In Concert: Progtoberfest 4, Part 1

Due to the delights and demands of daily life, my second annual visit to Chicago’s Progtoberfest couldn’t be as extensive as last year’s three day blowout. Originally, I was only going to take in Sunday, in order to experience Soft Machine’s 50th anniversary tour of the USA. But an unexpected schedule opening let me check out the Saturday night action at Reggie’s Rock Club on the Windy (and Sleety) City’s south side.

One of the reasons I added Saturday night to my itinerary was the return of North Carolina’s ABACAB – The Music of Genesis. This ambitious tribute band charmed Progtoberfest 3 with a complete run-through of 1977’s live Genesis album, Seconds Out. This year, the brief was even more demanding: celebrating Genesis’ 50th anniversary by counting back down the years a la Rush’s R40 tour.

IMG_5793Given their time constraints, ABACAB opted to start with the 1981 Genesis track that gave them their name, then go back, back, back … Jaws dropped throughout the audience as they scaled the challenging heights of And Then There Were Three’s “Burning Rope,” Wind and Wuthering’s “Eleventh Earl of Mar” and the title track from A Trick of the Tail, never originally performed onstage. These choices all had special meanings for me: not only did I play “ABACAB” with my Alma College band The Run-Outs (shout out to Gadz, Jenny, Beef and the late great Joel Kimball), but “Burning Rope” and “Earl of Mar” were highlights of Genesis’ set when I saw them in 1978 at my first rock concert (also my first date)!

And the upward climb continued — Nick D’Virgilio (among his numerous credits, drummer on the final Genesis album Calling All Stations) hopped onstage, taking command to sing “In the Cage” from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway with flair and power:

IMG_5804From that point on, ABACAB had the audience completely in their grasp, cruising through highlights of the Peter Gabriel years in high style, then finishing with “In the Beginning” from the 1968 schoolboy album From Genesis to Revelation. Singer Pete Lents, bassist/guitarist Cliff Stankiewicz, new guitarist James Nelson, keys man Patrick Raymaker and drummer Matthew Hedrick played with brio and precision throughout, and got an enthusiastic standing ovation for their sterling effort.

Another cool thing about Progtoberfest: how organizer Kevin Pollack draws on the incredibly talented musicians based in Chicago, including many who’ve played crucial roles in the development of jazz, rock and prog. Dinosaur Exhibit was a shining example of that talent on display — a seasoned “where are they now” octet featuring members of area bands The Flock, Aura and The Mauds; the prime draw was violinist Jerry Goodman, best known for his founding stint with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra.

IMG_5830Given Goodman’s pedigree and track record, I’m not sure the Rock Club crowd (including members of Soft Machine leaning back against the soundboard) were ready for the horn-powered blue-eyed soul that kicked off Dinosaur Exhibit’s set. It was driving, vivid stuff , as vocalist Ben Cothran testified with the best and Goodman fiddled up a storm — but you could almost see the “is this really prog?” thought balloons forming over the audience’s heads. The rest of the set (pioneering Goodman fusion originals like “Brick Chicken”, an admirably psychedelic take on “I Am the Walrus” and a viciously swinging “Theme from ‘Perry Mason'” finale) were more in that expected wheelhouse, though, and DE ultimately got the extended applause they deserved.

Which left Neal Morse as the evening’s closer, climbing onstage for a solo set on vocals, acoustic guitar, keyboard, percussion and looping software. As always, Morse was engaging and impressive, using his sonic arsenal to present songs from his new Life and Times, along with impressive takes on solo material (the multi-layered overture/finale sequence from ?), tunes by Transatlantic (“Stranger in Your Soul,” an impromptu “We All Need Some Light”) and Spock’s Beard (“Thoughts Pt. I & II,” done entirely with vocal loops).

Morse’s improvisatory opener “Songs of Freedom,” incorporating riffs from both Black Sabbath and Yes, established a loose, fun tone for the set — best encapsulated when he brought “Selfie in the Square” to a shuddering halt, then spent 10 minutes pulling tunes by Coldplay, Donovan and The Beatles out of his head, all because he couldn’t help singing the word “yellow” with an British accent! This wasn’t the high-energy, goal-directed path of concept albums like Testimony and The Similitude of a Dream; it was a relaxed, meandering vibe, in keeping with the smaller crowd, the quieter sound palette and the lateness of the hour. It was delightful to catch Morse off his guard and having more sheer fun than usual, with every bit of his heartfelt lyricism and musical brilliance still there for us to enjoy. (After I left to catch the train, Nick D’Virgilio hopped back onstage to harmonize with Neal on Spock’s Beard standards “The Doorway” and “Wind at My Back.”)

The other great part of my Progtoberfest sojourn was catching up with fellow fans I connected with last year from West Michigan, Kentucky, St. Louis, Wisconsin and beyond.  More about that next time, as well as covering the lineup for Day 3 — sixteen bands on two stages in twelve hours.  Stay tuned …

— Rick Krueger

Progtoberfest: Day 3 Report

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.)

Kinetic Element

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.

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Beyond Prog: GRIMSPOUND by Big Big Train

Grimspound
Artwork by Sarah Ewing.

Big Big Train, GRIMSPOUND (Giant Electric Pea, 2017).  Tracks: Brave Captain; On the Racing Line; Experimental Gentleman; Meadowland; Grimspound; The Ivy Gate; A Mead Hall in Winter; and As the Crow Flies.

The band: Greg Spawton; Andy Poole; David Longdon; Nick D’Virgilio; Rachel Hall; Danny Manners; Dave Gregory; and Rikard Sjöblom.

The Rating: Perfect.  Beyond prog.

Go, go, go said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

–T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton.”

There can be no doubt that Big Big Train is not just one of the best bands of third-wave prog, but also one of the best bands of the rock era.  I suspected this when I first heard THE UNDERFALL YARD back in 2009 and was moved at every good level of my being.  Subsequent releases from the band have only confirmed this for me.  Every note, every lyric, and every brushstroke matter for the band.  They take their music seriously, and they take us—their followers—seriously.  Aside from the music (if there is, in any reality, such an “aside”), it’s clear that the two founders and mainstays of the band, Greg Spawton and Andy Poole, know how to form and leaven communities.

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FOUR Major Awards for Big Big Train Last Night

cropped-a0770580005_10.jpgSo, from checking social media this morning, it seems that some big things happened in England last night for our great friends, the eight members of Big Big Train (nine if you count Rob!).

[First post listed only THREE awards–corrected.  FOUR.  Apologies for the error.]

This is from David Longdon:

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Radiant Records Announces Live Morsefest 2015 Set

Radiant Records has announced a live release of Morsefest 2015, featuring two concerts covering Sola Scriptura, ?, and selections from the catalogs of Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard. One of the concerts even finds Mike Portnoy and Nick D’Virgilio on the same stage together.

You can pre-order the set now over at Radiant’s website. My only beef with the variety of sets on offer (besides the high price) is the fact that they aren’t offering a 2 Blu-Ray/4CD set. All they have is the 2DVD/4CD set or the 2 Blu-Ray set. Why they aren’t offering a DVD/Blu-Ray/CD set (much like the excellent Transatlantic KaLiveoscope box set from a couple years ago) is anyone’s guess.

Check out the trailer:

Without Compare: FOLKLORE by Big Big Train

Big Big Train, FOLKLORE (Giant Electric Pea, 2016). 

The band: Greg Spawton; Andy Poole; Danny Manners; David Longdon; Dave Gregory; Rachel Hall; Nick D’Virgilio; and Rikard Sjöblom.  Engineered by Rob Aubrey.

Tracks: Folklore; London Plane; Along the Ridgeway; Salisbury Giant; The Transit of Venus Across the Sun; Wassail; Winkie; Brooklands; and Telling the Bees.

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By chance, the new issue of PROG arrived at the same time as FOLKLORE.  A glorious day.

The centerpiece of third-wave prog, Big Big Train, matters.  How they write music matters; how they write lyrics matters; how often they perform live matters; how they package their music matters; and how they market what they do matters.  They are a band that has evolved significantly over twenty-plus years of existence, a restless band that never quite settles on this or that, but rather keeps moving forward even as they never stop looking back.  In their art, they move forward; in their ideas, they move backward.  All to the good.

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Big Big Train’s FOLKLORE Arrives in Michigan

It’s not everyday that a Big Big Train album appears in my mailbox.  An immense thanks to Kathy Spawton and Greg Spawton for sending it, and to the band for signing it!

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Veronica Rose celebrates with SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR, BBT style.

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