I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to experience a lot of progressive music festivals, but thus far all of them have been based in or out of the United States. Under my belt are multiple NEARfests, RoSfests, a ProgPower, Progressive Nation at Sea, and multiple Cruises to the Edge. That said I’ve always kept an eye on European festivals, and year after year the festival whose lineup usually impresses me most has been Night of the Prog. With that in mind, when my girlfriend and I planned our first European vacation together, and I was looking at some sort of musical event to tag onto the beginning or end, it’s no surprise that after visiting Iceland, England, and Ireland together that her flight would head home as mine went to Frankfurt.
So, as an American, what was the experience like? Aside from some obvious cultural differences I’ll get into, there are simply logistical differences that make Night of the Prog a different animal from the stateside events I mentioned. The venue is 100% outdoors, something only seen on 1 stage of the cruise festivals. The only way to be really nearby Night of the Prog is to camp, which is also a somewhat unique option compared to the other festivals. Otherwise you’ll likely be in one of two nearby towns, Sankt Goarshausen or Sankt Goar. Finally, NEARfest and RoSfest tended towards longer sets and perhaps fewer bands with long breaks between acts, whereas as Night of the Prog starter bands had 1 hour sets and there was only ever a half hour between acts.
Let’s begin our journey as I touched down at the Frankfurt airport, arriving on Lufthansa, trying to get myself the full German flying experience. My pleasure with the festival certainly started that day, Thursday, a day prior to the music even started. I got my rental car, met up with some friends, and headed West, soon coming to the point in the journey that would see my following the Rhine river the rest of the day. Having just come from several days in Ireland, driving on the right once again, on roads actually built to a half decent width, I was treated to over a half hour of absolute beauty. Mountains on either side of the road with various picturesque churches, towers, and castles the entire journey, tucked mostly in the limited space between the slopes and the fast moving river. I would check in to my AirBnB in the scenic little town of Kaub and proceed across the river via ferry to meet up with folks for dinner before crossing once again and preparing for the next two days festivities.
Late in the morning Friday I picked up some friends and headed up the mountain side, and after parking embarked on the longish walk towards the venue. After exchanging tickets for wristbands we were onto security where one of my major bugaboos of this particular festival manifested itself. They security agents were very nice people, but the policy is that only a single .5 liter non-alcoholic tetra-pak was to be allowed inside. If you’re American and wondering what that is, it’s basically a small cardboard like container. But container aside, my main concern is you’re going to spend the next 8+ hours in baking sunlight and are not allowed to properly arm yourself with sufficient water? I’ll get more into food and drink later, but not being able to bring in a full hydro-flask was very off putting to me.
Now let’s return to the positive. The festival grounds are beautiful, slanted with good views, and offers a small standing area in the front, with stone (unbaked) benches behind, and finally a nice grass area up top. While the stone benches meant the back was a bit weary at the end of the day it made for getting through the large crowd during performances easy without greatly disturbing the other concert goers. There was a rather large gap between the stage and the rounded barrier, a bane to anyone hoping to be up close and personal, but a boon to the sound which, although it certainly varied by band, was generally good, even up front.
For me the first day of the festival was a pair of trios, three bands that would be introducing themselves to me followed by three bands I was very much looking forward to. Of the initial trio of Deafening Opera, Retrospective, and Antimatter, it was the middle act that stuck out to me, in large part to the powerful vocals and presence of vocalist Jakub Roszak, along with the occasionally more soothing vocals from keyboardist Beata Łagoda. The band quickly established themselves as one of my three favorites from Poland. Sure, I only really know two others well, but the point is they left a nice impression!
Next up was Threshold, a band I had finally seen this past May at RoSfest, watching from my usual post on the balcony, but who I would now certainly get a fuller impression of at Night of the Prog where I was able to hug the rail. Although never extensive in their touring the night’s performance was one of veterans who have been playing metal live for many years. Vocalist (and sometimes guitarist) Glynn Morgan was once again impressive in delivering not only his own material, but Mac’s songs as well. Keyboardist Richard West and drummer Johanne James were entertaining from their stationary positions, bassist Steve Anderson managed to wander and interact a fair bit, which for a prog bassist is a decently high mark, while Karl Groom regularly made all the intense guitar faces and poses you’d expect from the edgier side of their material. With a half hour reduction in set time from RoSfest I was gutted by the loss of “Pilot in the Sky of Dreams” from the set, but from my close vantage found new appreciation for and really loved the nights rendition of “Pressure”. It should also be noted that despite my comments on the sound earlier, I would say it took the festival far longer to dial Threshold in than any other band throughout the two days, with perhaps a half hour of the set going by before things sounded really good.
The evening’s penultimate performance would be a highly emotional one, and a big reason I had made my trip to Germany. I’ve had the good fortune to see Riverside stateside several times, starting with their first non-festival headline performance in New Jersey in support of Rapid Eye Movement. Fast forward many years and tragedy strikes with the death of guitarist Piotr Grudziński. Riverside withdraw from their touring schedule, including at RoSfest where I was to see them, and their future was uncertain at best. In 2017 the band decided to begin playing again, tapping Maciej Meller for live gigs and some studio solos with the core band being reduced to a trio as vocalist and bassist Mariusz Duda would take over most of the guitar work in the studio. Still uncertain of how quickly the band would return to the other side of the pond I found myself really wanting to scratch the itch to see them once again. Riverside has consistently been one of the smoothest and reliable bands in the genre. Their sound is always on point and clear, as is their playing, and despite the change on guitar that did not seem to change for the current performance which was filled with love for a festival that had hosted and helped them very early in their career. With renewed confidence in their abilities it makes me thrilled that they had, in the months leading up to Night of the Prog, been announced to be returning to RoSfest to headline next May.
To end the night it was time to witness one of the weekend’s huge rare appearances, the very first show outside of England for Big Big Train. It seems so odd that a band big enough to headline such a prestigious event simultaneously has not had any extensive touring history, only playing fewer than 10 shows since 2015. But you would never know by watching them. Led by front-man and flautist David Longdon the band delivered a performance worthy of their legend, with David especially, brilliant vocal performance aside, acting out the show and telling stories as if he did it a hundred times a year. Add to that the relatively recent solidifying of the band by having Rachel Hall on violin and backing vocals, Rikard Sjoblom as a multi-instrumentalist and backing vocalist, and Nick D’Virgilio solidifying the beat on drums and backing vocals and it’s no surprise this group can knock out such a show with so little experience together. Add to all this the fact that they were the first act of the festival to have video compliment and a brass section it added up to an almost overwhelmingly good experience. While bringing such a large group overseas, especially given their seeming aversion to many live shows must be an expensive endeavor I would like to think RoSfest and Cruise to the Edge should be finding themselves in a bidding war to see who gets the much needed first US based show from the band.
With the first night over let’s take a moment to revisit some of the festival amenities. First the point about water has to be revisited. You can bring basically next to no water in, and even if you do purchase a beverage at the venue you will get a cup with no lid, and your only opportunity to refill that cup, or the tiny tetra-pak you’ve brought in is at the bathroom sinks. Look, I understand the festival has to make money on food and beverage, but the restrictions on water for an all day outdoor summer festival is frankly ridiculous, and one of the only major complaints I have about what was otherwise a well run and fantastic festival. It should also be noted the food vendors were obviously barred from selling beverages, which resulted in needed to wait in one line to get food and then another to get a drink. And while a small glass of generic brand cola cost 4.5 euro, which seemed quite excessive given my previous complaint, the food choices in the 4-6 euro range were diverse and fantastic. One day one I saw and later tried the currywurst, and had some of the specialty flatbreads fresh from the oven at another stand and loved both. So a fantastic food and beverage selection if you want to get fat and dehydrated! It should also be noted for visitors there is a small building not far from the festival entrance that has nice bathrooms, some more beverage options, and light food fare if you want a break from the crowds, sun, and music for a bit. And while the beauty and atmosphere of the festival itself can’t be overstated, the need for people to make a shuttle down the mountain, and then for many a ferry across the river to a variety of hotels makes the idea of an after-party a sad impossibility. With RoSfest and ProgPower being able to relax with all of my prog friends at one place into the wee hours of the morning has been a great part of the overall festivities, so a simply quick ending to things once the music over was a little strange to me. As an American it’s also worth noting the venues smoking policy, or lack thereof. As far as I could tell folks could smoke wherever in the festival they wanted, which seemed odd. Now the festival grounds are big and spread out, and of course outdoors, so you likely won’t have too many issues, but if you’re sensitive to smoke as I am and you find yourself nearer the front among a crowd and a person or people are smoking nearby it will damper things for you a bit. Other items worth noting is that the festival is cash only, so be sure to bring plenty of Euro for the merchandise you’ll want, not just from the bands playing, but from the general music stands also strewn about with plenty of CDs and vinyl. And if at all of interest of you look into camping, as the grounds are very close and that seems like it would be a fantastic way to spend the weekend, and how I’d like to try it if I ever get back and can work out the logistics as someone with luggage restrictions due to having to fly in. But enough about these non-musical items, let’s move on to day two.
Saturday began with Smalltape, which, while not bad, and was enjoyably experimental through their set, was probably my least favorite act of my two days at the festival. Following that was a man who I had seen several times with the excellent Beardfish, but is now billing his music as Rikard Sjoblom’s Gungfly. Although Beardfish got to the East Coast of the US more than one might expect for a band of their level, Gungfly has not made the trek over yet and so this was another important treat of the festival. While I certainly missed the antics of Beardfish bassist Robert Hansen, the larger Gungfly band was able to give a thicker sound to Rikard’s music and delivered a strong and steady performance. And I know that this has to be a broken record type of point by now, but no matter how much I enjoyed the material I was still left longing for some Beardfish material to be in the set.
After the the now typical quick 30 minute turnaround Wobbler took the stage and being in the back for their set I imagined Rikard back on stage from time to time as their voices could certainly sound similar from time to time and even musically they sometimes seemed to come into alignment. Another quick turnaround and the festival was about to get a wake up call as Long Distance Calling took the stage, kept their set completely instrumental, and went full speed ahead with one of the most energetic performances to that point. Halfway through the second day of the festival was a perfect time for their brand of powerful music.
On the other hand I struggled, mainly due to my own tiredness to keep vigilant during the two hour Mystery set that followed. Though they gave a fantastic and inspired performance two weeks of travel caught up with my during the longest set of the day to that point. The band seemed to love coming to play the venue and had strong crowd support. Since my last time seeing the band vocalist Benoit David had been replaced with Jean Pageau and while David was no slouch during the band’s RoSfest performance Pageau seemed equally up to the task, both vocally, and in a semi-theatrical performance as well. At the end of their two hours the band almost had to drag themselves away from the stage, and commented they’d be touring and playing even more, which was easy to believe. Given their billing as third to last the tour hour set was unusual, but it was something they likely petitioned for given how much they seemed to want to play for everyone.
After Mystery came to a stop I found myself back up on the rail, ready to see the debut show from an altered version of The Sea Within. Daniel Gildenlow would not be joining the band on this night and Jonas Reingold has accidentally been double booked for a gig with Steve Hackett in Italy, so Pete Trewavas stepped in on bass while nearly everyone stepped up to take some of Daniel’s vocal parts. The show seemed to face some sound issues on stage, with guitarist Roine Stolt seeming particularly displeased, and as a result it really took one of the hottest debuts in recent memory a lot of time to seemingly hit their groove. While I had been looking forward to finally seeing Marco Minnemann live, and he delivered, helped by a stronger (read: louder) mix than on the album and one of the most amazing drum solos I’ve ever seen, it was keyboardist Tom Brislin, who I wasn’t overly familiar with that really stunned me. While his vocals weren’t anything to write home about his playing was top notch throughout the show and now his set at ProgStock is a highly anticipated event for me. While I certainly enjoyed the performance, especially in the latter half one everyone seemed to have settled in, it’s fair to say that while their debut album will potentially be my album of the year their debut live performance will not near the top of my list. I absolutely love so many of the individual players in the band, but between the changes and sound struggles I just hope things seem to gel more naturally by the time Cruise to the Edge rolls around.
My night would end seeing another band I had yet to see, and one that has not hit American shores since 2003, Camel. If I came into The Sea Within with high expectations that weren’t met, Camel were the perfect counterpoint. Only having a handful of now very old albums and not being sure how the voices of such an old band would hold up I came in knowing I’d at least see a classic band while they were still around, worst case scenario. Best case scenario played out when they absolutely blew me, and a crazed audience away. Their performance was tight, their sound was full and powerful, and age did not seem to weather any of their voices heavily. With Pete Jones sitting behind his keyboard, save for one of the several great saxophone sections, and guitarist Andrew Latimer confined to a chair on the the other side of the stage the band still managed to put forth an immense presence during their performance, helped mightily be the menacing looks of bassist Colin Bass and the highly engaging drumming of Dennis Clement. Again, being not overly familiar going in, and seeing the number of different lineups they have had, combined with the age factor I was simply amazed by the show Camel put on, a truly deserving and iconic headliner and a perfect end to my time at Night of the Prog.
In the end, as a festival goer I have to give a strong recommendation to this German-based prog powerhouse. Admittedly I will recommend basically all of the festivals I have gone to, so I’ll highlight what stands out about this one. The lineup always has a nice balance between big names you know and lesser known acts you should enjoy as a prog-rock fan. Although I love my trips to Gettysburg to RoSfest and the historic value there, the beauty of the Rhineland cannot be matched, even by the exotic places Cruise to the Edge visits. It’s a totally outdoors experience, which comes with a wide range of pros and cons, but thanks to nice weather during my time it certainly was a pleasant experience. If they would fix the awful water policy and bring the drink selection/pricing in line with the great dining options there it would have passed with flying colors. Can’t wait to get back, but for now, auf wiedersehen Deutschland!