by Rick Krueger
As I entered Reggie’s Rock Club on the final day of Progtoberfest, the Virginia band Kinetic Element were winding up their set. From the merch stand (where Discipline’s Matthew Parmenter was kind enough to make change for me as I bought CDs), their take on classic prog, spearheaded by keyboardist Mike Visaggio, sounded accomplished and intriguing; I wished I could have arrived earlier and heard more. Plus, you gotta love a band with a lead singer in a kilt! (Props to Progtoberfest’s Facebook group admin Kris McCoy for the picture below.)
The second high point of the festival for me followed, as fellow Detroiters Discipline held the Rock Club spellbound with their baleful, epic-length psychodramas. Matthew Parmenter reeled in the crowd with his declamatory vocals and emotional range; from there, the quartet’s mesmerizing instrumental interplay kept them riveted. The well-earned standing ovation at the end felt oddly cathartic, as if the audience was waking from a clinging nightmare, blinking at the newly-rediscovered daylight — even while rain clouds and colder temperatures rolled in outside.
Almost as if to disperse the interior and exterior gloom, students from School of Rock-Chicago powered through Yes’ sunny Fragile from front to back, with the band’s extended take on Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” as an encore. Cheered on by their parents and friends mingling with the Progtoberfest crowd, these well-trained teenagers did a thoroughly wonderful job, bringing refreshing dedication and enthusiasm to the entire set. It’s certainly good to know that kids today are still learning the classics — including “Roundabout’s” “greatest keyboard solo ever.” (I’m a stone ELP fan, but when Jack Black is right, he’s right.)
In another whiplash seque, the Chicago Zappa Collective took to the Rock Club stage. I’ve always had a problematic relationship with Frank Zappa’s music, unable to warm to his trademark blend of cutting-edge virtuosity and potty-mouthed shock value (in the cause of freedom, I guess). The members of the Collective are astoundingly versatile players and singers, and their dedication is admirable, but their version of Zappa’s “Billy the Mountain” — is it a profane doowop protest cantata? A fractured operatic fairy tale? The secret origin of South Park? — and selections from Joe’s Garage didn’t change my mind.
Up next in the Rock Club: Thank You Scientist. The New Jersey septet hit hard right from the start, building a postpunk, high-energy wall of sound with a funky horn section, falsetto vocals, and a touch of klezmer from the violin. Pretty exhilarating stuff: if I’m in the mood to be pinned to the back of the venue, I may well check them out the next time they come through Grand Rapids.
Then, it was over to the Music Joint, where Chicago jazz stalwarts Moulder, Gray & Wertico held sway. This was festival highlight #3 for me! Guitar, bass and drums working at the highest level of jazz/rock improvisation — in tune with each other, following the music wherever it might lead, then taking it someplace even cooler. Individually and as a unit, they brought outstanding technique to the service of groove, melody and group sound. And then, the icing on the cake: Moulder’s “Testament” launched into gnarly free jazz territory, topped off with amazing avant-garde solos from all three players. What a treat! Here’s hoping the live video that was filmed Sunday night gets wider release.
There was nary a flute player in sight onstage back in the Rock Club — but Martin Barre didn’t miss having one, leaning into the hard rock and blues side of Jethro Tull with his quartet. The set wasn’t Tull-only (or even that Tull-heavy) by any means, but it was a compelling showcase for Barre’s fretwork mastery, mixing in solo tracks like “Back to Steel” with intriguing choices like “Teacher,” “Sealion” and “Hunting Girl.” Plus, Barre won my admiration by addressing Progtoberfest’s “Beatles deficit” (his term) with fine covers of “Eleanor Rigby” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. And if you really missed Ian Anderson, Barre’s stage announcements were every bit as mockingly pompous and grumpily acerbic, while second guitarist Dan Crisp provided solid, credible lead vocals.
The big finish in the Music Joint was The Don and Bunk Show, hosted by Mothers of Invention alumni Don Preston & Bunk Gardner. I couldn’t dismiss my random mental image of The Muppets’ Statler & Waldorf on acid, as the tux-clad duo (Preston on keyboards, Gardner on saxes) merrily pattered their way through a wild mix of transgressive stand-up and impressively whacked-out jazz. As they doffed their jackets to display tie-dyed formal shirts and Preston demonstrated his skills at self-acupuncture by piercing his forearm with a sharpened coat hanger, my Frank Zappa allergy kicked in once again, and I made my exit. Doubtless my loss, because I missed what was surely a monstrous jam with Zappa vocalist Ike Willis and Mike Keneally. The ever-amiable Nick D’Virgilio guested on smooth, supple drums.
As on the previous two days, it was a pleasure to connect with the festival’s artists and thank them for their work. Special Sunday thanks go to Jamison Smeltz (yep, him again), Discipline and Nick D’Virgilio.
And finally, props to the bands I didn’t get to hear on Sunday: NEW! (Playing the music of NEU!), EYE, Amalgam Effect, Agori Tribe, Lost World Band and Progger.