After the demise of NEARfest I was left without an annual prog pilgrimage. Good friends had been urging the trip to Chapel Hill for years but I could never swing it (a lot going on Labor Day weekend in this town). This year it was decided that no matter what, Prog Day would be the only thing on the agenda. Being used to the spectacle that was NEARfest the simplicity and intimacy of Prog Day is indeed a sharp contrast. Immediately running into familiar, friendly faces at the hotel was just the beginning. The attendance peaking right around 200 allows all involved to stay at the same place. Storybook Farm is in a remote country location and consists of a few cabins, metal shop and the festival area. If you are thinking the usual outdoor concert venue forget it. It is a grassy field about the size of a baseball park, flanked by a covered pavilion and fronted by a medium size roofed stage. People set up lawn chairs with tented covers and directly behind is a squared off set of tables with a few vendors and band merch. That’s it! With no fear of the sun I plopped down in the grass up front between the stage and the people in lawn chairs. Zombie Frogs kicked things off and gave the wake up call. Appearances suggested that the band members were likely half the age of anyone else there and they utilized youthful exuberance as the chief weapon. Boy did it work! The prog metal rocked but wasn’t anything I would be rushing to get on CD. The boys knew how to work a crown and put on a fantastic show. I should add that the stage has no lights or effects so it is all up to the performers. Well, there was a woman walking around blowing bubbles up to the stage but she was doing that on her own.
Next came Kotebel. My prediction was that they would be the best act of the festival and they lived up to my expectations. Absolutely mesmerizing music and virtuoso performances raised the bar to an almost unreachable level. This was only the second act so there were now six bands under a tremendous amount of pressure. I would like to say more but there are no words. The music has to be heard. After the show I raced over the their table and bought the remaining albums not already in my collection.
It was about this point that the realization of how far south North Carolina actually is sunk in. The sun blazed in the afternoon sky at a toasty 90 degrees. I started out in my spot as The Galactic Cowboy Orchestra began but it wouldn’t last very long. This was a fun band that “borrowed” a bit of shtick from Goober and the Peas. The first number was rollicking bluegrass just to throw you off and then settled into more progressive territory. They could have sold the deception better if everyone was dressed the part. The guitarist had the look but the other two guys were just in jeans and t-shirts. Lead singer and violinist Lisi Wright’s sexy blue dress worked no matter what the intention was. They were good and entertaining but a combination of the heat and following Kotebel probably influenced my perception. I made a retreat to the cover of the pavilion and soon lost interest in the music. I did notice that the musical styles represented were dependent whether or not vocals were written into the piece. The vocal numbers were very much toward mainstream while the instrumentals allowed more diversity. My mind may have wandered but I can still say it was a solid performance.
The Saturday closer was Sensations Fix There was some pre-show hype offered that this was a classic Italian band from the ‘70s but I had never heard of them. Truth be told, Franco Falsini is Sensations Fix with whatever musicians he happens to be playing with. Right now the lineup is rounded out by New York Americans. Spacey ambient electronic has never really been my bag. After a few minutes of what amounted to be mellow Gong without the goofiness, I lost interest and got up. Fortunately there were enough fans of the sound to support the show and they really enjoyed it. The biggest thrill for me was seeing David Jackson stretch out in the grass just about where I had been. Yep, he was just hanging out like any other fan there.
Sunday morning was when the vibe of the experience took hold. Breakfast at the hotel was not about the food but community. Once again the musicians were mixed in with my old friends but the best part was conversations with people I had seen many times in the NEARfest crowd but never spoken with. This was turning out to be more family reunion than music festival.
I learned a lesson from the previous day and stopped to procure sweat mops and a large amount of water before arriving at the farm. With renewed confidence I plopped down in the same spot and awaited Backhand. This was another band with a dichotomy much like Galactic Cowboy Orchestra. Vocals = mainstream and instrumental = complexity. There was one number where the two sides were successfully integrated. The singer was a walking stereotype of a 70s rocker still active in the 80s (think Robert Plant or David Coverdale), complete with the flowing mane and a BIG belt buckle. He was good but leaned very heavily on past heroes, which gave him the sound of Plant melded with Geddy Lee. In the end though Backhand was another act that overcame the surety of their albums probably never gracing my collection and left me very entertained.
Necromonkey had created a big question mark. The bona fides of Mattias Olsson and David Ludberg notwithstanding, it is primarily an experimental studio project. So what was a live performance of this band going to be? In a word, spectacular! They brought along bassist Kringle Harmonist and Gösta Berlings Saga’s Einar Baldursson on guitar. Witnessing a group this tight you would have thought these guys had been playing together for years, well David and Einar have been. The tension and flow of the music was riveting. Even though Baldursson had recorded with Necromonkey his guitar was not as emphasized in the studio. He almost stole the thunder of the banner name performers at Storybook Farm. Hopefully the band will continue to tour because they were the pinnacle of Prog Day.
Another unfamiliar element was The Travis Larson band. The name evokes more of a long lost high school friend than progressive rock. Rock they did. Not the proggiest of the lot but very talented. Travis is an excellent guitarist and bassist Jennifer young is proof of the “good things come in small packages” cliché. Their sound derives from classic hard rock trio but has enough complexity to fit into prog. Or as Travis put it, “non-commercial music.” Great performance but once again the heat took its toll and the music did not hold my attention. Taking cover however allowed me to hobnob with some of the other attendees and musicians. It was especially fun to watch Franco Falsini pal around with everybody. He may have looked like one of the oldest cats there but he sure didn’t act like it.
The main reason I wanted to see the Alex Carpani Band was because legendary musician David Jackson was joining them. I have a copy of “Waterline” and it rarely gets played. The absence of Jackson would have significantly diminished my enthusiasm along with many others in the audience. Expectations exceeded! David may have been the star but the band knew how to close out a festival. They are one hell of a live act. Sure we all loved the VDGG covers and the band crushed them. It was however the showmanship of singer Joe Sal that brought the house down especially when he ventured into the audience during the closing number.
It was a fantastic weekend with great music. In the end what really sold it was the group as a whole. It was a special time with special people. Aside from hanging out with musicians (which was great), spending time my friends Ian Carss, Ian Beabout, Billy Salvatori, new friends Lew Fisher, Deb Byrd and Paul Sears, many others and of course my old friends Michael and Rafaella Berry was priceless. We were all in it together and happy every single person was there. A larger event would not have allowed such a connection. Prog Day may not be flashy but it now has a very special place in my heart.