Similar to the last couple ProgDays, storms seemed poised to threaten this year's festival. As it turned out, they made the driving miserable, but didn't affect ProgDay itself (at least not much).
The first half of the drive down from Pennsylvania went well. This year my wife Michele came along so I had someone to act as navigator and pick out music to listen to. Leaving PA, the weather was beautiful - blue skies and temperatures in the 70s. Once we got into Virginia the skies started clouding up, and then about a dozen miles or so before we usually exit the highway and get on the Blue Ridge Parkway we got stuck in a ten mile backup due to an accident. After sitting in that for a while we decided to re-route onto a back road...only to get stuck in another traffic jam due to another accident. We finally gave up and just stopped for lunch, and by the time we got back on the road traffic had cleared up.
The Blue Ridge Parkway part of the drive was a little surreal - due to the approaching storm, we spent most of the drive going through dark clouds that reduced visibility to just a few feet. Not the best way to drive on twisty mountain roads with a sheer plunge on one side. But at least we were more comfortable than the two couples we met at a rest stop. They had decided to start the holiday weekend with a motorcycle ride down the parkway. They were all soaked from the moisture in the air and the one woman literally couldn't stop shivering. When they found out that I was relatively familiar with the area all they wanted to know was where was the nearest place they could find gas, and where was the nearest hotel. I directed them to a gas station in Big Island a couple miles off the parkway, and my wife suggested the Peaks of Otter lodge another 20 miles or so down the parkway.
Once we got into southern Virginia, the storm let loose (I hope those motorcyclists had found shelter by then) and traffic was slowed to a crawl by near-whiteout conditions. But a little ways into North Carolina things started clearing up, and by the time we got to the hotel the rain had stopped.
After checking in and getting some dinner, I went down to the hotel lobby and hung out with some festival regulars. ProgDay head of state Michael Bennett was there, and he informed everyone that the weather forecast for Saturday looked good enough that he'd already made the decision that ProgDay would be held at Storybook Farm, despite the Friday evening storms. He didn't want anyone to give him any updated weather forecasts because the decision had already been made and it was too late to change now. It turned out to be a good decision - other than some fog and mist on Saturday morning, the weather was kind to ProgDay this year. The overcast conditions for the first half of Saturday were actually nice as they kept the usually blistering North Carolina sun off the crowd. And when the sun did come out for the latter part of Saturday and all of Sunday, the temperatures at least remained in the fairly comfortable range.
We arrived out at Storybook Farm a little after 9am, and I was very surprised to find that a lot of people had gotten there ahead of us. Normally my car is one of the first ones in the patron lot. Oh well, there's plenty of room at the farm, so no big deal.
After setting up my chairs and recording gear about 10 feet or so in front of the soundboard, I went to help set our tent up for Michele at the back of the field. She likes listening to the bands, but isn't really interested in watching them - she spent most of the weekend reading and drawing with colored pencils. A ProgDay regular named Howie helped set up the tent, and my wife reported that the crowd at the back of the field were quite social. I spent most of the weekend sitting up front watching the bands, so I missed the party in the back.
The band's bassist, Luis Nasser, had played ProgDay last year with the band Luz de Riada, but this was the first appearance for the rest of the band. Nasser did all the stage announcements, many of which were humorous but may have gone over the line when he said he was thankful for the cloudy skies because he was afraid the weather was going to to be hot enough to make a certain part of his anatomy stick to his leg all day.
Musically the band was a good choice for opening the festival. They play a fairly straightforward symphonic prog, bordering on neoprog. It wasn't the tightest performance that ProgDay has ever seen, but fans of the style seemed to receive the band with great approval. There were a lot of vocals, and I thought the sound guy had the vocalist a little too loud in the mix, but there were also long instrumental sections to mix things up. And when he wasn't singing, the vocalist served as an extra percussionist.
A highlight of the performance was the flute playing. Maybe it's because my daughter played flute in her high school's band for four years, but I thought the flute really added a lot to the music.
Not a lot else I can say about Sonus Umbra - a solid choice for opener, even if they weren't one of my personal favorites of the weekend. I wish I could have done a better job with their set list, but I'm not that familiar with the band and couldn't afford to buy CDs this year just for the sake of working out set lists.
The compositions were tricky and twisty but still somehow fairly catchy. They used so many odd time signatures that the encore was introduced with "we'll give a break and play something in four", which drew good-natured booing from the audience. The rhythm section was tight and more than up to the task of pulling off the shifting times. The guitarist was fantastic, playing some really angular, intricate stuff and making it sound effortless. The whole band was just amazing.
But the big draw was Chrissie Loftus who bounced and swayed and seemed almost transported by the music as she played keyboards and sang. At one point they played a new song that she had to read from sheet music, and a breeze kicked up during the song so she had to play one-handed while singing and holding the sheet music down with the other hand. Someone from the audience saved the day by jumping up and clipping the papers to the music stand with a clothespin. At the other end of the scale, a guy who was trying to take pictures right next to the stage accidentally knocked the power cable for the PA system loose, leading to a minute in the middle of the set where the audience could only hear the on-stage monitors.
But it was a great set, and my one regret from the weekend was that I didn't buy all the CDs they were selling. I picked up their latest, but decided to wait and see how much money I had left later in the weekend before buying the others, since I was working from a limited budget. Unfortunately by the time I got back to their merchandise table, they had already packed up and left. Oh well, they're playing another music festival much closer to home later this month, so I'll have to go pick up the other CDs there.
So instead of Lindh, another ProgDay alumni band Bubblemath hit the stage next. Bubblemath had played at ProgDay 2003, fourteen years ago, and at the time they premiered a lot of new material that was going to be on the new album they were working on. Well, one delay led to another and now here we are in 2017 and that album was just finally released. So it made sense to invite them back to ProgDay to once again play the music they debuted fourteen years ago.
Bubblemath were, perhaps, the most "technical" band of the weekend, playing fast, dense, frantic music full of tricky twists and turns and lots of vocal harmonies. For some reason, I have a hard time getting into this band. Which is weird, because what they played wasn't that different from what iNFiNiEN played, and I loved that band. Someone at the Sunday night pool party suggested that it's because Bubblemath has no "space" in their music, it's mostly full-tilt all the time, with both music and lyrics showing off the band's cleverness. While iNFiNiEN's set was fun, listening to Bubblemath almost felt like work to me.
A lot of people loved them, but after 15-20 minutes my ears were worn out so I went over to the treeline to the right of the stage and had a cigar and a beer while listening to the music from a distance.
For the first four pieces, it was just the four members of Sonar. Their music is all instrumental, with all the parts interlocking in a clockwork fashion, sounding a bit like 1980s King Crimson. It was impressive stuff, but I found myself thinking that something was lacking - it needed some sort of lead line to provide some contrast or something. After forty minutes or so David Torn came out and added just what the music needed. His guitar squealed, howled and sounded like a UFO taking off while the rest of the band played patterns behind him. The result was music that was hypnotic.
To be honest, while I liked the band I thought most of what they played sounded pretty much the same. It would make good background music if you're doing something else, but just sitting in the field and watching them play for nearly two hours...I found my mind drifting a few times, and when they announced their last song I was ready for the set to be over. I might not be the only one, because as soon as they finished people started packing up to leave. Then one person started calling for an encore, and it built up into a small crowd yelling "One more song!" So the band did come out and play an encore, but by that time I heard a lot of people discussing where they were going to go for dinner and what their other plans for the evening were.
All in all, they were a very talented, insanely tight band. But you have to be really into repetitive, pattern-based music to really enjoy them over a lengthy set. Unfortunately the album they've recorded with Torn isn't available yet, or I would have bought a copy.
BTW, many thanks to someone who identified himself as "SonarSuperFan" for sending me the full set list, which he got by taking a picture of a printed set list laying on the stage. Previously I was only able to identify a few titles, so it was a big help.
Speaking of food, I should mention that ProgDay tried something new this year. Instead of having on-site catering, they hired a different food truck to come out to the farm each day. On Saturday it was Chirba Chirba dumplings - I didn't get anything from them, but I'm told the food was good. On Sunday it was the Merry Franksters who sold themed hot dog platters, including a vegetarian option with a carrot cut and grilled to look like a hot dog. I got a BBQ dog (I forget the exact name they gave it) which was very good.
Back at the hotel, I went out to the pool with the intention of just having a couple beers and getting to bed at a decent hour. Of course, that quickly went out the window as I partied with some ProgDay regulars and some band members. I'm pretty sure I saw the flute player from Sonus Umbra go through an entire bottle of Irish whiskey. I remember someone jumping in the pool and then climbing out after a while and saying "I thought if I jumped in, everyone would follow me". I ended up staying longer than I should have, but I think I was still in bed by 2 or 3am.
This band was yet another ProgDay alumni, having played not that long ago in 2012. I thought that set from five years ago was a pretty good batch of dark and heavy-edged symphonic prog and this year's performance was even better. They probably had the best sound of the weekend - everything was clean, well balanced and crystal clear. And as far as I could tell (not being very familiar with their music), the performances were flawless.
They only played six songs, but that's because the shortest was almost nine minutes long and the longest was over 20 minutes (the excerpt from the forty minute title track of their Harvest Aorta album).
All in all a really solid set - this is a band I probably would have freaked out over and bought every CD they were selling if I'd seen them at one of my early ProgDays, but over the years I've kind of gotten burnt out on symphonic prog. But I can appreciate it enough to say that they did a fine job with it.
They got off to a very late start because the sound crew were having difficulty finding a sustain pedal that the keyboardist needed. They went through three or four of them before finally finding something that would work. Once the band got going though, they played a shortened but tasty set of mostly instrumental, old-school space/prog rock full of guitar solos and lots of vintage keys. The vocals weren't the strongest, but the music was about 95% instrumental anyway, so no big deal. Their studio work features a female vocalist, but apparently she couldn't make it to ProgDay.
Early in the set they played a chunk of music that was over half an hour long with no breaks, and when it was finished the guitarist said "we only heard that for the first time last week". Some of it was from their latest album Orbit, but I think most of it was brand new material.
While going through my pictures from the weekend, I noticed that in nearly every one I took from backstage or the left side of the stage, the drummer from Hedersleben could be seen watching the bands. I always like seeing band members hanging out, taking in the music and enjoying the festival like the rest of the the audience.
Hedersleben put on very satisfying set that was probably tied with Shylock for my second favorite of the weekend. Really good stuff. I just wish I'd gotten to their vendor table sooner. By the time I got there, they had exactly one CD left - a copy of their debut EP from 2013. Needless to say, I bought it.
Kerzner played keys and did most of the singing. I heard a couple people comment that his voice wasn't the strongest at this particular performance, but it didn't seem too bad to me. He cleared his throat a lot between songs, so maybe he was fighting off a cold or allergies. He was backed by a fairly slick sounding band on guitar, drums and bass. For this show there was also an attractive woman playing electric cello and providing backing vocals on some songs.
At one point during his banter Kerzner was talking about distractions and made a bit of a slam on people who talk during concerts instead of paying attention to the band. I know a couple people who took that comment personally, thinking he was referring specifically to them, but I'm glad he said it. It bugs the crap out of me when people have conversations while those around them are trying to listen to the music, so it's not surprising to find out it bugs the bands too.
After the first few songs I went off and had a cigar and beer and read a book while listening from a distance. Afterwords I heard a few of the folks who had come specifically to see Kerzner's band say they enjoyed ProgDay overall so much that they're coming back next year.
All weekend long ProgDay had been selling raffle tickets to raise money for hurricane Harvey relief, and after Kerzner's set they held the drawing. First prize was a guitar signed by all the musicians who played the festival this year, and second prize was a patron pass for next year. Debi Byrd (one of the festival organizers) got a big laugh whe she shouted out that she had won the patron pass (she was just kidding).
The music had hints of King Crimson and Yes, but also a lot of originality. It sounded thoroughly composed, with raucous, hard-rocking sections contrasted against quiet, delicate bits that you almost had to strain to hear. It was mostly driven by guitar and keyboards, but the bass also demanded attention and kept things ever so slightly funky. Just really great, really proggy stuff. I had never heard a note of their music before ProgDay, but I made sure to buy the "Best of" CD they were selling and I'm tempted to seek out their older albums.
Between songs the guitarist talked with the audience. He explained why most of their songs have numbers instead of names - they just didn't know what to name them so they numbered them until their record label insisted on titles. He also explained that their first album begins with "Fourth" because the first three songs they wrote had lyrics which he sang until a fan at an early concert told him he should stop singing and just stick to guitar. From that point on they became an instrumental band.
They had a fairly lengthy sound check, during which the sound guy kept warning them about the lack of lights and how they'd have to cut off their set early if the sun went down. Fortunately they had time to play for an hour and a half and even got in an encore before dusk started to close in.
Their set went over so well that they got two solid minutes of applause after their encore. When Michael Bennett came out to thank everyone for coming and invite everyone back for ProgDay 2018, the crowd was still applauding Shylock.
While we ate dinner Michele asked me where I would rank this year's ProgDay amongst the 21 that I've attended. After giving it some thought, I said this was probably a slightly below average year. Part of that was due to the lack of a preshow or Saturday night show, and to Par Lindh's last-minute cancellation. After driving all the way down from PA, it was a bit of a letdown to only see eight bands. Shows how spoiled ProgDay has gotten me over the years.
While I generally enjoyed the eight bands that played, there were only a few that really wowed me. So...not a bad festival by any stretch, but it's probably one that will fade from memory in a few years. Oddly, while preparing for the fest I got the impression that I'd like Saturday more than Sunday, but as it turns out I thought Sunday was the stronger of the two days.
The Sunday night pool party was somewhat sparsely attended this year, and by midnight or so was down to just the usual group of die-hards. Somewhere around 4am someone checked the time and we were all stunned to find out it was already that late. But then someone came up with the idea that we should try to make it to 6am, and we all agreed that if we made it that late, we'd all call it a night then. And so we did.
Surprisingly, I was able to sleep until 10am (usually I wake up at the crack of dawn no matter how late I stay out at the Sunday night party), but by then Michele had already taken everything but my backpack and recording gear down to the car and was out of patience. So she opened the curtains and let the sun in, and told me it was time to go. My part of the trip was over, now it was time to head to Ocean City Maryland, which was her part of the vacation. I managed to get up, shower, get dressed, get checked out and pour myself into the passenger seat of the car. Fortunately she was willing to do most of the driving on Monday.
So we spent a couple days at the beach in a hotel that was about to be shut down for major renovations, which is a story that probably deserves its own web page but I'll leave that part out. On Wednesday we drove home...and once again ended up driving through white-out heavy rains. I looked at the weather screen in my car's navigation system and our route went right up the side of a heavy band of thunderstorms. And this time it was my turn to do most of the driving. But we eventually made it home in one piece, and I've spent most of the time since going through the audience recordings, photos and CDs I brought home from ProgDay.
Speaking of CDs, there's not a whole lot to report this year. Due to the college expenses I only had enough cash to buy three discs:
iNFiNiEN, Light at the Endless Tunnel - really good, and really making me regret not buying their other discs. The studio album has some orchestral instruments on a few tracks which make for very different arrangements to how the songs sounded at ProgDay. Not sure which I like better. But this is a solid CD from start to finish.
Hedersleben, Upgoer - this one made me a question whether I had made a bad purchase for the first five or so minutes of the disc, which are just eerie sounding keyboards with crows cawing over top. But then the melody kicks in and this turns into an old-school, moody but fantastic, occasionally psychedelic prog album. Another winner.
Shylock, Best Of - I was a little disappointed when I discovered that this isn't original studio recordings. I'm guessing this was one of those situations where the record company owns the physical recordings, but the band has the copyright to the music, so they re-recorded all their best stuff live in the studio, using modern equipment. I would have liked to have heard what the original recordings sounded like, but this is good stuff and sounds very similar to what they played at ProgDay.
So there we go, another ProgDay in the books (for some reason that phrase seems to be common at the Sunday night pool party every year). I'm already looking forward to ProgDay 2018.