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SETLIST
Rob Martino:
The Long Circle I/One Cloud
Conscious Dream
Differential
The Long Circle II

Rob Martino/Phideaux Xavier:
Vultures & Mosquitoes (with Cyndee Lee Rule)
Universal

Phideaux:
Darkness At Noon/Prequiem/Coda 99
Thank You For The Evil
Snowtorch Part 1 Extract/Dormouse – An End [instrumental]
The Search For Terrestrial Life
Doom Suite [Micro Softdeathstar/Doctrine Of Ice 1/Candybrain/Crumble]
Waiting For The Axe/The Claws Of A Crayfish
Abducted
Helix
Coronal Mass Ejection
Microdeath Softstar

Encore:
Tempest Of Mutiny

In spite of its relative closeness to our Northern Virginia home, my husband and I are not frequent visitors to the Orion Studios – much to our detriment, because the very distinctive atmosphere of the legendary Baltimore venue and the constant excellence of its musical offer never fail to make for a memorable experience. It might be said that the Orion is an indoor equivalent of the beautiful surroundings of Storybook Farm (the ProgDay venue), with the audience bringing their own chairs and drinks and mingling with the artists in a way that is light years removed from those overpriced “Meet and Greets” that allow mainstream concert promoters to rake in the big bucks. Sadly, even a niche event like the Two of a Perfect Trio gig of September 24 was not exempt from attempts to cash in on the two bands’ relative notoriety.

The concert planned for the evening of Saturday, October 1 was one of those that manage to draw out even the laziest member of the prog community of the Baltimore/DC area, and even further afield – especially as it was a one-off performance by one of the highest-rated bands on the current prog scene. On a rainy, chilly autumnal evening more suited to mid-November than early October, nearly 100 people flocked to the Orion Studios, some of them having travelled considerable distances; the small space in front of the stage was crowded with folding chairs, and anticipation was running high for what promised to be a night to remember. Phideaux were about to wrap up a very favourable year – which had seen the release of their spectacular eighth album, Snowtorch, followed by a career-defining appearance at ROSfest 2011 in the month of May – with what was expected to be their last performance for quite a while. In fact, the band had announced they would be taking a lengthy break in order to concentrate on the completion of Infernal, the final episode of the trilogy begun in 2006 with The Great Leap and continued with Doomsday Afternoon.

Even though Phideaux’s career as a live outfit started relatively recently, with their participation in the 2007 edition of the Crescendo Festival in France, they seem to have a natural affinity with the  stage – in spite of the obvious practical difficulties involved in setting up a tour with 10 people living in different areas of a large country such as the US. However, those who had been able to attend one of their shows had commented enthusiastically, and Phideaux’s ROSfest appearance consolidated their reputation as one of those acts whose music acquires a whole new dimension in a live setting. A group of uncommonly talented people, most of whom have known each other since childhood, Phideaux’s unique configuration allows each of the members to bring his or her individual contribution to the table in a heady mix of melody, power and passion. Their deeply literate concepts eschew the trite fantasy-based topics often associated with prog, following instead in the footsteps of artists such as Roger Waters, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson  and Peter Gabriel in offering a complete package of music and thought-provoking lyrical content.

The show started right on schedule at 8 p.m. with Rob Martino’s short but delightful Chapman stick solo set. Like Phideaux, Martino had appeared in the Romantic Warriors documentary – whose authors, the indefatigable Adele Schimidt and José Zegarra Holder, were also present, filming the event. While single-instrument sets can sometimes overstay their welcome, Martino’s skill and engaging presence made for compulsive watching and listening. After having witnessed Tony Levin’s astonishing performance just one week earlier, I was looking forward to some more Chapman stick action, this time unencumbered by the presence of other instruments. In spite of his modest, unassuming attitude – he was visibly delighted at having been invited to open for one of his favourite bands – Martino is a real virtuoso, and also a gifted composer. His tightly structured pieces (showcased on his 2010 debut album, One Cloud) describe haunting soundscapes full of melody and complexity, exploiting the considerable possibilities offered by his distinctive instrument, and avoiding any semblance of pointless noodling.

At the end of his set, Martino invited Phideaux Xavier and Pennsylvania-based violinist Cyndee Lee Rule (a classically-trained musician with an impressive discography under her belt) to join him on stage. Rule’s handsome signature instrument, called the Viper, bestowed a stately yet lyrical touch to the interplay between Martino’s stick and Phideaux’s acoustic guitar. The trio played a beautiful version of “Vultures and Mosquitoes” (from Fiendish), followed by a rendition of “Universal” (from Phideaux’s debut album Ghost Story) performed only by Martino and Xavier. While Rob’s solo spot was quite striking, seeing him perform with other artists led me to believe that he would be a great asset to any band.

After a short break for refreshments and social interaction, the time came for Phideaux the band to take the stage. While by no means small in comparison to other venues (including the Jammin’ Java), the Orion stage must have felt somewhat cramped to the 10 members of the band after the ample room provided by the Majestic Theatre in Gettysburg.  However, they arranged themselves in a perfectly conceived triangular shape, with the two keyboardists, Johnny Unicorn and Mark Sherkus, positioned on both sides of “Bloody Rich” Hutchins’ drum kit, bassist Matthew Kennedy sitting on the drum riser, and the rest of the members forming the base of the triangle at the front of the stage. Unicorn, Sherkus and Kennedy’s quiet, unassuming mien was nicely offset by the flamboyance of drummer Hutchins, with his heavily tattooed arms and jaunty hat, while the front line – together with Phideaux the man’s boyish smile and engaging stage manner, and tall, serious-looking guitarist Gabriel Moffat (who is also the producer of all the band’s releases) –  displayed a formidable assembly of female talent: diminutive violinist/vocalist Ariel Farber, willowy lead vocalist Valerie Gracious, and identical twin sisters Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan Moldawsky, purveyors of vocals and various metal percussion. Gracious’ pure yet forceful voice (particularly in evidence on “Crumble” and “Helix”) was a perfect foil for Phideaux’s warm tones, with their slightly rough around the edges note, the harmonies soaring in exhilarating fashion, complementing the crescendo-like structure of most of the songs.

Enhanced by excellent sound quality (even if the drums sounded perhaps a bit too loud in that limited space), Phideaux’s set offered a selection of tracks taken from all their albums except Chupacabras (with pride of place given to their three most recent releases, Doomsday Afternoon, Number Seven and Snowtorch) presented in a somewhat different format than their CD equivalents. This time around, the Snowtorch material was given a starring role, the sheer beauty of the music and vocal performances unfolding in the warm, intimate setting of the venue, brimming with poignancy and intensity; while the rousing encore, the maritime-themed “Tempest of Mutiny”, brought to mind echoes of Jethro Tull and vintage English folk-rock. The folk element of the band’s sound was particularly evident throughout the performance, validating the comparisons with The Decemberists that I had chanced upon in the past few days. Like Colin Meloy’s  crew, Phideaux offer a complete artistic experience; moreover, both bands seem to concentrate on both the masculine and the feminine element – the yin and the yang – though dispensing with any tiresome peddling of mere sex appeal. As I observed in my review of the ROSfest set, Phideaux also manage not to sound like anyone else – pace the remarkably wrong-headed label of “regressive rock” that some nitpickers have stuck on them. While no one in their right mind would state that the band are the second coming of Magma (though, in some odd way, they do resemble them when on stage, especially as regards the central role of women), they transcend any of the influences detectable in their compositions.

It is really unfortunate that practical considerations stand in the way of a full-fledged tour, because Phideaux are tailor-made for the stage. The chemistry between the members is impressive, and the genuine affection and gratitude with which Phideaux the man introduced each of his bandmates, highlighting their contribution to the band’s musical architecture and revisiting the beginnings of his acquaintance with each of them, was extremely moving. Unlike many other bands (prog or otherwise), Phideaux are a tightly-knit group of friends who genuinely care about each other, and because of that they have managed to put together a sort of “cottage industry” that allows them to produce albums almost without relying on outside help

On the whole, the show – nearly three solid hours of utterly brilliant music – was everything that a prog concert should be: not only outstanding from a purely musical point of view, but also full of warmth and a genuine collaborative spirit, enhanced by the intimate, unpretentious setting of the Orion. It also reinforced my conviction that Phideaux have the full potential to become the next “big name” on the modern progressive rock scene – if the fans will allow such a thing to happen, and stop pining for the past. The evening of October 1 proved that, with bands such as Phideaux, prog can still look forward to a bright future.

Links:
http://www.robmartino.com

http://www.bloodfish.com

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A few months ago, fans of King Crimson had reason to rejoice when the amusingly-named Two of a Perfect Trio tour was announced – an extensive North American tour that would feature Adrian Belew and Tony Levin with their respective bands, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio (AB3 for short) and Stick Men. Many of those fans (including myself) had been waiting in vain for a full-fledged 40th anniversary tour, and in 2009 news of its cancellation had caused widespread consternation among the ranks of those who had been unable to attend any of the four 2008 concerts. Even if the release of A Scarcity of Miracles earlier this year brought some respite to the starved Crimson fans, the lack of live action and the uncertainty about the future of the band were discouraging to say the least.

Not surprisingly, about a week before the event, tickets for the date in the Washington DC metro area were already sold out . While other dates of the tour had been booked in medium-sized theatres, the DC gig was slated to take place at a rather unlikely venue, considering the relative fame of the artists involved. In fact, the Jammin’ Java  (as its name suggests) is a café/bar that doubles up as a music club with a regular schedule of evening concerts. Incidentally, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio had performed there in the summer of 2009 (a week or so after the near-legendary performance of Eddie Jobson’s U-Z with Marco Minnemann, Simon Phillips, Greg Howe and Trey Gunn), so the venue was a known quantity at least to one of the artists involved.

Anyway, though rather unconventional and far from capacious, the Jammin’ Java is very conveniently situated for anyone living in the DC metro area, and also quite pleasant and full of character – even if the dim, cellar-like lighting does not allow for a lot of social interaction. For the occasion, though, the venue had been redesigned in order to allow as many people inside as possible: the seating had been removed, with the exception of the small, fenced “VIP area” and the bar benches at the entrance for those who were partaking of food bought on the premises. On my two previous visits to the club, the volume of the music had approached eardrum-shattering proportions; this time around, however, the sound system operated at a manageable decibel level, rendering the use of earplugs unnecessary even when standing very close to the stage. To be perfectly honest, I would have enjoyed the concert even more if I had been able to sit down, but the music was so incredibly good (and plentiful) that even the mild discomfort of having to stand up was considerably lessened.

The morning before the concert, as a warm-up, my husband and I had played the complete “red-blue-yellow” trilogy, and were expecting  an evening to remember, encouraged by some of the comments already available on the Internet. However, the concert exceeded those expectations, with nearly three hours of incredible music and a very warm, friendly atmosphere – and that in spite of its rather stripped-down nature. With no gimmicks or special effects besides a few well-placed lights, the two trios relied only on their considerable experience and creativity – letting the music do the talking, as clichéd as it may sound.

Though the music associated with King Crimson projects an aura of intellectualism and near-unapproachability, and is often indicted of being very “masculine”, lacking the necessary melodic quotient to attract women, there was quite a fair number of ladies crowding around the stage, and none of them appeared to be suffering. Personally, I believe that melody is a very important component of music, and do not generally enjoy “noise” for its own sake. However, King Crimson and its related projects simply transcend any specious conflict between  “accessible” and “difficult” progressive rock. Indeed,  the concert proved once again that King Crimson’s music possesses a freshness and cutting-edge appeal that have not been dimmed one whit by time. Not surprisingly, the music of both trios is indebted to the “mother band”, though not in an overtly derivative way, but rather as a form of development. I firmly believe that, while it is perfectly feasible to sound identical to Yes or Genesis (check the latest Wobbler album for confirmation), sounding exactly like King Crimson is next to impossible – due to the fluid, ever-evolving nature of the band’s musical output.

The concert was opened by Tony Levin’s Stick Men, introducing their new member Markus Reuter, who had replaced Michael Bernier earlier this year. Levin’s warm, gracious interaction with the enthusiastic crowd subtly complemented the sheer intensity of the music – as did his vocals, definitely not “beautiful” in any conventional sense, but still an oddly successful fit for the  band’s sound. Alongside tracks from his 2007  solo album Stick Man and the trio’s latest release, Soup, Levin surprised the audience with a blistering version of “VROOM” that  anticipated what would happen in the last half an hour or so of the show. The trio’s astonishing rendition of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite proved once again progressive rock’s affinity for the works of the great Russian composer; while the rap intro and funky suggestions of  “Soup” were also warmly greeted by an audience clearly more open to all sorts of contaminations than the average fan of traditional prog. Markus Reuter, his serious mien occasionally softened by a friendly smile, with his touch guitar (designed and built by himself) offered a perfect foil for Levin’s acrobatic excursions on the Chapman stick – which included using a bow, Jimmy Page-style, as well as his famed “funk fingers”. With the supreme ease and confidence born of a long partnership, Pat Mastelotto provided an impeccable backbeat, meshing with the riveting patterns woven by the two string instruments, and creating textures of astounding beauty.

After a short break, Adrian Belew and his cohorts – Julie Slick on bass and Tobias Ralph (who had replaced Julie’s brother, Eric) on drums – took to the stage for some more humour-laced mayhem. Belew, ever the genial host, looked in excellent shape, his voice still capable of delivering the goods with confidence and flair, while the instrumental firepower unleashed by the three musicians was quite awe-inspiring.  In some ways, AB3’s music has an even sharper edge than Stick Men’s, as amply proved by the almost 10 minutes of  e, the title-track of the trio’s latest recording effort. Adrian’s twangy, trebly guitar tone, like his voice, may be an acquired taste, but makes for a gripping listening experience, especially when assisted by such an impeccable rhythm section – redefining the old warhorse of the power trio in thoroughly modern terms. As far as I am concerned, however, the real focal point of the trio’s performance was Julie Slick, a monster bassist with an uncanny sense of rhythm, perfectly integrating with Tobias Ralph’s powerful yet restrained drumming– and a refreshing example of a new generation of women artists who are in the business of making great music rather than flaunting their physical charms. Though a very attractive young woman, with her bare feet and mop of curly hair, Julie is a musician first and foremost, who amply deserves all the respect due to any musician as skilled and dedicated as she is.

And then it was time for the “extended Crim-centric encore” everyone in the audience had been waiting for. Though I am usually a bit harsh on people whom I perceive as “living in the past” – failing thus to appreciate the excellent music put out by modern acts – I will proudly admit to not practicing what I preach when it comes to anything King Crimson-related. Having never been so lucky as to see them perform live (when they played in Rome in 2003 I had to give the concert a miss because I was not feeling well), this was the closest I had got to “real” Crimson live action. Moreover, unlike some more conservative proggers, I am a staunch fan of the Eighties trilogy, and Discipline ranks as one of my all-time favourite albums –  so I was understandably stoked at the very idea of witnessing a live performance of some of those classic songs.

The third part of the show began with only the three tenured KC members on stage, effortlessly running through the funky pace and engagingly nonsensical vocals of “Elephant Talk” (in which the influence of Talking Heads’ take on afrobeat was hard to miss) and the more laid-back strains of “Three of a Perfect Pair”. When the trio was joined by Reuter, the audience was treated to a barnstorming rendition of the iconic “Red”, beefed up by the distinctive contribution of the touch guitar. The infectious “Dinosaur” and the angular “Frame by Frame” had the crowd eating out of the two combined trio’s hands; while  the eerie soundscapes and double-drum spot of “B’Boom” (the latter reminding me of Simon Phillips and Marco Minnemann’s drum duel during the Eddie Jobson set in 2009) and the soothing, almost seductive “One Time” laid the groundwork for the show’s white-hot climax.

Though women are not generally expected to like such stuff, “Indiscipline” ranks as one of my all-time favourite King Crimson tracks, so you can imagine my delight when I heard Levin (assisted by Slick and Reuter) sketch the song’s unmistakable intro – this time stretched into an almost unbearable build-up of tension and false starts, then exploding into a maelstrom of slashing, wailing guitar. Heavier than the heaviest metal, and totally mind-blowing, the song oozed with the pure beauty of chaos. After briefly bowing out, leaving the audience wrung out but deliriously happy, the two bands came back on stage and got everyone to dance and sing along with the irrestistible “Thela Hun Ginjeet”. Who said you cannot dance at a prog gig?

If I wanted to nitpick, I might say that I missed some of my favourites – particularly “Level Five” and “Sleepless” with its killer bass line – but I suppose that, after such a performance, quibbling would sound a bit excessive. Almost three hours of music at that level of quality and intensity are anything but an everyday occurrence, and the two trios delivered everything their dedicated fans were expecting – and then some. They made music written over 30 years ago sound as fresh and relevant as if it had been released today, reaffirming King Crimson’s essential role in the continuing evolution of progressive rock.

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TRACKLISTING:

1. Where Are They Now? (20:38)
2. The Mind’s Eye (8:15)
3. Perdu Dans Paris (10:47)
4. Paroxetine 20mg (7:15)
5. A Sale of Two Souls (7:51)
6. GPS Culture (7:00)
7. The Music That Died Alone (7:51)
8. In Darkest Dreams (including “After Phaedra”) (21:25)**

** on DVD disc only

LINEUP:
Andy Tillison – lead vocals, keyboards
Jonathan Barrett – bass
Luke Machin – guitar, vocals
Tony Latham – drums
Theo Travis – saxophones, flute

Just like Phideaux, The Tangent are one of those bands that do not need to be introduced to prog fans – unless they are the kind that adamantly refuses to listen to anything produced later than 1989. In spite of their frequent line-up changes, the fiercely independent outfit, based in an artistically fertile area like the north of England, has always been much more than just a vehicle for the undisputed talent of Andy Tillison – keyboardist, singer and songwriter with a a passion for the making of progressive rock with a keen edge of social and political awareness. Straddling the line between vintage and modernity, The Tangent have established a reputation for thought-provoking music with a healthy dose of dry British wit, and the kind of technical brilliance that is put at the service of the music rather than the other way around.

As the title indicates, Going Off on Two is the logical follow-up to the band’s first live album and DVD, released in 2007 and titled Going Off on One – though the line-up has undergone yet another overhaul (and, at the time of writing, has further changed, with drummer Nick Rickwood replacing Tony Latham). However, while the 2007 set was based on actual concerts, for Going Off on Two The Tangent have chosen a bold, unusual format that may well set a trend within the prog scene. Making full use of a live-in-the studio situation, the band are playing, to all intents and purposes, before a worldwide audience: the numerous fans from over 40 countries that have helped the DVD happen through their financial support. Recorded over a period of five days in December 2010 in a converted abattoir in the town of Stockport (on the outskirts of Manchester), it was inspired by popular Seventies TV programmes such as the legendary “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, whose performances often resulted in much sought-after recordings. The “gig” brings together the best of two worlds, the immediacy of a live performance and the relative comfort of the studio surroundings.

The polar opposite of the shallow, image-driven acts that command the attention of modern audiences, the band members are five refreshingly ordinary men of various ages that look as if they are genuinely having fun, in spite of the high level of complexity of their music – they are even shown dancing outside the studio in the end credits of the DVD. Dressed in comfortable, everyday clothes, obviously at ease with each other, they certainly do not deserve the vicious jibes flung at them by some alleged music journalist with a shockingly unprofessional attitude. Thankfully, progressive rock is not the sole prerogative of young, good-looking hipsters, and prog artists have every right to look like “accountants and sheep farmers” instead of posing as something they are not.

The 90-minute DVD, filmed by experienced documentary director Paul Brow, comes strikingly packaged with stunning cover artwork by renowned artist Ed Unitsky (a longtime collaborator of the band). While it contains few extras, they will definitely be of interest to fans of the band, or even to those who are getting acquainted with them. The images are crisp and clean, and the excellent photo gallery depicts the band members in various, often humorous situations, emphasizing their endearingly down-to-earth attitude. Though mostly focused on technical matters, the interviews are liberally laced with humour, and can be enjoyed even by those who (like myself) are not practising musicians. I especially liked the part in which Tillison explains his use of computers to generate all sorts of keyboard sounds, pointing out that Seventies icons like Emerson and Wakeman were ground-breaking because they made use of cutting-edge technology. So much for the current obsession with anything analog!

The 8 tracks chosen for this landmark performance span all of The Tangent’s almost 10-year career, bearing witness to the band’s remarkable skill in quality control. Indeed, The Tangent bridge the gap between classic prog of the symphonic persuasion and the elegant jazz-rock of the Canterbury scene, with a sound that is at the same time sleek and intricate, melodic and edgy, with plenty of wit thrown into soften the blow of the often barbed social commentary. While Andy Tillison’s voice may be a bit of an acquired taste, and it is definitely not you would call conventionally “beautiful”, its wry, understated tone blends surprising well with the music. And then, in spite of the obvious collective talent involved, The Tangent are not interested in bludgeoning the listener over the head with their technical prowess, even if their obvious dedication to their craft is highlighted in the brief interviews included in the Extras. While the current members of the band may not be as well-known as some of its former members (which, especially in the early days of the band’s activity, led critics to label them as a “supergroup”), they are certainly no less talented. In particular, Tony “Funkytoe” Latham’s drumming is nothing short of stunning, and Jonathan Barrett’s fretless bass delivers the kind of fat, slinky lines that prog fans have come to treasure.

The setlist offers a nicely balanced selection of material, bookended by two 20-minute epics dating from different stages of The Tangent’s career – “Where Are They Now?”, from 2009’s Down and Out in Paris and London,  and “In Darkest Dreams” from their 2003 debut, The Music That Died Alone. Two particularly tasty tidbits for the band’s fans appear in the shape of “The Mind’s Eye”, from the forthcoming album COMM (to be released in the fall of 2011), and Andy Tillison’s homage to German Seventies electro-prog masters Tangerine Dream, “After Phaedra” (which is only featured on the DVD). The former is a tense, edgy number driven by Tillison’s powerfully expressive keyboard work and fresh-faced new guitarist Luke Machin’s sharp yet fluid guitar; while the latter is accompanied by striking psychedelic visuals reminiscent of the Seventies, yet also amazingly modern.The occasional use of split, parallel frames (which in “Where Are They Now?” show idyllic views of England’s “green and pleasant land”) adds further interest to the “concert” footage. However the highlight of the DVD , in visual terms lies in the stunning images of Paris by night that are seamlessly integrated into the band’s performance of “Perdu Dans Paris” – which in the second half of the song, in order to complement the lyrical matter, turn into heart-wrenching shots of homeless people, in stark contrast with the beauty and allure of the Ville Lumière.

The stripped-down setting – so unglamorous to trendy so-called journalists, but perfectly in character with the reality of things for most prog artists (as illustrated in my reviews of gigs at Baltimore’s Orion Studios) – sets off the band’s unassuming, yet dedicated attitude, the undeniable intricacy of the music tempered by humour and level-headedness. The members of The Tangent may not look like rockstars (as none of us thankfully do), but they obviously love every minute of what they do, and the very format of the DVD celebrates the nowadays indispensable synergy between artists and their followers. The Tangent represent a voice of strong integrity in today’s music world, proving to the sceptics that progressive rock in the 21st century is not merely a vehicle for dazzling instrumental performances and lyrical escapism, but can foster social awareness and create a genuine bond between providers and users of art.

Links:
http://www.thetangent.org

http://www.paulbrow.co.uk

www.edunitsky.com

 

 

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SETLIST:
Black Country
One Last Soul
Crossfire
Save Me
The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall
Beggarman
Faithless
Song of Yesterday
The Outsider
Cold
The Ballad of John Henry
I Can See Your Spirit
Sista Jane

————–

Man In the Middle
Burn

Even though this blog is mostly focused on progressive rock in all its forms, I am, and always have been, a fan of good, old-fashioned hard rock. As much as I love the sophistication and intellectual appeal of prog, there is something about the powerful wail of a cranked-up electric guitar, or the equally powerful roar of an iron-lunged vocalist that appeals to both the physical and the emotional side of my nature. It is no wonder, then, to find an album like Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell in my personal Top 10 – and no wonder either that a band like Black Country Communion, in the ten months since the release of their debut album, has immediately become such a firm favourite that both their CDs get almost daily spins in our player.

When the band’s formation was first announced, the presence of Glenn Hughes alone would have been enough to attract my interest, as he has been my favourite vocalist for the past ten years or so, even over such luminaries as Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillan. The first time I saw him perform live, at London’s Mean Fiddler club in October 2003, as soon as he started to sing my jaw dropped on the floor and stayed there for the whole duration of the concert. I have also been following his career closely, and acquired quite a few of the numerous albums he has released over the years – including the near-legendary Hughes-Thrall album (originally released in 1982), and his collaborations with another rock legend, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer magnificence that is Black Country Communion.  Even though supergroups can often be rather hit-and-miss affairs that hardly ever last beyond one album, scuppered by ego clashes or by just failing to deliver the musical goods, BCC are all set to become the glaring exception to the rule. While snobs might superciliously label them as a retro or nostalgia act, accusing them of rehashing old modes of musical expression, or cashing in on some members’ erstwhile fame, in my humble view they possess the same classic, timeless quality of those dishes or items of clothing that never go out of fashion. There is something deeply comforting in the knowledge that, on a music scene all too often dominated by fads, where most of the offer seems to be little more than a triumph of style over substance, there are still artists that choose to play the music they want, and use the same strategies as the trailblazers of the late Sixties – writing brilliant material, releasing albums every few months or so (instead of keeping fans waiting for years), and – most importantly – performing their music on stage, where it really belongs.

Indeed, while  probably a good half of current prog releases are studio-only projects (sometimes carried out through the Internet), Black Country Communion’s music begs to be played in front of an audience. While each of the four members could live comfortably for the rest of their lives without having ever to tread the boards of a stage again, seeing them perform on the evening of June 19  confirmed that this is an outfit tailor-made for raising hell in a live setting. The 9.30 Club – a no-frills venue situated in a slightly seedy (though full of character) neighbourhood of Washington DC, with no seating except for a handful of bar stools, a balcony and a stage raised high enough to make it visible even to small people like me – provided the perfect locale for a profoundly satisfying evening of loud, passionate, flawlessly performed, bluesy hard rock – the kind of entertainment that leaves you physically drained because you have been standing up for over three hours in close proximity to other equally excited fans, dancing, yelling, singing along and pumping your fists in the air, while being hit by the full force of the sound blasting out of a stack of Marshall amps. Indeed, quite a change from being comfortably seated in a theatre, listening intently to the elaborate musical concoctions of your average prog band…

The sizable crowd was a mix of the older and the younger generations; some audience members had brought their children with them, as living proof of BCC’s timeless appeal – unlike, I am sorry to say, far too many stuck-in-a-time-warp progressive rock acts. I had noticed the same thing at the Blue Oyster Cult show in Baltimore, back in February – there is a reason why such bands are often  called ‘classic rock’. When we got in, securing a nice position a few feet from the stage, the anticipation was palpable. At 8 p.m., the lights dimmed, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” started blaring from the PA, eliciting a round of excited yells from the audience. A bit clichéd maybe, but a fitting introduction to one of the very best concerts I have been fortunate to attend.

The concert was the last date of the band’s first US tour – expected, as Glenn Hughes repeated on several occasions, to ‘build a foundation’ for a band that aims to fill a void in the current music market – judging from the comments gathered around the Web, an unqualified success in spite of its short duration. With no opening act, the audience was allowed to concentrate completely on BCC’s show, introduced by the formidable one-two punch of “Black Country” and “One Last Soul” (from the band’s debut album). As expected, Glenn Hughes totally owned the stage, wielding a nicely battered, vintage red and white bass, and displaying a level of energy that many people half his age (he will turn 60 at the end of August)  would kill for. As soon as he opened his mouth to belt out the first lines of the pulsating anthem “Black Country”, there was no doubt that he amply deserved his nickname of ‘The Voice of Rock”.  Most of those who have been lucky to see him live will wonder how those golden pipes of his can withstand the strain of singing with that kind of intensity night after night. Though some people cannot warm to his voice, and are annoyed by what they perceive as over-the-top vocal acrobatics, I am happy to report that he has toned things down considerably, his voice adapting to the music rather than the other way around.

Indeed, BCC is not a Glenn Hughes vehicle, but very much of a tight unit in which everyone works towards the final result. No one with a large ego would share vocal duties with someone as gifted as Joe Bonamassa (whose voice sounds at times like a higher-pitched version of Paul Rodgers). Glenn is also a fine lyricist, capable of penning standard rock anthems as well as deeply emotional pieces, such as the ones dealing with those dark years when he came very close to self-destruction. For somebody who has stared in the face of death, and lost many a good friend in recent years (including his childhood friend and fellow Trapeze member, Mel Galley), he is in superb shape, and his positive attitude  to life is to be commended in an age when people seem to enjoy wallowing in negativity. He is also one of those rare singers whose voice has actually improved with age, in spite of his struggle with various addictions. While in his Trapeze and Deep Purple days Glenn’s voice had occasionally sounded a tad shrill, now it has acquired a depth and versatility that, coupled with his awesome range, allow him to sing just about anything with stunning results.

Though they have been jokingly called “Purple Led” or “Deep Zeppelin”, BCC actually do not sound anything like Hughes’ former band. On the other hand, the Led Zeppelin comparisons are certainly more appropriate: Joe Bonamassa is the 21st century’s answer to Jimmy Page, and has also stepped into the void left by Gary Moore’s unexpected passing in February 2011. In a scene riddled with shredders, Bonamassa’s brilliantly emotional playing and considerable songwriting skills (as shown by “The Battle of Hadrian’s Wall” and “Song of Yesterday”, the latter possibly the highlight of the whole set) are a breath of fresh air, proving once again that great music does not necessarily have to break new ground each and every time. On stage he employed a nice array of guitars, including a double-necked one for the wistful, folk-tinged “The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall” (stirring memories of the immortal “The Battle of Evermore”), and a Flying V for the two encores – as well as a spot of Theremin towards the end of the set.

Keyboard maestro Derek Sherinian plays an even larger role on stage than he does on record, putting to rest any allegations of BCC being a power trio with just a token helping of keyboards. His maple-encased Hammond B-3 provided that indispensable background rumble (though at times it tended to overwhelm the vocals); he also performed the only solo spot of the evening. Jason Bonham pounded away at his rather understated kit (especially if you are used to the likes of Mike Portnoy) with enthusiasm and precision – clearly a very capable drummer in the no-nonsense mould of his father or Cozy Powell, and perfectly suited to the band’s sound, which does not need fancy flourishes, but rather solid, powerful time-keeping. Until halfway through the set, both him and Sherinian looked dead serious, almost grim – but then both of their faces lit up when Hughes heaped lavish (and clearly heartfelt) praise on his fellow band members. The deep personal bond between the four players is clearly the secret to BCC’s success, and bodes very well for the band’s future endeavours.

Besides 8 out of 11 tracks from the band’s second album (released only a few days before the gig),  the stunning two-hour set featured a selection of songs from their debut, the gorgeous, slow-burning Bonamassa composition “The Ballad of John Henry” (from his 2009 album of the same title), and a blistering rendition of Deep Purple’s “Burn” as a final encore, with its iconic Hammond riff and Hughes screaming his heart out as he did almost 40 years ago at the legendary California Jam. Though I was a bit disappointed about the absence of personal favourites such as “Medusa” or “Down Again”, BCC’s performance was so exhilarating that it left no room for minor quibbles. In spite of the feeling of physical exhaustion and the ringing in our ears, we were left wanting more, and the promise of another US tour next year filled us with joy and anticipation. Clichéd as it may sound, Black Country Communion have really put the “super” back in “supergroup”. Long may they reign!

 

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SETLIST:
July, July!
Down by the Water
Calamity Song
Rise to Me
The Bagman’s Gambit
Annan Water
Won’t Want for Love (Margaret In The Taiga)
The Crane Wife 3
Don’t Carry It All
All Arise!
The Rake’s Song
Rox in the Box
O Valencia!
The Perfect Crime #2
This Is Why We Fight

January Hymn
When U Love Somebody
The Chimbley Sweep

June Hymn

The arrival of warmer weather heralds the start of the big concert season in the northeast US, taking full advantage of the many capacious outdoor venues of the region, as well as the usual indoor venues of every size that are available throughout the year. Obviously, concerts are also held during the colder months, but especially in the summer the offer of live music is so plentiful that even the most dedicated fans must pick and choose what gigs to attend – unless they have an endless supply of time and money.

According to our original plan, at the end of this week my husband and I would have headed out to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for our third NEARfest. As most of my readers know all too well, the event was not meant to be, but we found ways to fill the gap in the month of June, picking and choosing among the vast range of live gigs scheduled in our area. Our choice fell on two bands that, in their own very different ways, have become mainstays of our listening routine: The Decemberists and Black Country Communion – one an established outfit with six studio albums under their belt, the other  the latest supergroup to take the rock scene by storm. Neither of those bands, strictly speaking, are ‘prog’, though they have quite a few points of contact with the genre, and both have often been covered by magazines and websites geared towards prog fans.

We had been so lucky as to see The Decemberists for the first time on their celebrated 2009 tour in support of their fifth studio album, The Hazards of Love, a monumental achievement that won them many fans among the often rather conservative ranks of prog lovers. On that occasion, they were joined by Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the two amazing female vocalists that had guested on the album – which was performed in its entirety, much to the audience’s ecstatic reaction. On the other hand, their latest recording effort, The King Is Dead – a slice of song-oriented Americana, offering very little of the intriguing eclecticism of its predecessors, released at the very beginning of 2011 – had left me somewhat cold. We were nonetheless delighted to learn that they would be playing the same venue as two years ago – the quaintly bucolic Merriweather Post Pavilion, a largish outdoor theatre deep in the Maryland woods, almost a stone’s throw from Baltimore.

Such rustic surroundings seem to be the perfect complement for the warmly engaging music of the Portland-based quintet, a seamless blend of articulate, often challenging lyrics and eclectic music rich with diverse influences. In sharp contrast with the suffocatingly humid heat of the previous week, the cool, dry weather of the evening of June 13 made being outdoors a real pleasure – to the extent that some of the people sitting on the lawn rather than under the pavilion were longing for warmer clothing. Our excellent seats allowed us a great view of the stage, and the two big screens placed on either side were a boon to those who were sitting at the back. If compared to the prog gigs and festivals that we usually attend, the nearly sellout crowd was much younger on average, with a definitely higher proportion of women to men. Even if, in my personal view, The King Is Dead is probably be the weakest of the band’s releases, it has undoubtedly been a relatively major commercial breakthrough for them, exposing them to a much larger audience. It also shows a band refusing to get stuck in a rut or taken for granted, and more than willing to surprise their audience with bold changes of direction.

After  a short opening set by supporting band Best Coast, a rather nondescript, female-fronted indie/garage rock outfit who nonetheless seemed to have their own loyal following, The Decemberists came on stage at 9 p.m., greeted deliriously by the crowd. Stripped down to their basic line-up of Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Nate Query and John Moen, with bluegrass artist Sara Watkins standing in for Jenny Conlee (who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer), they delivered a strong, invigorating set, mainly revolving around The King Is Dead (performed almost in its entirety, with the exception of one track), but also including a number of songs from their back catalogue. According to Meloy, the songs on the setlist had been chosen for their affinity with the summer season – the show opening with the infectious “July! July!” (from their 2006 album The Crane Wife), and  closing with “June Hymn” (from The King Is Dead), performed as a second and final encore.

Though, from a prog standpoint, The Decemberists’ music is not as mind-blowingly complex as the genre’s most beloved bands’ – relying as it does on conventional song structures and the occasional catchy hook – there is no denying that the band’s members know their business, and then some. Watching bassist Nate Query swing a double bass around with the nonchalant ease of a consummate old-school jazz player, drummer John Moen add subtle, intriguing percussive touches, or guitarist Chris Funk wring poignantly wailing sounds from his lap steel guitar, was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Sara Watkins (a recording artist in her own right, and already part of the tour prior to the announcement of Conlee’s illness) is also an outstanding multi-instrumentalist, though favouring the fiddle rather than the keyboards. She is also a fine singer, as proved by solo performance of “Won’t Want for Love” – though her voice has more of a gutsy rock feel than Becky Stark’s ethereal soprano, featured  in the song’s original version. Indeed, while the distinctive rumble of Conlee’s Hammond organ may have been missing, Watkins’ talented contribution complemented the alt.country slant of the newer material quite perfectly.

In spite of his nerdy, bookish appearance (this time around tempered by a full beard, which made him look somewhat older and more rugged), Colin Meloy is an outstanding frontman, not afraid to dive into the audience together with his acoustic guitar to be hauled back on stage by the crowd during the rousing encore of “The Chimbley Sweep”, and not averse to peppering his between-song banter with bits of pointed political commentary. While his voice may be an acquired taste, it fits the band’s music to a T, and his witty raconteur personality is undeniably pivotal to their appeal. Furthermore, he is an extremely versatile interpreter, conveying a sense of genuine menace in the stunning rendition of “The Rake’s Song” (one of the highlights of the show, drenched in dramatic red light, and enhanced by Sara Watkins and Chris Funk’s energetic drum-banging), while pleading heartbreakingly in “Annan Water”, and orchestrating the crowd’s enthusiastic response in the eminently catchy “O Valencia!” and “The Perfect Crime # 2”.

As I previously pointed out, I was not as impressed by The King Is Dead as I had been by The Decemberists’ other albums, which all get regular spins in our player. However, the same songs that had sounded a tad flat and uninvolving on CD came alive on stage, and acquired an appealing edge that the polished production did not always adequately get across. For all the polite, somewhat highbrow mien of their music, once on stage they rock with an endearingly old-fashioned intensity, getting the crowd to sing along, clap, dance and wave their arms in tried and true rock’n’roll fashion. Even in the absence of elaborate trappings and gimmicks, and relying only on a good light show and their own stage skills, The Decemberists are one of the most entertaining live acts on the current scene, capable of imbuing their musical output with a rare sense of warmth and genuine emotion. The more listener-friendly approach displayed on The King Is Dead  may have attracted a younger, hipper audience, but this has not turned them into one of those countless “here today, gone tomorrow” bands. With a solid catalogue, a cohesive, highly accomplished line-up and a great songwriter and frontman in Colin Meloy, The Decemberists are a force to be reckoned with, and –  regardless of those pesky tags and labels – a band firmly rooted in that great rock tradition that prog sometimes seems to have  forgotten.

 

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SETLIST:
1. Irreducible Complexity
2. Manifest Density
3. Nacho Sunset
4. Kuru
5. Disillusioned Avatar > Dub > Ephebus Amoebus
6. Skein
7. Synecdoche
8. Okanogan Lobe
[Break]
9. Bagua > Kan Hai De Re Zi > Third View
10. Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds
11. Fountain of Euthanasia
12. Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari
13. Blues for a Bruised Planet
14. Waylaid
15. Middlebräu [encore]

Last year at NEARfest I had my first taste of Moraine’s music, even if in the months prior to the event I had often been tempted to check out their debut album, Manifest Density, after reading some flattering comments around the Internet. Unfortunately, my commitments as a reviewer did not allow me a lot of room for ‘recreational listening’, so to speak, so the day of Moraine’s performance found me still completely unfamiliar with their considerable talent. Those who have read my review of the festival will know that I considered Moraine to be probably the most authentically progressive band of the whole weekend, and one of my personal highlights together with Forgas Band Phenomena (an outfit whose music has some similarities with Moraine’s, though more noticeably influenced by the Canterbury sound). Even though they had been placed in the awkward slot of Sunday openers, and faced with an audience many members of which swooned at The Enid’s somewhat cheesy antics and thought that The Pineapple Thief were not ‘prog enough’ for the hallowed halls of the Zoellner Arts Center, they managed to gain quite a few fans – including my husband and myself. Indeed, we were so impressed by their performance that we went to meet the band after their set. In the following months, that first contact blossomed into a treasured friendship.

Even if somebody might think that my judgment as regards Moraine’s performance on the night of Saturday, April 30 (the third date of a 4-date Northeast tour) might be clouded by my personal feelings, I am quite capable of being objective, and would not spare any criticism if I believed it was in any way warranted. However, I am happy to say that Saturday’s gig at the Orion was an unqualified success. Having had almost a whole year to become familiar with Moraine’s output,  this time I was able to appreciate every nuance of the show, as well as the subtle but noticeable modifications in their sound brought about by the line-up change that followed the release of Manifest Density. In spite of the hurdles faced by almost every independent outfit these days – lack of touring opportunities, real-life commitments and such – on the Orion stage Moraine came across as a well-oiled machine, the chemistry between the five members nothing short of amazing.

Those who have watched the seminal documentary Romantic Warriors will remember the Orion Studios, a former warehouse located in a decidedly unglamorous neighbourhood on the outskirts of Baltimore, yet possessed of a unique, club-like character. With a couple of couches, a few folding chairs and a table generally laid out with snacks and drinks, countless posters and flyers decorating the walls, a couple of weird figures hanging from the ceiling, it reminds me of the basements (or ‘cellars’) in the centre of Rome which, in the Eighties, functioned as both rehearsal spaces for bands and meeting points for their friends and supporters. In spite of the diminutive size of the main stage area, the place is like a maze, offering valuable recording and rehearsing spaces to local musicians. This quirky yet intimate backdrop was ideal for a band like Moraine, even more so than the immaculate NEARfest stage. As regards attendance, I judged about 50 people to be present – more than the band are used to attracting in their home town of Seattle,  and a satisfactory turnout for a single-bill evening – even though last year I had seen twice as many people line up outside the venue in order to see a tribute band. This, unfortunately, seems to be the nature of the ‘prog community’ in the US Northeast, as I pointed out in the two essays I wrote after NEARfest 2011’s cancellation.

Though often tagged as ‘avant-garde’ (much to their amusement), like all truly progressive bands Moraine defy description. Their variegated backgrounds converge very effectively both on stage and on record, instead of resulting in a patchy mess: while their compositions – often penned by individual members rather than shared efforts – showcase their different approaches. With the dry, slightly self-deprecating humour that characterizes their interaction with the public, the band describe themselves as ‘omnivorous’. On the other hand, at least from what was seen at the Orion, they have not abandoned their rock roots – though of course there is not even a whiff of the time-honoured, though somewhat corny antics of the typical rock musician in Moraine’s stage presence. Even if towards the end of the set we were treated to a short drum solo, it was blessedly devoid of the cheesiness often inherent to such spots.

Coming on stage at about 8.30 p.m., the band delivered an extremely tight performance, richly eclectic and riveting in its intensity, interspersed by Dennis Rea’s brief but humorous introductions. A short break allowed both the band and audience to recharge their batteries, and from comments overheard during that time it was clear that the audience was won over by Moraine’s blend of chops and sheer enthusiasm. This was progressive rock with a capital P, fresh and innovative even when occasionally hinting at some ‘golden oldies’. Unlike far too many modern prog bands, Moraine manage not to sound like anyone else: the closest term of comparison would be King Crimson circa Red, though more in terms of attitude than actual sound, especially as regards the coexistence of melody and angularity, and the presence of both violin and reeds coupled with the conspicuous absence of prog’s ‘sacred cow’, the keyboards. The departure of cellist and band founder Ruth Davidson (a fan of Univers Zéro, as evidenced by her composition “Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds”) has also altered the ‘chamber’ nature of the band in favour of a more dynamic approach, powered by Jim DeJoie’s assertive sax (which on Saturday night was a bit low in the mix).

To those who had read reviews of the band’s NEARfest performance described as ‘noise-drenched’ (something that, coupled with the ‘avant-garde’ tag, is guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of the more conservative set of prog fans), the melodic quotient of Saturday night’s show is likely to have come as a surprise. The medley featuring Alicia DeJoie’s gorgeous “Disillusioned Avatar” and Kevin Millard’s “Ephebus Amoebus” aptly displayed the band’s more sensitive side; while the overtly jarring chaos of “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari” (wittily introduced as a ‘romantic ballad’, and probably the one track actually deserving of the ‘avant-garde’ tag) was followed by the melancholy beauty of “Blues for a Bruised Planet”. Millard’s distinctive-looking, customized Chapman stick (dubbed ‘baliset’ by the bassist, a long-time fan of Frank Herbert’s iconic Dune) meshed seamlessly with Stephen Cavit’s complex yet remarkably unflashy drum patterns, and Alicia DeJoie’s shiny purple violin caught the eye as well as the ear. Jim DeJoie (Alicia’s husband) expertly wielded his impressive saxophone, coming across as the most ‘physical’ member of the band. In fact, if I had to level one criticism at Moraine’s performance, it would concern their somewhat static presence, at least partially due to the size of the stage. Not that anyone was expecting Dennis Rea to start throwing guitar-hero-style shapes, though his solos revealed a definitely sharper rock bent than evidenced either on Manifest Density or in his other recent projects. Besides the jazz, rock and avant-garde influences, fans of world music were also catered for by the enchanting “Asian Suite”, featuring themes from three of the five tracks included on View from Chicheng Precipice, Rea’s first solo venture.

The show also provided Moraine with the opportunity to present some of the new material they had been working on in the past year or so – namely three intense, hard-hitting yet multifaceted numbers titled “Skein”, “Synecdoche” and “Fountain of Euthanasia”, which showed a band growing by leaps and bounds both in cohesion and on the compositional level. Like the material on Manifest Density, those new tracks are rather short for prog standards, yet brimming with energy and a kind of creative impulse divorced from sterile displays of technical skill. On the other hand, unlike the debut’s compositions, which in many ways represented each member’s temperament, the new numbers sound more clearly shaped by collective input.  As impressive as Moraine’s debut was, their future – judging by what was heard on Saturday night – looks even brighter.

The wonderful musical experience was wrapped up by a night out in downtown Baltimore, complete with a walk through the city’s rather seedy red-light district and a late-night dinner (or perhaps early breakfast, since it was 2 a.m. when we sat down) at an ‘Italian’ restaurant – the kind that serves filling but rather unauthentic dishes such as spaghetti with meatballs. We also managed to get the last of the T-shirts and mugs designed expressly for the tour by David Gaines, a friend of the band and talented musician himself, based like us in the DC metro area. All in all, it was an evening that packed the friendly, laid-back vibe of a get-together at someone’s house with a select group of friends, as well as that community spirit that I have often mentioned in my reviews. Hopefully Moraine will be able to return to the Northeast soon after the release of their second album, which will mainly feature music recorded live at NEARfest.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

http://www.orionsound.com/

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It is my pleasure to present the very first guest review to be featured on my blog – a wonderful account of Van der Graaf Generator’s Rome show written by my dear friend Victor Andrei Părău, a professional musician whom ProgArchives regulars will remember by his screen name of Ricochet. Enjoy!

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Such a great concert.” That was all I managed to write down, three days after returning home. Surely, a Van der Graaf Generator concert has to be more inspiring than that.

Well, my first impulse was to catch a flight to the nearest stop of their spring tour, since they did quite an arch throughout Europe after playing several times in England. It is perhaps strange for some, this express desire to finally see one of your favorite bands on stage, to make on your own all the right moves in order to accomplish that, to travel and make a special case out of it, or even to think of it as something to be done “at least once in your lifetime”. Yet, to be honest, most of the concerts I’ve attended were this emotional. While I do already have a strong backup of jazz or experimental concerts, should Jethro Tull’s progressiveness be up for debate (I think that’s the trend lately) and also not count a few less evoking names, then what Van der Graaf offered was quite the first fully ranked progressive rock concert for me, in all its details – from the atmosphere down to the trio’s own manifest.

Time affecting bands was never a hot topic for me, although many groups have embarrased themselves – some still do. Make no mistake, time is ticking loud enough for VdGG themselves. Peter Hammill looks the most dried up; even Guy Evans’ look isn’t as badass as it was a couple of years ago. In contrast, Hugh Banton’s appearance is elegant and humble, something further proved by how he looked so zen at the keyboards, playing his part, more so brilliantly.  But their reunion is truly one of the most successful. The first great sign of this concert was to witness these seniors’ instrumental skills, as good as ever, most of the times veraciously energetic, even with a tinge of crassness, with all their trademark accents and maddening difficult rhythms, something they’ve never let go of.

Of course, I did miss the best rides of their comeback, those up until 2007, highlighted by the live gem Real Time, if not by the work on Present as well, which I always considered to be a great album, with its clever duality. I’ve seen enough fans being a little more sceptical  when it comes to the new trio form and their recent acts. While preparing for the trip, I caught news of this tour’s first shows being heavily focused on the new material, while later mixing it with the heavily desired classics. Actually, if you check the Live List on their homepage, this is all pretty relative. Nevertheless, let’s just say the Rome concert was one of the odd-numbered ones or something, indeed promoting the new stuff, with the old tracks being the high points. Hammill even joked about it a bit when announcing they will move on to something “vecchioma non troppo vecchio”.

Oh right, Rome! Well, Prague would have initially been my pick, had it not taken me a total of two days just to travel by train back and forth. There was no window for me to go to the smaller town of Cesena, so it had to be the Eternal City, adding touristic pressure to the entire trip. By the end of a five-day experience, it was hard  to consider that I went there just to see the guys. The Auditorium Parco della Musica was a destination in itself, with exhibits taking place in the Luciano Berio Largo, with chatty and modish people at the coffeehouse making me look like a peasant, with Mahler’s Ninth playing at the same time in another concert hall. I was definitely split in many sides that evening: one completely burned out after seeing Ancient Rome the whole day, one being, of course, the eager music fan and a third moderating, as in trying to keep the first alive and the second from pretentiously picking the pulse, thus simply enjoy the whole thing. As I waited for the M bus to arrive and take me to the Auditorium, along with a rather impatient British old lady and a German couple of the same age, I feared I might actually be among the youngest spectators. Fortunately, the public proved to be mixed: genuine rock enthusiasts and Graaf fanboys, people who had forgotten to change their clothes since the ‘70s, young bloods equally interested.

The screechy “nearer and nearer” (constantly misheard by me as mirror, mirror) chorus, or even the keyboard polyphonic frolics from Interference Patterns could have proved annoying, but I felt it was a good opener. The chorus blasts were heavier than usual and the keyboard animation was also of great effect. As mentioned before, picking up the strange rhythms and intricate melodic patterns, all in heterogeneous time signatures, can be the first thing that connects you with the profoundly personal, however awkward, Van der Graaf spirit – something even Trisector, as shabby of an album as it is often credited, does manage. This, on the other hand, is the departure I regret on A Grounding in Numbers, an album I met with too great expectations, the positive reactions doing no good either. Actually, even without thinking about the past when listening to it  (which is indeed a rather bad viewpoint), I find very little substance in their new songs – or the slideshow itself. The trio picked the decent stuff from that album, avoiding, for instance, nutty songs on mathematics and such. First was Mr. Sands – a sort of odd character every band gives life to at some point (see R.E.M.’s Mr. Richards) – and the more halcyon Your Time Starts Now, with a first fully sonorous organ line from Banton. Hammill moved to electric guitar, acting clumsy between each piece to mask the seconds delayed by his preparations. The heavy instrumental verve returned with All That Before,  portions of an already towering intensity.

There was no greater enthusiasm than when the classics were played (a small sad side to it being  that it felt like they were the only thing the public was truly waiting for). Hammill did prepare us for them, yet, as the ovations interrupted the first line of Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End, it was clear the game would carry on. There was indeed more to it. When Hammill made his dramatic pause at “frightening in the silence”, someone from the audience jumped in, screaming the “sileeeeeeeeence” in perfect imitation. Hammill replied  faithfully. It was a bloody genius moment. Needless to say, at the end of the final triumphing choral of the piece, the audience jumped to its feet. It felt less great to follow up with irritating keyboard dialogues from All Over the Place, something matched on the new album only by the awful irregularities on Splink. I really enjoyed  Over the Hill next. It’s the most powerful separator between Trisector and A Grounding in Numbers, also linking closest to the old Van der Graaf, with its catchphrases, cold/pulsating transitions, lyrically & musically encompassing.

Finalmente there was Man-Erg, apparently a given in these concerts, proving even more what this band is all about. The sentimental, lyrical opening was never too comforting, while the thundering section was downright macabre and convulsive. At one point, Evans kicked the hell out of his small gong so much that he send it flying. People were shouting requests by the time of the encore, be it Sleepwalkers, Wondering or Necromancer (what!). However, it was Scorched Earth – probably my favorite VdGG of all time (but I could be biased to say that right now). I can’t think of a better encore that I’ve heard. Yes, it did lack Jaxxon’s crazy improvisations, but everything else was in place. It pierced through me entirely and it was mind-blowing. The lights were turned back on right after the trio left the stage, and the fans gave up too quickly.

So, going back to my first line, it was a great concert. Hammill’s vocals were slightly off, but I dare mention it again that all three of them were absolutely impressive at their instruments. Becoming their fan(boy) was a rough deal, so I’m pretty content with going all the way through this – except, perhaps, a couple more bits and pieces on their creation that aren’t quite put together, even now. Occasionally, it’s great to also hear others puzzle over what Van der Graaf were able to create, extending to how refined music sounded back in those days.

…okay, maybe it was my dad being so nostalgic. But my feelings persist.

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I recently received this press release from Black Widow Records –  the Genoa-based label whose roster includes a number of historic Italian progressive rock acts, as well as many newer ones – which I am glad to share with my readers, especially the many fans of Italian prog.

On Friday, April 8, 2011, Delirium,  one of the seminal bands of the original Rock Progressivo Italiano movement, will be performing at Genova’s Teatro Govi.  The concert will be opened by gifted Neapolitan singer Sophya Baccini (whose excellent solo debut, Aradia, was released in 2009), with legendary Osanna vocalist Lino Vairetti as a special guest.

In the course of the evening, Delirium will present their new DVD, Il Viaggio Continua: La Storia 1970-2010 (recently released by Black Widow), which features original live footage from the Seventies, plus a recording of the band’s concert at the Teatro Politeama (also in Genoa) in 2008. Their setlist will include material from both  their ’70s albums and their critically acclaimed 2009 CD Il Nome del Vento – as well as semi-acoustic arrangements of some of their best-known songs.

Though I am aware that for most of my readers it will not be possible to attend this event, if any of you happen to be in the area, this is definitely an opportunity not to be missed. In the next couple of weeks Genoa will host a number of  events that will further strengthen its status as a hotbed for great progressive rock.

The concert will start at 9 p.m. Tickets are € 15.

Teatro Govi – Via P. Pastorino 23-25 R – Genoa, Italy.

Links:
http://www.blackwidow.it

http://www.sophyabaccini.com

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As the name of this blog should make it quite clear, I have been a major Blue Öyster Cult fan for the past 30 years or so. They are one of the very few acts whose complete discography I own, and their albums are a constant presence in my CD player. On the other hand, my love for them is something that I would be hard put to explain. How can a long-time follower of progressive rock be so keen on a band whose output is generally recognized as tangential to prog at best, and be instead rather indifferent to the widely-worshipped likes of Genesis?

Called anything from ‘the American Black Sabbath’ (even though they actually sound nothing like Iommi’s crew) to ‘the thinking man’s heavy metal band’ (as if metal was the sole prerogative of Neanderthals) throughout the almost 40 years of their career, BÖC managed to achieve a measure of stardom through their mega-hit “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and another couple of very successful songs. For a number of years, between the late Seventies and the early Eighties, they played to sold-out arenas before they entered a stage of apparently unstoppable decline (at least as regards commercial success) – which led them to lose their deal with Sanctuary Records, so that their latest studio album, Curse of the Hidden Mirror, was released almost ten years ago.

Blue Öyster Cult are one of those rare bands who appeal to both mind and body, capable of dishing out powerful rockers and catchy radio anthems, as well as complex, thought-provoking compositions with more than a nod to progressive rock – often in the space of a single album. Even if, over the years, they have lost three of their original members (the Bouchard brothers and keyboardist Allen Lanier, who retired from the music scene a few years ago), they have soldiered on, impervious to the setbacks, and delivering the goods whenever on stage. In spite of their lack of a recording deal (and consequently any new material), they have never stopped touring, even if the only two founding members left, Eric Bloom and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, are in their mid-sixties, and are still a major draw for American and European audiences – as proved yesterday evening by the crowd that greeted them at Baltimore’s Bourbon Street.

Though it can hardly be denied that the quaintly-named venue in downtown Baltimore is quite unlike the arenas that BÖC used to fill back in their heyday, the reception that the band got yesterday evening was as warm and enthusiastic as it was in those years, and probably even more so. A friendly, welcoming space on the ground floor of a Victorian red brick building, with plenty of room for standing (as well as a few stools and tables for those needing to rest their legs) and well-stocked bars lining the walls, the Ballroom at Bourbon Street possesses all the character lacking in those more comfortable, yet soulless arenas without being disreputable – with a raised stage that allows most people (even short ones like me) to see what is going on, excellent sound quality (loud enough without being deafening – no ear plugs needed!), and a respectable capacity. My only quibble would concern those people seemingly unable to stay put for more than five minutes, who kept walking from the stage to the exit and back to the stage area, bumping into me or forcing me to move aside while I was trying to enjoy the show.

I had seen Blue Öyster Cult play live only once before, 25 years ago. about this time of the year 1986, and the gig was in doubt almost to the last minute due to severe weather conditions – since the venue was basically a large circus-like tent, and the snow that, very uncharacteristically for Rome, had fallen quite heavily threatened to collapse the roof. The band was touring in support of what is widely considered as their weakest album – Club Ninja – and minus Allen Lanier. In spite of that, they delivered a blinder of a performance, whose highlight for me was the 8-minute version of “Veteran of the Psychic Wars”, one of my top 10 songs of all time. After a lengthy hiatus from music due to a series of changes in my personal circumstances,  in the past few years I managed to miss the band some four or five times, which left me understandably frustrated. So, when yesterday they took to the stage at around 9.30 p.m. (after a short opening set by young Canadian blues-rocker Luke Mulholland and his band), you can imagine my disappointment when I realized that they were one member short – and the missing person was none other than charismatic frontman Eric Bloom.

However, my disappointment lasted only through the first song  (“Before the Kiss, A Redcap”, from their 1972 self-titled debut). Buck Dharma fulfilled the role of frontman suddenly thrust onto him by Bloom’s illness with enviable aplomb, a seasoned professional with an endearingly humorous approach, whose smooth, well-mannered voice has held up amazingly well. Obviously, the setlist was heavily biased towards Buck’s own compositions, which of course ruled out such behemoths as the aforementioned “Veteran…”, “Black Blade” or “Seven Screamin’ Dizbusters”, where Bloom’s gruff, supercharged bellow would be an essential ingredient. In any case, even in the absence of those weightier numbers, the band played a well-rounded 90-minute set (which nowadays is the average length of a live performance), presenting the audience with a nice selection of some of the most iconic songs of their career. For those who are curious, here is the complete setlist:

  1. Before the Kiss, A Redcap
  2. Burnin’ for You
  3. Shooting Shark
  4. Buck’s Boogie
  5. The Vigil
  6. The Red and the Black
  7. Last Days of May
  8. Godzilla
  9. Don’t Fear the Reaper
  10. Hot Rails to Hell (encore)

I had heard great things about Rudy Sarzo, and his performance of yesterday night confirmed that – far from being a showy hair-metal reject – he is a very accomplished bassist, with a commanding stage presence, looking not a day older than he was in his tenure as a member of Quiet Riot and Whitesnake, in spite of having turned 60 at the end of last year. His solo spot in the middle of “Godzilla” was introduced by Buck Dharma in his typical deadpan style, and carried off in a remarkably original manner, including snippets of famous songs from his former bands: in particular, the opening riff to Dio’s “Holy Diver” was cheered enthusiastically by the crowd. Moreover, his masterful handling of the bass part of “Shooting Shark” (originally written for Randy “The Emperor” Jackson) was probably the highlight of his whole performance. The band’s two newest members, drummer Jules Radino and keyboardist/guitarist Richie Castellano (who, when wearing sunglasses, bore an uncanny resemblance to a younger Eric Bloom), acquitted themselves admirably, being both accomplished musicians in spite of their young age. Castellano took up Bloom’s role on both guitar and vocals when needed, while Radino provided a perfect complement to Sarzo’s stunning bass lines – not a mere skin-basher, but also capable of the subtlety required by some of the band’s songs.

However, the star of the whole evening was none other than Buck Dharma himself. He stole the show with his warm, affectionate banter, accomplished singing, and incredible guitar work. Though highly rated by experts and worshipped by fans,  he gets far too easily overlooked whenever accolades for best rock or metal guitarist are awarded – in favour of other, much flashier six-stringers who simply cannot match his sheer expressive power coupled with remarkable technical skill. At the end of a week that marked the untimely passing of another guitar icon like Gary Moore,  seeing Buck perform was nothing short of sheer delight. Diminutive and unassuming, all dressed in black and sporting his trademark moustache, he tore the place down without resorting to those cheap gimmicks that are so popular with the ‘shredder’ crowd. The absolutely jaw-dropping version of “Last Days of May” (one of the most beautiful BÖC songs bar none) was alone worth the price of admission, with its customary extended solo section blisteringly introduced by Castellano, then gradually picking up speed and unleashing a frenzied yet amazingly disciplined Buck solo that saw him drop on his knees, backed by Radino’s relentless drumming – to the audience’s ecstatic response. In comparison, his instrumental showcase “Buck’s Boogie”, though quite stunningly rendered, felt almost sedate. The obligatory “The Red and the Black”, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Hot Rails to Hell”, delivered with energy and flair, did not disappoint either, while the subdued, yet subtly malevolent “The Vigil” provided a taste of the more intricate fare that BÖC have produced alongside their catchier, more straightforward tunes.

All in all, it was a great evening of music in a friendly, almost intimate setting. Even if some might think that playing a small venue like the Bourbon Street Ballroom is a sort of downgrading for rock legends like Blue Öyster Cult, the faceless arenas where most of today’s ‘big-league’ concerts take place cannot compete with the genuine warmth and community feeling of those smaller, unpretentious spaces. It is quite obvious that all of the band members love performing in front of an audience, since they do not come across for a second as a bunch of people going through the motions – and, even one man short, they could deliver the goods in a way that many of the above-mentioned ‘big-league’ outfits can only dream of. Needless to say, I will be eagerly waiting for the next time BÖC will play in our area. Indeed, yesterday’s gig was worth the 25-year wait.

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One of the biggest advantages of living in an otherwise crowded, ‘pressure-cooker’ area such as the US Northeast is the staggering variety of music on offer. With an impressive choice of venues of every size and description, as well as a thriving underground scene, the region has become one of the most important hubs for progressive rock, as illustrated by the documentary film Romantic Warriors (reviewed elsewhere on this blog). While gigs are organized more or less throughout the year, things are definitely quieter in the colder months (mainly because of the unavailability of the outdoor venues) – while the summer months offer such a wide range of gigs that fans are obliged to pick and choose, unless they have a unlimited supply of time and cash.

2009 was my first full year in the USA, so Michael, my husband, and I were finally able to start sampling the musical delights offered by our area. Our season included our first participation to NEARfest, four visits to the quaintly bucolic Merriweather Post Pavilion (the last one particularly poignant in retrospect, being the last time that we saw the great Ronnie James Dio on stage before his untimely passing), as well as what has now gone down in the annals of concert history as ‘the monsoon on the Potomac’ – the ill-fated Asia/Yes gig at the National Harbor. At the time, I had just started my reviewing tenure with ProgressoR, and as such was very much a ‘newbie’ of the whole scene. This year, though, was quite a different story…

With my review count growing and my reputation as a reviewer spreading around the prog fandom (helped by the reactivation of my Facebook account), I made friends among musicians, built an increasing network of contacts, slowly but steadily became part of the scene. For a basically shy person as I am, this made me feel much less self-conscious when attending gigs and festivals, and boosted my enjoyment of those functions. While I am very human and enjoy the attention generated by my reviews, I also feel I am helping those who need it the most – the artists – by covering their work and encouraging their efforts.

This year, our season of music was fittingly inaugurated at the very end of May, on Memorial Day weekend (which here in the US marks the beginning of the summer season), with the annual concert organized by the DC Society of Art Rock at the Jammin’ Java. We were already familiar with the venue, as we had seen Eddie Jobson and his band play there last year. A small, friendly coffeehouse, notorious for the ear-shattering volume of its gigs, this year it hosted two local bands, Brave and Ephemeral Sun, plus one of our favourite new acts – New Jersey’s very own 3rd Degree. Though all three bands put up excellent performances, 3rd Degree were our personal highlight of the evening – an extremely tight outfit very much in the vein of vintage Steely Dan, fronted by the amazing talents of vocalist/keyboardist George Dobbs and bassist Robert James Pashman.

A couple of weeks later, it was the turn of two legendary bands such as Jethro Tull and Procol Harum, in the beautiful setting of the Wolf Trap Foundation – a striking wooden pavilion surrounded by deep woods, and the only National Park in the USA dedicated to the performing arts. While Ian Anderson may have lost most of his vocal power, he and his crew are still mightily entertaining to watch, and their back catalogue has very few equals in the rock word. However, the real surprise of the evening were Procol Harum. Unlike Anderson’s, Gary Brooker’s inimitable voice is still in pristine shape, and they wowed the audience with a mix of older and newer material, including the goosebump-inducing “A Salty Dog” and the much-awaited “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.

Our second time at NEARfest, which took place on the third weekend of June, is documented in the lengthy account I wrote for ProgressoR when I was still on board. Since all my articles for said website are covered by copyright, I will post a link to it at the end of this piece. Two days after our return from Pennsylvania, we were back at Wolf Trap for the Yes/Peter Frampton double bill – another great concert from two historic acts, though this time marred by the stiflingly humid heat. After last year’s monsoon, which had literally driven Yes off stage, we had bought tickets for their February concert at the Warner Theatre in DC. It was not, however, meant to be, since the event was first rescheduled because of the heavy snowfall; then – on the evening it was finally going to happen – Michael came home from work with a touch of the flu, so we kissed goodbye to our tickets, and patiently waited for the next opportunity to see the band. In spite of all you can say about the Jon Anderson-less Yes, they did not disappoint, and I was particularly excited by their performance of “Close to the Edge”, which I had never previously seen them play live.

After almost a month’s gap, on July 20 we headed to a venue we were not yet familiar with – the Jiffy Lube arena (formerly Nissan Pavilion) – to see another formidable double bill, firm favourites Iron Maiden with Dream Theater as openers. Unlike either Wolf Trap or the Merriweather Post Pavilion, Jiffy Lube is a largely unprepossessing space, located somewhat in the middle of nowhere and totally devoid of atmosphere. Though we were seated in the covered area, we managed to get relatively wet when a thunderstorm broke out (quite appropriately, seen the title of their latest release) just as Dream Theater took to the stage, and the wind drove the rain beneath the roof of the pavilion. While I found the New York band tolerable at best (their set was mercifully short!), Iron Maiden delivered in spades as usual. With three decades of activity under their belt, they are still one of the most energetic, entertaining live bands in the business, and I was thrilled with their choice to perform some of their more recent material alongside their undisputed classics.

Fast forward to the first weekend of September, and my first time at ProgDay – as described in detail in the review linked below. Barely two weeks of rest, so to speak, and the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits festival was upon us – with the organizers having pulled out all the stops by securing the participation of three major draws such as Magma, Univers Zéro and Miriodor, as well as veterans The Muffins and electronic pioneers Richard Pinhas and Merzbow. Though we had bought passes for the whole week, we were only able to attend the opening and closing shows, both held in the gorgeous premises of the Maison Française, the cultural centre of the French Embassy in DC. The marathon-like opening event culminated with a simply incredible performance by Zeuhl legends Magma, a band every self-respecting progressive rock fan should experience at least once. A week later, the festival was closed in style by the utterly stunning musicianship and compositional mastery of Miriodor and Univers Zéro – a once-in-a-lifetime double bill.

Our season of music came to a close last Saturday, with our first-ever visit to the Orion Studios in Baltimore to see Italian band The Watch (who were performing Genesis’ iconic Foxtrot album in its entirety) supported by Shadow Circus – one of the Northeast’s finest new bands, and very good friends of ours. The Orion is indeed one of those places that seem to have come out of a bygone era – a warehouse in a suburban area of Baltimore converted into a temple of progressive music, somewhat small and cramped, but brimming with character and a ‘family’ atmosphere of sorts, with people bringing their own chairs, drinks and food. Unfortunately, tiredness prevented us from attending the whole of The Watch’s performance, though we managed to enjoy all of Shadow Circus’ set. Those guys are going from strength to strength, and will hopefully soon reap the rewards of all their hard work.

In the coming months there will probably be other concerts for us to attend in the area, though not with the same frequency. At any rate, we already have some gigs lined up for next spring, and will also try to attend all three of the big festivals organized on the East Coast. Until then, I will continue to support up-and-coming bands with my reviews and feedback. Watch this space!

Links:

NEARfest 2010 review (http://www.progressor.net/nearfest2010.html)
ProgDay 2010 review (http://www.progressor.net/progday2010.html)

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