When the opportunity arises to come together in celebration of the music they love, the prog faithful jump in and seize the day. Or in this case, the weekend. Carrying a somewhat inevitable name, the ProgStock festival has just completed its second journey through the colors and textures of this under-appreciated genre, including bands that have their origins in the ’70’s, ’80’s, ’90’s and even this past decade. The northeast has always been a stronghold of progressive rock, so it is somewhat surprising that a weekend festival in northern New Jersey wouldn’t be a slam dunk sell out, but happily attendance is quite up this year from its inaugural weekend last October and everyone’s spirits are bright. Throughout the weekend there are exclamations of gratitude that the festival exists, heard from the audience and from the stage alike. Smiles abound and the camaraderie of fans and artists alike is palpable. Festival founders Thomas Palmieri and Marty Dorfman and their estimable team deserve high praise for all of the effort, time and work they have put into ProgStock. They are helping to ensure the continued health of this engaging genre of music.
The festival starts with local artists Orpheus Nine, whose recent album Transcendental Circus has impressed lovers of keyboard-driven symphonic prog. Their delivery is spot-on and even at 3:30pm on a Friday, the growing crowd is warm and receptive. Frontman Jason Kresge’s stack of keyboards between him and the audience doesn’t diminish his emotive vocal delivery as he shows considerable skill in conveying the material with passion in his playing and singing. The band deftly maneuvers through their setlist before concluding with the 22-minute title track of their sole album, played live in its entirety for the first time. It’s a mostly instrumental piece, but affords the band a chance to sport clown noses on their faces for a time in between their furious runs of notes, alternating moods and complex sections. All in all, Orpheus Nine offer a strong way to begin a festival. For a relatively young and new band, they open ProgStock with professionalism and sincerity. Propelled by Mark DeGregory’s engaged drumming, they close their set with a final gong crash. This is a prog concert, after all.
Wasting no time in jumping into headliner status, the next band up is In Continuum. Although their debut album hasn’t even been heard yet by listeners, the band has already created a huge buzz by their membership which includes ProgStock veterans Dave Kerzner, Fernando Perdomo and Matt Dorsey being joined by Randy McStine, Gabriel Agudo and drummer phenom Marco Minnemann. The band alternates between tracks from their still unreleased album “Acceleration Theory” and Kerzner and Dorsey‘s previous incarnation as the band Sound of Contact. All of the material has Kerzner’s sci-fi themes at its core, and at times guest vocalist Leticia Wolf joins Agudo in delivering out-of-this world duets. Guitarists McStine and Perdomo flanked the stage and trade solos and textures throughout as Dorsey offers muscular bass runs and a strong foundation. For this material, McStine’s tone and delivery are revelatory, raising the bar on the entire performance with his accuracy and ease in playing. The new In Continuum songs sounds right at home with Sound of Contact’s more established repertoire and will likely find a welcome reception from their audience when the full album is released later this fall. Minnemann is accorded an engaging and playful drum solo, which given his status is to be expected, much to the delight of the crowd. Things don’t slow down much in Minnemann’s world even when he is not under the solo spotlight; his enthusiasm is infectious throughout the performance, almost challenging his bandmates and audience alike to keep up with him. Always one to invite collaboration, Kerzner generously brings out Stratospheerius leader Joe Deninzon to shred on his violin for a highlight of the set, and also invites Saga lead singer Michael Sadler to belt it out on Sound of Contact’s “Omega Point”. The band finally closes with a triumphant version of “Not Coming Down” which spiritually unites audience and performer for the final notes.
Friday’s headline performance is a curious but very satisfying patchwork of artists. Billed as Michael Sadler and Friends, it begins with Sadler sharing the stage with young-but-already-legendary pianist Rachel Flowers. They perform three songs together in an intimate atmosphere, the last of which is truly a highlight of the entire festival: the classic “Nights in White Satin”. Indeed, the evening probably could have ended after that piece and everyone would have gone home quite satiated, without a dry eye in the house. But there is much more to come. Sadler indulges in a brief personal detour, bringing out his young son Seren to strum acoustic guitars with him for a piece they’ve been working on; it’s a sweet father-son moment. When putting together a solo band for this performance, Sadler picked drummer Jimmy Keegan (most famously known as a former member of Spock’s Beard, who are now ironically playing live shows with Saga drummer Mike Thorne) to put together a supporting band which eventually turned out to be the band Enchant, who would play a full set of their own the following night. In turn, Jimmy was granted an “opening” spot to play three songs from his promising upcoming solo album, impressively singing overtop of his blistering drumming while Enchant backs him up. His solo set also includes one Spock’s song, “Bennett Built a Time Machine” which Keegan had sung lead on but had never been performed live previously. It is a victorious moment, tied together by the presence of Ted Leonard who sings lead for both Spock’s and Enchant. After all of this lead-up, Sadler finally returns and delivers the main goods: a set of Saga classics and songs from his older solo album, played in their full glory with Enchant hitting all the right notes. The enthusiastic crowd gives their cheering approval. Sadler’s seasoned voice is a highlight of the festival, and he makes ample appearances throughout the weekend to share it with the crowd. One more surprise is still in store: Sadler invites Kerzner and Perdomo back on the stage for a tender version of “You and the Night”. All of these unique one-time-only moments (like In Continuum’s previous collaborations) are what makes a festival like ProgStock so special and not to be missed.
The treats continue afterwards in nearby bar The Waiting Room with brief but inspired performances by Dark Beauty, Rachel Flowers and Steve Unruh (with surprise guest Phideaux Xavier for a song!). The late night vibe offers a chance for festival-goers to revel in their experiences of the first slew of bands and rub elbows with many of the performers. But not to get much sleep! It’s well after 2AM by the time many festival goers make their way back to their hotels to catch just a few hours’ sleep before it all starts again.
For those about to say that 11AM on a Saturday is too early to rock, we don’t salute you. The insatiable ProgStalkers (get it?) are back at it mere hours later, hungry for breakfast with a heaping side of prog. Ryche Chlanda & Flying Dreams do not disappoint. It’s the first time we’ve seen a simple four-piece lineup with a frontman who is a strong guitarist and vocalist, and the return to more conventional rock stylings is a welcome way to wake up. Chlanda (known for his work with Fireballet and Renaissance) and his band are tight and well-rehearsed. Many of the riffs are more bluesy in nature than prog, and the band’s name Flying Dreams might evoke feelings of one Mr. Satriani famously Flying in a Blue Dream. Chlanda‘s vocals are soulful and just the right feeling to start the day, as the band plays through songs from their new EP (available at the merch table, of course) and ends the set with a mid-tempo brooding groove reminiscent of Ritchie Blackmore and Ronnie James Dio performing Rainbow‘s “Catch The Rainbow.” A very nice surprise to start the day, indeed. In a Sonic Perspectives interview filmed backstage on Saturday with original Nektar drummer Ron Howden, there’s a good chance we’ll see music from Howden and Chlanda someday soon. Chlanda ends the set while receiving a standing ovation, for which he seems as much genuinely surprised and appreciative as the ovation is deserved.
ProgStock goes fully international for its next band, Accordo dei Contrari. They are the only instrumental band of the weekend, which brings welcome diversity from the symphonic approach of the majority of the other bands. Their combination of guitar, keys, drums and saxophone are immediately fresh and innovative, and are well received by the crowd. Although they do not have a bassist in the band, all bass work was covered by the left hand of keyboardist / organist / band leader Giovanni Parmeggiani, and the sound techs were mindful about boosting the bass on the organ in the mix to enhance that aspect. Quoting Soft Machine as an influence, their jazz explorations on many songs give listeners reason to check out their four fine albums at the merch after the show.
Local talent is again on display with the next act, but Tom Brislin’s reach has extended around the world in the past several decades as he has played keys with Yes, Renaissance, The Syn and Meatloaf among many others, including new supergroup The Sea Within which will likely bring him to greater prominence in the prog world in the coming years. For this performance his focus is largely set on his fine solo album “Hurry Up and Smell the Roses” which is more along the lines of a singer-songwriter approach, but in this context is supported by an excellent new band he has put together. Called Gold Rotation, they feature aforementioned Randy McStine who alternates between guitar and bass along with Dan McGowan who also reveals a fantastic voice; the group’s percussion is very ably covered by Raj Sharma on drumkit and David Anthony on every other percussive instrument imaginable. The group unveils a brand new song “Titan” which is a highlight of their set, boding well for any future recordings they will do. McStine again shines on everything he does, offering a searing guitar solo on “Titan” and then an inspired bass solo during Brislin’s closer “Microphone”. Michael Sadler can’t stay away from the stage and he makes a cameo with Brislin for a lovely rendition of Saga song “Wind Him Up”. Throughout the set, Brislin is able to impressively convey his emotions even while behind a keyboard or piano with his expressive yet vulnerable voice, which brings an intimacy to the proceedings even in this big theater. He’s fully relishing this opportunity as well he should — it’s his birthday! The set starts off with a surprise birthday song and cake from the crew, taking Brislin temporarily off guard with delight before launching into his first song. Another special ProgStock moment.
Enchant take the stage as one of the veteran acts of the weekend, having played a role in keeping prog alive with their formation in the ’90’s. Lead singer Ted Leonard wastes no time in hitting some of the highest notes in his range, thanks to a setlist created by guitarist Doug Ott. Leonard makes several comments about how infrequently they play or record, but the tightness of the band in concert doesn’t betray any sense of rust. They effortlessly soar through their repertoire – which includes their standards, deep cuts and a new song – igniting the venue with a highly-charged set. Bassist Ed Platt is always in motion, wandering all over the stage as his fingers deftly cover the fretboard, but always locked in with drummer Sean Flanegan. After having seen the band support Sadler the night before, it’s nice to see them command the stage in their own right. Offering up a new song from an album in progress, along with this year’s box set release of Enchant’s discography, portends well for the band’s trajectory, infrequent as it might be.
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