by Cedric Hendrix
CHICAGO — I confess: By the end of Day One of Progtoberfest, I was exhausted. A long Thursday evening at work, short rest, a five-hour drive, and eight hours of music took their toll on me. I left a little before Alphonso Johnson finished his set. I had nothing left.
Fortunately, I got a good night’s sleep, which enabled me to return to Reggie’s on Saturday rejuvenated and ready to roll. It’s a good thing: they day was chock full of amazing music, and I became a study in near constant motion.
I found myself wondering how the second day could possibly compete with the first. It didn’t take long to find out.
Here are the highlights:
New York’s Frogg Cafe got things off to a good start in the Rock Club, bringing a funky form of jazz fusion that would have been right at home in New Orleans. For a few minutes, Chicago sounded a lot like Bourbon Street. The enthusiastic response of the audience told me I wasn’t alone in my enjoyment.
By the time I made my way to the Music Joint, Pneumatic Transit had taken the stage, and were off and running. It’s not every day one walks in on a band taking on classic tracks from the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But there they were, tearing it up! More than once, I found myself longing for my guitar, so I could jump onstage and become part of the wicked blend of 70’s fusion at hand.
Next up in the Rock Club was ABACAB, a Genesis tribute band from North Carolina. I had time to research these guys online before going to Chicago. I knew they tended to focus on the more pop-oriented, Phil Collins-era material. With that in mind, I decided to catch a couple numbers, and then I would move on to the next band. Imagine my joy when lead vocalist/drummer Pete Lents announced the band would be performing the entire Seconds Out album, on the exact 40th anniversary of its release! Well, that’s only one of my favorite live albums of all time! And just like that, I wasn’t going anywhere. The band did a fine job playing some incredibly complex music. Was it perfect? No. But that’s all right. The audience went wild over the effort. So did I. I spoke to Dave Kerzner Band guitarist Fernando Perdomo, who was geeking out just as hard as I was. He told me, “The fact that it wasn’t perfect is a big part of what made it great.” Amen.
Because I stayed for ABACAB, I only caught the tail end of what sounded like a blistering set from The Renegades. What I did hear contained some fantastic Allan Holdsworth-oriented guitar playing, and some equally fantastic drumming. The band’s groove was rock solid, and I look forward to exploring their music in the future.
I’ve told many jazz purist friends over the years that prog is a short hop from the music we hold dear. My theory was frequently scoffed. How I wish my friends could have seen Wave Mechanics Union, a jazz big band playing beautifully re-arranged prog rock tunes. It was hard to wipe the smile off my face as the band played songs from Yes, Queen, and King Crimson, all beautifully sung by Rhonda Baker.
Those beautiful notes were still caressing my mind as I was greeted by the power trio King Llama. Theirs was a frenetic set, featuring busy musicians who were still able to get out of each other’s way. I was particularly impressed by the drumming of Luis Briones. This was a band full of talent, but not full of themselves. That can be a rare quality.
Mexico’s CAST was next up, displaying formidable chops and set-length compositions that reminded me of Dream Theater. The band’s overall charisma also helped them connect to an enthusiastic Rock Club audience.
I was really impressed by New York’s Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius, who brought their take on prog and fusion to an enthusiastic Music Joint. Deninzon brought the electric violin to a level that reminded me of Jean-Luc Ponty. The band attacked their set with relish, playing both their own material and giving interesting interpretations on songs from bands like Muse. This was a really fun set to watch.
One of the main reasons I wanted to attend Progtoberfest was so I could catch Mike Keneally and Beer for Dolphins, whom I haven’t seen live in quite some time. Keneally brought bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Joe Travers, and they did not disappoint. The band played one of the more spirited sets of the evening, and everyone could see how much fun they were having. That joy spread to the audience, as well.
By catching all of BFD’s set, I missed a portion of Dave Kerzner’s acoustic “Storytellers” set in the Music Joint. But what I heard was remarkable. It’s not easy to contain the epic nature of Kerzner’s music to such a small room. But the band did it, sounding incredibly powerful without being overwhelming. They also performed a remarkable medley covering King Crimson’s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King.
Members of The Tangent and Karmakanic — two European acts I was unfamiliar with — joined forces for two fascinating sets as TangeKanic, featuring top-notch musicianship and positively EPIC length pieces. But the highlight may have been a song called “Sanctuary in Music,” which was written in defiance of the madman in Las Vegas who shattered an evening that was supposed to be defined by music. The 30 seconds of silence mid-song truly spoke volumes.
In between those sets, I popped over to the Music Joint, where Necromonkey was in the middle of melting every brain in the room. If there is one set I wish I could have caught from the first note, it was this one. The music was both undefinable and unbelievable. I later found it was improvised! As they wrapped up their set, I leaned into the ear of the man sitting next to me and said, “What the hell was THAT?” All my neighbor could do was laugh. Describing what I heard would never do the music justice. Just head over to YouTube and experience it for yourself. I am all about this band in the future!
The last thing I expected to close out the evening was a solo acoustic set. But as I entered the Music Joint, there stood Bruce Soord of The Pineapple Thief (one of my favorite recent “discoveries”), accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and the ability to create loops on the fly, which he used as accompaniments. Even in stripped-down form, there was no questioning where the PT sound comes from. Festival organizer Kevin Pollack told me he hopes to bring the entire band in for next year’s Progtoberfest. That in and of itself is enough to bring me back.
There was no doubting it: I was having one of the best weekends of my life. And I still had one more day to go.