In 1999 Jim Robinson founded the NJProghouse with the goal of boosting progressive rock’s live scene by providing a smaller version of ProgDay. In the 20 years that followed his venture has grown substantially and become a family. On the weekend of June 15 and 16, 2019, Roxy & Dukes Roadhouse in Dunellen, NJ hosted the NJProghouse 20th Anniversary Hootenanny showcasing 10 performances by artists that had previously played the concert series. The two days event line-up was as follows:
- Rikard Sjöblom (solo)
- Brett Kull & Ray Weston (of Echolyn)
- The Tea Club
- Randy McStine
- Nick D’Virgilio
- Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly
- Tammy Scheffer
- No More Pain
- The Devil’s Staircase
Doors to the venue opened at 10:30 am. My wife Kristy and I, having driven all the way from Texas, were far too excited and arrived much earlier than necessary. Being the first into the venue, we got our pick of the seats, but there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Roxy & Dukes is a small club/restaurant with a big personality. The decor is circus sideshow meets burlesque house. There’s a reasonably sized corner stage and a cozy space for the audience with long rows of table seating and additional standing room along the walls and a separate room with a bar.
Advent was originally scheduled to open the show, but due to a death in the family they had to cancel. Rikard Sjöblom of Gungfly (and previously Beardfish) came to the rescue with an impromptu solo performance on guitar and keyboard. This softer, stripped down set focused on songs that Rikard typically wouldn’t perform with a full band and even a few covers at audience request including James Taylor and Johnny Cash.
The second performance on Saturday came from Brett Kull and Ray Weston of Echolyn. The pair were joined by addition musicians on guitar and keyboards. Their set featured songs from various solo projects and not-yet-released material.
New Jersey locals The Tea Club treated us to a complete performance of their dynamic new album If/When scheduled for release on July 30. The new tunes show clear focus and were well received.
Renowned guitarist Randy McStine took the stage next to blow us away with several solo project tunes. Randy‘s unique blend of catchy hooks and bluesy riffs heavily saturated in effects kept the audience in full attention.
World class drummer/songwriter Nick D’Virgilio filled his set with a vast array of highlights from his career. He opened by drumming along to a backing track medley of instrumental sections from Spock’s Beard‘s Snow. He then invited fellow Big Big Train band-mate Rikard Sjöblom to join him on keys for jam of instrumental sections from a few Big Big Train tunes. Nick also performed solo materials on guitar before being joined for “Go” by The Fringe band-mate Randy McStine. The set closed with a short unrehearsed jam with Nick returning to drums while Sjöblom and McStine joined on bass and guitar, trading roles seamlessly half way through.
Headlining Saturday night was Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, with Rikard getting very little break from his guest spot with D’Virgilio. Not all of the usual players were able to make the trek from Sweden, so this version of Gungfly saw Sjöblom on guitar with Petter Diamant on drums, Martin Borgh on keys and ex-Beardfish partner Robert Hansen on bass. Their two hour, high energy set featured rockers from previous Gungfly albums and the newest release Friendship. The night came to a close at 11:30, more than 12 hours after Sjöblom had strummed those first chords that kicked off the day.
Vocal artist Tammy Scheffer opened Sunday’s show. Her performance was like nothing I had seen before. Using only her voice and a looper she created rhythms and huge, powerful, haunting harmonies. Metal-influenced No More Pain brought what might have been the heaviest set of the weekend. The relatively young band played a significant portion of their acclaimed 2015 release The Post Human Condition.
Progressive rock staples IZZ delivered a strong performance of many atmospheric and complex epics. Nothing says prog more than 2 drum kits and 4 vocalists sharing a stage. Their set was highly energetic, encouraging audience participation, with playful banter between songs.
The final performance for the weekend came from The Devil’s Staircase, an unlikely pairing of Chicago proggers/physicists Luis Nasser, Tim McCaskey, and Aaron Gellar with eccentric Swedish drummer Mattias Olsson. The highly technical performance of tracks from their yet-to-be-released debut album were inspired by mathematics that occur in nature. The complexity in the rhythms work nicely with the sheer intensity with which Mattias attacks his kit. Although the music was new to everyone in the room, all were captivated and intrigued.
As a whole, the NJProghouse 20th Anniversary Hootenanny was consistently entertaining and impressively seamless. The hour of down time between each performance seemed like overkill at first, but always flew by quickly due to the camaraderie of other patrons and the opportunity to engage the artists in meaningful conversation or the quick selfie. I’m wishing another 20 years of success for the NJProghouse and I hope to make the journey up from Texas more frequently in the future.
(Photos courtesy of Kristy McCoy and Richard Reyes)