take to the stage. As usual on Sunday mornings, people were somewhat sleepy, and the organizers had chosen the opening act with that in mind. As with Eye, the music I had heard prior to the festival had not made much of an impression; however, as it is generally the case with young bands, I was expecting them to deliver the goods live – and they did. A couple of songs into their set, everyone on the field was wide awake, some even headbanging and throwing shapes. The band’s boundless energy was a pleasure to watch, and their hard-hitting music had enough sophistication to please those prog fans open-minded enough not to cringe at the very mention of metal. Though they were obviously not used to prog audiences, the members of In the Presence of Wolves were thrilled at the opportunity to perform at ProgDay. To be perfectly honest, I found the vocals a bit of a turn-off at first (in part due to the sound problems that plagued most of the day); however, as a whole I enjoyed the set, whose high point was a cracking cover of The Mars Volta’s “Goliath”, one of my favourite songs by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s crew.
Among the last bands to be announced, Long Island quartet Ad Astra was another band I had not been acquainted with before the festival. Led by guitarist Joe Nardulli, they play a brand of instrumental prog that might be labeled as “symphonic fusion”, based on the interplay between guitar and keyboards. Unfortunately, the sound issues that had started rearing their ugly head during the previous set came into full force while Ad Astra were on stage, especially affecting the keyboards, whose tinny, Eighties-style sound did not do the music any favours. Though the band members’ technical skill could not be faulted, and their enthusiasm at being part of the festival was palpable, Ad Astra’s music was fluid and pleasant but hardly memorable. The compositions blended into each other without a lot of variation, eventually fading into the background, and the band’s rather static stage presence compounded the issue. On the other hand, while I and other friends found it hard to connect with the music, many other attendees seemed to appreciate what they were hearing – which is just how things should be. One of ProgDay’s strengths lies in its eclectic lineups, offering something for everyone. As much as I would love a whole lineup made of cutting-edge bands, a good festival needs variety, and ProgDay has always offered variety in spades.
Together with Deus Ex Machina and, to a certain extent, rising stars Bent Knee, Discipline were ProgDay 2016’s biggest draw, and not only for sentimental reasons. The return of the “house band” of the festival’s first six years accounted for much of this year’s above-average attendance. The only “traditional” prog band on the lineup, Discipline bring to the genre that sense of angst and darkness perfected by Van Der Graaf Generator in prog’s heyday. Though these days Matthew Parmenter sits behind the keyboards, his white face paint and all-black garb his only concessions to theatricality, he lets his measured gestures and facial expressions speak as effectively as his whole body did when he was a full-fledged frontman. At ProgDay he was at the top of his game, at times wielding his voice like a weapon, at others whispering almost soothingly. With a longer than average set that comprised a whopping three epics – the magnificent “Rogue”, as well as “Crutches” and “Canto IV” – they pulled out all the stops. Guitarist Chris Herin (also a member of fellow Detroit outfit Tiles) finally got to put his stamp on the material, especially during the aforementioned “Rogue”, which relies a lot on the interaction between keyboards and guitar. While the new track premiered for the benefit of the ProgDay audience, “Life Imitates Art”, left me somewhat cold, the overall strength of the material, coupled with the band’s flawless performance, made for a deeply satisfying experience, which not even the ever-present sound issues could affect. The set’s emotional punch was intensified by Peter Renfro’s warm-hearted introduction, reminiscing about the festival’s early years, especially that edition of 20 years ago that saw Discipline and Deus Ex Machina share the Storybook Farm stage for the first time.
Hot on the heels of their first European tour, Boston sextet Bent Knee arrived on the ProgDay stage surrounded by high expectations. In the past year or so, they have come from being an unknown quantity to reaping huge amounts of praise, fast becoming one of the modern prog scene’s highest-touted acts. I actually was one of the first people to discover them through their second album, Shiny-Eyed Babies (mentioned in my 2014 year in review article), and was glad to see that I was not wrong about their potential. Having heard of their stellar performance at ROSfest 2016, when I saw them at Orion Studios in May, my expectations were not disappointed, as their show there packed a visceral punch that left my hands aching for some time because of too much enthusiastic clapping. However, their ProgDay set did not connect with me in the same way, even though I am quite sure most of the problem lay with me rather than the band. Not only was I feeling tired at the end of the day, but the sound (again!) did not do the band justice, especially as regards Courtney Swain’s powerful vocals. A Kate Bush for the 21st century, this young lady is possessed of remarkable pipes, of which she is in full control. Unfortunately, the sound overemphasized her voice’s piercing quality, with rather uncomfortable (occasionally even painful) results. I was also a bit puzzled by their choice of playing most of their songs without pausing to interact with the audience as they had done at Orion – whose intimate setting provided a more suitable frame for their highly individual take on edgy “wonky pop”. That being said, Bent Knee were a big hit with most of the crowd, and deservedly so. The front line of Courtney, violinist Chris Baum, guitarist Ben Levin and bassist Jessica Kion, assisted by Gavin Wallace-Ainsworth’s textural drumming, was a delight to watch – particularly during their blistering rendition of “Way Too Long”, complete with a Pete Townsend-like jump from Levin, rousing chorus and all-round antics not frequently seen in a prog milieu – a fitting climax to an outstanding edition of the festival.
Though the female presence on stage was not as noticeable as in past years, the bands that performed at ProgDay 2016 were remarkable for their ethnic diversity – which unfortunately does not yet extend to the audience. The growing involvement of a younger generation of musicians also bodes well for the future of the progressive scene, even if a lot of the music played at ProgDay does not conform to the standard prog template. In my view, this is one of the festival’s greatest strengths. Over the years, ProgDay has become a showcase for the finest new progressive music, and its bucolic quaintness does not disguise the fact that its musical offer has consistently been top-notch in every sense. Dispensing with the trappings that have proved to be the weakness of other events (which means not having to rely on big-name draws), and having secured the unwavering support of a strong core of attendees, the festival has come out of the shadows, and displayed a staying power few people would have bet on when it first started. I am also glad to say that this year’s attendance was definitely more than satisfactory, so much that I even managed to miss a couple of people in the crowd!
As usual at the end of my review, I would like to thank the organizers, the volunteers and everyone involved in making ProgDay 2016 an unqualified success. The experience is always so intense that, upon getting back home, it feels as if we have been gone for a month instead of a mere three days. Knowing that ProgDay 2017 will happen, and that the first three bands have already been secured (though only one was officially announced) makes the long wait for next year’s Labor Day weekend both harder and easier to bear. It was a wonderful, restorative weekend, and I am happy to have made some new friends during this edition. The definition of “family reunion” that is often applied ProgDay was never more apt. It is also heartening to see a growing number of young participants (such as the very cool Thomas, the son of our dear friend HT Riekels), as well as a strong contingent of “prog ladies”, immortalized this year in a group photo that should put paid to the tired old cliché that women do not like progressive music. The only negative (besides the lack of bassoons)? That it was over way too soon!