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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!

Links:
http://www.progday.net

 

 

 

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Our highly-awaited yearly appointment with ProgDay came at the end of a very trying 12 months, which had drained a lot of strength and enthusiasm out of me. Though when we came back from last year’s edition things in my life had looked promising, they took a turn for the worse at the beginning of 2015, resulting in depression, burnout, and estrangement from people. As my followers will have noticed, this sorry state of affairs resulted in an unprecedented dearth of posts (only three between January and August), which reflected my gradual loss of interest in music. Though I forced myself to keep up to date by listening to new releases on Progstreaming and Bandcamp, most of the time it felt like going through the motions, and most of those albums left very little impression.

After dealing with so much negativity, I was understandably worried about not enjoying the event as much as I wanted to, even if I had been looking forward to it much more than the previous year. However, I should not have worried about feeling uncomfortable around people, as I felt definitely more inclined to be sociable than I had in 2014, and thoroughly enjoyed the company of good friends I had not seen for a while.

During the weeks leading up to ProgDay, I had been dreaming of walking in the dew-drenched grass, enjoying the cool breeze of the morning hours – instead of gasping in the heat and wilting in the humidity as in the past four years. My wishes were to be almost miraculously fulfilled, as, weather-wise, things could not have been more perfect. Sandwiched between two spells of hot, humid weather, Labor Day weekend brought pleasantly cool temperatures that made being outdoors a real delight. The threat of thunderstorms (especially on Saturday) made us hold our breath for a while, but for some mysterious coincidence Storybook Farm managed to avoid the turbulence that affected most of the area. We only saw rain on Sunday evening, and even then it did not last long. After a couple of years of near-neglect, the farm had finally new owners who seemed to be taking much better care of the place (I particularly loved the chicken coop, and the soft, carpet-like grass). The lush greenery was polished to a bright sheen by this year’s abundant rainfall, which also kept the ever-bothersome dust to a minimum.

Though attendance was somewhat down from last year, and a few familiar faces were missing, the festival still felt like a family reunion. Band announcements had come a bit later than usual, but that had not put any dent in the enthusiasm of ProgDay’s core of staunch supporters. For many of us, the festival is the high point of the year, a near-magical time spent almost on a different plane, away from the turmoil of everyday life, with a group of like-minded people that we have come to see as family of sorts. This feeling was never put so much to the test as in the past 12 months, with the untimely deaths of the wife of Phil Stauffer Todd (one of the festival’s most loyal supporters) the day after the end of last year’s fest, and of 23-year-old Sarah Jean Tatum, who with her twin sister and parents had stood behind the merch table since ProgDay’s beginning, in February 2015. Unfortunately, more sorrow was to come our way during this edition – but more about that later.

Opening act Eccentric Orbit found most of the attendees basking in the morning breeze and reconnecting with old friends. The Boston-based instrumental quartet, led by the husband-and-wife team of Bill and Madeleine Noland (whose MIDI wind controller attracted a lot of attention) offers an intriguing modern take on symphonic prog, inspired by classic science-fiction movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. In spite of having sustained a grievous loss in 2010, with the untimely passing of drummer and founding member Mark Cella (replaced by Tamandua’s Rick Landwehr), they resurfaced in 2014 with their positively-received second album, Creation of the Humanoids. While their swirling, deeply cinematic keyboard soundscapes might translate better in an indoor setting (perhaps with the aid of visuals), and the band as a whole need to work a bit on their stage presence (often a sore point with prog bands), the majestic, heavy yet melodic music was undeniably top-notch, with Tom Benson’s violin adding even more interest to the overall texture. Their confidence grew steadily throughout their set, whose second half was particularly impressive, featuring a cracking version of Genesis’ “Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers… In This Quiet Earth”. Indeed, an excellent opening to ProgDay 2015 by yet another fine representative of the thriving US progressive rock scene .

Louisville’s own Ut Gret (my biggest discovery of the past few years) took to the stage next, highly anticipated by most of the audience after the splash made by their stunning 2014 album, Ancestor’s Tale. I was elated when they were announced earlier this year, knowing their reputation as a very entertaining live act. Though the belly dancer that appears in some of their YouTube videos was not part of the ProgDay expedition, their ace in the hole was the presence of singer/violinist Cheyenne Mize – a beautiful, charismatic young lady in a flowing, caftan-like gown, provided of an absolutely mesmerizing voice. Ut Gret’s definition of their music as “pan-idiomatic” is no idle boast, as they seamlessly combine multiple influences in an organic – and highly individual – whole, supported by a varied instrumentation centered around Jackie Royce’s tireless bassoon. Their set – by far the longest of the festival – included most of Ancestor’s Tale, as well as material from their previous albums (such as the gorgeous “Souvenir City”), and a tribute to King Crimson (one of leader Joee Conroy’s main sources of inspiration, together with The Muffins and the whole Canterbury scene) – all performed flawlessly, but with oodles of warmth. They closed their set with an exhilarating version of “Walk the Plank”, and the standing ovation they got at the end was fully deserved. Without any doubt, Ut Gret were one of the very best bands to grace the Storybook Farm stage in the six years we have been attending the festival, and I hope to have the opportunity to see them again soon.

When the weather is as hot as it was for the past 4 editions of the festival, the 3 p.m. slot is generally the worst, as people’s enjoyment of music is impaired by the unrelenting assault of the heat and humidity. This year’s mild weather made things easier for all the bands on the lineup; however, as far as I am concerned, Portland’s The Mercury Tree were the only disappointment (in relative terms, seen the overall high level of quality) of this year’s edition. I was familiar with the youthful trio’s music, as I had reviewed their debut album, Pterodactyls, for DPRP, and listened to their more recent output on Bandcamp. They have talent, energy and plenty of good ideas, but – for some reason – on the ProgDay stage they felt compelled to sacrifice to the current trend for over-the-top vocal antics, and infused their songs with totally out-of-the-blue, bloodcurdling shrieks that were unlikely to endear them to the more conservative members of the audience. Other attendees also noticed their over-reliance on loops and other effects. On the other hand, the band members clearly enjoy being on stage, and already handle their instruments remarkably well. Their youth will allow them plenty of time to develop their musical approach though I would definitely prefer them as an instrumental band.

Though I am reasonably well-informed about the current prog scene, Saturday’s headliners were an unknown quantity to me. Chilean outfit Tryo, however, has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in its home country, spanning almost 30 years. The energetic three-piece from Valparaíso were perfect as a closing act because the high adrenalin quotient of their sound – a powerful, eclectic blend of rock, jazz and metal with recognizable touches of Chilean folk music, and a natural flow that made even epic-length tracks such as “Fuenteovejuna” easy to follow – kept people on their toes at the end of a long day of music. With their impressive stage presence and seamless interplay, guitarist Ismael Cortez, bassist Francisco Cortez and drummer Felix Carbone regaled the crowd with a sizzling performance. Though their command of English was sketchy at best, they had no trouble communicating their infectious enthusiasm to the audience. Their first US appearance, made possible by the support of the Chilean Ministry of Culture, was definitely an unqualified success, and made US prog fans aware of the wealth of interesting progressive music coming from Chile and the rest of the South American continent.

At the end of the set, we headed back to the hotel, and had an excellent dinner at a lovely Korean restaurant – then sat through the first hour of Romantic Warriors III – Canterbury Tales, Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder’s outstanding documentary about the Canterbury scene. After a good night’s sleep (better than I expected anyway, having been plagued by sleep problems for the past few months), we were ready for another day of music.

Sunday’s opening act was probably the only truly unfamiliar one for most attendees – though two out of its three members were old acquaintances of US prog fans. Veteran French Chapman stickist Pascal Gutman’s latest project avails itself of the contribution of two talented Mexican musicians – drummer Kiko King (formerly of Cast) and multi-instrumentalist Ramsés Luna (formerly of Cabezas de Cera). In contrast with the brash energy of the previous day’s closing band, Pascal Gutman Trio’s music was understated yet riveting, and exquisitely beautiful – suffused with the warmth of world music influences, the stately elegance of jazz and the muted atmospheres of ambient. Kiko King, who had played at ProgDay with Cast in 2003, acted as a spokesman, conveying the band’s delight at having been invited to perform. The crowd responded in kind, expressing their appreciation in no uncertain terms – proving that the discovery hitherto unknown music is a big part of what prog festivals should be about. As a Chapman stick fan, I will be definitely looking forward to their forthcoming album.

Alongside Ut Gret, Avant-Folk ensemble Jack O’The Clock was my most anticipated band on the lineup. When I discovered them in 2013 through their second album, All My Friends, I hoped I would get a chance to see them on stage. My expectations were not disappointed, as the black-clad Oakland quintet (featuring two very talented ladies in bassoonist/flutist/vocalist Kate McLoughlin and violinist Emily Packard) delivered a career-defining performance, mostly based on unreleased material. Their interpretation of the prog lexicon is highly individual, and – like leader Damon Waitkus’ androgynous voice – may be somewhat of an acquired taste. With their unusual instrumentation (which included a gently lilting dulcimer, but no keyboards) and subtly multilayered, gorgeously melancholy compositions that blend Americana, chamber music, avant-garde and many other elements in a unique tapestry, this 21-century version of traditional storytellers was mesmerizing to watch. Even if they do not sound remotely like “classic” prog, bands such as Jack O’The Clock represent the future of progressive rock. It remains to be seen whether the notoriously nostalgia-bound fandom will get behind them.

Next were Marbin, the Chicago-based quartet known as one of the busiest bands in the US (with over one thousand shows played since its inception), and the brainchild of ultra-talented Israeli musicians Dani Rabin (guitar) and Danny Markovitch (sax). They took to the stage almost unannounced, at a time when I was struggling to stay awake. Being familiar with most of their music, I was expecting a highly technical, high-energy performance, and was not disappointed, as the band’s stagecraft is honed to perfection, and the cliché “well-oiled machine” seems to be tailor-made for them. On the other hand, there were no surprises, as their music has always failed to fully connect with me, and this time was no exception. Based on Rabin’s fiery guitar solos and Markovitch’s gutsy sax forays, the band’s sound is hard-driving yet accessible, with some intense bluesy moments highlighted their versatility. However, the most entertaining aspect of Marbin’s set were the main duo’s storytelling skills. Their rather wild tale of how their forthcoming album came to be titled Aggressive Hippies was hilarious, and created a bond with the audience that belied the slightly daunting quality of their chops-heavy music.

Belgian quartet Quantum Fantay was the only band in the lineup that I had already seen, at our first NEARfest in 2009. Though their participation to ProgDay 2011 had been sabotaged by Hurricane Irene, the band were obviously keen to make up for lost time, and many in the audience seemed to have a soft spot for their brand of pulsating, ethnic-tinged space rock. Undoubtedly excellent musicians and seasoned performers, brimming with enthusiasm and an effortlessly easygoing stage manner, the band delivered the goods and encouraged people to get up and dance – in itself no mean feat after a full day of music. As to myself, by the time they stepped on stage I was feeling even sleepier, and found myself almost dozing off in my lawn chair. Just like Ozric Tentacles (to whom they have often been compared), Quantum Fantay play the kind of music that holds my interest in small doses, and after a while their pulsating rhythms and whooshing keyboards started to sound a bit samey. In spite of these drawbacks, however, theirs was a very entertaining performance, and a good send-off to ProgDay’s 21st edition.

The following day, after having taken our leave from our friends, in the hope of meeting them again in 2016, we headed north feeling tired but in many ways regenerated after such a wonderful weekend. This was particularly true of myself, who felt the festival had been the start of a new, hopefully more positive chapter for me in my life.

While in the six ProgDay editions we have attended the band selection committee has always delivered in terms of quality, I believe this year was particularly bountiful, with top-notch performances and a wide range of musical styles to please the most demanding fans. As it has often been the case in the past few years, ProgDay 2015 showcased a wealth of female talent, with five outstanding ladies gracing the Storybook stage over the weekend: Madeleine Noland (Eccentric Orbit), Jackie Royce and Cheyenne Mize (Ut Gret), Kate McLoughlin and Emily Packard (Jack O’The Clock). The two bassoonists, who once again proved the enduring charm of the combination of rock and chamber/classical instruments, deserve a special mention – hence the title of this review. The performances of Jackie Royce, with her engaging manner and talent for comedy, and the elfin Kate McLoughlin were among the highlights of the whole weekend. So much for all the tiresome Internet discussions about women and progressive rock being mutually exclusive…

At the end of my review, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the organizers for all their hard work and dedication, and state once again that they can always count on our support. For the sake of the US progressive rock scene, it is essential that ProgDay continues, even if it will never draw the crowds that NEARfest used to. Besides the consistently great musical offer, the sense of community is a heartwarming reminder of the truly important things in life.

This year’s edition was a bittersweet one, in the light of the heartbreaking news we received on Saturday afternoon. During the Ut Gret set, we learned that our dear friend Djalma Carvalho (a regular reader and supporter of this blog) had passed away in the days before the festival. We had first met him at Progday 2011, and hoped to see him again some time this year, as he was due to come to the US again after a two-year hiatus. Though we will never see him again sitting in his customary place, right in front of the stage, his gentle nature and deep, abiding love of music will live forever in our hearts. Therefore, I wish to dedicate this review to him and to his best friend, Michael Inman, hoping he will find comfort in my words.

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In the autumn of 1994, Michigan native and long-time Baltimore resident Mike Potter started on a venture that has brought many moments of joy to progressive rock fans all over the US. With a name inspired by Potter’s lifelong passion for astronomy, the Orion Sound Studios – located in the middle of an industrial park in a rather unprepossessing part of Baltimore – has provided not only an invaluable resource for up-and-coming musicians in search of rehearsal and recording space, but a veritable magnet for lovers of non-mainstream music in that densely populated area.

In the past twenty years, the Orion’s legendary Trapezoid Room has been a haven for bands, both domestic and international, and a home away from home for the small but thriving “prog community” of the Eastern Seaboard. The venue’s cult status was cemented by its central role in Romantic Warriors – A Progressive Music Saga, which made the Orion’s name familiar to people living in other parts of the world. Even if Potter jokingly refers to the start of his venture as “the worst decision in my life”, his dedication to the Studios is complete, and his skills as a sound engineer have contributed to the success of many progressive rock events.

Therefore, it was only natural for such a milestone date to be celebrated in the most appropriate fashion – with a one-day festival that encapsulated all the aspects that have made the Orion Live Music Showcases such an unqualified success: some of the best progressive music the US scene has to offer, a great social vibe, and – last but not least – plenty of excellent food and drink. Even the notoriously unreliable East Coast weather had decided to cooperate, blessing the event with a perfect fall day, crisp but sunny. The riot of gorgeous foliage that accompanied our drive from our Northern Virginia home was a fitting prelude to the wonderful afternoon and evening that awaited us at the Orion.

As the Trapezoid Room – filled with white folding chairs to seat the 80 or so people who had booked tickets (and I am happy to report that the event was sold out!) – was to be used solely for performances and soundchecks, the rooms across the parking lot had been appointed for the breaks, and were soon filled with a huge selection of food (in many cases homemade) and drink brought by the attendees. The nice weather also encouraged people to linger outside, enjoying a welcome breath of fresh autumn air after the intensity of each performance. For the occasion, the stage area had been remodeled, the high ceiling now fully on display to create an impression of spaciousness that was previously missing, enhancing the effect of the multi-coloured lights.

Though the performances had been scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., there was a substantial delay that, while allowing for more socialization, pushed the whole schedule nearly an hour forward. Each band had been allotted about one hour and a half for their set – longer than most festivals usually allow for anyone except the headliners. At first, the audience did not mind the delay, but at the end of a long musical marathon fatigue started to set in. However, with many people coming from other parts of the country, having the event start earlier would have posed other problems.

The organizers had put together a lineup featuring some of the finest US-based bands currently active, with no whiff of nostalgia in sight – unlike the bigger festivals, which have to cater to the average US prog fan’s obsession with the Seventies. Even though most of the bands selected have already been around for a number of years (in the case of headliners Discipline, for even longer than the Orion Studios themselves!), they have not been resting on their laurels, and kept their music fresh and relevant.

The lone exceptions were openers The Knells – a recently-formed, NYC-based ensemble led by guitarist/composer Andrew McKenna Lee, who had wowed the Orion crowd last year in a breakthrough performance immediately following the release of their eponymous debut album. Having reviewed said album earlier this year, I was looking forward to seeing the band in action, and my expectations were not disappointed. Introduced by a solo spot by McKenna Lee – two acoustic guitar pieces and an oddly riveting, effect-laden 15-minute homage to Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”, The Knells played a jaw-dropping set that did full justice to the complexity of the compositions, masterfully executed by the eight-piece lineup. With its hypnotic post-rock cadences blended with heady psychedelia, angular Avant stylings and the hauntingly beautiful, yet somewhat eerie neo-Gregorian chanting of the three female vocalists, The Knells’ music is clearly not a proposition for everyone, and those in the audience who are more inclined towards the melodic end of the prog spectrum found it hard to relate to it. Personally, I loved every minute of the band’s performance, and hope to have the opportunity to see them again soon.

New Yorkers Frogg Café – longtime favourites of the US prog community, with a number of high-profile appearances under their belt – have all but recently emerged from the long hiatus that followed the 2010 release of Bateless Edge. Their first live performance in years, at the first edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend, in October 2013, had been rather impressive because of the talent involved, but still somewhat touched by the “rust” of inactivity. At the Orion, however, it was a completely different ballgame: though minus guitarist Frank Camiola (who is, once again, on sabbatical, pursuing more left-field musical interests), the band delivered a stunner of a performance, marching on stage from the back of the room to the strains of Franz Zappa’s “Inca Roads”. As the loss of Camiola’s electric edge required a stronger focus on the jazzier side of the band’s material to make up for the, Bill Ayasse took upon himself to replace the guitar with his electric violin and mandolin (putting his expertise as a bluegrass player to good use). The dynamic duo of brothers Nick and John Lieto provided comic relief as well as a buoyant big-band feel with their boisterous horns – and Nick proved no slouch in the vocal department. Andrew Sussman on bass and James Guarnieri on drums anchored the performance with a skillful mix of solidity and virtuosity. Besides some older favourites (which included the poignant “Terra Sancta” from Bateless Edge), Frogg Café treated the audience to some material from their long-awaited new album, plus a hilarious rendition of Zappa’s iconic “I’m the Slime”.

After a longer break for dinner, it was time to head inside once again for Alec K. Redfearn and The Eyesores. My introduction to the band dated back from 2011, when they had opened the Rock Day at the first and only edition of Cuneifest, and they easily won my personal award for best act of the day. The Providence outfit, led by charismatic, long-haired 21st-century minstrel Alec K. Redfearn – a gifted storyteller with a penchant for the weird and the macabre (not surprising for someone hailing from HP Lovecraft’s home town) – are purveyors of music whose RIO/Avant tag feels too restrictive for its genuinely eclectic nature. With a very idiosyncratic configuration – centred around Redfearn’s accordion (not the most typical of prog instruments), and featuring French horn, contrabass and percussion as well as a more traditional guitar (wielded by the very pretty and talented Gillian Chadwick) – The Eyesores’ music is strongly influenced by European folk, but also infused by an experimental vibe evident in the array of effects used by Redfearn to create an intensely haunting, drone-like atmosphere. Though their set was (at slightly over one hour) the shortest of the day, it offered such a concentration of intriguing compositions and pristine performances – further enhanced by Alec’s witty anecdotes – that even some of the more musically conservative members of the audience were won over by this truly unique outfit.

By the time headliners Discipline hit the stage, it was about 11:30 pm, and many attendees were already beginning to feel the strain of the late hour. Though the Detroit band were by far the most mainstream act on the lineup, and therefore the biggest draw for many attendees, the dark, intense nature of their music has also won them many admirers among the fans of the more left-field fringes of prog. Unfortunately, the late hour did the band no favours, and they ended up losing part of their audience midway through their set because of sheer exhaustion. We were among those who left early, though having seen the band onstage less than one month ago at the NJ Proghouse lessened our disappointment. Discipline played most of the same setlist (sadly devoid of the magnificent epic “Rogue”, from 2011’s To Shatter All Accord), though with the bonus encore of the über-creepy “The Nursery Year”, which at the Proghouse had been performed by Echolyn’s Ray Weston. From the first hour of the set, I got the impression of a heavier, more powerful (as well as distinctly louder) sound, complemented by Matthew Parmenter’s dramatic (albeit never overwrought) vocals. The band was tighter than ever, and new guitarist Chris Herin fit seamlessly with the original members, his sharp yet melodic guitar lines adding a keen edge to the band’s own brand of dark symphonic prog. As I had already noticed at the Proghouse, he is also a rather attractive man, obviously as comfortable on stage as his bandmates. Hopefully Discipline will be back on the East Coast some time next year, and possibly release a new album soon.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience, and my only regret is that the original idea of a two-day event did not come to fruition. It felt great to be back at the Orion after such a long absence, and spend time with the many friends we had missed during the past year or so. As always, my most heartfelt thanks go to Mike Potter and the rest of the organizing committee for having allowed us to experience such a great day of music and friendship. The celebration of the Orion Studios’ 20th Anniversary offered everything that makes the independent, non-mainstream music scene so exciting. It was also a brilliant example of the “small is beautiful” ethos that has replaced the more ambitious (and much less financially viable) festivals. Indeed, it was heartening to see a full house for bands that, for once, were not throwbacks of the Seventies in any way, and that – each in its own way – represent the best of the modern progressive rock scene.

Links:
http://www.orionsound.com
http://theknells.com
http://www.froggcafe.com
http://www.aleckredfearn.com/
http://www.strungoutrecords.com

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After our highly enjoyable experience at Dunellen’s quaint Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse during last year’s Columbus Day weekend, this year we were looking forward to a repeat – and that in spite of the stress of the past 12 months. The stellar lineup, friendly vibe and gorgeous, early fall weather had made the first edition of New Jersey’s own “small is beautiful” festival an unforgettable occurrence, and things looked very promising for its sophomore edition when the lineup was announced – featuring two iconic US bands such as Echolyn and Discipline as headliners, together with a wealth of up-and-coming progressive talent.

Unfortunately, the unexpected withdrawal of Echolyn not even two months before the event had threatened to put the festival in severe jeopardy, and definitely impacted the overall attendance. US prog fans – even more so than those from other countries – need to see big names on a bill before they will commit money and vacation time, as the sorry tale of ambitious yet aborted ventures such as NEARfest 2011 and FarFest more than abundantly proved. The turnout, however, even if obviously lower than last year, was satisfactory – which (as a silver lining of sorts) allowed a more intimate seating arrangement that made for a more comfortable viewing experience.

Saturday morning felt more like November than early October, with rain, grey skies and rather chilly temperatures that did not encourage lingering outside. In spite of that, a nice crowd gathered before noon to witness the performance of openers Pinnacle, a group of seasoned musicians well known in the North East prog community, with ties to the NJ Proghouse organization. The quartet introduced their newest member, vocalist/keyboardist Matt Francisco, who handled his frontman duties with remarkable aplomb, doing justice to the band’s accomplished songwriting. Of all the bands who trod the Roxy and Dukes stage on Saturday, Pinnacle were probably the only one that could be labeled as “traditional” prog, and they rose well to the occasion, interspersing their own original material with an homage to Marillion’s “Script for a Jester’s Tear”. Although their music (a modern take on the classic Neo-Prog sound) is not exactly my cup of tea (being a modern take on classic Neo-Prog), their enthusiasm, professionalism and warm stage presence won over the audience.

South Jerseyans Out of the Beardspace were already a known quantity for those who (like us,) had attended ProgDay 2013. At the time, I had found them promising and quite entertaining, albeit a tad unfocused. However, the youthful six-piece (none of them is older than 24) had grown by leaps and bounds in the intervening months, with the help of a massive amount of gigging. In fact, they had played until 4 a.m. that morning, and were headed for another show a couple of hours after their NJ Proghouse set. Brimming with energy, the band members bounced unceasingly about the stage; their music, however, while retaining the jammy, spontaneous vibe that had endeared them to the ProgDay crowd, was noticeably tighter. Fronted by the charismatic Kevin Savo – whose impressive stage presence and piercing vocals belie his diminutive size – these modern-day hippies, staunch supporters of a DIY ethos and dedicated environmentalists, showed that there is ample room for the younger generations on the stage of a prog festival – provided the audiences are willing to step out of their comfort zone. Chock full of psychedelic goodness, the band’s musical approach is occasionally reminiscent to that of jam bands, but is clearly evolving in a more focused direction from a compositional point of view. While out of the Beardspace may not be your parents’ prog, they definitely belong under the ever-growing umbrella of modern progressive rock.

Though vaguely familiar with the name, I had not heard any of Lo-Fi Resistance’s music prior to the event, and lack of time prevented me from exploring further. In fact, the comments I had heard about their music being more in singer-songwriter vein than in a conventional prog one proved to be at least partly true. The quartet fronted by young and gifted guitarist/vocalist Randy McStine (also a member of Sound of Contact’s touring lineup) deals in song-based, prog-tinged rock that on more than one occasion reminded me of U2, though without the Irish band’s flamboyance and charisma. While a couple of tracks towards the end of their set contained some interesting instrumental passages, the bulk of Lo-Fi Resistance’s music failed to connect with me, in spite of the band members’ obvious enthusiasm and skill. The crowd, on the other hand, seemed to really appreciate their set, and treated them to a standing ovation.

As I wrote in my review of ProgDay 2014, I was curious to see whether California-based power trio Travis Larson Band’s music would work better in a more intimate setting than it had in the tropical heat of Storybook Farm at 3 p.m. My hunch proved to be correct, as the trio’s set was for me the highlight of a rather low-key day. Travis Larson’ engagingly friendly between-songs banter added interest to the blistering yet fluid music – driving rock-fusion with some warm bluesy undertones, always tight and never descending into pointless shredding. Larson’s on-stage chemistry with diminutive dynamo Jennifer Young – a gifted bassist genuinely in love with her instrument, and a heartwarming example of an attractive woman using her musical talent rather than her looks to impress – was a joy to behold, while powerhouse drummer Dale Moon made quite a few members of the audience wonder whether he was related to another drum legend bearing the same surname. The band’s stagecraft is obviously honed to perfection, and their set provided a welcome shot of pure rock energy.

After a delicious (and way too plentiful for us to finish) dinner at a Peruvian restaurant a few miles down the road, in the company of our friend Robert James Pashman of 3RDegree fame (whom we had not seen in quite a while), we got back to Roxy and Dukes just one or two minutes after The Sensational Francis Dunnery Band had taken to the stage. At the end of a long day of music (and, in my case, not having got enough sleep the previous night), it would have taken something special to hold our attention until 11 pm, but unfortunately this was not the case, and we ended up leaving about half an hour later in order to get some rest. While Dunnery is a very accomplished musician, songwriter and frontman (even when sporting blue tracksuit pants, as he did on this occasion) of a very eclectic persuasion, his music did not particularly resonate with us, and his constant complaints about the sound system came across as rather jarring after a while. On the other hand, having had to replace Echolyn as the Saturday headliner would undoubtedly have been a thankless task for anyone.

After a much better night’s sleep, on Sunday morning I was feeling refreshed and ready to tackle another day of music. The much nicer weather also encouraged us to arrive early to spend some time outside the venue, chatting with people and enjoying the sunshine. I was looking forward to opening act Schooltree – a band I had selected as one of my earliest contributions to DPRP’s Something for the Weekend? feature, and recommended to a few people. The Boston-based quartet, led by another pocket-sized, yet hugely charismatic young woman – the very talented Lainey Schooltree, decked in a half-demure, half-provocative outfit of white blouse and black, tightly laced corset – delivered an hour of delightful art-rock with intriguing Baroque arrangements that owed to Kate Bush and Queen as much as to classic prog. Lainey’s powerful, expressive vocals and keyboard mastery often made me think of a more carefree version of Tori Amos. Alongside songs from the band’s excellent debut album, Rise, we were treated to some very promising material from their forthcoming ‘rock opera’. Lainey and her bandmates deservedly made many fans with their exciting music and friendly, engaging demeanour.

Of all of the bands on the lineup, MVP (Meridian Voice Project) were definitely the most obscure, though I had managed to find enough information about them to learn that they were a jazz-rock-oriented four-piece from New York City who had performed at the NJ Proghouse in 2013. Led by ebullient keyboardist Lloyd Landesman, an obviously experienced, very accomplished artist with and the added bonus of a talent for stand-up comedy, the band played a fiery set of classic, keyboard-driven jazz-rock with plenty of melody and energy that featured a lot of their own material, as well as a few covers (such as Bruford’s famed “Hell’s Bells”, a showcase for the amazing talent of drummer Dana Hawkins) and. With their seamless musicianship and easy stage manner, the band made a splash with the crowd, and many rushed to buy CDs after the show.

The East Coast debut of Los Angeles five-piece Heliopolis was eagerly awaited by many an audience member – especially those who had loved Mars Hollow’s soaring melodies and exhilarating stage presence, and mourned the quartet’s untimely demise. The band did not disappoint, delivering a set that (while somewhat shorter than we were expecting) showcased both the individual members’ considerable skills and their collective chemistry, doing ample justice to the material featured on their recently released debut CD, City of the Sun. With irrepressible bassist Kerry “Kompost” Chicoine prowling the stage, tawny locks swinging and faithful Rickenbacker getting a good workout, and Jerry Beller pounding away at his drum kit, the band went through the five tracks of their album with panache. Keyboardist Matt Brown – looking as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself – lorded over his keyboard rig with abandon, while guitarist Michael Matier cut a more sedate figure, and vocalist Scott Jones swung his microphone stand about in tried-and-true rock fashion, his well-modulated high tenor well suited to the band’s intricate yet upbeat music. Heliopolis also regaled the crowd with an encore – a barnstorming version of The Beatles’ “Help”.

Even though Echolyn had pulled out of the festival, their vocalist Ray Weston had stayed on the lineup to provide a short but well-attended interlude before the Sunday headliners came on. Known for his songwriting skills as well as his soulful, somewhat plaintive voice, the long-haired and bespectacled Weston – accompanied by a sizable acoustic guitar – looked very much as if he had stepped out of grunge’s heyday. His 40-minute set – which included stripped-down versions of Echolyn’s “Headright” and “The End Is Beautiful”, as well as Discipline’s very creepy “The Nursery Year” – offered a break from the orgy of instrumental complexity that is at the heart of every self-respecting prog festival, and was occasionally arresting, though as a whole it probably went on a bit too long.

As I wrote in my review of their 2011 album To Shatter All Accord, I am a relative newcomer to Discipline, one of the trailblazers (together with Echolyn) of the US prog renaissance in the Nineties. However, that long-awaited album was enough to make me a convert, and I spent the past two years kicking myself for having missed the Detroit band’s performance at ROSFest 2012. The praise heaped upon them by some of my friends made me even more impatient to experience them on stage. I am glad to say that my patience was amply rewarded, because on Sunday night Discipline played a blinder that made me forget my ever-present tiredness and the slight burnout that often follows a weekend full of music. The black-clad figure of Matthew Parmenter (wearing his customary white makeup) sitting behind the keyboards was a magnet for everyone’s eyes. His singing voice (quite different from his speaking one) is simply one of the best I have heard in a long time, and his oddly endearing, deadpan humour contrasts with his somewhat forbidding appearance. With distinguished-looking Tiles guitarist Chris Herin subbing for Jon Preston Bouda, and Mathew Kennedy and Paul Dzendzel providing a flawless rhythmic background – ideal for the band’s complex, yet often crushingly heavy mid-tempos – Discipline delivered a perfect two hours of music as powerful as it was devoid of unnecessary flash. Having left his costumes and Gabrielesque performances behind, Parmenter now relies on his measured gestures and facial expressions to convey a depth of emotion than makes many other frontmen seem hopelessly overwrought. Needless to say, I will be counting the days until I see the band again at the Orion Studios on November 8.

As a whole, the second edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend was as successful as the first, even though I believe that having five bands instead of four in an indoor setting can be somewhat taxing for the average music fan’s attention span. On the other hand, the organizers are to be commended for reaching outside the boundaries of conventional prog, and showcasing the many different forms of the genre in this second decade of the 21st century – even if I would have liked to see at least one “cutting-edge” band on the Roxy and Dukes stage. In any case, the third edition of the festival is already in the works, and the first two bands were announced on Sunday night – MoeTar and Necromonkey, both firm favourites of mine.

As usual, at the end of my review I would like to thank the NJ Proghouse “staph” for all their hard work and for allowing us to enjoy a wonderful weekend of music and companionship with like-minded people in very friendly surroundings. I hope that, sometimes during the next 12 months, we will find the time to head to Dunellen again.

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In many ways, the present review is an unexpected little “miracle”, which only a week ago seemed highly unlikely to happen. Though it will be noticeably shorter and not as detailed as those I wrote for past events, I fervently hope that my readers will not be too disappointed.

When ProgDay started, in the late summer of 1994, no one would have probably thought it would become the world’s longest-running progressive rock festival. As for myself, I was living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and would have never imagined that I would one day move to the United States. Since 2010, however, it has become for me and my husband an appointment that we would not miss for anything in the world. Unfortunately, due to an accumulation of stress (caused by a seemingly endless series of setbacks, professional and otherwise), I was in such poor shape that I doubted the wisdom of attending the festival at all. For almost the whole of 2014’s first eight months I felt as if I was being swallowed by a black hole, slowly losing interest in many of the things that I normally enjoy – music being the chief victim of this state of affairs. I dropped out of the East Coast prog scene completely, shunning concerts and avoiding contact with people. Though I tried to keep up with new releases, most of the music I heard just went over my head, and did not make any lasting impression.

Even if, a mere couple of days before the event, I had regained most of my enthusiasm for it, this year did feel different. For one thing, I felt much less inclined to be a “social butterfly”, and spent a lot of time in my lawn chair, safely sheltered from the sun under the main pavilion, with a book to keep me company and help me concentrate on the music – while my notebook stayed safely tucked in one of the pockets of my tote bag. After a surprisingly mild summer with very pleasant temperatures, Labor Day weekend seemed to concentrate most of the season’s worth of heat and humidity, and being on the field for two days did take its toll, though I was wise enough not to overextend myself, and get enough rest at the end of the day.

To be perfectly honest, my lack of enthusiasm for this year’s festival was not only the product of negative personal circumstances, but was also related to the line-up. Compared to the previous editions I had attended, this was surely the most “conservative” line-up assembled by the organizers, and had become even more so when Mexican outfit Luz de Riada (featuring Ramsés Luna, formerly of the brilliant Cabezas de Cera) were forced to withdraw almost at the very last moment because of a visa-related snag (oh, the joys of the US immigration system!). However, unlike those prog fans I so much like to bash, I know that a band should be seen on stage before being dismissed, and that the apparently unassuming Storybook Farm stage has a way to bring out the best in the artists that tread it. Indeed, I am glad to say that none of the bands invited for 2014 disappointed in that sense, even when their music was not exactly my cup of tea.

On Saturday morning we were once again welcomed by the lush greenery and comforting familiarity of Storybook Farm – a bucolic, relaxed setting that took openers Zombie Frogs, clearly much more used to the unrelenting intensity of metal-based events, by surprise. The youthful (and obviously talented) Boston quintet were more impressive for their stage presence (which included a guitarist with a superb head of reddish-blond dreadlocks) and infectious enthusiasm than for their riff-heavy music, which I found rather hard to get into, and a tad too reminiscent of Dream Theater for comfort. However, they were just what the audience needed to get going at a relatively early hour – and let us not forget that progressive metal (like it or not) remains the best vehicle to introduce the younger generations to the prog scene.

Highly awaited Spanish quintet Kotebel – among the foremost standard-bearers of modern symphonic prog, with enough of an edge to appeal to the notoriously hard to please Avant-Prog set – came on stage next, providing that sharp contrast that is one of the hallmarks of a successful prog festival. Fronted by the engaging father-daughter keyboard duo of Carlos and Adriana Plaza, they performed their latest CD opus, the marvelous Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble, holding the audience captive with the sheer beauty and effortless complexity of their music – which completely eschews the pretentiousness all too often associated with classical-inspired prog.

Minnesota’s Galactic Cowboy Orchestra proved to be one of the highlights of the festival for me – in spite of the limitations of occupying the dreaded third slot, when most of the audience are feeling the effects of the increasing heat. A four-piece fronted by the dazzling smile and chops of violinist/vocalist Lisi Wright (whose voice reminded me at times of the incomparable Moorea Dickason of MoeTar), those rightful heirs to Dixie Dregs were probably the most eclectic band on this year’s line-up. Most importantly, they are one of those bands whose music (though already good on CD), truly comes alive on stage, emphasizing the individual members’ skills as well as their flawless ensemble playing.

Though founded by Florentine guitarist/composer Franco Falsini, and part of the original RPI scene of the Seventies, Sensation’s Fix have always been more of an international venture than a genuinely Italian one – and that was also reflected in a sound that evoked historic Krautrock bands such as Ashra Tempel and Agitation Free. Even if perhaps not the best choice as a closing act on a hot and humid day, the Italian-American quartet (again featuring a talented female musician, keyboardist Candace Miller) performed with evident pleasure, the hypnotic, laid-back vibe of the music and Falsini’s riveting guitar tone occasionally bringing to mind Pink Floyd circa Meddle. The band also stayed for the whole of the festival, and seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly.

Climate-wise, Sunday was very much a repeat of the previous day – tolerable in the morning, much less so as the day progressed. The musical menu started somewhat earlier, as openers Backhand had asked for an extra 15 minutes to play all the material they had put together for the occasion. To me and most of the audience, the Venezuelan outfit were an unknown quantity, though each of its members could boast of an impressive résumé. The songs on the ProgDay website pointed to a prog-flavoured classic rock/AOR outfit, and their performance did not belie that impression – though they sounded immensely better on stage, with Dutch-born keyboardist Adrianus van Woerkom a particular highlight. Vocalist Phil Naro proved a consummate frontman in the Robert Plant/David Coverdale mould, his high tenor sharply bringing to mind the Led Zeppelin singer. Although his trim, lion-maned presence (complete with large belt buckle and mirrored shades) may have been quite at odds with the stereotypical prog canon, there is no denying that it added entertainment value to a context that tends to take itself way too seriously.

With a modern prog legend such as drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson at the helm, it is no wonder that Necromonkey were eagerly awaited – especially by those members of the audience who favour the more experimental side of the genre. The presence of two out of four members of the wonderful Gösta Berlings Saga (keyboardist David Lundberg, who is the other official half of Necromonkey, and guitarist Einar Baldursson) created an unmistakable link with the haunting post-rock-meets-Zeuhl sound of the quartet that in 2012 took NEARfest by storm. As good as Necromonkey’s two studio albums are, being performed by a four-piece band (including bassist Kringle Harmonist) took their music to the next level, lending it a well-rounded, quasi-orchestral quality. Though driven by Olsson’s uncannily precise time-keeping and Lundberg’s mellotron and other keyboards, the band’s performance also spotlighted Baldursson’s stunningly beautiful guitar work. For all their very low-key stage presence (quite a contrast with Backhand’s flamboyance), Necromonkey’s set delivered all we were expecting, and more.

In spite of a 15-year-long career and six albums, Travis Larson Band are not exactly a household name in prog circles – very probably because their music is not exactly what most people would call prog. A classic power trio fronted by the tall, lanky Travis Larson, they delivered an energetic, enthusiastic performance that emphasized not only Larson’s dazzling six-string work, but also Jennifer Young’s stunning skills in wielding a bass almost as big as she was, and Dale Moon’s seamless drumming. Unfortunately, by that time the heat and humidity were taking their toll on the audience, and after a while I started finding it hard to concentrate on the music. Thankfully, I will have the opportunity to see the band again in October at the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend, and I am quite sure that an indoor setting might do more justice to their music.

The celebration of a milestone such as a 20th anniversary needed to end with a bang, and I am happy to report that my fellow Italians Alex Carpani Band (featuring legendary ex-VDGG saxophonist David Jackson) provided plenty of fireworks. Again, while their latest album, 4 Destinies, had not made much of an impression on me, in spite of its obvious quality, the live dimension brought the very best out of the Bologna-based quintet. Fronted by the charismatic Joe Sal, whose impressive pipes were honed by his early years as a hard rock singer, the band performed 4 Destinies in its entirety, though alternating their own material with VDGG classics such as Darkness, Killer and Man-Erg. In spite of that, and possibly because of Jackson’s endearing yet unconventional character, ACB’s set avoided the feel of a nostalgia-fest – also because of the remarkable stage craft of each of its members. They sent the crowd into fits of ecstasy by performing PFM’s timeless Impressioni di settembre, followed by an exhilarating version of George Martin’s Theme One. Though the solo spots were a tad overlong, Jackson’s performance alone was worth the price of admission.

As cheesy as it may sound, this 20th edition of ProgDay marked a sort of rebirth for me, after a long period of darkness in which music had become a mere footnote. In the past few years, my tastes have gradually evolved, and I have found myself moving away from a lot of “traditional” prog. On the other hand, though this year’s ProgDay line-up was definitely lighter on the cutting-edge side of things, the overall level of quality was as high as in previous years, offering a nicely balanced mix of subgenres that reflected modern prog’s increasingly diversified nature. And then, the beauty of the setting and the genuinely friendly vibe of the festival have fortunately stayed the same, getting newcomers hooked so that every year there are new additions to the event’s core of loyal supporters.

In any case, in spite of this year’s less than auspicious circumstances, my ProgDay experience was an all-round success, and I want to thank the organizers from the bottom of my heart for their hard work on behalf of non-mainstream music (or, as Travis Larson put it, non-commercial – a better definition to me than the ever-debated “prog” label). As usual, it was wonderful to see friends (that we had not seen for quite a while, and spend quality time with them – which included sampling the delights of local Mexican and Indian restaurants. A special mention goes to HT Riekels and Melissa Palmer, two of the newest converts to the joys of ProgDay, and both also excellent music writers.

This review was written, first and foremost, as a tribute to all the people who made ProgDay’s 20th anniversary such a memorable occasion. I do not yet know whether I will ever go back to writing on a regular basis, as (besides having other priorities) the kind of pace I kept for the past few years is likely to get anyone burned out after a while. However, what truly matters is that the “curse” seems to have been broken, and that I can still appreciate music and feel the inclination to write about it – even if not as much in detail as before. In the meantime, I will continue contributing to the weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, doing my best to spotlight new bands and artists who deserve to be heard. We will see what happens next…

Links:
http://www.progday.net

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Though the “big” progressive rock festival scene in the US – generally limited to the late spring and summer months – seems to be on the wane, with the demise of NEARfest and the failure of other ambitious events to take off, some fans seem to have taken the old “small is beautiful” adage to heart, and their efforts seem to be paying so far. While the group of close friends and music lovers affectionately known as the NJ Proghouse “staph” are old hands at organizing concerts, the two-day event that took place on the second weekend of October 2013 was a potential baptism of fire that, however, was passed with flying colours.

On a rainy Friday morning we drove from our Northern Virginia home to New Jersey. It had been a relatively late decision, but events had  made it easier for us to take the time off and head north for two solid days of music and good company. Having often written about the need to scale things down as regards the organization of prog festivals in the US, I felt I needed to follow my own advice, and support this venture. As harrowing as the drive was, through occasional spells of heavy rain and equally heavy traffic, the event more than rewarded our patience.

Though the gorgeous fall weather – cool yet not excessively so, with sun and clear skies enhancing the beauty of the multihued foliage – would have made a perfect setting for an outdoor festival, the venue chosen for the occasion was so endearingly quaint and cheerful that even spending so much time indoors did not feel like a chore. Conflating lounge bar, restaurant and music venue in a dimly-lit, low-ceilinged space decorated with an impressive collection of vintage curios, Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse is located on a picturesque, tree-lined road in the heart of New Jersey, close to New York City yet seemingly removed from its hustle and bustle. Though certainly no state-of-the-art theatre like Bethlehem’s Zoellner Arts Centre or Gettysburg’s Majestic (and therefore a bit uncomfortable after a while), it can boast of amazingly good acoustics, and its friendly vibe makes it the ideal setting for non-mainstream music events. Even if the stage may have been a bit cramped for any band with more than four members, none of the eight sets was in any way affected by the relative lack of space.

For a rather low-key event, scheduled away from the main festival season, the Homecoming Weekend was very well-attended, and the venue packed to capacity for most of Sunday, as the organizers had wisely offered the opportunity to buy tickets for single bands as well as the whole weekend. Many of the attendees came from the neighbouring areas, but others (like us) had taken a longer trip in order to be present at the launch of the event and ensure its viability for the future.  With only one exception, the lineup included bands that had already performed at concerts organized by the NJ Proghouse “staph” in the past few years – most of them hailing from the New Jersey/New York region. While the only two acts coming from outside were (as it often happens) also the biggest draws, all the bands drew a respectable and appreciative crowd. The presence of keyboardist Tom Brislin (a NJ Proghouse regular), who contributed musical interludes during the breaks, and also joined some bands during theirsets, added further interest to the already outstanding lineup.

Advent, opening act and “in-house” band of sorts (as guitarist Alan Benjamin, together with his lovely wife Amy, is one of the most active members of the Proghouse “staph”), were one of my own personal draws. While not exactly prolific either as a studio or a live act, the quintet founded in the late Eighties by Benjamin and keyboardist/composer Henry Ptak have a distinctive approach that would be too easy to dismiss as a lesser version of Gentle Giant. In fact, while the influence of the iconic Seventies band was unmistakable in the material from their self-titled debut album, their quietly refined sound, tinged with the haunting beauty of medieval and Renaissance music, as well as jazzy suggestions and  hints of English folk, is redolent with Old World charm. Their gorgeous, multi-part vocal harmonies – masterfully arranged by Henry Ptak, drawing on his experience as a choir director – blend seamlessly with the instrumentation rather than dominating it; the keyboards – manned by Ptak and his brother Mark – and Benjamin’s guitar work together with the ease of a long partnership, weaving fascinating musical textures. New bassist Brian Mooney brings his jazz-rock background to the table, lending a more dynamic element to the band’s stately sound, in unison with Joe D’Andrea’s crisp, elegant drumming. The band looked elated to be back on stage, and the material from their forthcoming third album sounds very promising indeed. Hopefully, next time I see them they will be able to play a longer set.

Advent

The Tea Club are part of a restricted number of bands whose career I have been following since its inception. The outfit led by brothers Daniel and Patrick McGowan, though plagued by growing pains (i.e. frequent lineup changes) has been going from strength to strength, adding layers of complexity to the energetic punch of their debut album, and blending a boldly modern direction with their very personal homage to the past. Young and good-looking in their fashionably bohemian attire, with the McGowan brothers and drummer Joe Rizzolo (a very talented musician with a jazz background) sporting flowing locks that would have looked great in a shampoo commercial, they played a set that emphasized their mastery of quiet-loud dynamics. Intense electric flare-ups, packed with frantic riffs, effortlessly morphed into soothing passages embellished by Renée Pestritto’s pastoral flute, while the brothers’ strong, high-pitched voices – Dan’s more melodic, Pat’s assertive, with a touch of banshee wail – merged smoothly with the instruments. New bassist Jamie Wolff complemented Rizzolo’s agile, accomplished drumming style, propelling the band’s trademark crescendos and beefing up the guitars’ relentless riffage. While the influence of the likes of Radiohead is clearly detectable, The Tea Club have woven subtle but hard to miss classic prog elements into their sound – particularly evident in the material from their latest CD, Quickly Quickly Quickly, performed here in its entirety. Some entertaining visual props – in the shape of a large, top-hatted wolf stuck to Dan’s back – were also introduced during their performance of “The Eternal German Infant” at the close of their set.

The Tea Club

Having been absent from the stage for quite a few  years, Long Islanders Frogg Café were certainly one of the most highly anticipated bands of the weekend. Indeed, while their highly praised 2010 album, Bateless Edge, had made many Top 10 lists, no one had had the pleasure of seeing any of its material performed live. After their career-defining performance at NEARfest 2005, the band had made a lot of fans both inside and outside the US, but had dropped off the radar after their latest album’s release, giving rise to rumours of their demise. Thankfully, the six-piece born as a Frank Zappa cover band called Lumpy Gravy, and later developed into a highly inventive entertaining jazz-rock outfit, are still alive and very much kicking. Frogg Café are also one of those quintessential live bands whose full potential does not truly shine on CD, as their preference for long, jam-like compositions suits the stage much better. They also have the ability not to take themselves too seriously, in spite of their outstanding musical background. Lined up at the front of the stage, with  music stands before each member but drummer James Guarnieri,  their presence brimmed with deadpan humour  – especially evident in guitarist Frank Camiola’s attire of pork pie hat, shorts and mirrored shades, matched by a stony countenance. Dynamic horn duo of Nick and John Lieto, soberly dressed in slacks and dress shirts, went about their comedy routine while playing their respective instruments with gusto, supported by Bill Ayasse’s more sedate violin-wielding turn; while bassist Andrew Sussman’s striking, confident presence marked him as the “rockstar” character of the band. Frogg Café’s set consisted of a number of extended pieces that featured lots of improvisation, engaging Zappaesque vocals and occasional reflective moments. Fans of the Canterbury scene also appreciated the homage to Mike Ratledge’s “Backwards” (part of Caravan’s “A Hunting We Shall Go” instrumental suite, though originally included in Soft Machine’s “Slightly All the Time”).

Frogg Café

The outstanding Saturday programme was wrapped up by New York sextet IZZ, another favourite of prog audiences. After having had a taste of their excellence in the late spring of this year, when their “Quad” version opened for 3RDegree at the Orion Studios, I was looking forward to seeing the full band on stage, and I am glad to say that they did not disappoint. Opening their 2-hour set with an energetic cover of The Beatles’ classic “Ticket to Ride”, IZZ treated the audience to a selection of their best material, including epics “Late Night Salvation”, “Can’t Feel the Earth” and “Crush of Night”, as well as one song from bassist John Galgano’s solo album and a cover of King Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair”. The distinctive two-drummer configuration, with Brian Coralian handling acoustic and electronic percussion and Greg DiMiceli a traditional kit, lent both texture and dynamics to the music, boosting John Galgano’s flawless bass lines and providing a solid backdrop for Paul “Brems” Bremner’s exhilarating, often hard-edged guitar work. Tom Galgano manned the keyboards with energy and aplomb, his voice tackling the band’s melodic yet complex compositions effectively, assisted by Anmarie Byrnes’ pure, soaring tones. Though IZZ’s music is clearly influenced by the golden age of prog, it has enough personality to stand on its own.  Extremely professional in their approach, yet warm and engaging, IZZ are one of those bands whose material – as good as it is in recorded form – takes on a completely new dimension when performed live, its impressive balance of melody, intricacy and electricity fully unfolding on the stage.

IZZ

After a refreshing night’s sleep, on Sunday morning we were back at Roxy and Dukes for another day of great music and friendship. Though the Sunday opening act was the only unknown quantity to the vast majority of the audience,  Tammy Scheffer’s Morning Bound, an experimental trio of voice, bass and drums led by extremely talented Israeli-born singer Tammy Scheffer,  proved to be the real surprise of the festival. Drafted in a few months ago to replace Oblivion Sun, they provided that genuine boundary-breaking element that progressive rock seems all too often to have left by the wayside. When the slight, curly-haired Scheffer stepped on stage and started to sing, my jaw dropped to the floor and stayed there for the whole duration of the band’s set. Her voice soared effortlessly, pitch-perfect and smooth as honey, bending the music to its will and twining with the intricate patterns laid out by bassist Russ Flynn and drummer Ronen Itzik. Tape loops were used sparingly but effectively to add further layers of interest to her performance, but she would have caused a stir even if she had sung without any accompaniment at all. With her graceful posture and charmingly measured gestures punctuating her astonishing vocal exertions, Tammy offered a performance that while devoid of any references to classic prog, was as progressive as they come. One of the undisputed highlights of an hour of musical excellence was her deconstruction of Suzanne Vega’s wistful “Marlene on the Wall”. Tammy’s flawless set proved once again that it is not necessary to rely on overly complex arrangements and large instrumentation to produce authentically forward-looking music, and celebrated the power and beauty of the human voice.

Tammy Scheffer’s Morning Bound

The contrast between the first and the second act on the bill could not have been greater, as Morning Bound’s jazzy elegance left the stage to Thank You Scientist – another local band that we had first seen in action barely over one month ago at ProgDay. Although somewhat constrained by the size of the stage, the explosive seven-piece led by charismatic singer Sal Marrano delivered an energy-packed, highly entertaining set with hardly a moment of respite. Odin Alvarez’s relentless drumming, aided and abetted by bassist Greg Colacino, pummeled the audience into submission, while Russell Lynch’s distinctively-shaped violin added a melodic touch to the band’s hard-driving sound. The irresistible horn duo of Andrew Digrius and Ellis Jasenovich blared their way through the setlist, providing swing and entertainment value, while guitarist Tom Monda anchored the band’s wildly eclectic sound to the rock aesthetics. Marrano, sporting a jaunty beret, almost jumped off the stage on several occasions, his engaging stage presence owing more to punk than prog, and his high, expressive voice never flagging in spite of the demanding nature of his vocal parts. The Beatles’ anthemic “I Am the Walrus”, enthusiastically cheered by the audience, wrapped up their hyper-energetic set. As I noted in my ProgDay review, these guys have serious potential to win over the considerably broader audience of indie/alternative rock – those who do not care for the “prog” tag even if many of their favourite bands have clear progressive features (The Mars Volta, Tool and The Decemberists all being a case in point).

Thank You Scientist

For all the abundance of awesome modern talent on display during the weekend, it cannot be denied that most of the attendees ( prog fans being what they are) were looking forward to one act in particular – Chicago hotshots District 97 with Seventies legend John Wetton as a special guest, performing some of King Crimson’s most popular compositions. The band had played in our neck of the woods a few days before the festival, and garnered very positive feedback, so I was open to be surprised – even if the events of last year’s NEARfest had somewhat soured my attitude towards Wetton. It was my third time seeing District 97, and last year at the Orion I had been positively impressed by their new material and their improved songwriting skills. Unfortunately, the band’s own music was dealt with rather hurriedly to leave room for Wetton’s appearance – which happened in very understated fashion, with the singer stepping on stage during “The Perfect Young Man”. To be fair, his voice was in amazing shape, and his interpretation of the King Crimson classics was in many ways even better than the original versions (I am especially thinking of “Book of Saturdays” and “The Night Watch”). However, he looked quite uncomfortable on stage, his hands obviously itching to play his bass and being instead forced to gesture in a way he was obviously not used to. In spite of the unexpected surprise of “Great Deceiver”, things started going seriously downhill when the marvelous “Starless” (one of the true manifestos of progressive rock in my view) was cut short at the end of the vocal section to morph into “Easy Money” – a medley that did neither of those iconic songs any justice. I would also have gladly done without Leslie Hunt’s duets with Wetton, which did not add anything to the songs, and her constant posturing was ultimately annoying. In stark contrast, the other band members were serious to the point of grimness, and guitarist Jim Tashjian’s shreddy flourishes during some of the Crimson material sounded quite jarring. On the whole, the performance – while spotlighting the band’s undeniable technical proficiency – left a bad taste in my mouth. Those King Crimson songs are among my favourite pieces of music of all time, but their rendition by District 97 lacked the fine balance between sublime melody and jagged edges that made the originals so unique.

District 97 with John Wetton

Unfortunately, when the time came for headliners Beardfish to hit the stage, tiredness had already crept upon us, and the very crowded room – with scarcely enough space to breathe – did not look very inviting. While the Swedish band (the only international outfit on the lineup) have long been a firm favourite of the US prog community, I have always been rather impervious to their charms, and my only experience of seeing them live at NEARfest 2009 left me a bit underwhelmed. However, the audience seemed to love them, and the feedback I heard on the following day was overwhelmingly positive. As they have often visited the US in the past few years, we can expect to see them again relatively soon, and the next time I will make a point not to miss them.

All in all, in spite of Friday’s troublesome drive, it was a perfect weekend. The lovely weather, the outstanding hotel accommodation arranged by the organizers, the welcoming venue, the availability of great food and drink (including the delicious home-baked cupcakes kindly offered by Anita Redondo Wilson), the great company and, last but not least, the top-notch musical programme all contributed to make the first Homecoming Weekend an unforgettable experience. My heartfelt thanks go to the “staph” for the seamless organization, and for all their hard work on behalf of the cause of progressive rock. Small is beautiful indeed, and  we will definitely be looking forward to Homecoming Weekend # 2 in 2014.

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ProgDay2013-art-550

In spite of the brutal heat and humidity that marred last year’s edition, ProgDay had got us so well and truly hooked that we had started counting the days a good three months before this year’s event. The morning of Friday, August 29 saw us head south to North Carolina for the fourth time in as many years to attend the festival’s 19th consecutive edition – a true feat considering the fickle and finicky nature of the US prog audience. Over the years, ProgDay has built a loyal fanbase that, while never reaching the size of the audiences that have attended other prog festivals, has never failed to deliver quality-wise, and constantly attracted new attendees. Indeed, ProgDay XIX brought quite a few new faces to the green, tree-ringed sward of Storybook Farm, and a new batch of people won over by an event that, while unpretentious almost by definition, has become the ideal showcase for all kinds of challenging music.

After an uneventful car ride from our Northern Virginia home, we reached the hotel in time for lunch, followed by some well-needed rest. Then it was time for us to reconnect with the many friends we have made through our mutual love of music. This year was made even more special by the presence of some people we had not yet managed to meet in person, though we already considered them good friends.

As a complement to the main event, the Labor Day weekend also offered two “pre-show” gigs at Chapel Hill’s Local 506, all involving ProgDay alumni: Half Past Four, Dreadnaught and 3RDegree on Friday, Mörglbl on Sunday. Unfortunately, Canadian quintet Half Past Four had were stopped at the border and had to be replaced by outstanding Chapman Stick specialist Rob Martino. Since the Friday night show promised to go on until late, and we wanted to be in good shape for the following day, we decided to have dinner and then get a good night’s sleep.

While not as unrelentingly hot and humid as last year, the weekend weather was still typical of North Carolina at the tail end of summer, with high levels of humidity throughout the day. When we got to the Farm on Saturday morning, the grass was drenched with dew, and some early attendees were pitching their tents and canopies on the field. A cool early morning breeze tempered the intense humidity and brought the relief of some occasional clouds, but the strength of the sun already promised to make things somewhat uncomfortable later in the day. We hung out with various friends, browsed the CD stands, then sat down and waited for the first band to come on the stage.

As some rescheduling had been necessary on the part of the organizers, the festival was inaugurated by the band that had been announced last, a mere couple of weeks ago. Though Mavara (meaning “beyond everything you think”) hail originally from Iran (their only non-Iranian member being drummer Jim Welch), they have been living in the US for some time – for reasons that are not hard to fathom for anyone who knows the situation of that history-laden part of the world. Led by keyboardist Farhood Ghadiri, they enjoyed widespread success in their home country before circumstances forced them to move to the US, where they currently reside in the New England region. Having heard a few samples on the ProgDay website, I knew their music was probably not going to be my cup of tea; I am experienced enough to know that the stage can transform any kind of music into something different. Though obviously a bit nervous when they first took to the stage, they gradually warmed up and became more communicative, though a certain stiffness remained throughout their set. With two keyboardists (Ghadiri and a young woman, petite blonde Anis Oveisi), their sound was heavily skewed towards 80’s Rush (especially circa Power Windows), Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd (the latter especially in the lead guitar parts), as well as a touch of early Dream Theater. Lead vocalist Ashkan Hamedi belted out the songs out with impressive power and confidence coupled to a strong sense of melody that suited the music well. Though Mavara are by far one of the most “mainstream” bands I have seen on the PD stage, their music – while somewhat generic –  has the potential to appeal to a lot of people, and they seemed to be well received by the crowd. Moreover, they certainly deserve a shot in the limelight after all they have been through – especially being away from their native country, and living in a place that is not always welcoming to outsiders (a situation I know all too well).

The contrast between the first and the second band on the Saturday bill could not have been greater, as around lunchtime French Canadian Avant-Prog veterans Miriodor proceeded to take no prisoners as soon as they got on stage. One of the most eagerly anticipated acts on the lineup – particularly by those who (like us) had witnessed their career-defining show at the DC French Embassy in 2010, the band were now down to a quartet, with founding members Remi Leclerc and Pascal Globensky and longtime guitarist Bernard Falaise very recently joined by bassist Nicolas Lessard. The increasing humidity notwithstanding, the scholarly-looking quartet of soft-spoken gentlemen delivered a blinder of a set, often sweepingly atmospheric and laced with eerie electronic effects, but consistently full of outstanding beauty. Though all the instruments sounded pristine, I found Remi Leclerc’s drumming especially riveting, setting  an effortlessly flowing pace and lending the music a natural rhythm that belied its complexity. Falaise’s guitar displayed a finely honed edge, while Globensky’s keyboards contributed an aura of mystery. Besides some tracks from their marvelous 2009 album Avanti!, Miriodor regaled the audience with some new material, taken from their soon-to-be-officially-released album Cobra Fakir. Like everything else, the new tracks – though somewhat darker , with a slight Gothic undertone – possess the kind of effortless grace and calm intensity that has made Miriodor a byword for stellar quality on the progressive rock scene – balancing quiet and loud moments with seamless perfection, and maintaining a keen sense of melody even when treading on more experimental territory. The band’s professional yet unassuming attitude was also reflected in their gentle sense of humour.

With such a tough act to follow, the organizers proved once again their brilliance when they scheduled Los Angeles-based multinational quintet Corima for the third slot of the day. Even if I was already familiar with their second album, Quetzalcoatl (released by French label Soleil Zeuhl), I was not prepared for such a relentless sonic assault. A blast of sound during the soundcheck provided a taste of things to come, as the young, black-clad band members proceeded to tear up the stage during their performance. As my husband put it, you got exhausted just watching them bounce up and down with an irrepressible energy starkly at odds with the usually staid mien of many mainstream prog bands. Fronted by the diminutive dynamo Andrea Itzpapalotl on vocals and violin, Corima are clearly influenced by Magma, and might also remind the listener of a more melodic version of Koenjihyakkei (incidentally, the bassist and saxophonist are of Japanese descent), but infused with the manic energy of West Coast punk and the aggression of metal. Occasional moments of respite – such as a serene, classically-influenced piano solo – dotted this 70-minute adrenalin rush, characterized by a form of deliberate repetitiveness that built up a hypnotic crescendo of intensity, driven by drummer Sergio Sanchez-Revelo’s insane polyrhythms and Patrick Shiroishi’s blaring sax. Needless to say, they did not suffer one bit from having to follow Miriodor’s immaculate set, because their music was so different. Even people who generally do not care for Zeuhl or anything too cutting-edge were won over by Corima’s show – though I could very well visualize people running for the exits in an indoor setting.

After such a one-two punch, Saturday headliners and big East Coast favourites Oblivion Sun provided a definite change of pace. The quartet, founded by former Happy The Man members Frank Wyatt and Stanley Whitaker in the early 2000’s, had already appeared at ProgDay in 2007, and I had witnessed their performance at the 2009 edition of NEARfest. Frank Wyatt’s wrist injury had forced them to cancel a few live appearances in the past few months, but the keyboardist/reedist was in fine form for this special occasion. Just like I had in 2009, I found their music very melodic and pleasing to the ear, as well as impeccably executed, though as a whole hard to truly connect to. The four members of the band – Whitaker, Wyatt, drummer Bill Brasso and new bassist David Hughes – handled their instruments with seasoned proficiency, and their music  flowed smoothly – perhaps even too much so. Some of their material had a folksy ring, while some heavier undertones occasionally cropped up. The warm rapport the band has built over the years with its loyal following showed in the jokes about the notorious “Cruise the Edge” floating prog festival, as well as in Wyatt’s moving dedication of a song to his wife for her birthday. Unfortunately, while I liked the instrumentals at the beginning of their set, when vocals made their appearance I started losing interest, and halfway through their set the 8-hour exposure to heat and humidity had finally got to both of us, so we decided to head back to the hotel for some rest before dinnertime.

After a refreshing night’s sleep and leisurely breakfast, we headed back to the field for another day of music and good company. Because of the cool breeze blowing from the trees, the heat and humidity felt less oppressive than they had on the previous day, and I was able to enjoy what promised to be a consistently great lineup. However, we were yet unaware of being in for some weather-related excitement later during the day.

At 10.30 a.m., right on schedule, youthful South Jersey six-piece Out of the Beardspace took to the stage. A bit of an unknown quantity for the mainstream prog audience, the band have already earned their stripes through a brisk concert activity in their home region, and have recently released their third, self-titled CD. Earlier this year, in the month of May, they even hosted their own festival (named Beardfest), which featured ProgDay alumni The Tea Club and Consider The Source, as well as the band that would follow them on the Storybook Farm stage, Thank You Scientist. With their emphasis on environmental awareness and community enrichment, their very informal, laid-back appearance (some band members were playing barefoot) and sprawling, eclectic approach to music, they bridged the gap between jam bands such as Umphrey’s McGee and progressive rock proper. Guitar and keyboards were well in evidence, supported by a powerful rhythm section, and exuding a vintage psychedelic vibe with a keen edge, and some intriguing funky and jazzy elements. While bassist Kevin Savo’s vocals – best described as a male version of Björk –  might be called an acquired taste, they also blended very effectively with the music. Though not as manic as Corima, the energy and enthusiasm of each member was hard to miss, and their stage presence, with its modern hippy vibe, endeared them to the audience as much as their genre-bending sound. Though I felt their instrumental pieces were more interesting than the ones with vocals, they are a band I would definitely not mind seeing again, as they put up a very entertaining show and obviously enjoy themselves immensely on stage.

Thank You Scientist had already wowed audiences in the North-East Corridor with their energetic performance of the past month or so with fellow New Jerseyans The Tea Club, and had already created a lot of expectations in the attendees thanks to the strength their debut full-length album, Maps of Non-Existent Places (which boasts of some of the finest artwork I have seen in the past few years). With a seven-piece configuration – including saxophone, trumpet and violin as well as the traditional rock instruments – the young, hyperactive band crowded the stage, their boundless supply of energy matching that already displayed by Corima and Out of the Beardspace. Fronted by the charismatic Sal Marrano, sporting mirrored shades and a jaunty beach hat, Thank You Scientist are unashamedly modern in their approach to progressive rock, coming across as a more melodic, less rambling version of The Mars Volta – or, if you prefer, a much heavier, beefed-up Steely Dan. Marrano’s high-pitched but well-modulated voice, in particular, often sounded very much like Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s, albeit not as potentially abrasive. Propelled by irresistibly funky. Latin-infused rhythms (courtesy of unstoppable drummer Odin Alvarez and bassist Greg Colacino) coupled with punk-inspired intensity, a bit of a metal edge and jazzy horns, the band’s sound is complex but never contrived, and genuinely exhilarating. With the right promotion, they could very well break into the mainstream in the same way as The Mars Volta did in the early 2000’s, appealing to the younger generations as well as to more open-minded old-timers. Obviously, there were people in the audience who pompously declared that Thank You Scientist were “not a prog band”, but those naysayers were more than balanced out by those who thoroughly enjoyed the band’s set – wrapped up by an irresistible cover of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”, which was a big hit with everyone.

In the hottest hour of the day, my personal most-awaited band of the weekend – unlikely Texans Herd of Instinct – took to the stage, introduced by ominous recorded voices. The band members, with old friend and collaborator Mike McGary replacing Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards, were  perceivably tense (probably scared by some of the horror stories heard about the prog audience), and that impacted their stage presence to the point that they occasionally came across as standoffish. Drummer and official spokesperson Jason Spradlin, a striking figure with his long, flowing dark hair, had chosen to use his own electronic drum kit rather than an acoustic one – a choice that, while puzzling for part of the audience, lent an eerily mechanical dimension to the music which complemented it unexpectedly well. As a supporter of the band from the time I heard their debut album, I wanted them to make a good impression, and the quantity of CDs sold at their merch table certainly bore witness to the fact that the majority of the audience appreciated their set, even if they were somewhat thrown off by the almost complete lack of stage banter and the abrupt ending of the songs (as well as the oddly muffled quality of the sound). Their music, however – though better suited to the twilight hour than the bright light of an early September afternoon – spoke for itself. Mark Cook’s Warr guitar’s eerie wail intersected and meshed with Mike Davison’s Fender Stratocaster and McGary’s discreet keyboards, driven by the engine of Spradlin’s drumming. Powerful and mesmerizing – and described by a friend as a cross between King Crimson and Tangerine Dream – Herd of Instinct’s sound is unique, its cinematic quality emphasized in their rendition of the theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween (a couple of months early on the actual date), as well as in their cover of Radiohead’s “National Anthem”. They also performed some material from Spradlin and Cook’s previous band, 99 Names of God. As a whole, I found that the live dimension enhanced their music immensely, and appreciated the subtle variations they brought to the material from their two studio albums. However, in spite of their years of experience of playing live on their home turf, they need to work on their stagecraft in order to develop their full potential and allow their music to come truly alive.

Headliners simakDialog’s long-overdue set was the weekend’s most highly-awaited performance – as the Indonesian outfit’s plans to play in the US were foiled twice in as many years. Their set started half an hour early, in a very informal way – perfectly suited to their laid-back, yet extremely proficient music –  and the plan was to let them play for about two hours, providing a soundtrack for the late hours of the afternoon, when the temperature goes down together with the sun and people kick back to enjoy the breeze. Unfortunately, said breeze quickly turned into a brisk wind, and the massed dark clouds brought a downpour that had people scrambling for cover in a hurry. The band – used to this kind of weather in their tropical homeland – were at first unfazed, and continued to play in their unhurried, supremely elegant East-meets-West take on classic jazz-rock – characterized by the use of twin Sundanese kendang drums instead of a traditional drum kit, blending perfectly with Riza Arshad’s fluid electric piano and Tohpati’s understatedly brilliant guitar. However, nature had different plans, and a second spate of wind and rain put an abrupt end to the show, which had lasted about an hour when the band and stage crew finally decided to call it quits. Thankfully, this time simakDialog have a full set of East Coast dates planned, and many of the attendees will be able to catch them in an indoor setting in the days following the festival.

Finally, the weather allowed the attendees to pack up their gear, and everyone headed back to the hotel for dinner and the subsequent “non-pool” (for the second year in a row) party, held in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms, with plenty of drinking and merriment on offer before bedtime. Then, on the following day, it was time to say goodbye to our friends – not without some sadness – and head north and back to real life after three days in paradise.

Like last year, 2013 seems to have brought an almost record attendance to ProgDay, which bodes very well for the festival’s 20th anniversary (whose planning is already under way). Interestingly, with the exception of Mavara and Oblivion Sun, none of the bands that performed at Storybook Farm on the past Labor Day weekend can be labeled as prog in a conventional sense – which, as I have already stated on previous occasions, proves the forward-thinking strategy of the organizers as regards the choice of performers. The presence of three young, up-and-coming US bands also brought some new blood to the field (as it also was the case in 2012), together with the hope that progressive music may soon start to gain a broader appeal and escape the confines of its aging niche audience.

As usual, at the end of my review I would like to thank all of the people involved in the organization of the festival, especially all those who volunteered time, money and energy in order to ensure the success of the event. Of all the wonderful people we met over the weekend, a special thought goes to some very special people whose friendship means a lot to me, even if we cannot meet in person on a regular basis. Even if this year I have decided not to mention any names, you know who you are. Thank you for a wonderful time, and hope to see you again very soon!

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