By Keith Henderson
From Aural Innovations #7 (July 1999)
Sometimes fortuitous breaks come your way (not often enough mind you). So in an amazing stroke of synchronicity this past February, the very day I learned of the imminent appearance of Porcupine Tree and Magma (both!) at this year's ProgFest (excuse me...the 5th International Progressive Music Festival) in San Francisco, I received a call from my brother (a Bay Area resident) who wanted to know if I could fly out for a week over the Memorial Day holiday. Apparently, he'd found a Columbus-SF airfare deal that couldn't be passed up, and suggested a trip up to the family cabin at Tahoe. So I consulted the calendar...wouldn't cha' know! Same time as ProgFest! Of course, I said "Yes" immediately, once he promised that the Tahoe trip could take place *before* the weekend. It was only later that Gong magically appeared on the schedule, and the trip began to take on the appearance of a pilgrimage.
Despite ridiculously high expectations, which have a tendency to go unfulfilled, this turned out to truly be the magical week I had imagined. The trip to the lakefront cabin yielded a perfect sense of calm before the 'storm,' and we managed to soak up copious amounts of fabulous mountain scenery. Early Saturday morning (it was cold!), we then headed west from the Sierras perfectly skirting the masses of weekend vacationers just then pouring into the region. Amazingly, the traffic into SF across the Bay Bridge was also bearable and I arrived at the marvelous Palace of Fine Arts (part of the same edifice that houses the Exploratorium Science Museum) just after 3 PM, an hour before things were scheduled to begin on stage.
The "convention," as the preshow gathering/merchandising melee was termed, was well underway in the lobby by then. I quickly snagged a couple from the Aether folks and the brand new 'University of Errors' disc (see Mushroom interview), and an official ProgFest T-shirt and program. I was happy to see that they had a food counter there, which meant I didn't need to venture out into unknown streets of SF in search of grub between sets. While strolling around trying to restrain myself from spending beyond my means, I managed to connect up with various acquaintances from Internet discussions of the past. Soon, though, I began to check my watch frequently and wonder why the theatre doors were still closed past 5 PM (and then 6 PM), when the performances were to begin at 4:30. We could hear rumblings of soundchecks continuing and folks were getting a bit anxious by the time we finally were let in around 6:30.
The opening act, Japan's Bondage Fruit, apparently got very little time to set up and do their checks, because they got to do so in front of a full house. Their performance soon started in earnest, and began with a strange piece with incessant repeating of a single guitar lick, colored by lots of peculiar emanations from the violinist and two percussionists. This band takes 'avant garde' to the limit, and I guess it was simply too sophisticated for my simple brain to handle. Other than the few pleasant parts like a stellar vibrophone solo, the disjointed clamoring was all that I could assimilate in the end.
Next up was Sweden's Pär Lindh Project, a band that I had really enjoyed last year at ProgDay in North Carolina. Even though their brand of gigantic, bombastic, neo-classical music is undoubtedly an arbitrary construct (and one that is certainly not unheard of... even heavy metal drum hero Cozy Powell has done it), I'm a sucker for it anyway, as long as it is well-orchestrated. In the end though, I've discovered that it loses something upon repeat listens. So while Magdalena Hagberg's voice is still angelic, Lindh's keyboard skills are still admirable, and the rhythm section still rocks the house, I found PLP to pale somewhat in comparison to the timeless wonder of certain artists to follow. Plus, they had no new material to present this time, relying instead on a well-honed (but predictable) performance of last year's 'Mundus Incompertus' and earlier works.
After a short break (dinner was long since past), Brand X took the stage. These days, the band is really just guitarist John Goodsall and three Californians as hired guns. I'm no fusion buff, so I'm not really familiar with their classic 70's recordings (some with Phil Collins), but they played more interesting music than I expected. However, they got off to a slow start, with three opening pieces that sounded like one single monotonous guitar solo. But then Goodsall strapped on the Gibson ES-335 semi-acoustic and polished off a fine reading of John McLaughlin's "Lila's Dance" and later "The Poke." In one of the more spontaneous acts of this festival, they seemed to debate what to play towards the end, when they finally decided on some newer material, including "True to the Clik" and "Virus" from 'Manifest Destiny.' Still not my cup of tea, but I enjoyed seeing Goodsall & Co. work.
As a special treat, celebrated producer Giorgio Gomelsky made an onstage appearance to introduce the first of his two progenies (the other being Magma, which he'd introduce the following night). Everyone reading this review *should* know Gong, so a more formal introduction by me seems unnecessary. I had already learned that drummer Pierre Moerlen would not be present (becoming ill in Europe), which was kind of a bummer as I hadn't seen him play with the 'Trilogy' band before. However, Chris Taylor turned out to be a capable last-minute replacement. Each time I see Gong, I grow evermore convinced that it's Didier Malherbe (Bloomdido, himself) that is really the key instrumentalist to have on stage, and he was in house thankfully. Though of course, it's still Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth's band to command, and they were in top form as always. Each wore colorful costumes of outlandish design, and brought a much-needed sense of humor and gracious sincerity (housed in their eccentricity) to an exhibition tempted to become overly stuffy with talk of pentatonics and diminished 7ths.
After the intro "Thought for Naught" came and went, the "Om Riff" began to emerge quietly at first and then finally into the fully-fledged "Master Builder" as it was originally known. Much to my dismay, the mix was so muddy initially that I couldn't much enjoy what is normally one of my favorites. The sound improved markedly thereafter to a sigh of relief from myself. Gilli delivered two signature pieces "Pussy" and "Prostitute Poem" straddling the classic 'Angel's Egg' Side 2 suite. Led off by Bloom's "Flute Salad" (extra long this night), the goofy fun of "Oily Way" gives way to the "Inner Temple/Outer Temple" sequence highlighted by Mike Howlett's bass groove and Daevid's gliss guitar. Always brilliant. But the very best moment of this particular night was "Eat that Phone Book Coda" with Bloom again taking center stage. It made me realize how underappreciated and overlooked this song is.
Next from Camembert, Daevid's defiant anthem against authoritarianism "You Can't Kill Me" still retains its relevance (as indicated by his later applying it to the Kosovar crisis in Cleveland). But it was gliss-bliss of "The Isle of Everywhere" that stirred the crowd to soaring heights with music alone. When the "You are I, or I am You" outro finally made its appearance, we were all sorry to be coming to the end of another Gong performance, but we were gladdened to see Daevid personally thanking each audience member in the front row (the ladies a bit more than the men I noticed). Without Pierre on drums and missing Steffe Sharpstrings on guitar (Mark Hewins filling in there), this wasn't quite the Gong performance of a few years' back. Though it did seem to me that the rhythm section of Howlett and Taylor (despite newly joined) was tighter than ever. With Daevid being busy with so many side projects, and the hints of a brand new Gong 2000 band (or mysterious configuration), who knows if the Trilogy band will ever play again. Given that, it was a very special occasion.
Sunday would turn out to be another frustratingly long day of waiting, but in the end no one cared, including me. Things were set to start out at 3 PM in the lobby with local act Mushroom performing (see interview for much more). I was a few minutes late as I had visited Aquarius Records in town and the traffic there was miserable. I caught much of Mushroom's performance, but they were told to keep 'quiet' so as not to disturb the shoppers at vendor tables all around them. So it really didn't give them the opportunity to make a proper statement to the few folks that showed up early. Kind of unfortunate, but still they were welcome entertainment since the main stage acts were again delayed two hours. Most of Mushroom's performance that day was (as usual) improvised material, the only piece I recognized being a shortened take on their "Reeperbahn." I hope to catch them in their 'true' form some day.
Daevid Allen was apparently feeling ill that day, or there would have been a performance of the University of Errors in the lobby also. Too bad that didn't happen. So Gilli came by instead and did a short set of spoken word compositions backed by musicians from Azigza... they called themselves Gongmatrix. The ink on Gilli's lyric sheets still seemed to be wet, as she read about 'raging in the 60's and 70's and proclaiming that nowadays "acid isn't what it used to be." The second composition "I Am a Witch" was more typical Gilli, but I couldn't help but think of the infamous "Holy Grail" witch scene ("Why, she turned me into a newt!"). Somewhere in the middle of the performance, a bonehead announcement cut into the performance to tell us nothing more than we would have to wait longer to get into the main theater. (sigh) Undaunted, Gongmatrix carried on to raucous applause. We *had* been enjoying ourselves, thank you very much. Patience is a virtue... we understand.
At 6:30, the amalgam of the four-piece Rocket Scientists and the duo of Lana Lane & Neil Citron were finally introduced on the main stage. In various configurations, they played a hour's worth of arena-sized 'prog' rock with the expressive and dramatic Lane presented as the point of focus. However, it was the cleavage-free Scientists themselves who provided the brightest moments, especially during "The Threshold Medley" where guitarist Mark McCrite proved to be a fine (and perhaps more fitting) vocalist himself. When Lana returned to coo over a silky smooth version of Marillion's "Season's End," I wondered if they really had a purpose. I guess I would say they were 'ordinarily pleasant' - not what this showcase should be about in my opinion. I would hope the Rocket Scientists would feel secure to forge back out on their own in the future.
The Bay Area freakazoid known as Buckethead is a masterful guitarist of inhuman quality, and he looks the part. Playing solo to spontaneously-chosen backing music (pausing only for the occasional robotic dance), the masked and bucketed one (either promoting or protesting KFC, you choose) comically banged, abused, and then deftly tickled the fretboards of his various guitars (and basses) to a mixed audience of stunned looks, smiles, and amazement. The movies shown overhead depicted scenes from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, bizarre ritualistic training methods in SE Asia, and crazy Japanese sci-fi/disaster films. Apparently, in a sleep-depriving move to perform to his 'home-crowd' (not that SF-residents dominated the crowd), Buckethead had flown back-and-fourth across the country in 24 hours as he was obliged to continue with the Ozzfest tour somewhere in the east. I admire the dedication, and I'd be happy to see him perform in some other guise (he plays with such luminaries as Bill Laswell and Les Claypool), but I honestly just didn't *get* it. There's a fine line between pretense and poignant, and everyone has a different view as to where it lies. Buckethead needs to take one step to his left for me to understand.
Out in the lobby, Azizga had already begun their own set (sans Gilli) and by now the noise police had apparently given up trying to keep things quiet for the (very few) patrons with any remaining cash, as they were permitted to get quite boisterous. The program dubbed them a 'rock world orchestra,' which is pretty accurate, fronted by the spirited singing of the colorful Cyoakha. However, it was the electric violin of Aryeh Frankfurter that was the real treat in their music. He had the ability (and electronics) to mimic other instruments (even what sounded like Steve Hillage guitar-synth) during his frenzied soloing. An interesting set of multicultural music, and even a Led Zeppelin cover!
I was certainly one of the very few in the audience who had actually seen Porcupine Tree in concert before, seeing as this was part of their very first tour of North America. (They had previously done only a one-off performance in Baltimore at ProgScape '96, which I was lucky enough to catch.) So I imagine that most didn't realize that live PTree is not the same as studio PTree, and that's more true than ever given the nature of 'Stupid Dream.' I have mixed feelings about the merits of the band's 'new' direction (if you will). On one hand, I don't accept the knee-jerk reaction that it sounds 'commercial' and hence is evil (except maybe for "Piano Lessons"), but then I was truly disturbed by the silky, gooey orchestration of the vocals in many of the choruses. But with only one Steve Wilson on stage at a time, I knew that we wouldn't be enduring any of that on this night. With the energy and amazing prowess that drummer Chris Maitland can muster (sadly only evident on the live 'Coma Divine'), I knew we would experience a grand performance.
Time was rather short as the hour was already getting late, so I'm certain that one or two numbers were cut from the intended set, but then I knew I would be seeing them the following week in Cleveland, so I wasn't bothered too much. No surprise was the opener "Even Less," a very strong statement to begin the festivities. I accepted the inevitable appearance of "Piano Lessons" and then waited breathlessly until the beautiful and inspiring "Don't Hate Me" was brought forth. This one received the most reworking, as Theo Travis was not available to add his woodwind parts. So Richard Barbieri filled in with a tapestry of atmospheric sounds and then Wilson took off on a guitar solo during the 'Gong gliss' part. It was somewhere around this time that a barefoot Wilson took a moment to apologize for the massive delay, admitting that it was probably their fault since Richard's borrowed Prophet keyboard had melted down amidst the improper voltage. A classy move given that the band was entirely at the mercy of this cruel stroke of fate.
The highlights of the set were an absolutely monstrous "Signify," which grows in stature with each listen (I'd like to hear an album-full of this kind of stuff), and then the highly sought after "Voyage 34." Like its name suggests, this one is a pure psychedelic trip built around a steady kraut-style bassline from Colin Edwin. It's not so interesting for the first several minutes, but then that also builds massive amounts of anticipation as you wait for the final payoff. Which turns out to be a killer no-holds-barred jamout with Wilson letting completely loose on his shiny red Stratocaster. Brilliant! The finale of "The Sky Moves Sideways, Pt. 1" was nicely done and a popular piece with the crowd, so much so that the Tree received the first really raucous ovation. Which continued until the band returned for an encore ("Up the Downstair" I think), and rounded off a really excellent display of perseverance amidst a heap of technical difficulties. A load of new fans were made, I suspect.
And now.... Magma. What was this really going to be like, I wondered. Although legendary for decades, I had only been introduced to their music about three years ago. I was instantly hooked then, which I gather is seldom the case. Everyone uses the same formula to describe the music... imagine the melding of Coltrane free-form jazz, Wagnerian opera, and heavy, dark psychedelia. Even if you *can* picture that, you still need to hear it to believe it. Of course, they sing in their own language (you'd *have* to) called Kobaian (not their native French), a product of drummer/vocalist/leader Christian Vander's extraordinary imagination. On this night, a trio of singers (including Stella Vander) was the Kobaian chorus that had the gigantic task of recreating the complex and demanding sounds required to appropriately complement the instrumental music.
Other than the Vanders, the members of the seven-piece orchestra were unfamiliar to me, and looked far too young to be up to the task. But from the first moments of the epic Kohntarkösz, I and everyone in the theatre was mesmerized by the unequaled brilliance of the musical performance. Every member was outstanding (which technically is impossible, but it was true) within their own domains, but then the way the band coalesced into a single living entity was astonishing. An unparalleled display of artistic wonder. I recognized almost all of the musical passages from their 1970s albums, but this was truly a new experience above and beyond anyone's first introduction to the relative sterile quality of a record or CD, be it Magma or anyone else.
As one who is generally attracted to the lower end of the sonic spectrum, I naturally was intrigued at how the bassist (Phillipe Bussonnet) would fare against my preconceived notion as to how (original bassist) Jannick Top would perform on stage. It only took a few moments for me to decide... Bussonnet was a monster! His bass looks like anyone else's, but the sounds that emanate from it are dark, alien, and awfully scary. In contrast was the relative calm of Emmanuel Borghi's electric piano, playing strange chords in succession to seemingly draw wisps of fog from the underworld. The guitar isn't the focal point of Magma's music but when given the chance, James McGraw made his black-body Les Paul scream out from behind the curtain like the projection in the Wizard of Oz. All the while, master percussionist Christian Vander was busy amazing us with polyrhythmic rolls and fills and simultaneously conducting the entire orchestra with subtle looks, and then sudden wild gestures and outbursts. When he got into the mode of constant head-shaking, you knew they were building up to a climactic moment.
I'm certain that seeing Magma perform was the most worthwhile two hours I've ever spent doing nothing. And they didn't even play any music from my favorite two albums, 'Udu Wudu' and 'Attahk.' But most attendees were there to hear the classic material from 'Kohntarkösz,' 'Mekanik Destruktïw Kommandoh,' and 'Live Hhai' and it was the more proper choice I admit. But why Magma isn't the most famous band in history I can't imagine. The fact that they play the same instruments as everyone else, and that they can combine influences from music I don't even like and make it among my very favorites....well, that's enough to convince me they should be millionaires. How unfortunate is it that they only managed to play in four cities in the US (New York, Chicago, LA, and SF) on this rarest of opportunities to have them on this side of the pond. A pox on the music-marketing industry for this injustice.
So in the end, I can say ProgFest was the very best music event I have ever witnessed. No amount of delays were going to diminish the quality of the artists gathered on this site for these two days. The Palace of Fine Arts is a fabulous place - excellent seating, acoustics, and facilities. Most of the 1000 seats were full on each day, but a few hundred more could have the experience of a lifetime. The sound was generally very good, although on Day One the guitar and drums were loud enough to drown out a lot of the keyboard parts. (I even heard some shouts from the crowd to this effect.) There were also some feedback and mic problems with Gong's set Saturday night. The mix was much improved on Sunday, though the drums were still kinda loud (relatively speaking) at times. Snare drums hardly need to be amplified at all... why everyone does this so heavily puzzles me.
At some time in the morning, I returned to the East Bay still buzzing from the excitement of the final two acts, and found it hard to fall asleep though I was dead tired. Monday (Memorial Day) I had the pleasure of shopping at the twin supermarkets of CD stores (Amoeba and Rasputins in Berkeley) and came home to Ohio more broke than ever. So I hope you appreciate the reviews of all the new albums in this issue, as that's where some of them came from :) Kudos to Shawn Ahearn and all the folks at Pangea Music for this memorable event. If they think they can ever outdo this festival, I'll have to come back to see for myself.