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Art-ProgDay2015
Our highly-awaited yearly appointment with ProgDay came at the end of a very trying 12 months, which had drained a lot of strength and enthusiasm out of me. Though when we came back from last year’s edition things in my life had looked promising, they took a turn for the worse at the beginning of 2015, resulting in depression, burnout, and estrangement from people. As my followers will have noticed, this sorry state of affairs resulted in an unprecedented dearth of posts (only three between January and August), which reflected my gradual loss of interest in music. Though I forced myself to keep up to date by listening to new releases on Progstreaming and Bandcamp, most of the time it felt like going through the motions, and most of those albums left very little impression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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