Regular readers of my blog will by now be familiar with my frequent references to the plight of US bands and their struggles to find an audience for their live shows. The 1000-odd people who, only two weeks ago, filled a state-of-the-art venue such as the Zoellner Arts Center for the final edition of NEARfest are very much the exception in a country where non-mainstream bands and artists (especially of the progressive rock persuasion) see their efforts to perform live increasingly frustrated by their potential audience’s apathy. When playing before 50 people is already considered a successful outcome, you know that there is a problem – which may soon force an increasing number of artists to turn their efforts to studio-only projects, no matter how much they love being on stage.
For this reason – even if, generally speaking, any band tagged as “neo-prog” would not exactly set my musical pulse racing – my husband and I decided to attend one of Baltimore-based quintet Ilúvatar’s rare live performances after a hiatus that kept them away from the scenes for over a decade. In spite of the suffocating blanket of 100-degree heat (around 40º C for non-Americans) and the threat of thunderstorms later in the evening, we headed towards the ever-reliable Jammin’ Java, and found that a few of our fellow attendees had driven considerable distances for the occasion. Considering the circumstances (including the rather awkward 7 p.m. scheduling), the 50 people or so who attended the DC-SOAR-sponsored gig at the dimly-lit, comfortably air-conditioned venue may be seen as a reasonably successful turnout.
Named after the supreme being (“father of all”) in JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, and with beginnings that can be traced back to 1983, Ilúvatar are nowhere as pretentious as their handle might lead one to believe, and definitely not about the dreaded “pixies and unicorns” all too often associated with prog. In the Nineties, they enjoyed a moderate amount of success as one of the leading US prog bands, which landed them a number of high-profile appearances (such as ProgDay 1996, Baja Prog 1998 and NEARfest 2000) before they went on hiatus. Over the years Ilúvatar have built a loyal following in the Baltimore/Washington metro area, and are clearly one of those outfits for whom the studio will never be enough.
Due to my limited affinity with neo-prog, I was not familiar with Ilúvatar’s output, but – in spite of the ready availability of music samples in the age of the Internet – I had decided to go in cold to avoid any bias, having learned that many acts are best experienced in a live setting. The almost two-hour set left me positively surprised, unlike some much-touted names whose shows I have witnessed in the past few years. With four-fifths of the line-up featured on their last album to date, 1999’s A Story Two Days Wide, on board (original vocalist Glenn McLaughlin left in 2011, and was replaced by Jeff Sirody earlier this year), the members all looked quite personable (it was hard to believe that they have been around for 25 years!), and genuinely happy to be back on stage. Most importantly, though, their performance was focused on delivering tightly composed songs rather than showing off their chops. As seasoned performers, the band members handled the rather cramped stage with aplomb, eliciting the enthusiasm of their loyal fans.
As a whole, the music was deceptively straightforward, declining to punch the listener in the face with its complexity. Solo spots were kept to a bare minimum, lending cohesiveness to the overall sound. Jim Rezek (who was the lead keyboard tech at NEARfest) chiefly employed his impressive bank of keyboards to add texture and melody to the sound, effectively supported by Dennis Mullin’s fluid, often fiery guitar; while Dean Morekas powerful bass lines and Chris Mack’s energetic drumming provided a solid backbone with a bit of a heavy edge. My only gripe was the occasional whistling tone of the synthesizers, which is one of the trademarks of the neo-prog subgenre – though it was never overdone. New vocalist Jeff Sirody brought to bear his extensive experience as a frontman in a number of local classic rock and glam metal bands to inject a stronger rock vibe into the band’s sound, and also dispel any criticism about their resemblance to Genesis. His strong, confident tenor managed to be heard in spite of the rather loud volume, and, though long-time Ilúvatar followers may have noticed the difference in style and delivery when Sirody tackled the older material, they were clearly happy with the results.
All in all, even if I generally prefer edgier, more challenging music, I found the band’s performance very enjoyable. If US prog fans did not cultivate a stubborn “the grass is greener” attitude to the detriment of homegrown acts, Ilúvatar would have been a much better fit for some of the festivals I have recently attended than some bigger-name foreign bands. The fact that Saturday’s gig was only their second in our area – a mere 30 miles south of their home town of Baltimore – bears witness to the sad fact that US-based bands are still children of a lesser God in the eyes of their prospective audiences. The growing divide within the prog scene is not helping either, with people refusing to try a band or artist from the opposite camp even when the ticket to a gig amounts to a whopping $ 10. Ironically, while modern technology has made it possible for anyone to record and release an album – and consequently brought about the saturation of an already niche market – lack of support is in danger of killing the live scene for good. However, no matter how great an album may be, nothing beats live music, especially when accompanied by the right combination of enthusiasm and skill. Progressive rock fans should support live music whenever and wherever they can – do not let the scene die out, or retreat within the four walls of a studio.