From Aural Innovations #17 (September 2001)
At the end of ProgDay 2000, festival organizer Peter Renfro announced that due to poor attendance this would be the last ProgDay. The financial strain had been too much to justify continuing an event that people apparently weren't willing to come out and support. Shortly after the festival a group of dedicated ProgDay attendees, recognizing the importance of this festival, began plans to pool to resources in the form of money and organizing efforts to keep the festival alive. Closely following the discussions that took place on an internet list, I scoffed and thought to myself that a geographically dispersed group of fans would never be able to pull it off. The bickering would soon start and it would all fall apart.
Well I've never been happier to be wrong about something. These people not only made ProgDay happen, but the featured bands were as stylistically diverse as any I've ever seen at ProgDay before. And in this diversity lies the "importance" of ProgDay. Peter Renfro, regardless of his own musical interests, has always recognized that progressive rock CANNOT be pigeonholed. That the bands like Thinking Plague, Smokin' Granny, and The Muffins, are just as important as the more accessible bands like The Flower Kings and Landmarq. And, of course, I've seen everything stylistically in between. And... this year's ProgDay was the seventh in a row!! Who else can make this claim to longevity?
So like we do each year, me and Deb left Columbus, Ohio Thursday night after work. We drove the four hours to Charleston, West Virginia and had a relaxing evening, making the rest of the journey to Chapel Hill the following morning. We arrived early afternoon, had a tasty Mexican lunch, a few Marguerites, and headed back to our hotel for a nap to rest up for the Friday night Pre-Festival show. The pre-fest show was held at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, in the same plaza as The Cats Cradle. Smokin' Granny was organizing the show and besides them, Uncle Gut and Man On Fire were scheduled to perform.
I didn't know anything about Uncle Gut, but knowing they were on the Cuneiform label I was certain they would be good. The band is a guitar/bass/drums trio and play power rock with a complexity that gives them an exciting edge. Their sound wasn't too good, which was disappointing because the rest of the bands had great sound. Still, I was impressed and will certainly check out their recorded music. They have a web site at: http://www.unclegut.com/.
Next up was Smokin' Granny. I just can't say stress enough how good these guys are. I hadn't seen them for a couple years and they were tighter and better than ever. They've really got a recognizable sound, due in no small part to Todd Barbee's Midi wind controller, which is kind of a spacey electronic saxophone. The band can rock hard, but is also comfortable in playing a unique blend of progressive rock and jazz fusion. They played a number of old songs plus a few from their new CD, which though not out yet, was being sold on CDR at the show and buyers will get a copy of the official release when it's ready. I SCOOPED one up. I give this band my highest recommendation. Check out their web site at: http://meta4ik.home.mindspring.com/smokingranny/.
The last band of the evening was Man On Fire. Sorry, but there isn't much I can say about them. To my ears they were just a regular polished rock band with some marginal proggy leanings. Not my cup of tea at all. But you can check out their web site at: http://www.mindspring.com/~manonfire/.
Saturday morning we headed out to Storybook Farm early to get the Aural Innovations vendor table set up. The whether was nice but rain was in the skies. But though it did rain sporadically throughout the day it never once threatened the festival being moved to the dreaded Cats Cradle (shudder!!!). I think there were more vendors than ever, and all the major prog rock dealers were there. The Laser's Edge, Of Sound Mind, Symphonic, Kinesis, and New Sonic Architecture were all there, leaving little incentive for the crowd to check out the strange space rock and psychedelic music I was pushing. But no matter. The vendor tent is in perfect eyesight of the stage and just being out of the sun is worth having the table, sales or no sales.
The music was underway at a prompt 11:05, and the first band on the roster was Yeti. I was VERY excited about seeing these guys. I'd been familiar with keyboardist Doug Ferguson's work with Ohm, Vas Deferens Organization, and Muz, and had long been enjoying Yeti's one studio release on the Two Ohm Hop label. And they did NOT disappoint. Yeti opened with a searing intro of keyboards and guitar which came across and rumbling space metal or space Magma (the Magma influences are strong on their CD). They then launched into a fusiony jam with acidic guitar. They did killer renditions of "Interstellar Biplane", "Est Mort", and "Two Finger", all from their CD. Doug Ferguson's keyboards bring many memories of those thrilling days of keyboard yesteryear, giving the music an old-time prog rock sound. They also did a new song which had a dark King Crimson-ish sound. A bit like Anekdoten actually. The bass had a pounding Zheul feel, and the continually shifting meters and phrases made the whole thing a wild roller coaster ride. And the intensity level was high high high at all times. It was nice to hear a bit of thrash at a prog festival. You can visit the Yeti web site at: http://home.flash.net/~ohmmusic/yeti/.
Next up was Sigmund Snopek III, a composer and musician from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who has been playing and recording for over 30 years. His music was highly composed classical progressive rock, the kind of stuff that would make symphonic fans drool. Some of the synths had a spacey feel, and at times were gentle and New Agey. For only five musicians the band did an excellent job of sounding like a full orchestra. Much like a progressive rock-opera. One of the standouts was a mellow psychedelic song that Sigmund said he wrote back in 1967. I loved the drifting flute melody and trippy guitar bits. You can visit Sigmund's web site at: http://www.sigmundsnopek.com/.
After Sigmund Snopek was The Muffins, another one of the bands I was especially excited to see. Using guitar, saxophone, bass, drums, and keyboards, The Muffins had been popular in the Washington, DC area in the 70's to mid-80's, playing a blend of prog-fusion and Canterbury. The original quartet has recently reunited and is currently completing a new CD to be released on Cuneiform next year. Their performance at ProgDay was stellar. The music is jazz based, but there's plenty of freaky efx'd sounds from the sax and trippy wah'd guitar. The band lay done a great groove held by the bass and drums. The Canterbury elements weren't much in evidence in the new music, but overall the crowd was treated to a phenomenal set of jazz rock performed by a tight ensemble of musicians. You can visit the Muffins web site at: http://www.cuneiformrecords.com/bandshtml/muffins.html.
The Saturday headliner was The Flower Kings from Sweden, who have headlined at ProgDay in the past. The band started off with a killer fusion jam, though this seemed to be more of a warmup and not what the band is really about. Too bad. It was great. The band consists of two guitars (one being Roine Stolt), bass, drums, and Thomas Bodin on keyboards. They have a fairly standard accessible prog rock sound and Stolt's vocals are remarkably similar to John Wetton. Bodin played a wailing organ that I really liked, though he could also do the Tony Banks thing too. Actually the music started getting very similar to Genesis after a while and the crowd were loving it. There were lots of vocals but plenty of extended instrumental sections too. Excellent musicians, but far from the most adventurous stuff I've heard. You can visit The Flower Kings web site at: http://www.flower-power.org.uk/.
Sunday began with Polydactl, a band that was formed last year out of the ashes of Ozone Quartet. I'd first heard them at last year's ProgDay Friday night Pre-Fest show and was pretty well blown away by them. The band have a heavy keyboard sound, much of it sounding like a Hammond organ. Wonderful wailing organ notes gave the music a slight psychedelic element. One of the standout songs was "Days Of Yore", a slow melodic guitar-led rocker with tasteful soloing. But it soon takes off into a more fusiony sound, though not as overtly so as what I heard last year. Thought based in fusion, the music still rocked hard and the organ gave it a late 60's/early 70's sound. Kenny Thompson (from Ozone Quartet but not part of the band last year) really took off on the guitar while Wayne Leechford's Chapman Stick and the drums held down the rhythm. The organ and guitar went ballistic trading off licks and the band sometimes struck me as a fusion version of Deep Purple. Like last year, they also did a cover of Frank Zappa's "King Kong", another tune in which we were treated to a guitar/organ duel of intense proportions. An amazing set and I hope the band complete their first CD soon. In the meantime, there are sound files available at the Polydactl web site at: http://www.polydactylweb.com/.
Next up was Azigza, a band from San Francisco I'd not heard before and one of the weekend's big surprises for me. Azigza play a sort of world music psychedelia and have a female vocalist who has an Eastern goddess style of singing. A bit like Richelle Toombs from Tombstone Valentine but with more of a psychy drifting quality than Toombs' powerful vocals. In fact, Azigza often struck me as a more structured and composed version of Tombstone Valentine. There are lots of acoustic instruments, tablas, mandolin, and violin. But in addition to the psychedelia there's also a solid rock band. One song had a song Celtic influence. But soon a droning bass line was introduced and the vocals drifted into a darker dimension. As the song continued it became apparent that the violin alone was what gave the music its Celtic flavor. The rest was pounding energetic ethnic music. Another standout song was an ethnic progressive rocker with psychedelic influences, and maybe a little fusion too. There were some fiery guitar and violin jams that I enjoyed, though they were all too brief. Near the end of their set Azigza started to wind down just as they began, with Eastern influenced psychedelia exploring various ethnic realms. The violin now had a snake charmer ring to it that had me looking around for the belly dancers. Then an acidic guitar kicked in and things got a bit molten rocking. An impressive band that would definitely appeal to Aural Innovations readers. Check out their web site at: http://lionharp.com/azigza/.
After Azigza was Ars Nova, the trio of impish Japanese women who play an ELP influenced brand of prog. The last time they played ProgDay the lineup was keyboards, bass, and drums, though now they've traded the bass for a second keyboard. They were ok, but left me less than excited. I recall their performance from a few years earlier impressing me more. They even left a few mouths gaping when one of them came out in a skimpy leather outfit and did an S&M thing with a whip, doing a weird act where she beat the whip on the stage in time with the drummer. A ProgDay first indeed. Visit the Ars Nova web site at: http://www.progconcepts.com/arsnova/.
The last band of the weekend was Swedish prog metal band Pain Of Salvation. At this point Deb and I had packed up our table and strolled the crowd taking a few pictures. Pain Of Salvation were outstanding musicians but this was standard stuff to my ears and there's little I can say about them. You can visit their web site at: http://www.painofsalvation.com.
And so ended another ProgDay festival. The good news is that attendance ranked with ProgDay's best ever and a 2002 ProgDay is assured. For more information you can visit the official ProgDay web site at: http://www.progday.com. Also note that a 7-CD ProgDay box set has just been released which features bands from the first five years of the festival. I had time to listen to the entire set on the drive back to Columbus and it certainly serves as a valuable primer to progressive rock in the 90's. Storybook Farm... we'll see you next year.