It has become a tradition over the last few years for me to write up
a rambling web page about ProgDay, complete with photos, set lists and
CD reviews to act as my "scrapbook" of the event. There are write-ups
2009, and now here's the
one for ProgDay 2010.
As usual, I went into the festival fairly unfamiliar with most of the bands. I had seen one of the preshow bands before, and I've seen the Sunday evening headliners The Muffins several times. But all the other bands were completely new to me.
The drive down to ProgDay seems to get harder every year. This year I decided to start with my usual rt. 81 out of Pennsylvania, then drive part of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. Last year on the way home I stumbled onto a small highway that cut quite a bit of time off the drive, so I looked for it on the map and thought that it must have been rt. 29 since that goes straight south from Lynchburg, VA and ends up just west of Chapel Hill. I think I actually got the wrong road, but it ended up being an even smoother, faster drive than the road I was thinking of. On the way home I found an even faster route - a tiny little country road called rt. 86 that had no traffic on it and ran in almost a straight line from Chapel Hill to Danville, VA. From there I got on 29 and was in Lynchburg in what seemed like no time. But I digress (already)...
The first half of the drive down was very overcast and gloomy due to hurricane Earl sitting off the coast of Virginia. Fortunately, it was moving north and I was going south, so by the time I got up in to the Blue Ridge mountains, the skies were crystal clear, the humidity was low and the temperatures were in the mid-80s at ground level and low 70s up in the mountains. This beautiful weather would last all weekend, making for one of the most pleasant ProgDays so far.
After what seemed like forever (but was actually around 9 hours), I pulled in to the hotel parking lot. I went to the front desk and asked after the guy who I was splitting a room with. Since I know him mostly from the internet, when I asked for "TJ", they asked what his first name was. I didn't know. They asked where he lives. I wasn't sure. They finally called him and asked if he was expecting someone who only knew him as "TJ", and he told them to send me on down.
When I got to the room the party was already in full swing - several
friends from ProgDays past were in the room having beers and getting
psyched up for the weekend. I got cleaned up from the drive and
then drove into Chapel Hill for the preshow at Local 506. I got
there just as the club opened, and got myself a seat straight back
from the stage and next to a table where I sat my digital recorder.
No more tape recorders this year - I finally went fully digital.
There weren't too many people that I knew there yet, so I ended up talking to the keyboardist and band leader for the opening group, Kinetic Element. I told him how I had seen the band when they played the ProgDay preshow two years ago, and he said they had added a guitarist since then. Half joking, he said "We don't sound like ELP any more...now we sound like Yes".
Kinetic Element hit the stage around 9:30. They play a strongly symphonic style of prog with lots of keyboards and vaguely religious lyrics. They played their album "Powered by Light" from start to finish, then asked the sound guy if there was enough time for another song but he told them their time slot was up. Which is odd since there were originally supposed to be three bands but one had to cancel...more on that later. Unfortunately I didn't get any pictures of Kinetic Element because I left my camera in the car. In between bands I went and retrieved it, so that's why there are photos of Jack Dupon.
Since Kinetic Element announced that they were playing their latest album in order, their set list was really easy to figure out: Riding in Time, The Ascent, Now and Forever, Peace of Mind Peace of Heart, Meditation, Reconciliation, See the Children.
After a quick stage change-over, the French band Jack Dupon started up. Like Jethro Tull, there's no one in the band actually named Jack Dupon. It's just a fictional character they came up with to write songs about. Although it's hard to know anything about this character, since the band mostly sings nonsense lyrics that are there more for their rhythmic flow than for any meaning. The band is multi-lingual, so the lyrics and stage announcements were just as likely to be in English, German or Spanish as they were to be in French. I felt kind of bad for the band because they came all the way from France and ended up playing in front of a very small crowd at Local 506, but those who were there were very enthusiastic in their appreciation of the band. I think this ProgDay preshow was just the first stop in a U.S. tour, so hopefully they'll develop more of a following.
The band had a very active bassist who was sort of the frontman of
the group, although he and a guitarist often both did stage
announcements at the same time. The music was a weird mix of funk,
prog and metal. If I had to compare them to other bands, I'd say
maybe Primus meets Mr. Bungle. Three members of the band were
fairly young, and the guitarist who did the stage announcements was
an older guy who dressed like a cross between an old fashioned
French painter and a mad scientist, complete with aviator goggles.
I bought the only CD the band was selling at the show, but I still had a hard time figuring out the set list. They only played four songs (or at least they only stopped three times), but one of them was a half-hour long epic. The first and last song I couldn't figure out, but in between they played Le Chateau de l'Elephant and the three-part La Trilogie Des Mouches. All told it was around an hour's worth of music.
The preshow ended fairly early (around midnight) because the third band that was supposed to play, Dominic and the Lucid, had to cancel due to problems getting their equipment to the show or something like that (at least that's the rumor I heard). After the show I went straight back to the hotel and managed to get around seven hours of sleep before getting up, showering, hitting the breakfast buffet, loading the car up and heading out to the legendary Storybook Farm.
As usual, I got there well before the first band was scheduled to play at 10:30. I wanted to get a good spot in front of the soundboard to set up my recording gear, but arriving an hour and a half early was probably overkill.
The opening band was called Half Past Four. I couldn't figure out what their logo on their t-shirts was supposed to be - it looked like a Pac-man going south. Then it finally occurred to me that it was the outline of a round clock face with the hands at 4:30. Clever.
The band's music falls pretty squarely into the neoprog camp, or
at least that's the impression I got. They had an attractive
female vocalist, and there were lots of lyrics for her to sing
in nearly every song. They also had a female drummer, which is kind
of unusual even for prog. I was thinking it might have been a first
for ProgDay, until I remembered the all-female band Ars Nova.
Half Past Four's bassist started the set wearing a white tuxedo
jacket and a black top hat, looking a bit like Slash from Guns and
Roses. Even though I'm not much of a neoprog fan, I actually kind
of enjoyed some of their music, when the lyrics and performance weren't
too campy or over the top. At one point their guitarist broke a
string and while he fixed it between songs, the drummer, bassist and
keyboardist played about three minutes of an improvised, jazzy jam
that was excellent. I wish there had been more of that in their set.
I don't have any of Half Past Four's CDs, but I managed to figure out most of the set list from stage announcements and the lyrics listed on their web site. The opening song was an instrumental that they didn't name. After that, we got: Missing Seventh, Johnny, Twelve Little Words, a song they identified as a new one but didn't give a name for, the aforementioned string-changing jam, another unnamed new song, Poisoned Tune, I am Lion, Salome, Southern Boogie, Underwater, Strangest Dream, Biel, Earth, Rabbit, and as an encore: Bamboo.
Next up was my favorite band of the weekend. I wasn't sure what to expect from a band called Mahogany Frog - their MP3 samples sounded vaguely like Ozric Tentacles. But these four young guys from Manatoba (they drove all they way to ProgDay in a beat-up van) were more experimental and improv-driven than the Ozrics. They started the set out with a thumping techno beat - all four band members playing with sequencers and drum machines. I thought that would really put the crowd off, but it seemed like the majority of the crowd was getting into it. From there the band started adding keyboard parts and shifting and mutating the music, and eventually one band member brought out a bottle of champaign (which the drummer insisted was sparkling wine, not champaign) and fired the cork into the crowd. After each band member had chugged some of it, they picked up the guitars and bass and kicked into some more traditional prog/space rock.
They would tend to play for around 20 minutes at a time, taking
several of their songs and blending them together. Which made
figuring out the set list a nightmare - I'm still not sure what all
they played, especially during the first half of their set. When
they stopped after around 80 minutes of playing, they got a standing
ovation and demands for an encore. They came back on stage and one of
the guitarists said they could play all day (which got cheers from
the crowd), but they needed to wrap things up so that the other
bands could come on. There were still calls for an encore, so
the band played a techno version of the Dave Brubeck song "Blue Rondo"
(or was that a Keith Emerson reference?) that then shifted
into one of their songs called "Zulumatic".
It was a really great set, but unfortunately the thumping techno beats and the fact that they generally had all their instruments cranked up to 11 totally overwhelmed my poor little digital recorder. My recording of their set ranges from listenable to fairly distorted. I seeded it on the Dime a Dozen site anyway, with a brief MP3 sample of the sound quality, and over 30 people still downloaded it. I was hoping someone could help me with the set list, but so far no luck. They started out with a 20 minute chunk of music that sounds familiar here and there (I'll probably figure some of it out when I've listened to their three studio albums more), and then announced that they were going to play a song called "Expo '76". That lead into another 20 minute chunk of music - I don't know if it was all Expo or what else they might have mixed in there. They announced that the next two songs were the two-part "You're Meshugah!" and "I am NOT Your Sugar", the latter of which then segued into "Grey Shirt, Green House". That was followed by "Flossing With Buddha" (which was described as being about spiritual hygiene), and a piece that started with one guitarist and the bassist playing trumpet. It might have been "Lady Xoc and Shield Jaguar", but I'm not sure. Finally there was the Blue Rondo/Zulumatic encore.
The Frogs stayed all weekend, watching all the other bands and partying with the fans. They were an eccentric group of guys, who were a blast to hang out with. They came to the hotel pool party both Saturday and Sunday nights and were playing tabletop hockey against all challengers. I played few games myself and (almost) retired undefeated. At one point late Saturday night, a couple members of Mahogany Frog got together with the bassist from Mars Hollow and sang an a capella version of one of the tricky instrumental passages from Tarkus. That was a highlight of the weekend.
Anyway, back to Saturday's bands. The third band to play was Barry Cleveland's Hologramatron. Actually, I'm not sure if Hologramatron is was the name of the group or just the name of the album they recorded - at any rate, it was mostly guitarist Cleveland's project. The group also featured bassist Michael Manring, plus a drummer and a pedal-steel guitarist. Both the guitars were fed through effects so that they sometimes sounded like synthesizers and sometimes just sounded otherworldly. Most of their songs started out very slowly as ambient, droney pieces that gradually built up into more energetic instrumentals. The band members mostly just sat and stared at their instruments or at each other, and that coupled with the atmospheric nature of the music made me decide that they'd be a good band to listen to from the back of the field while I smoked a cigar and drank the tasty Belgian beer a friend gave me. Of course, once I got settled in back there where I couldn't see anything, I started hearing these fantastic bass lines bubbling off the stage and wished I had stayed put. Oh well.
At the end of the set, Cleveland said that the music was based on
the Hologramatron album, but the live performance had been about
80% improvised. I bought the CD and listened to it when I got home
and was surprised to find that it's mostly short songs with vocals
and very political lyrics (the liner notes describe it as a protest
album). The live performance and the album couldn't be more different.
Due to the mostly improvised nature of the set, I can't come up with
a set list for this band at all. They played seven pieces, ranging
from 10 to 14 minutes long - call them what you will.
The last band on Saturday was Flash. They're a prog supergroup from the early 70s. Two ex-Yes musicians (Peter Banks on guitar and Tony Kaye on keyboards) joined up with the singer from the group Camel to form Flash (or at least that's what I read on the web). I wasn't quite sure what to make of them appearing at ProgDay. I've had their three studio albums for years and even bought the archival live album they put out in the 90s. But once I heard that Peter Banks was not part of the current reunited band (Kaye having quit the band way back in the 70s), I was afraid they might not be very good.
My fears were for naught - the band still features the original singer, so the vocals sound the same. And the original bassist has moved to guitar, and has most of Peter Bank's guitar parts down cold. The new drummer, bassist and keyboardist looked and sounded so at home I'm betting people who didn't know the band's history didn't even know they weren't original members.
If you go for that classic symphonic prog sound in the style of early Yes, then Flash would be right up your alley. They played about half of their first album, a few lengthy tracks from the second and third albums and a handful of new tunes that they're trying to get recorded and released as the fourth Flash album. I was hoping the album would be on sale at ProgDay, but it isn't finished yet. The biggest surprise of the weekend was when Flash played a "progified" cover version of the Nine Inch Nails song, "Hurt". When the vocalist announced who had originally written that song, some people thought he was kidding. But it actually worked really well as a prog song.
Here's Flash's full set list: Small Beginnings, Ten Thousand,
Manhattan Morning (Christmas '72), How the West Was Won, Lifetime,
Hurt, Grand Canyon, Black and White, Children of the Universe.
I got to talk with Flash's vocalist a little on Saturday evening by the hotel pool, and wish I had had the presence of mind to get him to sign one of the band's CDs that I had brought along. Oh well. As mentioned above, the Saturday night pool party was fun, but it broke up early (around midnight) because everyone had to get up early for the next day.
Sunday morning I got out to the farm even earlier (around 8:30), hoping to get the same shady parking spot I had gotten on Saturday. Someone had already taken it, but it was no big deal. I set up my recording gear in the same spot and then tried (unsuccessfully) to take a little nap while waiting for the bands to start.
The day's music was kicked off by Shadow Circus right on time at 10:30. I didn't have high hopes for this neoprog band from New Jersey, since I'm not a huge fan of the style, but they were better than I expected. The band's singer dressed in black and wore a bowler hat, and their first song had a very "carnival" feel to it as they invited the crowd to step right up and join the shadow circus. The second song they played had one of those catchy choruses that stick in your head and won't go away (however much you might want it to).
After a couple songs it started getting a little unpleasant sitting out
in the sun, so I moved to the pavilion to put on sunscreen and watch
the band from the shade. That's when the singer announced that they
were going to play a "short song" called Project Blue, based on Stephen
King's novel "The Stand". That's long been one of my favorite books,
so I went back out to my lawn chair to watch that one. After around
10 minutes or so, the song changed texture and I thought they had
shifted into something else, so I went back to the shade. Finally,
around 25 minutes later, they ended the song and said "That was Project
Blue". Wow, a 35 minute track. I think that beat out Jack Dupon's
trilogy song for longest piece of the weekend. The band wrapped up
with a song based on a Twilight Zone episode that was probably my
favorite song from their set. The full set list was as follows:
Shadow Circus, Radio People, Storm Rider, Project Blue, Willoughby.
The next band up was Mars Hollow. I had had a couple beers the night before with a guy named Kerry who turned out to be this band's bassist. He had mentioned his internet handle, Kerry Compost, and I recognized it from back in the heyday of rec.music.progressive. So I was looking forward to seeing his band.
Unfortunately they just didn't click with me. They were sort of neoproggy
in the sense that they mixed pop and metal in with their prog, but it
wasn't the standard "melodramatic Genesis clone" neoprog. I'm not sure
how to categorize it - long songs, some repetitive lyrics, music that
wouldn't sound too out of place on commercial radio. Reading other people's
ProgDay reviews in the internet, it seems that a lot of people loved this
band. So take my opinion with a grain of salt. All I know is that I fled
for the shelter and shade of the pavilion and had lunch. The second set
of the day is the hardest one to sit out in the audience for if you don't
have a tent, because it's early afternoon and the sun is directly overhead.
Speaking of tents, just after Mars Hollow finished their first song, a gust of wind picked up the tent of a guy sitting behind me, lifted it into the air and brought it crashing down on my chairs. Fortunately I had moved up towards the stage to take some pictures, so I didn't get hit. But it came down squarely on my digital recorder, making for a tremendous CRASH noise in the recording. It's kind of funny to listen to - you can hear people start to yell, then a bunch of guys yelling "WHOA", then SMASH!!!, then people trying to pick up the tent and someone telling everyone not to step on my sunglasses which had been knocked into the grass. Then the recording goes blank for several seconds and then resumes as if nothing had happened. Fortunately, the recorder doesn't appear to have been damaged.
Mars Hollow's set list looked like this: Wait For Me, Walk On Alone, Eureka,
If I Were You, Wild Animal, The World in Front of Me, Weapon, drum solo,
In Your Hands, What Have I Done, Dawn of Creation.
While Mars Hollow was playing, a van covered with advertisements for Vitamin Water pulled into the farm. I saw the driver talking with one of the ProgDay organizers, and soon they had a Vitamin Water tent set up at the back of the field and were handing out free bottles of water. It turns out the next band, Scale the Summit, is kind of a big deal on the metal scene, and Vitamin Water is their official sponsor. I'm pretty sure that's the first ProgDay band to ever have an official sponsor.
When Scale the Summit took the stage, I thought it must be some high school kids they bring along as roadies or something. I've never seen a younger looking band - everyone in it looks to be around 17 (although I've heard they're all in their early 20s). They're described as a "technical metal" band, and I guess the name fits. All instrumental, mostly very heavy, lots of fast riffing, lots of unison lines between the two guitar players. Very, very tight - they sounded like they had been playing together for decades.
They played a short set and (I'm embarrassed to say) I actually fell asleep and
missed about half of it (I blame the Belgian beers). Oddly, the loud waves of
guitar crashing off the stage kind of lulled me to sleep. Anyway, I liked
what I heard of the set, so I went to their sales table to buy a CD or two.
It turned out they only had a few copies of their first, self-produced album
available. They had only brought a few copies of their more recent,
professionally-made CD, and it quickly sold out. "No problem", they assured me,
"you can just go out on iTunes and download it. It's cheaper that way anyway."
I didn't have the heart to tell them that old farts like me don't do the iTunes thing.
Despite not having any CDs, they had a TON of merchandise to sell. About a dozen
different t-shirt designs, plus guitar tab books of their music, posters, etc. I
ended up buying a copy of the self-produced CD and a green tote bag with a drawing
of a panda on it, which I gave to my daughter.
Scale the Summit's set list was as follows: The Great Plains, Colossal, The Age of the Tide, Bloom, Sargasso Sea, Alpen Glow, City in the Sky, Omni, Dunes, Immersion, The Levitated and a new song that they played as an encore, which I think they said was called "Whales" or something like that.
The final band of the weekend was The Muffins. I've seen them several times before, including their two ProgDay performances, so I knew I'd like them. But, to be totally honest, their set seemed a little low-energy and sloppy, at least by usual Muffin standards. I've seen them put on much better performances (for example, their ProgDay 2001 set). Maybe it was just because I'd already sat through nine other bands in the previous 48 hours and was starting to get burnt out. Maybe it was because I had been sitting in the sun for two days and drinking lots of beer. Whatever the reason, I just didn't really get into the Muffins set, except for the closing "Hobart Got Burned", which is always a show-stopper. Listening back to my audience recording, the show was better than I remember, so I guess I just wasn't in the right frame of mind for it.
But if you go for jazzy avant-prog with lots of saxophone and other wind
instruments, then the Muffins are just what you're looking for. Their set
seemed to be about a quarter improvised, and I think they also played some
new songs that aren't on any of their current studio albums. The best I could
do for a set list was try to pick out the titles from their existing albums,
and here's what I came up with (keeping in mind that there was a lot of other
stuff played in between these songs): Queenside, Antidote to Dry-dock,
Choombachang, drum solo, The Ugly Buttling, Amelia Earhart, Stethorus Punctum,
Walking the Duck, Sam's Room, Under Dali's Wing, accordion solo, Impossible John,
Military Road, Hobart Got Burned.
After ProgDay ends, I usually stick around Storybook Farm on Sunday evening until it gets too dark to see. But for some reason this year I just wasn't into it. I helped clean up a little - folded up some tables and stacked them - and then I headed for the car. It seemed odd driving back to the hotel in daylight. On the way back I saw a Barnes and Noble and remembered that I had promised my daughter I would look for a book she wanted. I walked into the store just before closing time, wearing my odd looking ProgDay t-shirt and shorts, all sweaty from sitting in the sun all day, hair all screwed up from wearing a baseball cap to keep the sun out of my eyes, and probably smelling like beer. I had to go to the help desk because I wasn't sure where to find the book, and the woman there looked at me like I had bugs crawling out of my ears. It suddenly occurred to me what I must have looked like. Oh well, I found the book and my daughter was thrilled with it when I got home and presented it in the Scale The Summit tote bag, so it was worth the effort.
Sunday evening I went to the Japanese restaurant next to the hotel with a bunch of ProgDay regulars. The food was pretty good, but way overpriced. Once everyone was done eating, we went back for the Sunday night pool party. It was very similar to the Saturday night gathering, although people seemed to be drinking a bit harder (can't take the beer home on the airplane) and when Paul Sears took his annual plunge into the pool, a couple other people went with him.
Around midnight these three kids who looked to be in their early 20s showed up and crashed the party. One of them was wearing a vintage Pink Floyd t-shirt, so he kind of fit in. It turns out they were hitch-hiking their way across the country. Several people told them that was a bad idea, but it didn't change their minds. The female member of their group was chugging coffee out of a gallon jug and was absolutely wired. I played a game of tabletop hockey against her, and it probably would have gone on all night if I hadn't "accidentally" left my goal open so she could score. One of the guys (I can't remember if it was Pink Floyd t-shirt or the other guy) had an acoustic guitar with him and played some songs for us - I didn't recognize any of them, but it was cool.
By 2am most people with any sense had gone to bed, and it came down to the usual
suspects - me, a guy named Phil and a guy named Rich who's kind of ProgDay's
unofficial guitar tech. There was also a friend of Rich's whose name I sadly can't
remember who hung out with us. The four of us stayed up until 4am drinking and
telling stories of ProgDays past. At some point I broke out my cigars and Phil
and I smoked a couple. Around 4:15 Rich's friend looked into the cooler and
discovered that the last beer had been drunk. That finally broke the party up.
I discovered that smoking a cigar at 4am does not make it any easier to get to sleep, so I was awake until around 5:30. I finally got to sleep, but my room mate wanted to get an early jump on the drive home and got up at 7:30. So after two hours of sleep I stumbled into the shower and then grabbed a muffin from the breakfast area, and was on the road home by 8am. I honestly didn't think I would make it, but if I could just get up to the Blue Ridge Parkway my plan was to pull over at one of the overlooks and take a nap. It turned out I caught a second wind or something, because I got all the way to northern Virginia before I really hit the wall and thought I was going to fall asleep at the wheel. Fortunately I reached a rest stop where some Boy Scouts were serving coffee for a $1 donation, and that helped keep me awake. I stopped every 30 miles and splashed ice water on my face, and I managed to make it home in one piece around five o'clock. I think that's the earliest I've ever gotten home from ProgDay - the sun was still up. It kind of disoriented me.
I only bought 7 CDs this year, which is probably an all-time low. I picked up Mahogany Frog's three most recent studio CDs, which are all good with "DO5" approaching classic status. I bought the Hologramatron CD, which has decent music but the lyrics are so left-wing that even a died-in-the-wool liberal like me is a little embarrassed to listen to them. The Jack Dupon CD loses a little something from their live show, but is still a decent listen. Scale the Summit's "Monument" is good if you like ultra-heavy, technical, shredding sort of prog, but it's hard to listen to the whole thing in one shot. The last thing I bought was a CD/DVD combo pack of Cabeza De Cera's recent NEARFest performance. It's a very nicely done package (as usual for the band), the video footage answers a lot of questions about how they generate the various sounds in their music, and the performance is jaw-droppingly good.
Well, that's it for another year. See you next year for ProgDay 2011 (hopefully).