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Posts Tagged ‘Travis Larson Band’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links:
http://www.progday.net

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