By Steve Sly
From Aural Innovations #8 (October 1999)
It had to happen... for five years the annual Progday festival, held each Labor Day Weekend near Chapel Hill North Carolina, has dodged the hurricane menace. Each year hurricanes of various names and sizes threatened to ruin the proceedings only to arrive a day early or a day too late to dump on the actual festival. In fact, other than the sometimes-oppressive southern heat, the weather had been quite co-operative over the years. Unfortunately Progday '99 was the year the luck with the weather ran out. Hurricane Dennis decided that Labor Day Weekend was a fine time to hit the North Carolina coastline. This forced the last 2/3rds of Progday to move to an indoor venue for the first time in its history.
The weekend began on Friday night with the first ever Progday "pre-festival show" held at Go rehearsal studios in nearby Carrboro, North Carolina. The venue was quite small with a rather cramped stage. The place was packed by showtime when the first band of the weekend, Envision hit the stage. Envision is a Yes tribute band, who mainly pull their repertoire from the early years of the band (pre-1977). The band sounded... well, just like Yes. Vocalist Melissa Riddle had Jon Anderson's high pitched falsetto voice down pat. In fact if you closed your eyes it was hard to tell that it was not Jon's voice booming through the speakers. Bassist Alex McDonald was a Chris Squire monster clone, and keys man Matt Riddle handled Rick Wakeman's solos like he had written them himself. The entire band was very talented tackling some of the more difficult Yes material including "Ritual" from "Tales From Topographic Oceans," along with many other early favorites.
Envision's two hour set was followed by what seemed to be one of the longest in between band changeovers I have ever witnessed. It took forever to get Envision's equipment off the stage, and the next band's stuff on. Most of the audience was from out of town, and had traveled that day. Fans had come from as far away as Michigan, Texas, Puerto Rico, and just about anywhere else on the map, and many were already beginning to fade. In addition to the delay, the venue was standing room only, so by 10:30 p.m. there were a lot of tired looking people still waiting for the festivities to resume. By 11:00 p.m. the crowd had thinned out considerably, and most of the enthusiasm from earlier in the evening had vanished. Finally near midnight the headliner After The Fall hit the stage, trying desperately to re-kindle a spark in the now somewhat zombiefied audience. After The Fall is an ELPish/heavy prog outfit from Connecticut, who made quite an impression when they played Progday '97 two years ago. Opening with their theme song "After The Fall," vocalist/guitarist Mark Benson led the band through a 90 minute set of material from their two studio CDs. They also featured material from their upcoming release slated for next year. Keyboardist Ken Archer once again proved to be one of the more underrated keys men in prog today. His work on "Monads," "In A Safe Place", and "The Last Hero" proved to be some of the keyboard highlights of the weekend. Mark Benson is an energetic frontman, with a good voice. His guitar work and constant pacing of the stage exhibited an enthusiasm often lacking in today's prog acts. Drummer Rich Kornacki, and recent addition bassist Jeff Brewer are both solid players as well. Unfortunately for the band, the club was almost empty by the time their set ended at around 1:30. Again this was more a reflection of the weariness of the audience, and the fact that people wanted to be ready for Progday the next morning, than on the band's performance. After The Fall can't seem to get a break. They had numerous equipment problems at Progday '97, (they never could get the acoustic guitar to work at all), and this year had to contend with a late start to their show. Even under these rather arduous conditions, After The Fall gave a powerful performance that those who stayed to witness thoroughly enjoyed.
Saturday morning dawned with the threat of Hurricane Dennis looming out in the Atlantic, but the decision was made to go on with the original outdoor plans at Storybook Farm. One thing that many in the audience did not count on was the fact that there were no less than 3 major college football games happening within about 30 miles of Story Book. This caused incredible traffic delays causing many in the audience not to arrive until well into the first band's set. I was a victim of this gridlock myself arriving at the venue well after the 11:30 start time for the show. This delay caused me to miss a large portion of festival opener, House Of Usher's set. House Of Usher is from my home state of Michigan, so I have seen them before. They play a melodic brand of prog in a similar vein as Marillion and other "neo" type bands. Playing selections from their debut album "Body Of Mind" as well as several new cuts, House Of Usher was a nice fit for the opening slot of the festival. Guitarist Michael Allen Moore, stood out as one of the better fretmen of the weekend, while the rest of the band provided amiable accompaniment on their respective instruments. If the new material that they played is any indication, this band is bound for a bright future.
By the time the next act Equinox hit the stage, the wind was beginning to pick up, playing havoc with the cymbals on the drum kit. Despite the obvious problems with the wind, Equinox soldiered on, playing cuts from their only album "Equinox," as well as some new material. Unfortunately I again missed a good portion of this set, as I was helping to work the grill at the concession stand, and from my vantage point could only hear them. I have to admit that it was pretty cool flipping burgers with a cold beer at my side and Equinox belting out rockers like "Lonely In My Dreams" in the background. It managed to get my toes a tapping! Several members of the band have changed since their debut album. The most notable of these was the change from male to female vocalist. Original member Alan Pinzon stood out on bass, while his rhythm section partner Ivan Canton did the best he could to wrestle with the constantly wind whipped drum kit. The sound was also a nightmare to try to keep up, with the P.A. by this time being covered in tarps. Towards the end of Equinox's set, festival promoter Peter Renfro appeared on stage to announce that the Hurricane was indeed heading our way, and the festival would have to be moved inside. He then invited Equinox to play "as long as they wanted to" until the rains came. Equinox took Peter up on the offer, and launched into an improvised jam, which many in the audience felt was the best part of their set. Alas the rains finally did come, as arrangements were made to move the whole production to the "Cats Cradle" club in nearby Carrboro.
It would be several hours before the show was set to begin again, so the majority of the audience managed to find local watering holes for a bit of food and drink near the venue. Some were still grumbling about the show being moved indoors, but by showtime the rain was coming down in buckets, and everyone agreed that it was the best decision.
The Cat's Cradle was a large club with a decent stage area. The club allowed festival goers to bring in lawn chairs to the open floor, so they would not have to stay on their feet for the entire length of the show. The club was split into two rooms, the front room housing the stage, and a back room with the vendors, and bar. Unfortunately for the vendors, their space was a lot more cramped than what they were allowed a Progday, but they still appeared to be doing a bustling business.
The first band up for the evening portion of the show was Italy's Consorzio Aqua Potable (which means something about "drinkable water"). Any concerns about the sound in the club were quickly put to rest, as each note was crystal clear, and the overall mix was superb. It is a tribute to the sound men, that they were able to transform the show indoors without missing a beat. CAP (as they are called for short) is a 7 piece band who play prog in the classic Italian style. Armed with the traditional guitar, drums, keys, bass lineup, CAP also featured Maurizio Venegoni on a variety of wind instruments, and Silvia Carpo on recorders. CAP has been together in one form or another for over 20 years. Their set was taken primarily from their latest release "Robin Delle Stelle," and they also managed to reach back into the vaults for some early chestnuts. Although all of the vocals were in Italian, lead singer Maurizo Mercandino conveyed enough emotion and unrestrained stage presence to capture the imagination of the English speaking audience. CAP embraced the spirit of classic Italian style married with a dash of 90's sophistication providing a great start to the indoor festivities. This band was a real surprise for me, as I thoroughly enjoyed their set. I also had the pleasure of driving these guys to the airport on Sunday morning, and found them to be a very friendly, nice bunch of folks.
Next up was Progday mainstay Discipline from Detroit. Discipline has appeared at every Progday since the beginning, so the crowd has come to expect an ambitious performance. As usual they were not disappointed. "The Acid Mime", aka group leader Matthew Parmenter, led the band through a 90 minute set of compositions from their two studio CD's "Unfolded Like Staircase," and "Push And Profit", as well as several early unreleased tracks. Many in the audience were surprised to learn that long time guitarist Jon Bouda had left the band to be replaced by new guitarist Brad Styes. Progday was Styes first gig with the band, and despite a few rough spots, and being way too up front in the mix, he did an admirable job of covering the difficult Discipline material. Drummer Paul Dzendzel, and bassist Matthew Kennedy provided their usual thick accompaniment to the bottom end. Set highlights included the 20 minute plus "Into The Dream", "Homegrown", and what seems to have become the signature Discipline work, "Canto IV Limbo".
After a standing ovation Parmenter returned to the stage alone to provide one of the weekend's most gut wrenching solo performances. Alone behind the keyboard Parmenter executed a solo version of "Between Me And The End" that literally had the crowd on the edge of their seats. Parmenter continues to prove that he is one of the single most versatile and gifted performers in prog (or any form of music for that matter) today. He is so freaking talented it is almost scary. The rest of the band re-joined Parmenter for a final encore and day 1 came to a close. The rain was still pouring from the skies outside, so it was announced from the stage that all hopes of returning outdoors to Storybook was gone. The remainder of the festival would take place indoors.
Opening up the festivities on Sunday afternoon (the start time had been moved later in the day since there would be no curfew at the club), was the Brazilian proggers, Apocalypse. Apocalypse certainly gets the award for enthusiasm. They acted like they were having a blast on stage, and the crowd seemed to feed from that energy. Apocalypse play in the typical neo prog style, and they do what they do very very well. Keys man Eloy Fritsch was practically surrounded by keyboards á la Rick Wakeman . Fritsch is nothing short of amazing with both hands in constant motion over his assorted instruments. Eloy's brother Ruy drove the band with soaring leads on guitar, while frontman/bassist Chico Casarza worked the crowd, singing all lyrics in his native Portuguese. A standing ovation followed their set, with bandmembers, sporting huge smiles, holding up the Brazilian flag in tribute to their homeland.
Next up was the Baltimore based quartet The Dark Aether Project. Combining Crimson-esque instrumentals with an almost grunge-like energy, DAP plowed through a 90 minute set of intricate, sometimes almost psychedelic, progressive rock. Along with the typical prog instruments, DAP also features group leader Adam Levin on 8 string Warr touch Guitar. Levin is very impressive on the instrument as it provides DAP with a rather unique combination of sounds. The joining of the Warr guitar, with spacy keyboard loops migrated the music in many different directions. Although at times DAP appeared rather studious and stiff on stage, this was countered by the most recent addition to the DAP lineup, former Echolyn vocalist Ray Weston. Weston provided potent vocal energy that varied between emotional quiet ballad like passages, to loud balls out punk like screamers. DAP was the only band of the weekend to use special guests. Two members of quarkspace joined the band on percussion at one point, and Discipline frontman Matthew Parmenter joined the band on violin for their improvisational encore.
Never before have I seen an audience as polarized as I did by Progday's next act, Colorado's Thinking Plague. Thinking Plague's music has been described as "complex," "dissonant," and "just plain difficult." Many people consider Thinking Plague to be closer to the classic Rock In Opposition bands of the last decade, than anything else. However you try to categorize them, they played to a house divided at the Cat's Cradle. The main room (with the stage) was filled with about half the total audience clinging rapturously to every sound emanating from the stage. An enthusiastic standing ovation followed each song, as these people were really, really into it. At the same time the back room of the club, along with the parking lot outside, were filled with the other half of the audience holding their ears, saying things like "my god, these guys suck." The bottom line was there is no middle ground for Thinking Plague. People either love them or hate them. The band featured group leader Mike Johnson on guitar, drummer Dave Kerman (who provided one of the most unique solos I have ever witnessed playing his kit with decapitated barbie dolls!), multi-instrumentalist Mark Harris on reed instruments, vocalist Deborah Perry, and newcomer on keys Matthew Mitchell. All members of Thinking Plague were exceptional musicians, with keys man Mitchell handling the very difficult keyboard chores after only becoming a member of the band several weeks previously. The set consisted of several tracks from their latest album "In Extremis," as well as material from previous versions of the band. Their set also featured a short interlude of acoustic material from a band side project called Hamster Theater. Love them or hate them Thinking Plague was by far the most talked about performance of the festival.
Up next was the French entry into the mix, four young men known as NeBeLNeST. I liked this band much more than I expected I would. I find their self titled debut album to be a bit on the dull side, but live they were pretty impressive. Mining a sound somewhere between Pink Floyd, Univers Zero, Iconoclasta, and King Crimson, NeBeLNeST contrive a sometimes improvisational sometimes structured unique blend of industrial/space prog. Combined with these influences are almost Porcupine Tree-like keyboards that lend the band a somewhat ambient quality at times. My one criticism was that the material was a bit formulaic with spacy keyboard intros, followed by melodic guitar based interplay, followed by a jam section with bashing drums. This got a bit old after a while, and I really think a shorter set might have suited them better. NeBeLNeST is a very young band, and should develop nicely down the road.
Ten Jinn was scheduled next, but while the stage was still being changed over the audience was treated to a short unscheduled solo set by vocalist extraordinare Michelle Young. Young may be familiar to fans of the Tennessee based prog band Glass Hammer, as she has sung on several of their albums. She also has a solo album "Song Of The Siren" from a few years ago. Young has an absolutely beautiful voice, and showed off her pipes by performing several cover tunes (Kate Bush, Tori Amos) to taped instrumental backing tracks. She then performed 2 of her own songs accompanying herself on piano. Her set provided a nice interlude between the heavy bashing of NeBeLNeST, and Ten Jinn. Young premiered a track from her upcoming album that she had co-written with Clive Nolan, that seemed well received by the crowd.
A short break after Young's set, and stage was set for the festival closer Ten Jinn. Hailing from California, Ten Jinn's music is.... well.... kind of hard to describe. Sometimes neo, sometimes AOR, sometimes symphonic, and at times even jazzy. Ten Jinn is led by flamboyant vocalist/keyboardist John Strauss. Strauss uses two complete keyboard setups, and an energetic, almost gothic vocal style. The band also incorporates yet another keyboardist, Bob Niemeyer, drummer extraodinare Mark Wickliffe, guitarist Mike Matier, bass/stickman Matt Overholder, and Happy The Man guitarist Stan Whitiker. Storming through a set culled from their vampire concept album "As On A Darkening Plain", Ten Jinn provided an energetic finale to what had been a long musically filled day. Fans of Happy The Man were thrilled to hear Stan "the man" Whitaker featured on two HTM tracks that the band pulled off brilliantly. After a standing ovation from the audience, the band returned to encore with a prog/psyc version of The Beatles classic "I Am The Walrus" to close out the festival for good.
Despite the weather conditions the indoor portion of Progday '99 moved very fluently with changeovers happening quickly, and the entire show really moving along without any obvious hitches. The stage crew must be complimented for pulling this off, as it had to be a monumental logistical task moving all of the equipment from one venue to another in a very efficient manner. A great time was had by all, and both performers and audience once again reveled in the unique social/musical entity that is Progday.