Day Two was an unforgettable day of music, and with the lineup we had, how could it not be? Every Proglodytes reader should know by now how much I love The Tea Club. Mile Marker Zero is brilliant, Rachel Flowers never disappoints, and Joe Deninzon & Stratospheerius was one of my favorite acts of ProgStock 2018. And for the Late Night concert, we had Percy Jones MJ12 featuring improvisational guitar god Alex Skolnick! It was destined to be a great day of music.
The Tea Club took the stage first. If you weren’t in attendance and haven’t heard The Tea Club, please do yourself a favor and check them out. A good entry point, in my opinion, would be their latest album, If/When. They started out their set with a few tracks from that album: opening track “The Way You Call” and “Came at a Loss”. Hopefully those new to the band were able to hear their mix of complex but highly melodic and accessible progressive rock.
We were surprised with a handful of new songs, which, as a Tea Club fan of several years, felt really special. And by the way, some of them had names and some were unannounced- I’ll try to share the names I heard. Pat introduced the third song as “What To Do”, a pensive, upbeat track that featured some soaring McGowan brothers’ vocals and some truly exceptional drumming from Dan Monda. The next song was “The Riverman”, which was played at their last ProgStock performance in 2017, but this time it got the full band treatment, which was completely different. Pat had explained to me before that the song has a backstory about the immense mantle he felt as a new father, as he sought to channel some of his fears and parental anxiety. This performance was significantly darker and heavier than the ProgStock 2017 performance, and as a parent who is trying to maintain some optimism among political crisis, a global pandemic, and a less than optimistic future, this song felt particularly moving and powerful.
The next tune was written by keyboardist (and Proglodytes contributor) Joe Dorsey. It had an upbeat, driving tempo, and forlorn lyrics, and featured some beautiful harmonies as well. “Vineyard” was next; A new track that used an old riff from their 2010 album Rabbit. It felt a little more like classic Tea Club: polyrhythms, harmonies, and a very cinematic, epic feel.
The next track was another new tune; a ballad that almost channeled Radiohead. I remember a few years ago at ProgStock, Tom Brislin said that he thinks Dan McGowan is one of the most talented and underrated singers in modern prog, and I think his performances in this unnamed track and the next track, “Sonata”, prove that to be the case. He has such a pleasing vocal timbre and powerful upper range. And the next new track, “The Bell Ringer”, showcased the utterly magic blend of Pat and Dan’s voices, harmonizing as only brothers can. This track was a song about a prophet of sorts, trying to warn others but facing rejections at every turn. It featured some truly magical close harmonies, a la Simon & Garfunkel or The Milk Carton Kids.
Another new track, “February” was up next; a catchy track with a chugging melody, Western-esque low guitar notes, and a very Irish-sounding melody. Next track, presumably called “Blue Ocean”, had some gorgeous 3 part harmonies and a melancholic, eerie vibe. Dan was featured next, and he played classical guitar and sang a jaw-dropping cover of the classic Genesis tune, “Blood on the Rooftops”- a bid that would for sure win over the unconverted in the audience. It was remarkable to hear how Genesis’s melancholy existential track fit with their overall vibe, and can be seen as an influence in the following song they played, “If I Mean When”.
They closed their set with “Creature”, their 30 minute epic. I had never seen this incredible song played live, and wow. This song is an incredible dynamic sonic journey, and seeing it live allowed me to experience the power of the track- from its calm, Jethro Tull-ish intro, to it’s apocalyptic midsection, to the devastating return to the main theme, this performance had several moments that gave me goosebumps. I overheard countless people in the lobby asking what their last song was called and saying that was already a festival highlight. “Call me the pulse…and I will fill your veins”.
Mile Marker Zero was up next. I first dove into their discography last year, and was really impressed with their relatively recent album The Fifth Row. They are all of the things prog fans are seeking: they’re extremely skilled musicians writing complex and heady music with killer hooks and vocals. The Fifth Row is also a fascinating concept album about artificial intelligence (you can read more about it in this interview I did with vocalist/guitarist Dave Alley last year).
Speaking of Dave Alley: he also has a hell of a voice! He has a really great tone and timbre and a killer upper register, and he has great instincts about when to place a flourish or change a line to shake things up. A good vocal comparison might be Brandon Boyd from Incubus. But he’s not the only star in this group. This band is stacked with tremendous talent: Drummer Doug Alley played with enthusiasm and bombast; Mark Focarile handled highly challenging keyboard parts with impressive agility; guitarist John Tuohy melted some faces with a number of blistering riffs and solos, and Jaco Lindito held it all together with memorable bass lines and a terrific tone (and a great singing voice to boot). They were extremely tight and polished and the performance was quite impressive.
They opened their set with “2001” from their Fifth Row album, which, honestly, is the perfect opener for their set, and a great introduction to the band. Next up on their set was “The Architect”, a powerful and enjoyable tune from that same album. Their proggier stuff feels reminiscent of the progressive rock and metal that was coming out in the late 90s/early 00s- Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, etc. But that doesn’t pigeonhole them at all- songs from their set like the hard rock tune “Where I Want You” or the piano driven ballad “A Thousand Nights” show a talented and diverse band with an extremely wide sonic pállate.
Mile Marker Zero has a gift for earworms. One of my favorite songs from their performance was “Building a Machine”- a track that definitely sticks with you, partially because of the melodies, and partially because of that strong chorus! I knew there wouldn’t be any extremely heavy bands at ProgStock 2021 this year, but I am grateful that we had Mile Marker Zero to bring a bit of distortion and edge to the lineup, as well as a brilliant acoustic set halfway through. I also think a lot of crowd members appreciated their brief nod to Genesis (keyboardist Mark Focarile played a pretty faithful rendition of “Watcher of the Skies”) before they launched into their song “UI”. I am glad they were available to do this show at the last minute, and I loved their performance. Go check them out!
Next up was Rachel Flowers, who had a shorter set and “opened” for Joe Deninzon. If you’ve never heard Rachel, she has been at every ProgStock event and is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. She is an immensely talented pianist, guitarist, flautist, and more, and is someone who has earned the respect and accolades of some of most legendary musicians in modern music. One of those legendary musicians, the amazingly talented multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson, introduced her before her performance.
She delighted the crowd with a set of highly melodic instrumentals and cover songs. She recently released a new album, and there will be a listening party in the morning on Day Three. Almost everyone at ProgStock knows and loves Rachel, but in the slim chance that they hadn’t heard her music, her performance, charm, and spirit surely won over everyone here.
Joe Deninzon & Stratuspheerius were up next. Joe is such an incredibly talented guy, and he is backed by an incredibly talented group of musicians. One of the things I love about Joe is he is a natural performer. I wouldn’t say it’s effortless, because I know Joe and I know he has been working on his craft his entire life. But his showmanship is top notch. Every time he soloed, I couldn’t take my eyes off the stage.
The collective talent of the band made for a very fun concert and a lot of terrific showmanship, but the music is a lot more than simply displays of impressive technical ability (which, given their level of talent, it could have been and the event still would have been enjoyable). The themes Joe’s band takes on have a lot of depth, whether it’s political critique or the challenges of making an art for a living, or imposter syndrome, or even the science of sleep. It never gets too heavy, though (Unless of course you’re referring to his performance of the song “Heavy Shtetl” with Alex Skolnick- their collaborative love letter to both heavy and Jewish music). And speaking of “Heavy Shetl”- that was one of the most amazing technical displays I’ve seen in a long time.
The set had a few excellent covers thrown in. Joe brought out Rachel Flowers, and they collaborated on a touching rendition of “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. What came next was an absolute knockout of a tribute to Chick Corea, in which Rachel Flowers, Joe Deninzon, and Alex Skolnik performed a flooring rendition of one of Chick Corea’s most well known tunes, “Spain”, complete with some devastating solos. And of course Joe knows how to play to an audience, so he had to do a completely insane, yet very faithful cover of King Crimson’s “Frame by Frame”. I’m a fan of Joe’s solo music, but he definitely picked some great covers that both honor the source material and also allow his band’s personality to shine through.
The night finished up with Percy Jones MJ12, featuring the aforementioned Alex Skolnick on guitar. Percy Jones is a legendary fretless bass player with a massive list of credits, and his group, MJ12, is stacked to the brim with talent and experience. Guest musician (and guitar legend) Alex Skolnick fit right in, delivering some stunning solos. They played an extremely diverse set that borrowed sounds from fusion, prog rock, and even post rock/ambient music. Watching these stellar musicians joyfully improvise and react to each other’s brilliance was a delight.
Well, I’m approaching 75,000 words, so I should probably wrap this up. Day Two was a fantastic day, full of wonderful music, conversation, friendship, and food.