From Aural Innovations #13 (October 2000)
Having missed ProgDay '99 broke my perfect attendance record so I was happy to return to Storybook Farm for my fifth ProgDay festival. This year's lineup included fewer bands that I was familiar with but it never matters at these festivals. It's pretty much guaranteed what you don't know will result in wonderful new discoveries. Deb and I decided to have a vendor table this year on the off-chance that the proggies might be interested in checking out some spacerock, and while many were clearly suspicious of the music I was hawking, I sold a lot more than I thought I would. I always make sure I bring a Walkman so that the curious can sample whatever they like and several ended up taking the plunge.
On Friday night there was a pre-festival show at the Local 506 in town. We got down there early to get a good parking space and were rewarded with a spot directly across the street from the club. We were both quite hungry and stopped in at an Indian restaurant next to the club. After plates of curry, Nan bread, and Indian beer, we headed over to the Local 506 and plopped down at the bar.
Three bands were scheduled. The first... I think they were called Matter Eater... I can't remember exactly, but the band included former members of the excellent Canterbury-influenced band Volaré. Volaré really were a phenomenal band but I can't say these guys did much for me at all. I wasn't taking notes at the club so there's little I can say and, in fact, I can't remember anything at this point about them, which should speak for itself.
The next band, on the other hand, blew me away completely. Polydactyl is a new band formed after the recent breakup of Ozone Quartet. They include ex-Ozoners Wayne Leechford on Stick and Francis Dyer on drums, plus guitarist Jeremy Shaw and keyboardist Jim Crew. This was the band's first live performance and they played tight as knots and were right on the instrumental mark. Opening with Frank Zappa's "King Kong" set the tone for the evening. Jeremy Shaw is a killer guitarist in the John McLaughlin mold and, in fact, the band later did a Mahavishnu cover, though I can't remember which song it was. Suffice it to say this is an instrumental quartet to be on the watch for. Their web site is at http://www.polydactylweb.com and there are some mp3's there you can download to check them out, including "King Kong"!
The third band was one of my all-time ProgDay favorite discoveries Smokin' Granny. But... we were SO tired from traveling we just couldn't stay any longer. (Sorry Brian!) I did, however, get to finally meet bass player Brian Preston whom I had corresponded with in the past by email. CLICK HERE to read my review of their CD Sirius Matter.
Saturday morning we arrived early at Storybook Farm to get the Aural Innovations table set up. Holding ProgDay a month later than it's usual Labor Day weekend slot made a difference in the weather as jeans took the place of shorts and we started the day with sweaters too. But after having dodged hurricanes by mere days in the past, ProgDay '99 was hit and had to be moved indoors so festival host Peter Renfro decided that rather than test fate anymore he would schedule the fest a month later to avoid the hurricane season.
The first band of the day was Yoke Shire. I had never heard Yoke Shire before and they really took me by surprise. Much of the music had a real late 60's rockin' at the Fillmore jamming feel. I loved it. The song they opened with even had elements of funk. The second song was a heavy crunchy blues-rockin' tune with slight psychedelic influences and a bit of Tull-inspired flute. One song had some cool blues harmonica but then went into a more melodic proggy passage with keyboards and slow chord picking guitar. Craig Herlihy is a really good guitarist and at one point cranked out a Hendrix-like fuzzed out feedback solo. Overall, I wished they would have featured the flute and especially the organ more, but there are only three of them which I'm sure makes it a bit hard during live performance. On their CD they fully utilize loads of instrumentation making for a much fuller sound than heard live. The CD has some great music on it but I thought the ballsy live Yoke Shire was pretty hot too and would probably go over well with the Strange Daze festival crowd. I heard some of the ProgDay crowd complaining after their set that they were just a heavy rock band, but I'd advise those folks to check out this band's CD. You'll be surprised. But I know Aural Innovations readers would really dig this band live. For more information you can visit Yoke Shire at their web site.
Next up was Kopecky, a trio of brothers from Wisconsin who I was already familiar with. Standard classification would say Kopecky is a prog-metal band. Personally I find most prog metal a bit boring as they all have a tendency to sound the same. But Kopecky is a bit different. They get into some really complex arrangements and the music is continually shifting which keeps me focused and interested. The band opened with a crunchy metallic tune that included keyboards. But Joe Kopecky's guitar soon went from crunch to a cleaner more melodic sound as it soloed along with the keyboards. William plays bass, keyboards, and sitar, the later having given their recorded music a psychedelic edge and I was really hoping he would get down to playing it live, which of course he did. I can't imagine prog/technical metal fans not liking these guys and they would certainly appeal to anyone who appreciates a tight band of solid musicians who can blow your face out with well structured heavy tunes. You can visit Kopecky at their web site.
The third band of the day was Mary Newsletter, one of the bands I was most looking forward to. I first encountered this Italian band about three years ago when I ordered their demo CD from bass player Massimo Necchi. The band combines psychedelia with classic Italian progressive rock and other influences, making them part of, but still unique among the current crop of Italian prog bands. The band's set at ProgDay was dark and moody with great moments of intensity. There were welcome bits of wah'd guitar and they even covered Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine"! The guitar overall had a trippy rockin' sound that still incorporated the Italian prog influences and I think this is what makes Mary Newsletter special. I spoke with Massimo after their set and he said we could expect to hear more of the psychedelic influences from them in the future. Excellent! The band have a self-released CD plus two others on the Mellow label. You can visit Mary Newsletter at their web site where I think they've got some sound files.
The last band of the day was British neo-proggers Landmarq. Vocalist Tracy Hitchings is a great singer with powerful vocals, but the music overall struck me as being a bit fluffy. But after a while Tracy, who is apparently new to the band, left while the rest did some instrumentals and at this point the music got much more interesting. It was still on the neo side but they played some good crunchy rockers with nice guitar work rather than the whole thing being keyboard drenched. The crowd really seemed to like them. You can visit Landmarq at their web site.
So ended day one at Storybook Farm. But the music wasn't over yet. Matthew Parmenter of Discipline and Salem Hill were still scheduled to play sets at the Cats Cradle in town that evening. Deb and I went back to our hotel for a little rest and then headed into town for some dinner before heading over to the Cats Cradle. During the day Peter Renfro had announced that due to forecasts of very cold weather for Sunday that he was moving the festival indoors to the Cats Cradle the next day. Well we entered the Cats Cradle and I really bummed out because while this was fine for a few hours in the evening, the Cats Cradle is no place to hold a day-long festival. It's small, dark, and dingy. The chairs were really uncomfortable and I would definitely not have lasted a whole day sitting in them. Also, several families come to ProgDay and their kids get to cut loose running around Storybook Farm which would have been very difficult here. But apparently enough people complained to Peter about holding it indoors that he announced that evening that we would, after all, brave the cold and hold ProgDay at Storybook Farm on Sunday. What a relief!
Discipline has long been something of a house band at ProgDay, but this year Matthew Parmenter played a solo set which turned out to be really enjoyable for me. Discipline is a phenomenally intense band, and Parmenter proved to be no less so just playing piano and guitar and singing his songs. Discipline favorites like "America" and "Before The Storm" came across beautifully as solo interpretations. Parmenter is very much like Peter Hammill in that he's a passionate singer with a unique voice that is dark and sinister, and he was well worth the trip out that evening. For more information on Matthew and Discipline you can visit their web site.
The main act of the evening was Salem Hill, who had played ProgDay previously. They were a tight trio but many of the songs were a bit mainstream for my tastes. The band is a guitar, bass, keyboards, drums quartet and all members contribute to the vocals making for some impressive harmonies. The crowed seemed to know most of the songs and really liked them. You can visit Salem Hill at their web site.
I think we heard most of Salem Hill's set, but fatigue started to set in and we left before it was over to get to some sleep. Rising early on Sunday we had some breakfast and headed out to Storybook Farm to set up our table. Talk about surreal. ProgDay and sweltering heat typically go hand in hand. So it was weird as hell to hit Storybook Farm Sunday morning and experiencing real COLD! As we drove in I spotted three fellows that turned out to be members of Discus jogging across the meadow rubbing their hands together. Having come from Indonesia I'll bet they never imagined having to perform in this weather. And being the first band of the day I was concerned that they would have come all this way only to be greeted by a small crowd, but right at 11am people started flooding in covered with blankets and jackets. True diehards! And as things turned out, setup delays resulted in Discus not getting started until noon anyway. Everyone layered up in warm clothes and I'm certain there was a consensus that it was well worth dealing with the weather to be outside rather than at the Cat's Cradle. I remember at one point Deb had a lit candle under her shirt to help keep warm!
I had never heard Discus before but they turned out to be yet another big weekend surprise for myself and the entire ProgDay crowd. There must be about ten band members and they opened with an extended intro of flutes, spacey synths, gongs and bells, soon joined by violin and guitar that quickly launched into a fusion jam. The sound was like fiery Mahavishnu Orchestra with Iwan Hasan's smokin' guitar, that despite the Mahavishnu analogy, had more of a Holdsworth sound once he cranked it up.
After this fairly mindblowing intro Discus left the crowd a bit in dismay as they brought out vocalist Nonnie for a very lounge jazzy mainstream tune. We're talkin' Sade... I didn't get it. But Discus proved to be full of variety as the next song was a trippy, New Agey violin solo from Eko Partitur who I think was playing along with loops of himself. The next song started with chanting and dreamy flutes and violins, and after a bit they blasted off into another rousing fusion jam which eventually developed into a total old-time Mahavishnu Orchestra freakout. I was lovin' it!
Other highlights included a jam of vibes, percussion, and Indonesian traditional percussion. The most prog rock oriented tune of Discus' set was a heavy smoker with killer guitar, intricate rhythms that abruptly shifted to quiet flute passages, and dark classical segments. Overall, I was really impressed with Discus and people were lining up afterwards to buy their CD. I picked up a copy and it's very representative of what they played in concert. You can visit Discus at their web site.
The next band was Tiles. Throughout their set I thought to myself that they sounded like any number of Magna Carta label bands (e.g., Shadow Gallery, Cairo), and then found out that they are indeed on Magna Carta. The vocalist sounds very much like the Dream Theater singer, though despite my feeling that this was totally formulaic standard prog metal, I have to say the band were excellent musicians and a tight combo. Some of the best parts reminded me of Rush. A good performance but there's little else I can say about them. You can visit Tiles at their web site.
Next up were the weekend's second Italian representatives. As Peter Renfro said, you can't have too many Italians at a progressive rock festival! Malibran are an Italian band who played really nice melodic tunes in the classic Italian prog mold, but didn't grab me like the other current bands like Mary Newsletter, Finisterre, Deux Ex Machina, and Nuevo Era. Still, there was some gorgeous guitar, flute, and piano, and I enjoyed the singer's gruff voice that fit the music so well. One song that did arouse my interest included an extended sax solo that jammed perfectly with the rest of the band. The crowd really seemed to like Malibran and I wish I picked up one of their CD's in the event that maybe they just didn't come off well in live performance. You can check them at out their web site.
ProgDay's final band of the weekend was another big crowd pleaser. Describing Höyry-kone is no easy task They play whimsical avant-rock that has ska influences, but can rock out hard as well. With a lineup of guitar, bass, trombone, cello, flute, and a wild eyed singer dressed for a cocktail lounge performance, Höyry-kone are an ensemble of crack musicians that can be as intense as they can be fun. The horn player alternated between trombone and flute and one memorable tune saw him moving between both instruments along with some fantastic fiery guitar licks. Another song I really liked featured prominent cello for an even more avant-rock sound. The cello, trombone, and guitar were dueling against one another at a frantic pace. The guitar was kicking out crunchy notes while the trombone returned to the ska-like rhythms. They even did a cover of an Iron Maiden song, which I (nor any Iron Maiden fan I'm sure) would have never recognized. These guys were a riot and I could see they were pleased at the audience's enthusiasm. You can visit Höyry-kone at their web site.
And so ended another ProgDay. And sadly... this really was the end. Peter Renfro announced that he just couldn't suffer the financial strain of hosting the festival any longer. After having at least broken even the past few years, approximately 80 fewer people attended ProgDay this year, thereby putting him a few thousand dollars in the hole. Ah well, I never would have guessed Peter would have made it as far as he did. To his credit, Peter has always included bands representing the most extreme diversities of progressive rock. And to me, diversity is what it's all about. I'll miss our annual trips out to Storybook Farm.