Last year it seemed like the weather was on the edge of rain all weekend, although none ever fell. This year, for my 20th ProgDay attendance in a row (having missed only the first two in 1995 and 1996), it seemed certain that at least part of the weekend would have to be held indoors. As late as Friday morning, tropical storm Hermine (recently downgraded from a hurricane) was headed up the east coast and seemed to be making a beeline for Chapel Hill. But fortunately it went out to sea, and we actually had beautiful weather - cloudy, cool and breezy on Saturday, blue skies, sunny and warm on Sunday. Other than a brief shower on Saturday afternoon, the weather cooperated wonderfully with ProgDay this year.
The drive down from PA went remarkably smoothly, until the last hour or so. I just bought my first new car in over a decade (a Prius that got 62 mpg on the drive down!) and it has more bells and whistles than I know what to do with. Most importantly, it has a sunroof - so for the first time since ProgDay 2004, I got to drive to Chapel Hill with the tunes cranked up, the windows open and the sun shining down on me. It was beautiful, especially the section of the Blue Ridge Parkway that I drove. But just after crossing into North Carolina I hit the outer edge of Hermine, so the last part of the drive was in a rainstorm. Overall though, it was a very nice trip, and the drive home was even nicer (stayed on the Blue Ridge Parkway longer and even the usual hellish traffic on 81 north wasn't too terrible).
The other fun part of the lengthy drive is that I got to use every different audio input on my car's stereo. Listened to the local NPR station on the HD radio until I got out of range, then played Yes' entire three disc The Word Is Live set on the CD player. By the time that ended I was up on the blue ridge, so it seemed appropriate to use the bluetooth feature to listen to the sample MP3s I had downloaded from the ProgDay web site and put on my daughter's old iPod Touch. And finally I hooked my ancient iPod Video up to the USB port (for power) and auxiliary input (for audio) and listened to a couple of my audience recordings from ProgDay 2015. A great collection of music to get myself psyched up for this year's event.
Since my wife couldn't go along this year, I ended up splitting a room with another ProgDay regular. When I arrived around 5:30 he hadn't gotten there yet (found out later he was stuck in traffic), so I checked in, threw my stuff in the room and drove into town to see the preshow.
On the downside, it meant I had to skip getting a couple slices at the Italian Pizza place that I usually go to (which is fun just to hear the owner greeting everyone who comes in the door), but Cat's Cradle has also has a pizza place just a couple doors down, so I had a small pie there. It was pretty tasty.
Last time I was at Cat's Cradle was when ProgDay '99 had to be moved there because of an incoming hurricane. I thought history was going to repeat itself as it started to rain pretty hard while I walked to the front door of the Cradle. Or rather, what used to be the front door - it turns out they remodeled the place and the entrance is now in the back of the building, which meant a sprint around the block in the rain. But eventually I was inside and dry, holding a nice oatmeal stout, chatting with some ProgDay regulars and wondering where to set up my recorder. I picked out a spot to the left the soundboard, and awaited the first band of the weekend...
But listening to the recording, this was actually a pretty good set. They started off by playing a (too long) clip from the movie American Psycho where the main character gives a lecture about the virtues of latter day Genesis and Phil Collins. When they finally launched into the music, they hit the ground running with a nice big chunk of Duke. Ironically, on the drive home I was listening to this recording and realized I was driving on Duke Street at the time.
From the proggy albums, their rendition of Eleventh Earl of Mar was really good, as were Squonk and I Know What I Like. What I was waiting for though was Firth of Fifth (which the vocalist said is his favorite song of all time), but when they finally played it there were some noticeable mistakes, particularly in the the keyboards. They joked afterwords that when they had seen Steve Hackett in concert recently, even his band messed up that song. The vocalist added "And it's such an easy song...ask him" (pointing at the keyboardist).
The vocalist had a strong voice and sounded faintly similar to Phil Collins. To the band's credit, they did knock most of the pop songs out of the ballpark. During Just a Job to Do , I noticed that the sound guy was making a little gun with his hand and firing off shots during the "bang bang bang" part. He worked for the venue, but he was clearly very familiar with the music of both bands, knowing just when to add echo to the vocals, when to emphasize a particular instrument, etc.
Unlike most Floyd cover bands, Eclipse didn't rely on a laser show or movie projections or anything fancy visually. They pretty much just used colored lights and smoke to set the mood (which worked really well) and fell back on a fantastic set list and near-perfect reproductions of the music. When I played the recording for my wife, she complained that their vocal harmonies were off, but other than that they do a spot-on Floyd imitation.
As far as their song choices - they had me at Echoes. Most of the crowd didn't even realize they had started playing for the first couple minutes of it, but as soon as I heard the keyboards emit that first "ping!", I knew I was gonna like these guys. Opening with Echoes - that takes balls. Sadly, they only played it up to around the point where Floyd themselves broke it off in the Live at Pompii video, but I loved the ten minutes that they did play. How could they follow that up and further endear themselves to me? How about following with the entire Animals album, minus the short bookend Pigs on the Wing tracks. Wow.
During Sheep, a guy who saw I was recording decided to come up and have a converstion with me (does no one have any common sense any more?), and the first thing he asked was "Am I supposed to be hearing sheep?" Made me flash back to a WKRP episode where Mr. Carlson asked the DJs the same question. Anyway it turned out the guy was only there to see the Genesis band and wasn't very familiar with Floyd.
After the Animals material, they finally played a track from Dark Side of the Moon, and a segment of the crowd who had been waiting for something familiar must have thought "Finally, they're getting to the good stuff". There was a general surge towards the stage. A surge which was quickly reversed when the next tune turned out to be a very psychedelic Set the Controls, complete with a wicked improv middle section. At the end of the song, I heard a guy up front request Several Species of Small Furry Animals...
After that, they did play stuff that most casual fans know, including the first half of the Shine On suite. As the end of their set approached, the bassist (who looked kind of like a young David Gilmour) said something like "Well, I guess you all know what we're going to play now..." and they launched into Comfortably Numb. Following that, they dispensed with the pretense of leaving the stage and just played their planned encore, Money.
All in all a fantastic set. I love me some Floyd, so I've seen a bunch of tribute bands over the years and despite the lack of "flash", these guys were one of the best I've seen. I'd love to see them again. The whole preshow was a good time and a great way to kick off ProgDay weekend.
I was pretty worn out from the drive and from standing around for several hours at the preshow, so I said my hellos and goodnights and went straight to bed. I don't even think I had any beers, which probably comes as a surprise to anyone who knows me.
(Sure enough - Michael Bennett pointed out that I forgot Stan Whittaker who played with Happy the Man, Oblivion Sun and Tenn Jinn. Progholio over on the Progessive Ears site helped me remember that frequent ProgDay drum tech Paul Sears has played with his own band The Muffins, filled in as a last-minute replacement for the sadly deceased drummer from Clearlight and played in an "all star jam" at ProgDay '05 which also featured Mike Kenally and Glenn Phillips. I think guitarist Shawn Persinger also qualifies, as he's played with Boud Deun, French TV and as a solo act. And then there was the master of the preshow, the late and greatly missed bassist Brian Preston who played both the main stage and multiple preshows with his band Smokin' Granny, plus one preshow with the band Freehand and a couple with the trio George Preston Herrett. Anyway, enough trivia, back to Luz de Riada...)
Luz de Riada's music is hard to describe. Mostly instrumental (I think they had one or two songs with vocals), mostly jazzy but with a rock element, mostly melodic but with some angular, avant edges to it. Lots of unexpected twists and decorations from Luna with his wind synth sounding like everything from a tabla to a harp.
This was one of the bands I was most looking forward to, because I had bought their first two albums at Pascal Gutman's merchandise table last year. I was really expecting to love them, and they were very good...but I just wasn't "feeling it" for some reason. Maybe I was expecting too much, but while I enjoyed the set, I wasn't blown away like I had been by Cabeza de cera and I'm not sure I even enjoyed this set quite as much as I did the Pascal Gutman trio last year.
The band's new album completes a conceptual trilogy, and the packaging of all three CDs can be folded out and combined to make one big long piece of art, which Nasser helped Luna hold up and show the audience. Nasser was an engaging front man - early in the set he saw some people eating breakfast in the front row and quipped "Well, they're out in the field but they didn't have to fight for their meal". Later, Luna announced that the next song was a love song and said we should all "hook" the person next to us, and after conferring in Spanish, Nasser announced "Oh, he means hug the person next to you. Don't hook. Well, you can hook later if you want, but that's your business".
The band line-up fluctuates, but at this show he had the drummer and bassist who appeared on the self-titled Jonathan Scales Fourchestra album. You may be wondering why this trio goes under the name "Fourchestra" - on the DVD I bought at their merch table, Scales says the story "isn't very interesting". They used to be a quartet, and just kept the name when they switched to being a trio.
The steel drums definitely brought a new element to ProgDay. I enjoyed the set, but agree with some comments I heard from others that an hour and a half of steel drums is a bit much. That's why I like the band's self-titled CD - it features a bunch of guest musicians on sax, guitar, etc, which helps mix things up.
A highlight of the set was when Scales stepped up to a microphone to try to get the crowd to count the song they were playing. "You just count to seven seven times, then count to six twice as fast." He demonstrated a couple times, but the audience's attempt to replicate it was a bit of a shambles.
I wish I could do a better job with the set list, but despite buying the DVD, the self-titled CD and the Mixtape Symphony CD, I can't figure out what those first four songs are. They might be from Scales' earlier solo albums (which weren't available at the merch table) or they might be new pieces. Or maybe they're just arranged so differently that I can't figure them out.
A lot of people loved them and rushed to buy their CDs. Personally, the heavy element wasn't quite what I was hoping for. I enjoyed the set, but not enough to buy any CDs. I noticed that the folks I know who did buy them are the ones I've often heard talking passionately about Black Sabbath and other hard rock bands that have never really interested me.
On the plus side, the music included a lot of vintage keyboard sounds, and the band were very energetic and very good at what they did. The vocals could use a little work, but that wasn't a big deal as a lot of the music was instrumental anyway. Musically they were very solid and professional. Another good band that, for one reason or another, didn't really click with me but I can see why others liked them.
Eye got probably the oddest introduction of the weekend. Jay Taylor came out with a little plastic megaphone that warped his voice into that of a computerized alien on helium and said "Everyone prepare yourselves..."
As mentioned, I don't have any of their albums, so I hard a hard time trying to figure out the set list. I think some of it may be new material for an upcoming album. If anyone can fill in any of the missing titles, let me know (email: my last name, Eichler, the digit 2 after the name with no space, at comcast and their dot is net not com. Sorry if that's too confusing to figure out, but I already get way too much spam).
Maybe it was just due to being tired out after a long day of music, but at the time I thought the set was a little underwhelming. The next morning while setting up my lawn chairs before most of the crowd arrived, I overheard some guys talking about Deus Ex Machina, and one of them expressed the opinion that he thought they coasted on their reputation a bit and almost phoned in their performance. I was relieved to hear that it wasn't just me.
Once again, this is why I'm glad I have audience recordings. Listening to the performance, I can't imagine why I thought it was anything less than spectacular. Musically they was on fire, with violin, guitar and keyboard solos fleshing out some intricately avant-yet-accessible music. But what really sets the band apart is Alberto Piras' vocals. That guy can belt out crystal clear, perfectly on pitch vocal lines with vibrato to die for like few other vocalists I've ever heard. It's all in Italian (and/or Latin) so I don't understand a word of it, but it sounds fantastic.
I knew Piras had a bit of a reputation as a mad man, so maybe I was expecting more fireworks. They're older now though, so it's not surprising that they toned it down a bit. But Alberto still managed to find time to slow dance with stage manager Geoff Logsdon during one song and, late in the set, even hoist the guitarist up on his shoulders and carry him around the stage during a solo.
So yeah, in retrospect it was a pretty fantastic set. I just wish I'd managed to enjoy it more while it was actually going on. Being more familiar with the music beforehand probably would have helped - they mostly played material from their new album Devoto (which I picked up at their merch table), although they did throw a few older tracks in for the long-time fans.
Anyway, after having dinner and watching some college football at the Grill, I headed back to the hotel. I think there was a gathering out by the pool Saturday night, but I must not have hung around long because I don't remember any of it. This year one of my goals was to try to get at least some sleep so I wasn't a complete zombie for the drive home on Monday.
Oddly, because of a heavy dew the field was much damper Sunday morning than it was Saturday after a hurricane blew through. But the clouds soon burned off and the dew evaporated and the weather on Sunday was even nicer than Saturday - a little warmer and much sunnier. In fact the sun became a bit of a nuisance as the day wore on, but it wasn't the burning devil-ball of fire it sometimes is at ProgDay. Overall things were comfortable out at the farm this weekend.
The whole band was energetic, headbanging and running around the stage, but the bassist/vocalist could barely contain himself. At one point he ran to the side of the stage and did a pull-up on the I beam holding up the roof, then ran back and continued singing. Occasionally he'd shout out things like "Wake up ProgDay!!!" They did play one slower piece called "Birdsong", but it was a just a brief lull in the storm.
For me, the guy to watch was the drummer. He reminded me of Animal from the Muppet show, both in the way that he attacked the kit and in the fact that his hair was constantly falling over his face while he made the wildest assortment of crazy "rock and roll faces" I've ever seen. That guy was INTO it. And he actually pounded on things so hard that he broke a cymbal. I didn't even know that was possible.
So while this isn't exactly my favorite style of music and I wasn't moved to buy a CD, in live performance this band was very entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the Mars Volta cover that they ended the set with, although it left me wracking my brain to try to figure out where I had heard that song before (turns out I have it on CD).
Anyway I think these guys are from the Philadelphia area, so if you live around there and get a chance to see them play live, it's worth the trip.
I was thinking that Ad Astra was this year's fusion band, but it occurs to me that the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra could also fit that description. So I'll say that Ad Astra was this year's guitar-oriented fusion band. The drummer, keyboardist and particularly the bassist all got their share of the limelight, but Nardulli was clearly the driving force as he took guitar solo after guitar solo. In fact, I think they may have played more tracks from his self-titled solo album than they did from the Ad Astra CD.
The band was very, very good. Polished, smooth, melodic, and tasteful, with a confident stage presence and easy banter with the crowd. All in all, very professional. For the first half hour or so of their set, I was really digging it. But then I started thinking "didn't they already play this song?" and it occurred to me that it all sounded largely the same. The same guitar tone, the same twinkly keyboard sound, similar rhythms, song after song.
After about 45 minutes they stopped to fix a buzz in an amplifier and Nardulli said it was "halftime" because they were exactly half way through their set list, and I took that as my cue to go out to my car and get some snacks and drinks. I listened to the rest of the set in the shade of the pavilion while refueling.
So...excellent band if taken in small doses, but they really need to figure out a way to add some diversity to their set. Find some other keyboard sounds. Bring in another instrument to occasionally take a solo. Throw in a cover song. Something.
If you're into neoprog, you might like them. If you like bombastic music you'd like them. If you're into really over-the-top, melodramatic lyrics and vocals, you'd probably love them. If you like pure angst set to music, these are your boys. All those things are non-starters for me, so...there you go.
To be fair though, probably around 90% of the attendees at this year's festival sat enraptured as Matthew Parmenter, in his white face paint, belted out the lyrics over the dramatic (but, to my ears, not particularly proggy) music. After what seemed like every other song, the crowd leaped to its feet in applause. So while they're not my thing at all, I'm clearly in the minority.
A couple people told me that they thought Discipline was similar to Van Der Graaf Generator, which totally makes sense to me - I've never been much of a fan of that band either. I'm just hoping this isn't the start of another five year run of having Discipline play every year like they did from 1995 to 1999. Oh well, I guess I can always go take another cigar break.
I'll be honest, by about the midpoint of their set, I still wasn't sold on them. The song "Leak Water" had kind of caught my ear, but I wasn't sure what to make of the rest of it. Then "Battle Creek" literally raised goosebumps on my arms. During the quiet ending of that song, you probably could have heard a pin drop at Storybook (which is extra impressive on a grass field) - the audience seemed spellbound. A little later, the slowly building ending of "The Things You Love" had a similar effect. Then the band (to steal a phrase from Mike Keneally) ripped our heads off with "Being Human" and the encore of "Way Too Long". By the time Jay took to the microphone to say "That is the end of ProgDay this year...nothing more will be said", I was a total Bent Knee fanboy.
The band is an interesting mix of powerful vocals, guitar, violin, drums, sounds generated via laptop and a bassist who looks just slightly taller than her instrument. They have mastered the use of dynamics, with the volume varying from so soft and quiet that you can barely hear it to loud and forceful, usually within the same song. The lyrics seem very mature for such a young band, and they can play everything from the most angular melodies to catchy stuff that I could see going over on whatever passes for pop radio these days.
If I had one criticism of the band, it'd be that there's too much focus on lyrics. When you've got a vocalist like Courtney Swain in the band, I can see why you'd want a lot of singing, but personally I think they'd benefit from working a few more extended instrumental bits into their songs.
When the set ended, I loaded my stuff back in my car then went to buy the band's CD and was shocked to find a line leading to their table and at least a 15 minute wait. That almost never happens, especially at the end of the weekend when everyone just wants to pack up and get back to the hotel before it gets dark. But it seemed everyone wanted to meet the band, shake hands, take selfies, buy a CD and get it autographed.
The reason there are so many missing titles in the set list isn't because I don't have any of the band's albums (I bought all three CDs they were selling). It's because a lot of the material they were playing was new and hasn't been released yet. Hopefully when their next album comes out, I'll remember to come back here and update this page.
There was a plan for a bunch of us to meet at a Mexican restaurant for dinner, but some of the participants couldn't go right away because they had volunteered to help clean up Storybook farm and pack things up before it got dark out. So I went back to the hotel to take a shower and use a friendly, non-port-o-potty bathroom, with the understanding that they'd text me when they were on their way to the restaurant. About 45 minutes later I get the text "Where are you? We're already eating dinner." D'oh. So I quickly drove there and scarfed down dinner while everyone else had desert and margaritas.
The Sunday night pool party was the usual fun bash, with some people drinking a bit too much and others drinking a lot too much. Members of some of the bands came out - Matthew Parmenter was the life of the party for quite a while. I had a lengthy conversation with a guy who, it turns out, lives just a few miles from me. I swam in the pool for a while but no one else got in, so I decided to go dry off and change back into regular clothes, and of course when I came back out the pool was full of people. Oh well.
I hung out until around 4am, by which point I was getting low on beer and dreading the fact that my roommate told me he had the alarm set for 6am because he wanted to get an early start on the drive home. As it turned out, I slept through his departure and woke up closer to 8am. He had already paid for half the room, so I paid off my half, considered trying to go back to sleep and finally decided to just hit the road.
The drive home was pretty uneventful, except that on the back roads through North Carolina and Virginia, I had deer run out in front of my car not once, but twice. Fortunately I saw them in time to stop without incident both times. Then later, going 70 mph on a very busy interstate 81 through northern Virgina, I saw a whole group of deer grazing right along the side of the highway, like it was no big deal.
For most of the drive, I listened to some of my audience recordings, but at a rest stop in Virginia I decided to put Bent Knee's new CD Say So in the player, and it stayed in there for over three hours until I got home. What a great album. I probably listened to "Hands Up" at least a half dozen times. The way that song goes from its sparse, almost morose beginning into a super peppy, super catchy pop song in the middle is just amazing.
Other CD purchases of the weekend that I'm really enjoying are Deus Ex Machina's Devoto and the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra's self-titled album. And, of course, I'm digging the other Bent Knee discs I bought, particularly Shiny Eyed Babies.
If you're planning on going to ProgDay next year (and you absolutely, totally should, especially since it's already been announced that there will be one - circle Labor Day weekend 2017 on your calender right now and start making plans to be there), for the love of all that's proggy, BE QUIET WHILE THE BANDS ARE PLAYING.
I don't know why some people think it's totally fine to have a lengthy, LOUD conversation while the people around you are trying to listen to the band. If you want to make a quick comment or two, OK. But if you're CONTINUOUSLY SHOUTING to be heard above the band, odds are you shouldn't be talking in the first place. Please, show some common sense and courtesy. Hold your conversation until after the band is done. There's plenty of time between bands to talk. If it can't wait, then take it out behind the tents or off to the side or over to the pavilion. You wouldn't just start chattering away if you were sitting in the tenth row of an indoor theater, so why do you think it's just fine to do so at an outdoor show?
I mention it because it seems to get worse every year, and this year a couple band's performances were flat-out ruined for me because I was getting so ticked off at chatty people around me. I had a little pin on my hat that I had bought at another festival that says "Shhh...the band's playing", but I guess the words were too small for people to see.
OK, rant over. Just keep in mind, if you're the chatty type, that when you go to ANY concert, no one paid to hear you talk, they're trying to hear the band. Be considerate and zip it until the show's over.
And now, to counter the negativity above, here's a phto of an elephant statue that I think was new to Storybook this year: