How has the modern progressive music scene continued to exist and grow over the last several decades, regardless of its underdog status? One of the main reasons is the continued grassroots efforts from people like Jim Robinson and his dedicated “staph” at the NJProghouse. What started out as a small idea has turned into a major local and regional presence for progressive rock. To celebrate 20 years of awesome prog music, Jim and Co. have organized a 20th Anniversary Hootenanny on June 15-16. The two day concert event at the Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse will feature performances from Advent, Randy McStine, The Tea Club, Brett Kull and Ray Weston (of echolyn), Nick D’Virgilio, Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, Tammy Scheffer, No More Pain, IZZ, and The Devil’s Staircase (ft. Mattias Ollson), all of whom are NJ Proghouse alumni.
Founder Jim Robinson and Production Manager Alan Benjamin agreed to answer some questions about the history of NJ Proghouse, as well as the 20th Anniversary concert event.
Tell us the story of the NJ Proghouse. How did it start?
Jim: Back in 1998, motivated by ProgDay and the upcoming debut of NEARfest, as well as the Orion Studios shows (in Baltimore), I thought I’d give it a go and see if there was an interest in a regularly scheduled music series for progressive/art/avant/fusion types. So, in February of 1999 at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, the series was born. Crucible and opener Hidden Agenda started it all.
What are some of your favorite memories from the NJ Proghouse over the last 20 years?
Jim: Wow, that is tough. Nearly every damn show. But let me think here for a moment….
Including the premier show:
- April 24, 1999 (my birthday, I did a show)
- Scott McGill’s Hand Farm/Ozone Quartet/Bon Lozaga
- Symphony X w/ Mastermind, January 2001
- The Flower Kings w/ After the Fall, 9/8/2001
- The debut shows of IZZ and of Frogg Café at the NJP in 2002
- echolyn’s “Jersey Tomato” show, 2002
- The Strawbs
- California Guitar Trio
- Spock’s Beard
- both Homecoming festivals
Umm, really, I could mention every damn show. It’s been a great run so far.
Alan: Though I didn’t join the NJ Proghouse “staph” until a little over 10 years back, Amy and I started going to shows rather early on—the first that we attended together being the Flower Kings/After the Fall show that took place just three days prior to the 9/11 terrorist attack in nearby NYC (before the NJ Proghouse name was adopted as well). One of the earliest NJ Proghouse shows that holds particularly fond memories was Mats/Morgan Band with my old friend (master stick player) Greg Howard opening up, back in 2004—which was also the first show I had an unofficial hand in booking, having reached out to Morgan Ågren to facilitate his connecting up with Jim to make the show happen while the band was in the USA for ProgDay.
As a player, it was also a great honor to kick off live performances with both (the reformed) Mirthrandir and my own band, Advent, at the NJ Proghouse, back in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Both of these debut performances took place at the Old Franklin Schoolhouse and are shows that I’ll always remember most fondly.
There have been too many incredible shows to mention, but a few others that hold particularly fond personal memories include:
- Stretch during their initial reunion tour in 2009
- Mörglbl (rocking out a fully packed coffee shop gig at Rock ‘n’ Joe in Kendall Park, also in 2009)
- Steve Hahn with Rob Martino opening up (both great Stick players) in 2009
- All four Mike Keneally shows (mostly with different lineups) in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017
- Project RnL in 2016
- iNFiNiEN with Louis de Mieulle and Crosswalk Anarchy opening up in 2018 (which, unfortunately, had very low attendance—but the music was incredible and it was really heartwarming to see how much all the artists enjoyed each other’s performances)
- Both Homecoming festivals in 2013 and 2014 (of which Advent also kicked off the first).
NJ Proghouse has taken place in several different venues over the years. Tell us a brief history of where it’s been in the past, and where it is now!
Jim: When I first started things before it was even called the NJ Proghouse, shows happened in a variety of joints, starting with the Court Tavern of course. (Two shows there.) Then the Vault in the old Roger Smith Hotel in New Brunswick. We then moved on to Heavy Metal Cycle Studio in North Plainfield for about a year. Then The George Street Playhouse for a show after HMC studios went kablooey. Then we went to the Metlar Bodine House in Piscataway and I settled in as NJ Proghouse.
After a couple years there, a fire closed the place for quite a while—but with the help of other historic house organizations, we found the Old Franklin Schoolhouse in Metuchen. With the exception of the occasional theater show at the Forum Theater in Metuchen, Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, or the aforementioned George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, this is where we stayed for a few great years. When this came to an end we went to Rock ‘n’ Joe in Kendall Park for a couple years and then tried 10th Street Live in Kenilworth and The Crossroads night club in Garwood. Finally we got tuned in to Roxy & Dukes Roadhouse in Dunellen. We’ve been fortunate to be there ever since.
How were the groups selected for the 20th Anniversary?
Jim: They had to be alumni.
Tell us about the founder, Jim Robinson, as well as the rest of the NJ Proghouse “staph.”
Jim: Regarding “staph,” we’ve had so many great folks along the way. All of them except for some folks who were compensated for providing sound in earlier days were/are here as volunteers. The core consists of Jon Yarger who has been on board with me since 2001. Listening to me—whispering and suggesting and keeping me rolling along. He is invaluable to organization and the NJP public awareness.
Since 2009, Alan Benjamin makes the production side happen. Alan keeps me from losing my mind when things get crazy. Ray Loboda has been with me since 2003—organizing, promoting, conspiring and everything else you can imagine to keep me going.
Amy Benjamin, along with Sharon Rodden and Roe McBurnett, keep order and make sense of the admissions amongst other things. Sven Henriksen keeps me grounded and does everything and anything asked.
These are my friends, my family and I love them all. Oh and they are the “staph!”
Alan: Jim is kind and generous soul, who is also very much an activist at heart—working in several contexts in this regard. I firmly believe that everything he’s done that relates to the NJ Proghouse comes from this standpoint, with a genuine desire to support great musical artists and the audiences that are most likely to connect with them. It’s all a labor of love and this is evident to just about everyone who plays and/or attends our shows.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start something similar in their own community?
Jim: Be patient. Don’t expect miracles. Start modestly. Be inspired and motivated by presenting the music to people.
What do you feel like is the best way to support the modern progressive scene?
Jim: Go to live events. Simple. See the bands perform.
Alan: I’ll also add my recommendation to buy the music you really enjoy. It’s so difficult for any musical artists to monetize their work these days and streaming services just don’t provide any meaningful compensation to those who aren’t excessively popular or famous. Supporting the musicians’ work, both in recorded and concert form, is the best thing anyone can do in this context, in my opinion.
As you reflect over the last 20 years of supporting progressive music, what has changed? What has stayed the same?
Jim: It’s an ebb and flow basically. When it started out here at New Jersey Proghouse, live experience was few and far between and that honestly hasn’t changed that much. Where at first attendance was sparse it grew to the point where about 10 years ago I could count on 50 to 70 people at any show. Of course there was the occasional light attendance back then as well, but theater shows were generally well-attended and guarantees could be made to bands. Now there are no guarantees, attendance is late for the most part, and in some ways it feels like 1999 again. Great bands and a quarter audience are the steady these days, but what stayed the same is the passion of the bands, the artists, and a close group of friends that have never failed.
What do you see in the NJ Proghouse’s future?
Jim: I hope to continue the shows for another 10 years at least, as long as there are bands that are willing to play and fans that are willing to sit and listen at a show—even if it’s not 50 to 70 people, I’ll keep going.
Founder Jim Robinson has had a rough period of health lately. Can we still contribute to Jim’s health costs?
Alan: Jim suffered a very serious heart attack back in early September. Though he was very fortunate to have recovered remarkably well from this nearly fatal event, Jim went through a rather difficult time of surgery, rehab, and had to spend close to half a year away from work. As you might expect, the financial ramifications of the entire experience were also significant and we launched a fundraising campaign on the NJ Proghouse site a little while back—and it’s still active now for anyone who would like to contribute. For additional details and to submit a donation, please click on this link:
Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.
How can I buy tickets to the NJ Proghouse event?
Alan: Additional information and ticket sales for our two-day “20th Anniversary Hootenanny” festival can be found here:
We very much hope that you’ll join us for what it going to be a magnificent weekend of live music, featuring a host of very special NJ Proghouse alumni performers.
I’ve known Jim, Alan, Ray, Jon and most of the staph and families for more then 15 years and their dedication to keeping the prog flame burning has been an inspiration to me and others. They are indirectly responsible for the existence of Progzilla Radio and my ten years as a broadcaster, swimming in the same direction. Much love to you all.