After an incredibly challenging year in 2020, I am absolutely thrilled to be returning to ProgStock 2021 to review one of my favorite festivals. To start off, I am so impressed with the ProgStock crew. They have faced some setbacks this year, and have been able to successfully roll with the punches each step of the way. Major props to this incredible, dedicated group of people. Unlike the legendary Zappa album, these folks are definitely not in it for the money; they are like-minded, hardworking music lovers that want to create a special event for the prog lovers in the audience. A more challenging extension of that is a COVID-19 safety protocol to keep artists, attendees, and staff safe. If you’re attending any of the days and need a refresher, or if you’re curious to see the lengths that the ProgStock team are going to keep festival participants safe, check out the website. If you’re already here in Rahway, remember that these festivals are Herculean feats to put on, even without a global pandemic or lingering hurricane damage to worry about. Please send good vibes and try to be kind! I’d say “hug a crew member”, but that’d probably break the COVID protocol.
All of the performances this year will take place at the Union County Performing Arts Center (or UCPAC). This beautiful venue has been home for ProgStock since it first started. As many people know, Hurricane Ida caused significant destruction in the Northeast, and the Hamilton Stage Building (one of ProgStock’s alternate stages) was damaged. Last night, on Thursday, September 30, there was a special event that featured Bob Malone and Mcnally Waters. One of the purposes of this event was to raise money to help with the damage. There is still a lot to be done to help Rahway recover.
And now, the part you’ve all been waiting for: the concert review!
The first band to take the stage on Friday was McNally Waters. Featuring prolific songwriter and guitarist Larry John McNally (who has penned songs for stars ranging from Rod Stewart to Chaka Khan), and pianist Harry Waters (Roger Waters, Marianne Faithful, Ozric Tentacles, and more), this group kicked off the weekend with a fantastic blend of genres and styles, including jazz, blues, funk, and folk. Their opening track, “Distortion” had almost every head in the theater bobbing, with Bill Withers-esque levels of groove and a relaxed but intricate lines. Bassist Ritt Henn was consistent and solid, and played a standup bass for most of the performance. “Black Cadillac” featured a stellar drum solo from drummer Jason Gianni.
Waters’ delicate, smart piano and synth work was intermittently complex but mostly understated- more Dr. John than Jon Lord, ditching flashiness for vibe. I really enjoyed watching him play, and he appeared to be very much in his element.
The selection of McNally Waters proves that the ProgStock organizers are more interested in bringing interesting, unique selections than a bunch of Genesis clones. McNally Waters delivered a diverse set: some songs were light and clever, some songs were dark and mysterious and brooding, but if there was a through line in their set, all of the songs were lyrical and melodic, and channeled a really pleasant, bluesy vibe. The best song, for me, was “Don’t Cross the River”, which featured the “Larryettes”, a small choir of backup singers (that included the fabulous Lorelei McBroom). I mean, how could you go wrong with New Orleans-tinged bluesy folk with 4 part harmonies?
Next up was Echoes, the American Pink Floyd, an absolute feast for the ears and the eyes. There are more than a few Pink Floyd cover bands out there – hell, I’m in one. What makes Echoes stand out is their stunning terrific stage show. Nearly every track was meticulously choreographed on a musical and technical level, whether it was the lights, the sound effects, or the action (see what I did there, Floyd fans?). The first few songs were from The Wall, and were faithfully rendered musically and visually, with scenes from the film adaptation in the backdrop. I’ll admit to be a bit tired of the most famous Wall tracks, but hearing them in this context reminded me of how clever and well written they are- perhaps the best example of this is “Another Brick In The Wall”. They brought this track that everyone in the crowd knew, note for note, and brought it to life with infectious enthusiasm.
When you’re assessing a cover band, it’s sometimes hard to truly gauge skill level outside of just affirming that they sound like the band they’re trying to emulate. Echoes managed to capture the sound and vibe quite well. The Gilmour solos were faithfully rendered in both notation and tone, the synth patches were spot on, but the true stars of the show for me were the three (4 with the addition of Lorelei McBroom) backup singers. Their harmonies made the stage sonically glow. There were a few moments where everyone on the right side of the stage was singing (7 of the 10 band members), and those were, without a doubt, some of the most powerful moments of their 3 hour set.
Major props to the backup singers: Penny Carmack, Chris Duncan, Michelle Hover, and special guest, Pink Floyd alum Lorelei McBroom, for taking our collective breath away with their harmonies.
Some highlights from their performance: They played Animals from start to finish, complete with projections and laser lights. They played Dark Side of the Moon from front to back, and even featured Harry Waters (who, if I hadn’t mentioned this yet, is Roger Waters’ son and live keyboardist) on piano for “Great Gig In the Sky”. As I mentioned, the backup singers were wonderful, and and with the addition of Lorelei McBroom on several Dark Side songs, we were in heaven. “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” were particularly good.
I’ve been listening to Pink Floyd for most of my life, and the music they played was all very familiar to me, but they successfully managed to bring that music to life in a way that I had not expected. As my friend Joe Dorsey (from The Tea Club) said during the set- “you can hit all the notes, but Pink Floyd is all about creating the vibe, and these guys created the vibe successfully.” They definitely researched their source material, borrowing from album versions, live performances, and movie adaptations to create a high quality, heartfelt tribute. You can tell that this group of people care about the music, and care to deliver it in a way that is as gripping and powerful as it should be. The light show was absolutely phenomenal, and worthy of a Pink Floyd endorsement. Kudos to Echoes for a job well done (and for an absolutely mighty encore, or maybe it was a 3rd set?). I’d credit each member, but it’s a big crew!
The Late Night events (dubbed The House of Prog’s Progressive Coffeehouse) have been an important part of the ProgStock experiences since it began in 2017. This year, the Late Night events took place on the Main Stage in the UCPAC building.
The featured live artists for the progressive coffeehouse were Beledo and Rachel Flowers. Both of these artists are devastatingly talented multi-instrumentalist, and seeing them interact was a true joy. They performed a number of pieces individually and together, in a variety of instrumental arrangements. Beledo played on guitar and piano, and Rachel played on the piano and flute. At some point, the lack of sleep over the last 48 hours caught up to me, and I made the tough decision to call it a night, sad to miss any of the utterly gorgeous music that these two brilliant musicians were making.
Melanie Mau and Martin Schnella were slated to finish out the night with a video that they had pre-recorded. Originally, they were slated to attend, but due to numerous factors, they were not able to make it, so they sent a video instead. As previously indicated, I unfortunately was not able to stay up to see it, but maybe if I ask Tom and Ann really nicely, I’ll get to see it during, you know, non-vampire hours.
Despite all of the challenges, this first day has been an incredible start to what I already know will be an unforgettable weekend. I could tell many in the audience were visibly moved by the performances, and rightfully so- we are music fans, and we have missed live music terribly. Thanks to all staff, fans, and artists for a fantastic Day One.