The Music of Progtoberfest III: Day 1

By Cedric Hendrix

CHICAGO — The curtain rose on Progtoberfest III right on schedule. The experience of listening to three dozen bands over three days is akin to being taught to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool. The key is not to panic and let the experience overwhelm you.

This is particularly true when dealing with progressive rock and related bands. Three dozen bands throwing around a LOT of trippy notes in a LOT of odd time signatures is more than the average Top 40 fan can take. But the crowd gathered at Reggie’s knew the deal. They settled down and dug in with relish. It was clear the bands were feeding off the energy they got from the audience.

Here are some highlights from Day One …

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Sons of Ra got the ball rolling in the Music Joint, bringing their blend of jazz, fusion, metal, and prog forth in the form of an aggressive power trio. Guitarist Erik Oldman, bassist Keith Wakefield, and drummer Mark D. blazed through their set, in support of their EP, Anthropology. They also did a nice uptempo take on the King Crimson classic “Red.” The band’s live performance showed just how far they’d come since he release of the EP last year. This is a band on the rise.

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Echoes of Giants were the first to play in the Rock Club. The Columbia, Missouri band used rock-solid instrumental ability (particularly the guitar of Wes Bolton) and the soaring voice of lead vocalist Joey Meyers to get the show off to a great start. I wound up leaving with a copy of their CD, At the End of Myself. A supreme effort.

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Conscious Pilot blew in from Columbus, Ohio to put on their display of trippy chops in support of their latest effort, Autopilot. The band’s groove fit in perfectly with the festival’s settings, featuring highly skilled guitar and keyboard pyrotechnics. It was progressive rock with a jam band attitude.

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Schooltree, from Boston, could be identified as musical cousins of another young Boston band, Bent Knee. Their songs were epic, yet accessible, filled with unique keyboard motifs and tricky time shifts. Band chemistry was tight, and the musicians seemed very comfortable, regardless of where the music went.

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Five of the Eyes absolutely blew the doors off the Music Joint! The Portland, Maine band played with the fire of the Mars Volta and the swagger of The Rolling Stones, with elements of Radiohead and the Foo Fighters thrown in for good measure. It’s not easy to be a prog rock superstar, but it wouldn’t be a bad bet to invest in this band. They are going places!

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Chicago’s own District 97 brought the heaviest sound of the afternoon, tearing through a blistering set that not only showed off the band’s formidable chops, but the vocal skills and sex appeal of Leslie Hunt, a rare commodity in the prog rock genre. As an added bonus, the band broke out a marvelous version of King Crimson’s “Starless.” Classy and classic.

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New Jersey’s In the Presence of Wolves unleashed a hyperkinetic, odd-metered, metallic musical odyssey on its audience in the Music Joint. Recognizing they were in the smaller venue, lead vocalist Chris Capatanio was determined to make the most of it. “Small stage, lots of rage,” he declared as the band tore through songs from their latest album, Of Two Minds. 

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Dave Kerzner (also know for his work with Sounds of Contact) took the Rock Club to a higher plane with his soaring, orchestral sound reminiscent of Pink Floyd in its prime. His top flight band, featuring extraordinary guitarist Fernando Perdomo, made the most of Kerzner’s extraordinary compositions from his solo albums New World and Static.

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Santiago, Chile’s Aisles wrapped up their U.S. tour — and made its first Chicago appearance — on the Music Joint stage. The band brought a smoldering intensity at the absolute PERFECT volume. The band played heavy, epic prog-pop with just the right melodic touch. The musicians were clearly skilled, but they also made this evident without seeming to show off, which is not always the easiest thing to do.

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What can you say about a legend that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? With a resume that includes stints in Weather Report, Santana, and Jazz is Dead, bassist Alphonso Johnson had had nearly every superlative imaginable tossed his way over the past five decades. Let’s just say he was all that, and then some. Equally legendary drummer Chester Thompson held down the backbeat as only he could. Emerging guitarist Nili Brosh nearly stole the show with an impressive array of chops played over the band’s Latin-tinged fusion. There’s nothing like being in the presence of true professionals.

The day featured enough music to satisfy and drain even the heartiest of fans. But this was only Day One. Progtoberfest III was only getting warmed up.

More to come.

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