In spite of the brutal heat and humidity that marred last year’s edition, ProgDay had got us so well and truly hooked that we had started counting the days a good three months before this year’s event. The morning of Friday, August 29 saw us head south to North Carolina for the fourth time in as many years to attend the festival’s 19th consecutive edition – a true feat considering the fickle and finicky nature of the US prog audience. Over the years, ProgDay has built a loyal fanbase that, while never reaching the size of the audiences that have attended other prog festivals, has never failed to deliver quality-wise, and constantly attracted new attendees. Indeed, ProgDay XIX brought quite a few new faces to the green, tree-ringed sward of Storybook Farm, and a new batch of people won over by an event that, while unpretentious almost by definition, has become the ideal showcase for all kinds of challenging music.
After an uneventful car ride from our Northern Virginia home, we reached the hotel in time for lunch, followed by some well-needed rest. Then it was time for us to reconnect with the many friends we have made through our mutual love of music. This year was made even more special by the presence of some people we had not yet managed to meet in person, though we already considered them good friends.
As a complement to the main event, the Labor Day weekend also offered two “pre-show” gigs at Chapel Hill’s Local 506, all involving ProgDay alumni: Half Past Four, Dreadnaught and 3RDegree on Friday, Mörglbl on Sunday. Unfortunately, Canadian quintet Half Past Four had were stopped at the border and had to be replaced by outstanding Chapman Stick specialist Rob Martino. Since the Friday night show promised to go on until late, and we wanted to be in good shape for the following day, we decided to have dinner and then get a good night’s sleep.
While not as unrelentingly hot and humid as last year, the weekend weather was still typical of North Carolina at the tail end of summer, with high levels of humidity throughout the day. When we got to the Farm on Saturday morning, the grass was drenched with dew, and some early attendees were pitching their tents and canopies on the field. A cool early morning breeze tempered the intense humidity and brought the relief of some occasional clouds, but the strength of the sun already promised to make things somewhat uncomfortable later in the day. We hung out with various friends, browsed the CD stands, then sat down and waited for the first band to come on the stage.
As some rescheduling had been necessary on the part of the organizers, the festival was inaugurated by the band that had been announced last, a mere couple of weeks ago. Though Mavara (meaning “beyond everything you think”) hail originally from Iran (their only non-Iranian member being drummer Jim Welch), they have been living in the US for some time – for reasons that are not hard to fathom for anyone who knows the situation of that history-laden part of the world. Led by keyboardist Farhood Ghadiri, they enjoyed widespread success in their home country before circumstances forced them to move to the US, where they currently reside in the New England region. Having heard a few samples on the ProgDay website, I knew their music was probably not going to be my cup of tea; I am experienced enough to know that the stage can transform any kind of music into something different. Though obviously a bit nervous when they first took to the stage, they gradually warmed up and became more communicative, though a certain stiffness remained throughout their set. With two keyboardists (Ghadiri and a young woman, petite blonde Anis Oveisi), their sound was heavily skewed towards 80’s Rush (especially circaPower Windows), Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd (the latter especially in the lead guitar parts), as well as a touch of early Dream Theater. Lead vocalist Ashkan Hamedi belted out the songs out with impressive power and confidence coupled to a strong sense of melody that suited the music well. Though Mavara are by far one of the most “mainstream” bands I have seen on the PD stage, their music – while somewhat generic – has the potential to appeal to a lot of people, and they seemed to be well received by the crowd. Moreover, they certainly deserve a shot in the limelight after all they have been through – especially being away from their native country, and living in a place that is not always welcoming to outsiders (a situation I know all too well).
The contrast between the first and the second band on the Saturday bill could not have been greater, as around lunchtime French Canadian Avant-Prog veterans Miriodor proceeded to take no prisoners as soon as they got on stage. One of the most eagerly anticipated acts on the lineup – particularly by those who (like us) had witnessed their career-defining show at the DC French Embassy in 2010, the band were now down to a quartet, with founding members Remi Leclerc and Pascal Globensky and longtime guitarist Bernard Falaise very recently joined by bassist Nicolas Lessard. The increasing humidity notwithstanding, the scholarly-looking quartet of soft-spoken gentlemen delivered a blinder of a set, often sweepingly atmospheric and laced with eerie electronic effects, but consistently full of outstanding beauty. Though all the instruments sounded pristine, I found Remi Leclerc’s drumming especially riveting, setting an effortlessly flowing pace and lending the music a natural rhythm that belied its complexity. Falaise’s guitar displayed a finely honed edge, while Globensky’s keyboards contributed an aura of mystery. Besides some tracks from their marvelous 2009 album Avanti!, Miriodor regaled the audience with some new material, taken from their soon-to-be-officially-released albumCobra Fakir. Like everything else, the new tracks – though somewhat darker , with a slight Gothic undertone – possess the kind of effortless grace and calm intensity that has made Miriodor a byword for stellar quality on the progressive rock scene – balancing quiet and loud moments with seamless perfection, and maintaining a keen sense of melody even when treading on more experimental territory. The band’s professional yet unassuming attitude was also reflected in their gentle sense of humour.
With such a tough act to follow, the organizers proved once again their brilliance when they scheduled Los Angeles-based multinational quintet Corima for the third slot of the day. Even if I was already familiar with their second album, Quetzalcoatl (released by French label Soleil Zeuhl), I was not prepared for such a relentless sonic assault. A blast of sound during the soundcheck provided a taste of things to come, as the young, black-clad band members proceeded to tear up the stage during their performance. As my husband put it, you got exhausted just watching them bounce up and down with an irrepressible energy starkly at odds with the usually staid mien of many mainstream prog bands. Fronted by the diminutive dynamo Andrea Itzpapalotl on vocals and violin, Corima are clearly influenced by Magma, and might also remind the listener of a more melodic version of Koenjihyakkei (incidentally, the bassist and saxophonist are of Japanese descent), but infused with the manic energy of West Coast punk and the aggression of metal. Occasional moments of respite – such as a serene, classically-influenced piano solo – dotted this 70-minute adrenalin rush, characterized by a form of deliberate repetitiveness that built up a hypnotic crescendo of intensity, driven by drummer Sergio Sanchez-Revelo’s insane polyrhythms and Patrick Shiroishi’s blaring sax. Needless to say, they did not suffer one bit from having to follow Miriodor’s immaculate set, because their music was so different. Even people who generally do not care for Zeuhl or anything too cutting-edge were won over by Corima’s show – though I could very well visualize people running for the exits in an indoor setting.
After such a one-two punch, Saturday headliners and big East Coast favourites Oblivion Sun provided a definite change of pace. The quartet, founded by former Happy The Man members Frank Wyatt and Stanley Whitaker in the early 2000’s, had already appeared at ProgDay in 2007, and I had witnessed their performance at the 2009 edition of NEARfest. Frank Wyatt’s wrist injury had forced them to cancel a few live appearances in the past few months, but the keyboardist/reedist was in fine form for this special occasion. Just like I had in 2009, I found their music very melodic and pleasing to the ear, as well as impeccably executed, though as a whole hard to truly connect to. The four members of the band – Whitaker, Wyatt, drummer Bill Brasso and new bassist David Hughes – handled their instruments with seasoned proficiency, and their music flowed smoothly – perhaps even too much so. Some of their material had a folksy ring, while some heavier undertones occasionally cropped up. The warm rapport the band has built over the years with its loyal following showed in the jokes about the notorious “Cruise the Edge” floating prog festival, as well as in Wyatt’s moving dedication of a song to his wife for her birthday. Unfortunately, while I liked the instrumentals at the beginning of their set, when vocals made their appearance I started losing interest, and halfway through their set the 8-hour exposure to heat and humidity had finally got to both of us, so we decided to head back to the hotel for some rest before dinnertime.
After a refreshing night’s sleep and leisurely breakfast, we headed back to the field for another day of music and good company. Because of the cool breeze blowing from the trees, the heat and humidity felt less oppressive than they had on the previous day, and I was able to enjoy what promised to be a consistently great lineup. However, we were yet unaware of being in for some weather-related excitement later during the day.
At 10.30 a.m., right on schedule, youthful South Jersey six-piece Out of the Beardspace took to the stage. A bit of an unknown quantity for the mainstream prog audience, the band have already earned their stripes through a brisk concert activity in their home region, and have recently released their third, self-titled CD. Earlier this year, in the month of May, they even hosted their own festival (named Beardfest), which featured ProgDay alumni The Tea Club and Consider The Source, as well as the band that would follow them on the Storybook Farm stage, Thank You Scientist. With their emphasis on environmental awareness and community enrichment, their very informal, laid-back appearance (some band members were playing barefoot) and sprawling, eclectic approach to music, they bridged the gap between jam bands such as Umphrey’s McGee and progressive rock proper. Guitar and keyboards were well in evidence, supported by a powerful rhythm section, and exuding a vintage psychedelic vibe with a keen edge, and some intriguing funky and jazzy elements. While bassist Kevin Savo’s vocals – best described as a male version of Björk – might be called an acquired taste, they also blended very effectively with the music. Though not as manic as Corima, the energy and enthusiasm of each member was hard to miss, and their stage presence, with its modern hippy vibe, endeared them to the audience as much as their genre-bending sound. Though I felt their instrumental pieces were more interesting than the ones with vocals, they are a band I would definitely not mind seeing again, as they put up a very entertaining show and obviously enjoy themselves immensely on stage.
Thank You Scientist had already wowed audiences in the North-East Corridor with their energetic performance of the past month or so with fellow New Jerseyans The Tea Club, and had already created a lot of expectations in the attendees thanks to the strength their debut full-length album, Maps of Non-Existent Places (which boasts of some of the finest artwork I have seen in the past few years). With a seven-piece configuration – including saxophone, trumpet and violin as well as the traditional rock instruments – the young, hyperactive band crowded the stage, their boundless supply of energy matching that already displayed by Corima and Out of the Beardspace. Fronted by the charismatic Sal Marrano, sporting mirrored shades and a jaunty beach hat, Thank You Scientist are unashamedly modern in their approach to progressive rock, coming across as a more melodic, less rambling version of The Mars Volta – or, if you prefer, a much heavier, beefed-up Steely Dan. Marrano’s high-pitched but well-modulated voice, in particular, often sounded very much like Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s, albeit not as potentially abrasive. Propelled by irresistibly funky. Latin-infused rhythms (courtesy of unstoppable drummer Odin Alvarez and bassist Greg Colacino) coupled with punk-inspired intensity, a bit of a metal edge and jazzy horns, the band’s sound is complex but never contrived, and genuinely exhilarating. With the right promotion, they could very well break into the mainstream in the same way as The Mars Volta did in the early 2000’s, appealing to the younger generations as well as to more open-minded old-timers. Obviously, there were people in the audience who pompously declared that Thank You Scientist were “not a prog band”, but those naysayers were more than balanced out by those who thoroughly enjoyed the band’s set – wrapped up by an irresistible cover of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”, which was a big hit with everyone.
In the hottest hour of the day, my personal most-awaited band of the weekend – unlikely Texans Herd of Instinct – took to the stage, introduced by ominous recorded voices. The band members, with old friend and collaborator Mike McGary replacing Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards, were perceivably tense (probably scared by some of the horror stories heard about the prog audience), and that impacted their stage presence to the point that they occasionally came across as standoffish. Drummer and official spokesperson Jason Spradlin, a striking figure with his long, flowing dark hair, had chosen to use his own electronic drum kit rather than an acoustic one – a choice that, while puzzling for part of the audience, lent an eerily mechanical dimension to the music which complemented it unexpectedly well. As a supporter of the band from the time I heard their debut album, I wanted them to make a good impression, and the quantity of CDs sold at their merch table certainly bore witness to the fact that the majority of the audience appreciated their set, even if they were somewhat thrown off by the almost complete lack of stage banter and the abrupt ending of the songs (as well as the oddly muffled quality of the sound). Their music, however – though better suited to the twilight hour than the bright light of an early September afternoon – spoke for itself. Mark Cook’s Warr guitar’s eerie wail intersected and meshed with Mike Davison’s Fender Stratocaster and McGary’s discreet keyboards, driven by the engine of Spradlin’s drumming. Powerful and mesmerizing – and described by a friend as a cross between King Crimson and Tangerine Dream – Herd of Instinct’s sound is unique, its cinematic quality emphasized in their rendition of the theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween (a couple of months early on the actual date), as well as in their cover of Radiohead’s “National Anthem”. They also performed some material from Spradlin and Cook’s previous band, 99 Names of God. As a whole, I found that the live dimension enhanced their music immensely, and appreciated the subtle variations they brought to the material from their two studio albums. However, in spite of their years of experience of playing live on their home turf, they need to work on their stagecraft in order to develop their full potential and allow their music to come truly alive.
Headliners simakDialog’s long-overdue set was the weekend’s most highly-awaited performance – as the Indonesian outfit’s plans to play in the US were foiled twice in as many years. Their set started half an hour early, in a very informal way – perfectly suited to their laid-back, yet extremely proficient music – and the plan was to let them play for about two hours, providing a soundtrack for the late hours of the afternoon, when the temperature goes down together with the sun and people kick back to enjoy the breeze. Unfortunately, said breeze quickly turned into a brisk wind, and the massed dark clouds brought a downpour that had people scrambling for cover in a hurry. The band – used to this kind of weather in their tropical homeland – were at first unfazed, and continued to play in their unhurried, supremely elegant East-meets-West take on classic jazz-rock – characterized by the use of twin Sundanese kendang drums instead of a traditional drum kit, blending perfectly with Riza Arshad’s fluid electric piano and Tohpati’s understatedly brilliant guitar. However, nature had different plans, and a second spate of wind and rain put an abrupt end to the show, which had lasted about an hour when the band and stage crew finally decided to call it quits. Thankfully, this time simakDialog have a full set of East Coast dates planned, and many of the attendees will be able to catch them in an indoor setting in the days following the festival.
Finally, the weather allowed the attendees to pack up their gear, and everyone headed back to the hotel for dinner and the subsequent “non-pool” (for the second year in a row) party, held in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms, with plenty of drinking and merriment on offer before bedtime. Then, on the following day, it was time to say goodbye to our friends – not without some sadness – and head north and back to real life after three days in paradise.
Like last year, 2013 seems to have brought an almost record attendance to ProgDay, which bodes very well for the festival’s 20th anniversary (whose planning is already under way). Interestingly, with the exception of Mavara and Oblivion Sun, none of the bands that performed at Storybook Farm on the past Labor Day weekend can be labeled as prog in a conventional sense – which, as I have already stated on previous occasions, proves the forward-thinking strategy of the organizers as regards the choice of performers. The presence of three young, up-and-coming US bands also brought some new blood to the field (as it also was the case in 2012), together with the hope that progressive music may soon start to gain a broader appeal and escape the confines of its aging niche audience.
As usual, at the end of my review I would like to thank all of the people involved in the organization of the festival, especially all those who volunteered time, money and energy in order to ensure the success of the event. Of all the wonderful people we met over the weekend, a special thought goes to some very special people whose friendship means a lot to me, even if we cannot meet in person on a regular basis. Even if this year I have decided not to mention any names, you know who you are. Thank you for a wonderful time, and hope to see you again very soon!