by Rick Krueger
On Friday, October 20, hundreds of dedicated proggers converged on Chicago from around the country — and even from across the globe. The location: Reggie’s Rock Club & Music Joint on the Near South Side, only two blocks away from the former Chess Records, the birthplace of great discs by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones and countless others.
Reggie’s has two main rooms, both dedicated to Progtoberfest this weekend. The Rock Club is designed for concerts, with a raised stage, a main floor, an upper level mezzanine —and a wire fence decor motif throughout. The Music Joint has a tinier stage tucked into the back of a narrow bar and grill. This weekend, merch tables were crammed into every inch remaining on the main floor, and patrons less interested in the music (or needing a break from the density of the sound) took advantage of Friday and Saturday’s warm weather to eat and drink at sidewalk tables. An upstairs space that held a record store until recently was turned into the VIP/Meet and Greet lounge for the duration.
Due to the usual complications of traveling to and around Chicago as the weekend starts, I got to my spot in the Rock Club just as Schooltree was taking the stage. With only an hour on the schedule, they powered through highlights of their Heterotopia album, condensing the narrative to zoom in on its main character Suzi. The set left no doubt that Lainey Schooltree is a major talent; her songwriting chops, keyboard skills and vocal versatility all came through loud and clear, grabbing and holding the audience’s attention. The rest of the band bopped along brilliantly too, with the ebullient energy of Peter Danilchuk on organ and synth leading the way.
The crowd for Schooltree was solid, but hometown heroes District 97 were the first group to pack the place, filling both seats and standing room on the main floor. The band took no prisoners, blasting right into riff-heavy highlights from their three albums that showed off every player’s monster chops. Soaring above the din, Leslie Hunt pulled in the crowd with her astonishing vocal power and range. New songs were mixed in that sent the audience head-banging and prog-pogoing with abandon.
To cap the excitement, guitarist Jim Tashijan (whose harmonies complemented Hunt’s leads stunningly all night) took the mike for a cover of King Crimson’s “Starless,” in memory of John Wetton. Jamison Smeltz gained a foothold in the prog world with 2004’s Total Sax Retain, a fine album of overdubbed Yes covers; joining Tashijan, bassist Tim Seisser, keyboardist Andrew Lawrence and drummer Jonathan Schang, Smeltz set the place alight — they nailed this one, matching the focus and fire the original Crims brought to playing it on their recent US tour.
In contrast to D97’s eclectic set, Dave Kerzner had one job — play his new album Static all the way through. Kerzner and his band made a fine fist of it, melding the hypnotic spaciousness of his previous work with the grittier sound world of the new music to excellent effect. Other than a few good-natured hecklers up front, the crowd was equally focused; they were especially appreciative of Kerzner’s heavy lifting on lead vocals and keys, Fernando Perdondo’s scintillating guitar work and Pink Floyd sidekick Durga McBroom’s punchy, gospel-tinged vocals. And if you had any cause to wonder whether this was a prog festival, RutiCelli’s presence on cello and vocals sealed the deal.
The evening in the Rock Club ended with a laid back, wide-ranging set by jazz fusion bassist Alphonso Johnson. With drummer and Weather Report compatriot Chester Thompson anchoring the music, Johnson’s versatile band covered the sweep of his career and inspirations, putting a graceful Latin-flavored stamp on tunes by The Grateful Dead, Weather Report, Santana, John Coltrane and other musical giants. (Apparently, after I left to catch a late train, Thompson’s Genesis days were acknowledged with a version of “Follow You Follow Me.”). The speed and volume may have been down a notch from the rest of the bill — not a drawback after midnight! — but the musicality and sheer delight in playing were there in abundance.
So, a fun first evening, topped with conversation, photos and signatures from selected performers; thanks to Leslie Hunt, Lainey Schooltree and band, Dave Kerzner and Durga McBroom for their time and consideration. “But what,” I hear you cry, “about Days 2 & 3?” Stay tuned …