In spite of my Italian origins, I am anything but a sun worshipper, and usually cannot wait for the summer season to be over. Therefore, the prospect of spending two whole days outdoors in early September, in an area of the USA notorious for its hot and humid summers, was rather daunting. While I can withstand even very cold temperatures without too much discomfort, the heat really gets me down, physically and emotionally. However, as we followed the development of the lineup for the 16th edition of ProgDay
, we felt more and more tempted to throw caution to the winds and head south to North Carolina – which we eventually decided to do.
So, in the afternoon of Friday, September 3, we hopped in our car and headed to Chapel Hill – a comfortable drive from our Northern Virginia home, though we were expecting to find heavy traffic on the way. Labor Day weekend traditionally marks the end of the summer season here in the US, and many people head to vacation resorts – in our case, the Atlantic coast of southern Virginia. However, we were in luck, and we only encountered the usual rush-hour slowdown. Most of the drive was smooth and uneventful, and we reached our hotel at 9 in the evening, in time to get some well-deserved rest and get ready for the following two days of music and fun with like-minded people. And no trace whatsoever of the dreaded Hurricane Earl, which had instead disrupted the fun of vacationers on most of the East Coast.
Known for its academic and research institutions, the area around the town of Chapel Hill is also stunningly beautiful, offering incredibly lush vegetation, with probably as many shades of green as Ireland and a mind-boggling variety of trees. The festival takes place on the grounds of Storybook Farm, an expanse of velvet-soft green grass surrounded by deep woods with very basic facilities – a small covered stage, a covered pavilion with wooden tables and benches – light years away from the plush surroundings where other festivals are hosted. However, this quaintly bucolic setting is definitely one of the biggest plus points of the whole event, creating a stronger community feeling. Though the attendance does in no way compare with any of the bigger-scale events, the vibe is definitely less geekish, more laid-back (even literally so). The presence of children and dogs, the kites flying above the crowds, the tents, sun canopies, umbrellas and deck chairs projected an impression of relax and sheer enjoyment that is generally lacking in the more comfortable concert halls.
With sixteen editions under its belt, ProgDay can boast of being the world’s longest-running prog festival – despite its definitely more homespun nature if compared with the fancier events hosted in the ‘prog hub’ of the US North-East. It is clearly a labour of love, the product of the passion and dedication of a bunch of people who live and breathe progressive music, and every year manage to put together a line-up of excellent, varied acts that is in no way inferior to the offer of the indoor festivals. Though not all of the bands involved in previous editions have become household names in the prog community, their past roster is nothing short of impressive. The outdoor setting may not always be ideal for the kind of music represented at ProgDay, but the organizers have always managed to offer a nice balance between more accessible fare and more demanding musical suggestions.
On Saturday morning we arrived at Storybook Farm well before the first band was due on stage, enjoyed the scenery and the lovely fresh air (something that us urban dwellers do not get to enjoy that often), perused the vendors’ tables, and got acquainted with some of our fellow audience members. This year’s opening act, Canadian band Half Past Four, had received a lot of positive attention in the past few months, so their performance was eagerly awaited by most of the crowd – including myself and my husband. I was probably one of the first people to have listened to their debut album, “Rabbit in the Vestibule”, and had immediately found it a very impressive proposition. As a woman, I enjoy female vocalists with personality, and Kyree Vibrant fit the bill 100% - no saccharine-drenched, ethereal soprano, but rather a strong, confident voice that can handle just about every kind of material. However, the current incarnation of the band packs an even stronger punch for us girls, since they can also boast of a woman behind the drum kit. In spite of her dainty, diminutive appearance, Ann Brody is as powerful and effective as a male drummer twice her size - her performance on the more intense numbers, like the epic Biel (an absolute goosebumps-inducing moment) staggeringly good. As to Kyree, she is clearly a born frontwoman, bringing to bear her extensive experience in the performing arts – and her voice in a live setting sounds every bit as good as it does on CD. Thankfully, while both Anne and Kyree are very attractive women, they are first and foremost musicians rather than eye candy. The three young Russian-Canadian musicians who complete the band also possess a remarkable stage presence (especially bassist Dmitry Lesov, with his tall frame and stylish attire), and handle their instruments extremely well.
After a leisurely break, Winnipeg’s own Mahogany Frog took to the stage. Their musical style is vastly different from the song-oriented approach of their fellow Canadians Half Past Four, and the increasing intensity of the sun did not always make it easy to concentrate on the music. On the other hand, their electronics-tinged brand of psychedelic prog – which at times brought to my mind Pink Floyd’s magnificent “A Saucerful of Secrets” – offered both trippy and challenging moments, aided and abetted by stacks of vintage keyboards and colourful, eclectic-looking clothes. As is often the case with completely instrumental bands, their performance was not so much about stage presence, but rather about the creation of entrancing atmospheres – which may have increased some people’s post-lunch lethargy, but also revealed a whole lot of creativity and intelligence on the part of the band. In spite of their obviously young age, the members of Mahogany Frog display an impressive mastery of their instruments, as well as a musical vision brimming with ideas. This is an outfit that I would not mind seeing again in an indoor venue, where their idiosyncratic, genuinely progressive output might be appreciated without too many distracting factors.
Having recently had the pleasure to hear Barry Cleveland’s “Hologramatron” album (which I will review as soon as I can), I was looking forward to the performance of the stunning collection of talent put together for the occasion by the San Francisco-based, influential guitar critic turned band leader. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints, Barry was unable to tour with the full version of his band – which includes the excellent vocalist Amy X Neuburg – and so had to settle for an all-instrumental quartet. Personally, I found Hologramatron’s set extremely impressive, even if probably more suited to a theatre than an open-air setting. Though its largely improvisational nature may have put off some members of the audience, the presence of bass legend Michael Manring was enough to keep others riveted around the stage where the four members sat down with their instruments, creating rarefied, hypnotic soundscapes. Their musical output, with a similar psychedelic bent to Mahogany Frog (their label mates at MoonJune Records, one of the finest purveyors of progressive music on the whole scene) – though towards the end of the set it took a more definite jazz-rock turn – was clearly targeted to those who appreciate the careful build-up of intriguing atmospheres, rather than a more conventional, song-based approach.
One of the recently revived bands of the Seventies (and a Yes offshoot at that, though neither Tony Kaye nor Peter Banks are any longer part of it), headliners Flash were eagerly awaited by a good part of the audience. An extremely professional and well-honed outfit, with two of their original members left (vocalist Colin Carter and guitarist Ray Bennett), they delivered a set that mixed old classics and material from their forthcoming new album. While undeniably belonging to the symphonic prog family, their compositions also have a warm, classic-rock feel, strengthened by the members’ dynamic stage presence. Carter’s vocals, though, still bring Jon Anderson to mind, and there is enough instrumental intricacy in the band’s sound to please hardcore prog fans. Moreover, their catchy yet suitably complex sound is clearly viewed as a touchstone by those modern bands that offer their own personal interpretation of the vintage sound of the Seventies. Even if, in my view, they suffered a bit in the comparison with the genuinely innovative nature of both Mahogany Frog and Hologramatron, Flash came across as consummate musicians and performers, with top-notch songwriting skills and excellent stage craft – a fitting conclusion indeed to a very rewarding day of music and social interaction.
Sunday morning dawned as bright and lovely as the previous day, so, after a refreshing night’s sleep, we were ready to head once again to Storybook Farm. Sunday’s bill opened with New York-based quintet Shadow Circus, led by guitarist John Fontana and vocalist David Bobick. All clad in black (the outdoor setting preventing them from appearing in their full stage regalia), the band delivered an excellent set, including songs from both their studio releases. As their name implies, they have a strong theatrical background - Bobick has a degree in Musical Theatre, and his approach owes more to the great hard rock singers of the past (including his handling of the microphone stand) than to the more stationary style of many prog vocalists. Wearing dark shades and a bowler hat, Bobick’s imposing stage presence and assertive, confident voice were very well suited to the melodic, symphonic prog-meets-heavy rock sound of the band. This was Shadow Circus’ first appearance with their new, five-piece lineup – including Chilean-born drummer Gino Pinto and keyboardist Felipe Troncoso, both in their twenties, but already consummate musicians. Bassist Andy Lowe (a veteran of the NYC music scene) provided a solid backbone to the band’s sound with his understated yet flawless work; while John Fontana delivered great guitar lines, atmospheric and aggressive in turn. The 30-minute Project Blue suite (based on Stephen King’s “The Stand”, and performed here in its entirety) is a fine example of Shadow Circus’ versatility and songwriting skill.
Though some prog snobs may scoff at the accessibility of Mars Hollow’s music, they are an extremely tight outfit with a thoroughly professional attitude and oodles of sunny Californian charm, plenty of serious chops, and songwriting skills that a lot of much higher-profile bands can only dream about. Even if I generally tend towards somewhat more adventurous stuff, Mars Hollow’s debut album impressed me right from the first listen (which does not happen very often). Their music offers a seamless blend of complexity and melodies that can stick in your mind for days. Their set did not disappoint the audience’s expectations. John Baker’s perfectly pitched, commanding voice sounded even better live than on record, and he was no slouch as a guitarist either – though his stage presence is quite restrained for a frontman. On the other hand, irrepressible bassist Kerry Chicoine wielded his vintage Rickenbacker like a true a rock star, his tawny mane flying in the breeze. Steve Mauk handled keyboard duties with class, skill and a lovely smile, and drummer Jerry Beller delivered a powerhouse performance in spite of some physical problems. I was also quite touched by the band’s refreshingly honest attitude towards their own music – unlike many acts that try to sell themselves as wildly innovative when they are anything but, Mars Hollow unashamedly admit to their ‘poppy’ leanings, and even deny being really ‘progressive’. Besides a selection of material from their debut album, they also performed a few impressively mature, well-rounded new songs (one of which was dedicated to yours truly – a very sweet gesture).
I saw Scale The Summit on stage last year, when they had been recruited by Mike Portnoy to replace Beardfish as the opening act on the ProgNation tour. As a lover of instrumental music (even of the metal persuasion), I had found their performance very enjoyable, and was happy for the opportunity to see them again. A startlingly young outfit with an average age of 22, their technical proficiency is nothing short of brilliant, and they handle the complex material with remarkable aplomb. Not that everyone in the audience appreciated them – progressive metal still being somewhat of a dirty word in prog circles. Though they provided a welcome contrast with the more melodic-oriented performances by Shadow Circus and Mars Hollow, I am not sure the 3 p.m. slot was the best thing for them, since the intense, riff-laden quality of their music seemed to intensify the effect of the sun beating down on the audience. However, their rather short performance (about 30 minutes) was a nice change of pace – as much as I like keyboards, it is sometimes refreshing to hear something in which other instruments take the lead. Even if their output seems to generally fall under the general prog-metal umbrella, I found their oddly mesmerizing sound, made of surging, layered riffs and pounding drum beats, more akin to post-metal outfits such Isis or Pelican than the hyper-eclectic, ultra-technical likes of Exivious or Canvas Solaris. In any case, the organizers deserve kudos for having selected them – though more conservative listeners may frown at anything metal-related, bands like Scale The Summit represent one of the most interesting facets of modern progressive rock.
Headliners The Muffins are one of the veteran bands of the US prog scene – their 1978 album, “Manna/Mirage”, widely held as one of the best efforts coming from the American continent in the Seventies, and generally associated (by sound if not geographically) with the Canterbury scene. Never a very prolific band, even if quite active on the live front, they have with time moved towards more distinctly avant-garde territories. Even though I was a bit tired at the end of the day, their intelligent, challenging set could not help capturing my attention, and encouraged both of us to get acquainted with their back catalogue. Based in the Baltimore/Washington DC area, The Muffins have a loyal following here on the East Coast, and have already appeared twice on the ProgDay bill. Even though their music may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially at its most experimental (drummer Paul Sears’creative approach to various percussion instruments was one of the highlights of their set), and some of the more traditional-oriented listeners may have been somewhat put off by their performance, The Muffins are a real class act. With all four original members still on board, this is a band who deserves the utmost respect for sticking to their guns, and never surrendering to the lures of commercial success. The band delivered a flawless performance, their music intense and laid-back at the same time, with some riveting bass work by Billy Swann and plenty of lazy, spiraling sax courtesy of Dave Newhouse and Thomas Scott. All in all, a very appropriate ending for the weekend - their entrancing sound softly merging with the gentle atmosphere of the early September evening.
Though I realize this might sound somewhat controversial, in my view this year’s lineup was much stronger than those assembled in 2010 by any of the other major US prog festivals. Helped by the absolutely gorgeous September weather – clear skies, cool breezes, bright sunlight and very low humidity, which made the venue a real paradise (especially in the morning and evening hours) – the weekend was a pleasure from start to finish. True, in such surroundings it is undoubtedly easier to get distracted from the music, unlike when you have to sit for hours in a theatre and can concentrate completely on what is happening on stage. The audience, however, was very receptive, projecting a more distinct sense of enjoyment than at indoor festivals.
If I had to level some form of mild criticism at the event, it would regard some of the billing choices - such as having two acts with similar musical approaches play one after the other (Mahogany Frog and Hologramatron on Saturday, Shadow Circus and Mars Hollow on Sunday). However, this is not in any way meant to undermine the painstaking work and staunch dedication of the organizers, which deserve every possible praise. I understand all too well (having organized a couple of cultural events in the past) the constraints posed by the presence of people coming from different places and having different requirements. Therefore, these remarks of mine are only meant as suggestions for further improvement of an event that was otherwise perfect.
Besides the music and surroundings, my other personal highlight of the whole weekend was the opportunity to meet a lot of great people, with some of whom I had been in touch for months: the collective members of Shadow Circus, Mars Hollow and Half Past Four, Barry Cleveland, Muffins drummer Paul Sears and his wife Debbie (of The Prog Rock Diner radio show), Steve Carroll of 10T Records (another top-notch independent label) and his brother John, Rick Dashiell of the Delicious Agony Internet radio station, Jose Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt, the makers of the “Romantic Warriors” documentary (to be reviewed shortly). Obviously, though, the biggest thanks should go to the hard work of the organizers and volunteers, who have managed to make all this happen in spite of the well-known financial constraints of our recent times. I am glad to be part of this small but thriving community, and to be able to offer my small contribution to keeping the flame of progressive music alive.
RB (Raffaella Berry): September 13, 2010