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Though the title of this review is not meant to spark a debate on climate change, it is an apt description of the kind of atmosphere that characterized the 18th consecutive edition of ProgDay. If my first time at the festival, back in 2010, had been perfect climate-wise, and the second marred by a rather uncomfortably hot and humid Saturday, this year was record-breaking, and not in a good way. To put it bluntly, the past weekend on the lovely grounds of Storybook Farm felt like being  in Bangkok or Singapore in the middle of the summer, with temperatures in the mid-90s (especially on Saturday), and humidity close to 90%. For a hot-weather hater such as myself, it was a nightmare scenario. After this weekend, I believe I know how chocolate must feel when melted slowly on the stove… The last hurrah of this long, hot summer – quite unexpected after a rather mild August – might have wreaked some serious havoc on the festival, and indeed the unrelenting heat affected many people’s enjoyment of a spectacular weekend of music.

Adverse climatic conditions notwithstanding, ProgDay 2012 was fulfilling in every sense, and even the physical discomfort of trying to find relief from the onslaught of the heat pales in comparison to the wonderful musical offer and overall atmosphere of the 18th edition of the world’s longest-running progressive rock festival. Many of the observations I made in my review of the 2011 edition hold true for this one as well, so I will spare my readers a repeat and try to include some new insights. If last year’s ProgDay had been a success, this one was nearly a triumph, from many different points of view. The musical aspect, of course, is fundamental in any such event, and the festival seems to be going from strength to strength in assembling lineups that manage to capture the best of the contemporary progressive rock scene. However, no event can exist in a vacuum, and the human factor is of paramount importance whenever the arts are concerned.

On Friday morning, the leisurely, four-hour drive from our Northern Virginia home took us down the familiar, tree-lined corridor of Highway 85, a quiet and sparsely frequented route in comparison to the unceasing bustle of the Baltimore/Washington area. For long stretches of the road, no cars could be seen ahead of us, and the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere was somewhat eerie, but also deeply charming in its own way. The last two hours of the drive prepared us for the unique ambiance of the festival, where the attractions of nature and music are magically fused together, and nourished by friendship and the joy of being almost removed from “civilization” and the demands of everyday life.

We reached Durham in the early afternoon, just in time for a satisfying lunch at the BBQ place across the road from the hotel. Then, after some well-deserved rest, it was time for us to meet friends that, while separated from us by geography, are a constant part of our lives thanks to modern technology. Unfortunately, the oppressive heat was getting worse by the hour, and on Saturday morning it was immediately clear that things were going to be anything but pleasant weather-wise. That suffocating blanket of humidity was something I had hardly ever experienced before – and I come from a country where summers can get quite hot. When we got to Storybook Farm, the grass was wet with dew, and a very faint breeze blew from the trees. The high humidity made the surroundings even more beautiful than usual, and the occasional hawks circling overhead added to the almost magical atmosphere. However, as the day progressed, the discomfort caused by the heat was compounded by the misery of feeling sticky and dirty. Beneath the corrugated metal roof of the stage, the heat must have been unbearable, and a large fan had been strategically placed at the back of the stage in an attempt to make things marginally more comfortable for the bands and the crew.

Though they had landed the somewhat awkward opening slot at 10.30 in the morning, the music of Northern Virginia’s finest, Ephemeral Sun, would have made a perfect soundtrack for what T.S. Eliot called “the violet hour”. The young and personable quartet, led by the impossibly fresh-faced John Battema (an outstanding keyboardist and a real gentleman) have transitioned from a Gothic-metal, female-fronted outfit to a much more distinctive, hard to label brand of cinematic, ambient-laden instrumental prog, rich in melody yet laced with heaviness. In some ways, they reminded me of last year’s opening act, Fibonacci Sequence – though the Wisconsin band’s sound is more muscular and not as atmospheric. The band as a whole proved to have an impressive mastery in the build-up of surging waves of sound, driven by the impeccable rhythm section of Charles Gore and Jeff Malone, with Gore’s deep, powerful bass lines occasionally reminiscent of Geezer Butler’s genre-defining style. Guitarist Brian O’Neill’s occasional bouts of razor-sharp riffing injected a healthy dose of remarkably uncheesy heaviness in the fabric of Battema’s lush keyboards – at times unleashed to resemble a modern-day Keith Emerson, at others relying on stately mellotron samples to bolster and lend symphonic fullness to the soaring, Gilmour-tinged lead guitar parts. While at first communication with the audience was kept to a minimum, it did not take long for the band to open up, and for Battema to display some of his endearingly self-deprecating sense of humour. All in all, it was an excellent opening set from a band that has definitely a lot of potential for future greatness.

John Battema of Ephemeral Sun

By the time Montreal-based quartet Karcius got on stage, the heat and humidity were starting to get out of control. Before the start of their set, I had forced myself to eat some of the rather tasty food on offer, then sat down again with my notepad – only to realize that the heat was badly sapping my enjoyment of the music. I had heard a lot of praise about the band, who – in spite of their young age – already have four albums and a number of high-profile live appearances under their belt. Though I had seen them described as jazz-rock, they sounded all over the place, reminding me of those bands  who, like Umphrey’s McGee, straddle the line between the jam scene and progressive rock proper. The jazz-rock matrix was conveyed by the emphasis on the sleek interplay between Sylvain Auclair’s bass and Thomas Brodeur’s drums, but other influences cropped up with regularity. While Auclair’s blues-tinged voice was undoubtedly good, I felt that it did not actually gel with the rest of the sound, and the instrumental parts (such as the excellent opening track) were a much better representation of Karcius’ collective strength. While I usually appreciate eclecticism, there was a sense of lack of cohesion in the way the band handled their diverse sources of inspiration, which ranged from metal (with a couple of frantic passages verging on speed metal) to King Crimson by way of Steely Dan, and a lot of other stuff – including hints of reggae and other ethnic music, as well as evident pop touches conveyed by the vocals. On the other hand, the chemistry between the four musicians was outstanding, with the ease born of a long collaboration and plenty of stage experience. Mingan Sauriol manned the keyboards with aplomb, rounding out the dynamic rhythm section, while guitarist Simon L’Espérance contributed a nice rock edge. The band also catered to the nostalgia-inclined members of the crowd by performing a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” (perhaps not the best choice, seen the song’s running time and somewhat depressing subject matter) almost at the end of their set.

Simon L’Espérance and Sylvan Auclair of Karcius

After waxing lyrical for months about Kublai, their sophomore release, and raging about their aborted participation to the ill-fated 2011 edition of NEARfest, I had been elated to learn of my fellow Italians Accordo dei Contrari being selected for Progday 2012. Needless to say, theirs was my most anticipated set of the whole festival, and – even if they had the bad luck to perform in the worst slot of such a miserably hot day (though a breeze made things temporarily more bearable in the afternoon, before the blanket of humidity descended again) – the Bologna-based quartet delivered the goods in abundance. The audience was held captive for the best part of their 90-minute set, which comprised a selection of tracks from their two albums, plus two new numbers that will be featured on their third release. With its trademark blend of jazzy, Canterbury-inspired elegance, uniquely Italian melodic flair and sinuous exotic touches, solidly anchored by Cristian Franchi and Daniele Piccinini’s seamless rhythm section and spiced by Marco Marzo’s fluid guitar, the band’s music manages to sound modern even when paying homage to the past. Keyboardist Giovanni Parmeggiani (the band’s main composer and driving force) acquitted himself splendidly in handling unfamiliar gear (kindly provided by Ephemeral Sun’s John Battema, in an admirable example of cooperation between musicians from different backgrounds), and his rich, heady textures were at the heart of  Accordo dei Contrari’s complex yet smoothly flowing sound. Their exhilarating jam with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic’s Ken Field guesting on saxophone was definitely one of the highlights of the whole weekend. Though their music may elicit comparisons with  D.F.A. (especially for those who had witnessed the latter band’s highly acclaimed American performances), Accordo dei Contrari sound even tighter and more focused in their approach. The band members were absolutely elated to be there, and – even if a bit shy at first – won the hearts of the audience with their professional yet warm attitude. On a personal level, it was a real pleasure to meet them at last, and to have the opportunity to speak my native tongue with like-minded people.

Giovanni Parmeggiani of Accordo dei Contrari

When Birdsongs of the Mesozoic – another instrumental quartet, though one with considerable experience and a respectable back catalogue (their first incarnation dates back from the early Eighties) – took to the stage, the breeze had died out, and the majority of the attendees were wilting in their seats. Of all the past weekend’s performances, this was the one most negatively affected by the hostile weather conditions, as people seemed to have no energy left – which obviously did no favours to the Boston ensemble’s beautiful, highly idiosyncratic music. I was feeling so drained that, about half an hour through their set, my attention started to wander  – even though my brain perceived the beauty of the music and desperately wanted to enjoy it. In any case, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic are one of the most genuinely intriguing musical offers I have heard in the past few years. Blending jazz, rock, minimalism and classical music, they have all the hallmarks of a chamber ensemble without using classical instruments, privileging instead Rick Scott’s eerie electronic effects and Erik Lindgren’s stunning piano, whose rippling, liquid sound gently accompanied the slow setting of the sun. Michael Bierylo’s guitar and Ken Field’s woodwinds complemented the keyboard textures with elegance and emotion; while percussion was added rather sparingly by a drum machine and, very occasionally, a floor tom. The hypnotic, often soothing cadence of their sound – intricate but without the knotty, daunting feel of the average RIO/Avant band – had a cinematic yet touchingly intimate quality. When I was still able to concentrate on the music, I mentally compared them to The Muffins, who had headlined my first ProgDay in 2010. Though the Baltimore band have more of a rock flair, with percussion playing a bigger role, the two outfits’ approach is in some ways similar. All in all, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic regaled the audience with some astonishingly beautiful moments, and I would love to listen to them again in more favourable circumstances.

Erik Lindgren and Michael Bierylo of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic

Like other attendees, we had bought tickets for the Dead Can Dance concert in Durham on the same evening. However, we both realized that we were so exhausted that all we wanted was a quiet meal followed by some well-deserved rest. In any case, we were in no shape to enjoy the show, even in the comfort of an air-conditioned theatre. So we headed back to the hotel, had dinner and went to bed, in order to be in properly refreshed for the following day.

On Sunday morning, the temperature was marginally more comfortable than on the previous day, and the cloudy sky promised at least some respite from the sun. The humidity level, however, was still very high, and did not encourage moving around too much. At 10.30, right on schedule, New Hampshire trio Dreadnaught took to the stage, and treated the audience to a set that someone aptly described as “how Yes would sound if they played country music”. Led by Bob Lord’s massive Rickenbacker sound, the trio are one of the best-kept secrets of the US progressive rock scene – in spite of having been around for over 10 years. Clearly comfortable in a live setting, the three members moved around with plenty of energy, and their highly eclectic take on the classic power trio format combined sterling chops with a friendly, relaxed attitude that put the crowd at ease. The American roots of their sound –  country, bluegrass and also a hint of blues – got added spice from some heavier touches (which occasionally put me in mind of Rush’s instrumental output) – somewhat similar to Karcius in approach, though more focused and with better songwriting. Drummer Rick Habib complemented Lord’s powerful yet intricate lines with his dynamic though never overstated drumming, and also supplied occasional lead vocals. As in the case of Karcius, Dreadnaught work best as an instrumental trio, with Justin Walton’s guitar contributing melody and a bit of a sharp edge to the complex patterns laid out by the rhythm section. Such demanding music can easily become a chore for listeners if not supported by an adequately light-hearted attitude, but Dreadnaught looked as if they were thoroughly enjoying themselves, and communicated their visible enthusiasm to the crowd in spite of the draining heat.

Dreadnaught

By the time Doctor Nerve made their appearance on stage, the sky had turned very dark.  Sparse drops of rain began to fall, thunder rumbled overhead, and the sense of relief from the heat mingled with worry. Summer storms in that region are not to be taken lightly, as they can be extremely violent, and being caught by one of them in an open field was a potentially dangerous situation. However, the New York-based ensemble’s pyrotechnic performance managed to drive the clouds away. Led by charismatic guitarist Nick Didkovsky – a consummate frontman with an endearingly spunky attitude and wacky sense of humour –  the veteran eight-piece had been introduced as a brain-melting experience, which was not far from the truth. Definitely the kind of band that is bound to send traditional-minded prog fans running from the exits at high speed, they delivered a set that, while characterized by a high level of energy, also offered moments of exquisite beauty – as in the slow, meditative track dedicated to the memory of Niall Coti-Sears, Paul Sears’ son, killed in Afghanistan at the end of June. Doctor Nerve was also the only band that included a woman in their lineup – keyboardist Kathleen Supove, a classically-trained pianist with a remarkable stage presence in spite of her petite frame. While Didkovsky’s blistering guitar infused a strong metal component in the band’s music, the impressive horn section (featuring Yves Dubois on soprano sax, Ben Herrington on trombone, Rob Henke on trumpet and Michael Lytle on bass clarinet) propelled the sound in a thoroughly exhilarating way, while the rhythm section of Jesse Krakow (bass) and Leo Ciesa (drums) adroitly set the pace, keeping up with the music’s unpredictable shifts. Indeed, in my mind I described Doctor Nerve as “a big band with a solid foundation of metal riffs, mixed with some seriously punk attitude.” Though their music is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, many of the attendees thought they were one of the undisputed highlights of the festival.

Nick Didkovsky of Doctor Nerve

With a storm threat successfully averted, the heat and humidity had already made their comeback when Consider The Source’s turn on the stage arrived. The three young band members, all dressed in white, loose-fitting clothing that gave a nod to the Eastern component so prominent in their music, were not exactly well-known to most of the crowd, in spite of being very active on the live circuit of the New York/New Jersey region. Like other bands invited to perform at prog festivals for the first time, they were not familiar with the progressive rock scene, as they had previously associated the genre with the symphonic bands of the Seventies and their devoted followers. With four albums under their belt, and extensive touring experience both in the US and abroad, they were obviously very much at home on a stage. Dashing guitarist Gabriel Marin, his blonde mane hidden beneath a quirky cap, sported an obviously custom-made contraption – a fretless double-necked guitar – that allowed him to produce a wide range of sounds. Like many modern instrumental bands, they had a hard, almost metal edge that elicited comparisons with the likes of ProgDay alumni Canvas Solaris and Scale The Summit, though tempered by the warm, organic sound of ethnic percussion. The Indian influence, though less evident than in a quintessential “Indo-prog” band like Shakti, came often to the fore, seamlessly intertwined with fiery fusion and hypnotic space-rock cadences, driven along by bassist John Ferrara and drummer Louis Miller, who tackled elaborate, King Crimson-style polyrhythms with consummate skill. Like a bare-bones Mahavishnu Orchestra (stripped of violin and keyboards) on massive amounts of steroids, modern enough to appeal to the younger, jam-band set, but also with a clear jazz-rock bent – occasionally laced with a funky swagger – that emerged particularly towards the end of their set, Consider The Source took no prisoners, and their blistering performance earned them many new fans.

Gabriel Marin of Consider the Source

We had seen headliners Ilúvatar barely two months ago at the Jammin’ Java, so when their turn came (somewhat late on schedule) we were in a relaxed mood, knowing that their set would be not as demanding than most of the other bands, though definitely every bit as good in terms of quality. The Baltimore quintet were the only band on the lineup to fit the conventional prog mould, though laced with classic and hard rock influences, and solidly song-based – in this respect almost paralleling 2010 Saturday headliners Flash. This was in some ways an even stronger performance than the one witnessed in early July, with lead vocalist Jeff Sirody increasingly at ease in his frontman role. The set opened with longer, more complex compositions, where the influence of Genesis (especially their late Seventies period) was unmistakable, and Jim Rezek’s masterful keyboards got their chance to shine and wow the audience, then moved on to the more streamlined material, in which Sirody’s voice was allowed to rock out. The rhythm section of Dean Morekas (the barefoot bassist) and Chris Mack provided a solid foundation for Rezek and Dennis Mullin’s clear, melodic lead guitar. Unlike other so-called “neo-prog” bands, Ilúvatar avoid sounding cheesy or overtly derivative, and their keen sense of melody makes them eminently listenable, even for those who – like myself – prefer more spice than sugar with their music. With extensive experience as a live outfit (festivals included), Ilúvatar were like a well-oiled machine, and each member gave his best on stage. All in all, it was a very enjoyable performance – which ended when the sun had already disappeared from the horizon and darkness was setting in – and the perfect conclusion to a day characterized by a high intensity quotient.

Dean Morekas and Jim Rezek of Ilúvatar

After helping with the clean-up, we headed back to the hotel to get changed and have some dinner before the customary end-of-festival poolside party. Unfortunately, the weather was not yet done with us, and treated us to a veritable display of pyrotechnics – a fierce heat storm with wild streaks of lightning in the night sky, copious rainfall, and the added excitement of a tornado warning. Needless to say, there was no going near the pool in that weather, but – thanks to the kindness of the staff – the party was held in the hotel lobby, and a great time was had by all.

It was with a touch of sadness that we said goodbye to our friends on Monday morning, before we headed home again. The past weekend was not one that will be easily forgotten, in spite of the weather’s lack of cooperation. Everything else had been perfect, from the music (as usual, enhanced by the pristine sound quality) to the choice of caterers, far superior to the previous years. However, probably the most positive feeling I brought home from the festival was seeing the much-reviled US prog community rally together and decree the edition’s unqualified success, with an almost unprecedented amount of tickets sold, and the presence of some new, younger faces among the audience. The realization that NEARfest is over for good and the FarFest cancellation must have sounded a wake-up call for those who want the scene to thrive, and it was enough to guarantee the festival’s survival for at least another year – and hopefully much longer.

Interestingly, the majority of the bands on this year’s lineup were not easily tagged as “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. On the other hand, their music owed very little to the newfangled (and often soporific) “post-prog” trend spearheaded by Porcupine Tree and their ilk, and offered instead an exciting blend of raw energy, endearing quirkiness and serious chops, liberally spiced with world-music influences. In particular, the power trio format seems to be a perfect fit for the ProgDay stage, as proved by this year’s lineup as well as last year’s, which saw spectacular performances from the likes of Mörglbl, Zevious and Freak Kitchen.

Even more so than the previous editions I had attended, ProgDay 2012 was a celebration of the sheer power and joy of live music. The very atmosphere of the festival, by encouraging bands and audience members to mingle before and after each set (and not just at the hotel bar for the often cliquish “after-parties”), does not foster  the self-centered antics that have occasionally marred higher-profile events. Spending a whole weekend together reinforces the impression of an almost family-like occasion that the larger scale of the other festivals does not allow. And then, even if the open-air setting makes it easy to “tune out”, so to speak, it is also much easier to concentrate by just sitting in your chair and letting the music sink in without the restrictions of a theatre – however comfortable it might be. There is also very little resembling the painstaking dissection of every single note or stage moment that accompanies the bigger festivals. Even if ProgDay may look like a country picnic rather than a “serious” event, the people who attend it year after year are as seriously into the music as those who crowd the hallowed halls of the Zoellner Arts Center.

As usual in my event reviews, the final paragraph is dedicated to all the people who made the festival a success – first of all, chief organizer Michael Bennett and his far-reaching vision, the organizing committee, all the volunteers who worked hard in spite of the punishing heat, the ultra-professional sound and stage crew, and obviously all of the bands. On a personal level, I would also like to thank the collective members of Ephemeral Sun and Accordo dei Contrari, Kathleen Supove of Doctor Nerve, Bob Lord of Dreadnaught, John Ferrara and Louis Miller of Consider The Source, Debi Byrd, Paul and Debbie Sears, “Romantic Warriors” José Zegarra Holder, Adele Schmidt and their daughter Paloma, Mike Potter of Orion Studios, Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records, Lew Fisher, Jeff and Coralita Wilson, Rick Dashiell, Jon and Andrea Reed, Noel Levan and Laura Dent, fellow Stranglers fan Steve Astley, Chris Lamka, Chris Buckley, John Hagelbarger, Mike Visaggio Missy Ferguson, Connie from Missouri (with whom we had a nice talk about cooking), Judson J. Patterson and his fantastic Italian-style sodas, our dear friends Michael Inman and Djalma Carvalho, and – last but not least – the lovely Helaine Carson Burch, who provided some of her outstanding photos for this review.

Links:
http://www.progday.net

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While other progressive rock festivals have been experiencing problems, or even folded altogether, ProgDay – the world’s longest-running event of this kind –  still soldiers on, and is about to celebrate its 18th anniversary. As usual, the 2012 edition of the “proggers’ picnic” is scheduled to take place on Labor Day Weekend (September 1-2) on the tree-ringed grounds of Storybook Farm, Chapel Hill (North Carolina).

This year’s lineup places a heavy emphasis on homegrown bands, with the whole of the Sunday lineup hailing from the  East Coast of the US  – a bold move indeed, and one  that will afford a unique opportunity for those outfits to showcase their talent  before an appreciative audience in an idyllic setting. The Washington/Baltimore region will be represented by local favourites Ephemeral Sun and Ilúvatar, the lively New York scene by avant-proggers Doctor Nerve and über-eclectic trio Consider The Source, and New England by another couple of label-defying acts, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic (from Boston) and Dreadnaught (from New Hampshire).  Only two non-US acts are scheduled to perform: Italian outfit Accordo dei Contrari, whose 2011 album Kublai garnered the approval of the prog community on both sides of the Atlantic, and Montreal-based quartet Karcius. On the whole, ProgDay’s 2012 sums up all the distinctive features of modern progressive rock, ranging from time-honoured tradition to cutting-edge trends.

Those who are interested in attending will be able to purchase patron passes ($ 140) or ordinary weekend passes ($ 90) in advance from the festival’s website (until August 15). Both kinds of tickets, as well as single-day passes, will also be available at the gate. Detailed information on the event, including music samples, a link to the official hotel and other practical tips, can be found at http://www.progday.net.

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You cannot get lucky all the time, as this year’s edition of ProgDay abundantly proved. Indeed, while last year the weather had been  as perfect for early September as anyone could have wished – sunny yet cool, breezy and dry, which made spending two days outdoors a real delight – this time, especially on the festival’s first day, we got a nice taste of typical Southern US summer weather, with relatively high temperatures made much worse by humidity close to 80% . Every time I checked the weather forecast in the days before the event, my heart sank lower and lower, and I have to admit that – as a staunch hot-weather-hater – I was more than a bit worried. Thankfully, nothing bad happened, at least to me (one of my fellow attendees suffered heatstroke and had to be taken to hospital), though most people’s enjoyment was somewhat marred by the unrelenting onslaught of the heat and humidity.

Despite the lack of cooperation on the part of the weather (which, considering the recent hurricane threats on the US East Coast, might have been far worse), ProgDay 2011 was an unqualified success. With a top-notch lineup representing the very best of modern-day prog, plenty of variety to satisfy even the most jaded fan, and – most important of all – lashings of humour and pure fun (two words that are not often associated with the prog scene), the festival managed to wipe out the bad taste still lingering months after the traumatic cancellation of NEARfest (whose future, at the time of writing, still hangs in the balance), and restore at least in part my faith in the future of progressive rock. No event can survive for 16 uninterrupted years without good reason – in this particular case, a healthy mix of humility, dedication and open-mindedness. Even if ProgDay has never aspired to the grandeur of other events, with their state-of-the-art theatres and “prestigious” lineups, it has acted as a showcase for a wide range of subgenres within the prog spectrum, and provided a springboard for up-and-coming bands, both domestic and international. And then, last but not least, the festival has been able to create – much more so than its higher-end cousins – an authentic community spirit, where everyone brings something to the table, avoiding the cliquish atmosphere that has often spoiled the experience of other events for those who are in some ways outsiders.

This year we set out on Friday morning, in order to avoid the Labour Day weekend traffic later in the afternoon, so were able to spend some quality time with friends at the renovated Comfort Inn Hotel – and eat way too much food, as often happens in such happy occasions. The anticipation for the event ran high, and attendance was noticeably up from last year, when the festival had been penalized by the lack of the coveted “international” bands, in spite of a superb lineup showcasing some of the finest acts on the North American scene. This year, the NEARfest cancellation had encouraged more people to head South, and – even if still far from the record highs reached on previous editions – the increase was noticeable as soon as we reached the festival grounds on Saturday morning. In spite of their constant fight with financial strictures, the organizers had managed to put together an incredibly tight lineup, catering to all progressive tastes. Even the two cancellations – first Czech band Uz Jsme Doma, then Sunday headliners Quantum Fantay  – did not undermine the strength of the musical offer.

The heat building up on Friday afternoon did not show any promise of abating the following day, though when we reached the beautiful festival location at Storybook Farm things were still relatively pleasant. Photographs do not do full  justice to the beauty of the surroundings, the green field ringed by woods where you can hear the echo of the music if you walk far enough from the stage area. The lack of rain in the summer months was made particularly evident by the clouds of dust raised by the cars approaching the festival premises (hence the title of my review), and the dry, prickly feel of the grass. Thankfully, in the morning and early evening a breeze blowing from the trees made things bearable, and my lightweight folding chair allowed me to move around in order to catch it. There was no respite from the sun, however, and leaving the shelter of the covered pavilion meant being hit by the full force of its rays, especially in the early hours of the afternoon.

Half of the bands on this year’s lineup were instrumental, and Milwaukee-based quartet Fibonacci Sequence introduced the festival in style. After having braved a 15-hour drive to reach North Carolina, the four musicians treated the crowd to almost 90 minutes of intricate yet effortlessly flowing music that showed an impressive level of maturity. Though their debut album, the excellent Numerology, had been recorded as a trio with a guest bassist (former Portal/Cynic member Chris Kringel), the band now feature the considerable talents of bassist Chad Novell, who looked more like a member of a modern metal outfit than a prog musician. However, for all the keen edge present in their compositions, Fibonacci Sequence are a full-fledged progressive rock band whose remarkably clean sound was flattered by excellent acoustics that allowed each instrument to be heard clearly and distinctly. As I wrote in my review of Numerology, they are one of those rare bands that have managed to achieve a sound of their own – even if they jokingly refer to themselves as “Rush with keyboards”. Like the Canadian trio, their music is eclectic but deeply cohesive, built on the solid foundation of the outstanding rhythm section of Novell and drummer Tom Ford (whose sleek interplay was riveting to watch), which allows Mike Butzen’s guitar to unfold all its melodic range, with Jeff Schuelke’s keyboards adding layers of depth. Their warm yet inobtrusive interaction with the crowd revealed their experience as a live act, and their heartfelt tribute to Kopecky drummer Paul Kopecky, who passed away two years ago, was particularly touching. In today’s materialistic, cutthroat world, it is heartwarming to see musicians from a particular region form a bond and work together towards the diffusion of non-mainstream music. Kudos to Fibonacci Sequence for being part of this trend, and for sharing their appreciation of their fellow Wisconsin artists with the ProgDay crowd. All in all, they are a very tight unit, who deserve as much exposure as they can get, especially among devotees of instrumental prog.

Another fine example of the thriving New Jersey prog scene, The Tea Club had been the last band to be announced, a mere couple of weeks before the event. Having followed them for the past three years, I had hoped to be able to see them on stage for a while, and was elated on their behalf at the announcement, as a festival slot can be a turning point for a band, exposing them to a much larger audience than their normal live appearances. In spite of their collective young ages, the fresh-faced members of The Tea Club – now extended to a six-piece – are accomplished musicians and songwriters, their music astonishingly complex and multilayered, even if not always conforming to traditional prog standards. After the departure of drummer (and founding member) Kyle Minnick, brothers Pat and Dan McGowan recruited a new bassist (Charles Batdorf), drummer (Joe Rizzolo) and third guitarist (Jim Berger), while original bassist Becky Osenenko (a classically-trained pianist) took charge of the keyboards, which on their second album Rabbit had been provided by Tom Brislin. Because of Minnick’s involvement in the writing of their 2008 debut album, General Winter’s Secret Museum, they chose not to play any tracks from it, and concentrated instead on Rabbit and some new material. While The Tea Club clearly tread the post-prog path of bands like The Pineapple Thief and Oceansize, with bouts of intensity that may bring The Mars Volta to mind, the complexity of their songwriting goes way beyond most alternative bands.While I had found Rabbit a bit of a step backwards, as it sounded somewhat one-dimensional if compared to the boundless energy of General Winter’s Secret Museum, the material taken from the band’s sophomore effort came positively alive on stage. Enhanced by the seamless instrumental dynamics and the striking stage presence of the McGowan brothers, each of the songs possessed a deeply intriguing quality, with “The Night I Killed Steve Shelley” deserving a special mention. Even the relentless assault of the heat and humidity could not detract from the band’s brilliant set. The new songs reprised the atmospheric, laid-back mood evidenced on Rabbit, though spiked by instrumental surges exuding a keen sense of tension. The McGowan brothers are also fine vocalists, capable of delivering soothing harmonies as well as more aggressive parts, while steering clear of the excessively plaintive tone of post-prog icons such as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke or The Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord. With their sheer enthusiasm and obvious dedication to their music, The Tea Club have enormous potential, and their performance won them many new fans.

Though the weather certainly did no favours to The Rebel Wheel, the Ottawa-based quartet, led by guitarist David Campbell and featuring a highly awaited guest appearance by keyboardist Guy LeBlanc (of Nathan Mahl and Camel fame) delivered a stunning (though somewhat short) set, featuring a slightly modified version of the 30-minute epic “The Discovery of Witchcraft”, the centrepiece of their 2010 album We Are in the Time of Evil Clocks. Being familiar with the album, undoubtedly one of the standout releases of last year, I was looking forward to the band’s set, which was a delight to start to finish – even if, by the time they got on stage, I was feeling somewhat faint, and lay half-slumped in my chair. The music, however, was so riveting that it was impossible not to listen intently. Like a well-oiled machine, the band churned out flawless tune after flawless tune, their choppy, jazzy Crimsonian vibe well complemented by Campbell’s powerful, expressive vocals and LeBlanc’s masterful keyboard sweeps and rumbling organ flurries, while relentlessly driven forward by the splendidly pneumatic rhythm section of Andrew Burns and Aaron Clark. The dark, angular “Death at Sea”, from a 2005 Gentle Giant tribute album, was a particular highlight, with echoes of King Crimson’s “The Great Deceiver”. Though the epic was adapted to the absence of vocalist/saxophonist Angie McIvor (on leave following the birth of her first child), it lost none of its punchy, gutsy effectiveness. An impressively professional outfit, oozing confidence and flair, The Rebel Wheel manage to sound thoroughly modern while paying homage to the great Seventies tradition. I really hope to see them again in the very near future, and will be looking forward to their new album.

In the interval between the third and the fourth set we were treated to an impromptu acoustic guitar solo spot by Jimmy Robinson of Woodenhead (whovwere due to play the traditional festival pre-show at a local club, this year extended also to the Saturday evening). Robinson displayed an astonishing mastery of the instrument, his short but intense performance including versions of Led Zeppelin’s classics “Kashmir” and “When the Levee Breaks”. It was a fitting introduction to another dazzling display of guitar fireworks, this time of the electric variety – courtesy of Mörglbl, introduced by one of the festival’s elder statesmen, Paul Sears of The Muffins. A classic power trio in which Christophe Godin’s scintillating guitar is supported by the hyper-dynamic rhythm section of Ivan Rougny and Aurélien Ouzoulias, the French outfit have often been tagged as jazz-metal, and, while the metal element is an unmistakable component, there is a lot more to their music than just ultra-technical noodling. While listening to their set (in spite of my extreme physical weariness) I could hear a lot of different influences in Mörglbl’s sound, such as funk, blues, Latin music and reggae, besides the obvious rock matrix. Technically awesome and very tight from a compositional point of view, their set was highly energetic, heavy but consistently fluid and never jarring, and, above all, extremely entertaining. With his shaved head, distinctive white goatee and fluorescent yellow guitar, Godin is a consummate frontman, throwing all sorts of funny shapes during his solos, his warm, amusing on-stage banter delivered in excellent English. The band are known for concluding their shows with covers of rock classics reinterpreted in their own inimitable style, and this time was no exception – their  lounge-jazz version of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” (the only number featuring Godin’s excellent vocals) was one of the most hilarious moments of the weekend.

After a good night’s sleep, on Sunday morning we felt ready to face another day of great music, and this time the weather was definitely more helpful, with lower humidity levels and a nice breeze making things more comfortable. And a good thing it was, because the second day of the festival promised a lot of intensity, and the audience had better be in their best shape to fully enjoy what was on the musical menu. Opening act Zevious also belonged to the group of bands I had had the pleasure of reviewing in the past two years or so, and I had found their second album, After the Air Raid, one of the most impressive releases of 2009. A power trio based in New York, unlike Mörglbl they projected a rather serious image, in spite of their youth, and proceeded to deliver a set of astounding complexity, chock full of asymmetrical rhythm patterns overlaid by Mike Eber’s clear, piercing guitar, and propelled by Jeff Eber’s monstrous drumming. While not too high on melody, the band’s music never once descended into mere dissonance, and the sheer amount of sound produced by a trio of musicians employing very basic instrumentation was nothing short of astonishing.  The unceasing flow of dynamic bottom end provided by Johnny DeBlase’s Fender Jazz bass complemented Jeff Eber’s unbelievable polyrhythms, delivered with effortless simplicity, without the antics that might have been expected from such a gifted drummer. As good as they sounded on CD, Zevious’ music acquired a new dimension on stage, and, when fully unleashed, the band sounded like King Crimson  to the power of 3 – despite the “math-rock” or “RIO/Avant” tags so often (and awkwardly) stuck onto them. They are clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, and, although incredibly nice offstage,  they were not as communicative towards the audience as most of the other bands – hence my use of the term “serious” at the beginning of the paragraph. Their music, however, speaks for itself, and they have all the time in the world to hone their stagecraft.

Those who, like me, were sitting under the pavilion during Zevious’s set had the opportunity to watch the members of Persephone’s Dream set up their gear on one side of the stage. Though I was not familiar with the Pittsburgh-based outfit’s music prior to the festival, I had read enthusiastic accounts of their latest album, Pan: An Urban Pastoral, released in 2010 – which I knew the band were going to perform in its entirety for the very first time. I anticipated a treat when I saw the incredibly elaborate array of percussion instruments being carefully arranged on the lawn, including a gong and bells and chimes of every description. And, indeed, a treat it was, both musically and visually, even if – as can be expected – the show suffered a bit from being squeezed on a relatively small stage without the use of lightning and the appropriate backdrop trappings. The band, a seven-piece, might have used a little more space, especially the two female vocalists, Josie Crooks (a really beautiful voice, powerful yet melodic) and Leah Martell (who twirled and danced all over the place), who had to change costumes, chase each other and run up and down the stage for most of the set. However, Persephone’s Dream pulled it off superbly. Though by far the most conventionally “prog” of the bands on this year’s bill, they were anything than the kind of derivative, snooze-inducing neo/symphonic fare that sends some fans into fits of ecstasy – as a matter of fact, their sound was quite heavy at times, with Jim Waugaman’s powerful keyboard excursions almost out of ELP’s heyday,  accented by John “JT” Tallent’s brilliant percussion work (which has elicited comparisons with Jamie Muir of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic fame). The “urban pastoral” setting – reminiscent in some ways of Peter Gabriel’s vision in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – was also imbued with genuinely menacing overtones, offset by pauses of quiet and gentle birdsong. The dramatic, larger-than-life music had more than a whiff of Italian prog to it – as well as nods to Celtic folklore and even early 20th-century classical music – and the band as a whole sounded more European than American. While those festival attendees who favour the more left-field stuff assessed the band’s performance rather harshly for being a collection of all the worst prog clichés – such as the mythological inspiration and the over-the-top instrumentation (in stark contrast to the minimalistic approach of bands like Zevious or Mörglbl), Persephone’s Dream’s set had an often mesmerizing quality, their music obviously tailor-made for the live dimension.

When people were still in a relaxed mood, following lunch and the consumption of quite a few excellent beers (which, unfortunately, I could not enjoy because, for me, heat and alcohol do not mix well), German quintet Panzerballett, ontheir first US visit, took the stage, and woke everyone up with their unique brand of “wellness death jazz” (I kid you not). In the seven years since their inception, the young but extremely proficient outfit have already earned a fearsome reputation among lovers of the more experimental branches of progressive rock for their highly energetic brand of avant-garde, metal-tinged jazz-rock served with liberal helpings of humour – debunking the commonly held myth of the dour, humourless Germans. Some of the song titles alone were worth the price of admission – “A Vulgar Display of Sauerkraut”, anyone? The on-stage banter of guitarist Jan Zehrfeld (whose English may not have been as fluent as Christophe Godin’s, but still effective in interacting with the audience) was delivered in quiet, polite tones that contrasted with the manic urgency of the music – unabashedly eclectic, cramming a lot of diverse influences in the space of a single number, and spiced with a healthy pinch of irreverence. Nothing is safe from Panzerballett’s imaginative reinterpretations (or rather deconstructions) – the love theme from Dirty Dancing, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” (rechristened “Fake Five”, and played simultaneously in two different tempos), Weather Report’s “Birdland”, all got the Panzerballett treatment, to the audience’s delight. As in the case of Zevious, their music is clearly not for the faint-hearted or those who crave melody and catchy hooks, but their enthusiasm is infectious, and you have to admire a band that proudly claims to improvise every time they are on stage, dispensing with setlists. Though all of the band members were brilliant, powerhouse drummer Sebastian Lanser deserves a particular mention for his unflagging energy and perfect time-keeping.

After such an exhilarating performance, as the evening drew near and the temperature cooled down, the audience was well stoked for headliners Freak Kitchen – currently touring the US as Mörglbl’s opening act, and drafted in at the very last moment after Quantum Fantay’s cancellation (due to airline woes following in the wake of Hurricane Irene). Though I was not familiar with their music, what I had read around the Internet had whetted my curiosity, and I realized that we were in for a pyrotechnic conclusion. Yet another power trio, active since 1992, with seven albums under their belt, the band consists of a guitarist (Mattias Eklundh, aka The Axemaster of Sweden) and drummer (Björn Fryklund) that embody the Scandinavian archetype of tall, lean frames and flowing blonde manes, and a bassist (Christer Ortefors) that was a sight to behold, with his heavily tattooed arms, braided beard, combat helmet and low-slung bass in pure Lemmy style. All in all, Freak Kitchen are the opposite of every prog stereotype, looking (and sounding) like an Eighties thrash metal band with progressive undertones. Extremely gifted in a technical sense, they wrapped up the festival with a bang, combining sheer heaviness with plenty of infectious hooks and a bit of a funky swagger, whipping the crowd to a frenzy, getting the notoriously staid prog fans to get up and dance, headbang and sing along in a cathartic explosion of pure fun. With song titles as wacky as “Teargas Jazz”  and “Chest Pain Waltz” (one of the highlights of their set), and influences ranging from Megadeth and Metallica to King’s X and Living Colour with a sprinkling of punk rawness (mostly evident in the vocals), they have a commanding frontman in the soft-spoken Eklundh, who treated the audience to a constant stream of funny quips and anecdotes (like the one about the vibrating dildo belt), and poking gentle fun at the average progger’s obsession with odd time signatures. A memorable ending to ProgDay 2011, even though purists would have been positively horrified.

Although the lovely bucolic setting and general laid-back vibe, reminiscent of a family picnic complete with children, games and dogs, might lead outside observers not to take ProgDay too seriously in musical terms, the consistently high quality of the lineups assembled by the organizers throughout the years gives the lie to this impression. The members of the band selection committee are to be commended for their forward-thinking attitude, which allows attendees to sample a broad range of the many subgenres to be found under the welcoming “prog” umbrella, always striking a perfect balance between accessibility and cutting-edge potential. Unfortunately, it is also true that ProgDay can get away with having a full-fledged metal act as a headliner only because it is basically perceived as not quite as prestigious as the indoor festivals. The cancellation of NEARfest 2011 proved all too clearly the danger of overestimating the open-mindedness of prog fans, and booking anything with dubious prog status can be the kiss of death for even the highest-profile event. However, in spite of the overall lack of support from the US prog community, ProgDay soldiers on, thanks to the help (financial and otherwise) of a core of loyal patrons, and getting better and better with time, as demonstrated by this year’s stellar lineup. This past weekend, on the stage at Storybook Farm, I saw the future of progressive rock – a future that may not look like the Seventies bands that are still widely worshipped, but that is surely every bit as exciting and musically worthwhile. It is up to us to let it prosper, or kill it slowly but inexorably with our obsession with the past.

At the end of my review, I wish to thank everyone involved in the success of ProgDay 2011 – first and foremost the organizers, the band selection committee and all the volunteers (a particularly big thumbs-up for providing a “quiet room” for the numerous prog ladies present at Storybook Farm). Then, as usual, a shout out to all the great people that made our weekend special: the collective members of Fibonacci Sequence, The Tea Club, The Rebel Wheel, Mörglbl and Zevious, John Tennant of Persephone’s Dream, ProgDay founder (and purveyor of musical goodies) Peter Renfro, Michael McCormack, Alan and Amy Benjamin, Helaine Carson Burch, Debi Byrd, Lew Fisher, Doug Hinson, Michael Bennett, Jeff Wilson, Paul and Debbie Sears, Mike Visaggio of Kinetic Element, Rick Dashiell, Eyal Amir – and, last but not least, our dear friends Michael Inman and Djalma Carvalho. Here’s to ProgDay 2012, and many more years of great music!

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