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Posts Tagged ‘Frogg Café’

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Bonesaw (4:48)
2. Trigger (3:00)
3. St James Infirmary (5:12)
4. Stone Don’t Sway (3:46)
5. Family (4:51)
6. Moonshiner (4:12)
7. Tennessee (4:01)
8. Little More Feeling (2:20)
9. Smiles and Scars (4:39)

LINEUP:
George Gierer – guitar, banjo, lead vocals, marinated ice
Andrew Sussman – cello, bass, banjo, mandolin, vocals

With:
Dan Bonis – lap steel and resonator guitars (1)
John Lieto – trombone (3)
Nick Lieto – trumpet (3)
James Guarnieri – cymbal (2)
Bill Ayasse – fiddle (8)

Those who still follow my rare posts, as well as my (fortunately) much more frequent contribution to DPRP’s weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, may have noticed that my choices are increasingly drifting away from “conventional” prog, and touching upon music genres that are not traditionally associated with it. In fact, my tastes have always been rather eclectic, and as a rule I do not like to restrict my focus to just one genre. Therefore, I was glad of the opportunity to review Pluck & Rail’s debut album – especially after having seen the duo in action during Frogg Café’s performance at the Orion Studios in April 2016.

Pluck & Rail is a new venture in which Froggs bassist Andrew Sussman is joined by guitarist/vocalist George Gierer, of folkabilly band South County (based in Yonkers, NY). Fans of the NYC  jazz-rock quintet (now guitar-less, following Frank Camiola’s relocation to the UK) should not, however, expect anything in a similar vein – in spite of the participation of all the remaining FC members. Trigger is steeped in Americana, and, not surprisingly, its relationship with prog is rather tenuous.

Clocking in at a snappy 37 minutes, Trigger is a collection of nine songs – packaged in elegant, vintage-style artwork –  that draw on the US’ rich tradition of folk, country and blues, with occasional jazzy and even punk touches. It hinges on the seamless interplay between the two mainmen, though the instrumental brilliance is put at the service of the songs rather than spotlighted for its own sake – unlike what happens all too often  in prog. As you would expect, the bulk of the songs are wistful, mid-paced ballads, masterfully interpreted by Gierer’s deep, slightly smoky voice. The lyrics, in keeping with the folk tradition  (both American and European) also referenced by the Portland band, spin dark, gloomy tales of death, loss, addiction and similar cheery topics – which, however, go hand-in-glove with the music.

Opener “Bonesaw” immediately sets the tone,  with distinct echoes of The Decemberists’ early work – minus Colin Meloy’s somewhat nasal tone; Dan Bonis’ lap steel guitar adds its distinctive twang to the melancholy but catchy tone of the song. The title-track definitely breaks the mould:  an intense workout for Sussman’s cello, beefed up by James Guarnieri on cymbals, its aggressive, shouted vocals suggest an acoustic take on punk rock (not coincidentally for a song dealing with the topic of addiction). The revamped traditional folk/blues of “St. James Infirmary”, a song made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928 (also covered by Van Morrison, Joe Cocker and The Animals, among many others), pits Gierer’s vocals against the brothers Lieto’s call-and-response horns, which emphasize the song’s mournful allure. On the other hand, the jaunty, almost rocking pace of Trigger’s shortest song, the 2-minute “Little More Feeling”, is nicely enhanced by Bill Ayasse’s brisk fiddle, while “Smiles and Scars” wraps up the album on a plaintive, whisky-soaked note.

Being European, I am not what you would call an expert on American folk, nor can I claim to be a frequent listener to this genre. However, as a lifelong music lover, I found that Trigger strikes the right chord. Clearly a labour of love by two outstanding musicians, it is recommended listening to everyone who loves good music, particularly of the acoustic variety. As to hardcore proggers, I believe that everyone needs an occasional respite from 20-minute epics with more time signature changes than you can wrap your head around. You might do much worse than give Trigger a listen, and possibly more than one.

Links:
http://www.pluckandrail.com
https://www.facebook.com/pluckandrail/?fref=ts
https://pluckandrail.bandcamp.com/releases

 

 

 

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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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TRACKLISTING:
1. Terra Sancta (12:25)
2. Move Over I’m Driving (7:58)
3. Pasta Fazeuhl (14:02)
4-6. Under Wuhu Son:
In the Bright Light (8:22)
Left for Dead (5:36)
Brace Against the Fall (6:15)
7. From the Fence (12:05)
8. Belgian Boogie Board (10:31)

LINEUP:
Bill Ayasse – violin, viola, mandolin, hand percussion, vocals
Frank Camiola – electric guitar, banjo, string bass
James Guarnieri – drums, glockenspiel, orchestral percussion
John Lieto – trombone and bass trombone
Nick Lieto – lead vocals, piano, keyboards, trumpet, flugelhorn
Andrew Sussman – electric bass, cello, acoustic guitar

With:
Sharon Ayasse – flute (3, 4, 5, 6, 8)
Dennis Lippe – electric guitar (1, 7)
Dee Harris – Indian slide guitar, tambora (1)
Nitim Mohan-  tabla (1)
Vessela Stoyanova – marimba (1, 4, 5, 6)
Michael Kollmer – marimba, xylophone (3, 8)
Jon Preddice – cello (3, 8)
Steven Sussman – clarinet, bass clarinet (4, 5, 6, 8)
Steve Katsikas – keyboards (4)
Mike Kauffman – alto and tenor saxophones (8)

Though my reviewing efforts usually focus on recent releases, every now and then it feels good do break my own rules. This review should have been published three years ago on a different website, but, unfortunately, circumstances dictated otherwise. Almost unexpectedly, the opportunity for writing this long-overdue piece came barely over a month ago, when I had the privilege of seeing Frogg Café perform at the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend – a triumphant return to the stage after years of absence, and hopefully not a one-off.

Born towards the end of the 20th century in the New York metropolitan area as a Frank Zappa tribute band named Lumpy Gravy, Frogg Café have been through their share of lineup changes. However, their fifth studio album, Bateless Edge  – released in the early summer of 2010 – saw the return of their original lineup (including guitarist Frank Camiola),  augmented by trombonist John Lieto, who had appeared on their double live CD The Safenzee Diaries (2007). Although highly anticipated albums may often disappoint expectations, this is definitely not the case of Bateless Edge – an effort as monumental in scope as the odd-looking contraptions gracing its stylishly grungy cover in  muted shades of grey.

With the band’s six-piece configuration expanded by a host of guest musicians (including Steve Katsikas of 10T Records label mates Little Atlas) contributing a wide range of additional instruments, it is no wonder that Bateless Edge sounds big – symphonic in the true sense of the word. Indeed, in spite of the generic jazz-rock tag often attached to them, Frogg Café might be effectively described as the link between brass rock in the style of early Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears and Colosseum and progressive rock proper, with frequent forays into more experimental territory and a healthy balance between loose-textured jams and tighter, more disciplined compositions.

With a running time between 6 and over 20 minutes, the six tracks on Bateless Edge well represent their authors’ different personalities. Frank Camiola’s two ambitious contributions reflect his fascination with the more left-field fringes of the progressive spectrum (well displayed in his side project Cardboard Amanda’s eponymous 2006 album). The amusingly-titled “Pasta Fazeuhl” (inspired by Magma’s appearance at NEARfest 2003)  is a veritable rollercoaster ride in which angular Frippian guitar forms collide with brooding, cello-driven passages reminiscent of Univers Zéro and hauntingly military marches in true Magma style, with brief yet intriguing classical touches, freely blaring horns and wild bursts of guitar. Album closer “Belgian Boogie Board” was originally written in minimalistic form for the Cardboard Amanda album, but was then expanded and rearranged as a 28-page score involving almost as many instruments – a true tour-de-force that might easily be described as RIO meets brass rock, a joyful instance of controlled chaos.

Nick Lieto’s contributions, in stark contrast with Camiola’s, are definitely the most accessible on the album, emphasizing melody and a bright, upbeat mood. In the instrumental “Move Over I’m Driving”, Bill Ayasse’s sprightly violin and mandolin introduce folksy elements in its choppy, dance-like pace, to which the horns add a quasi-orchestral quality, and all the instruments take turns in a call-and-response pattern. On the other hand, “From the Fence”, for all its 12-minute running time, is the closest the album gets to a conventional song with a lovely, easy flow enhanced by Lieto’s expressive vocals and memorable, almost Beatlesian chorus; Ayasse’s stunning violin turn lends an appealing Old-World feel to the piece.

Andrew Sussman’s own two pieces bring those two strains together, with plenty of variety and a hint of an edge to temper the melodic quotient. “Terra Sancta”, dedicated to the children who lost parents in the 9/11 bombings, opens the album in authoritative yet catchy fashion (at odds with the stark, poignant lyrics), driven by buoyant horns and spiced by Eastern instruments such as the tabla and Indian slide guitar. A more somber, slightly dissonant section in the middle breaks this deceptively upbeat feel, with the guitar launching into a very expressive solo before the reprise of the main theme. The second of Sussman’s compositions, “Under Wuhu Son”,  is a three-part suite with another deeply emotional story behind it (this time a very personal one, as it refers to the musician and his family’s struggle to adopt a little Chinese girl), and acts as the album’s centerpiece also in a literal sense. The wistful, elegiac tone of “In the Bright Light”, intensified by lyrical violin, flute and marimba, segues into the surprisingly intense, metal-tinged riffing and forceful horns of the instrumental “Left for Dead”; then the intensity eases with the jaunty, melodic “Brace Against the Fall”, featuring a lovely guitar solo that shows Camiola’s more sensitive side.

Although my regular readers know that I am generally very critical of albums that I perceive to be excessively long, I will make an exception for Bateless Edge – the only album I have heard in the past few years whose almost 80-minute running time hardly has any negative impact on its quality. While there might be a bit of self-indulgence here and there, the overall level of the music is so high that those occasional lapses can easily be overlooked. With its tight musicianship and eclectic compositional approach, Bateless Edge celebrates the pleasure of music-making by offering the sonic equivalent of a lavish banquet. Though most dedicated prog fans will already have heard the album by now, those who have missed it would do well to give it a listen – or possibly more than one, as this is easily one of the best releases of the past few years.

Links:
http://www.froggcafe.com/

http://10trecords.com/

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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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Though I have often commented on the sorry state of the progressive rock concert scene in the US (with particular reference to NEARfest’s untimely demise), 2013 has been a much more positive year than the previous two, and has brought unexpectedly good news. With the possible exception of ROSfest, which draws hundreds of attendees every year  (even if it has never enjoyed NEARfest’s instant sell-outs), festivals held in 1000-seater theaters seem to have become a thing of the past, as proved by the failure of a couple of attempts to organize events on a similar scale. However, some people who are well aware of the importance of live performances to keep non-mainstream music alive have not been deterred by those failures, and have taken the plunge. Adopting the model that has allowed ProgDay to survive without interruption for 18 years by being able to count on a core of loyal supporters, they have scaled things down, choosing smaller, less pretentious venues, and giving preference to mostly homegrown acts instead of relying on “big names” to attract a larger number of attendees.

Seaprog, which took place in Seattle on the last weekend of June 2013, proved that a smaller-scale event can be reasonably successful, even in a location not generally known as a “prog hub”. Less than one month ago, the year’s second “mini-festival” was announced by the group of volunteers and dedicated prog fans (affectionately nicknamed “staph”) behind the NJ Proghouse, a venture started by James Robinson in central New Jersey, back in 1999. In its various incarnations, the organization has been hosting high-quality progressive rock shows in different venues for the past 15 years, building a dedicated following in that densely-populated region of the US East Coast, and offering concert opportunities to both established and up-and-coming bands.

The two-day festival – named NJ Proghouse’s Homecoming Weekend – intends to celebrate the organization’s 15th anniversary with a top-notch selection of Proghouse alumni. It will be hosted by Roxy and Duke’s Roadhouse in Dunellen (NJ), which has been the group’s venue of choice for the past year or so, on the weekend of October 12 and 13, 2013. Eight bands will take turns on the stage, four per day, starting at 12.30 p.m. Single-day tickets and weekend passes (as well as other relevant information) are available from the organization’s website in the link below.

With the sole exception of Sunday headliners, Swedish outfit Beardfish (a firm favourite of the US prog audience), the bands invited to perform at the event are all based in the US, most of them hailing from the New York/New Jersey area. Vocalist/composer Tammy Scheffer (originally from Belgium, but currently residing in NYC) and her band Morning Bound have been drafted in to replace Oblivion Sun, who had to pull out because of scheduling conflicts. Together with young but already established bands such as The Tea Club, Thank You Scientist (who are also on the ProgDay lineup) and Chicago hotshots District 97, and Saturday headliners IZZ, the festival will also offer the return to the stage of two local glories: renowned jazz-rock band Frogg Café after a six-year hiatus, and Advent, who are putting the finishing touches to their long-awaited third album.

While neither Seaprog nor the Homecoming Weekend may fill the gap left by NEARfest for those who expect a festival to be a showcase of “bucket list” bands and artists, it is heartening to see that some US prog fans are willing to follow the example set by the UK and continental Europe by going the “small is beautiful” route. Even if the music world has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades, no amount of albums recorded with the most sophisticated techniques will ever replace the experience of a live concert – neither for the fans nor for the artists.

Links:
http://www.njproghouse.com/2013/06/13/nj-proghouse-homecoming-weekend-october-12th-and-13th-2013/

http://www.roxyanddukes.com/

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