In October 2016 music lovers from all around the country converged at Reggie’s Rock Club in Chicago for Progtoberfest II, the second installment of an up-and-coming progressive music festival that hopes to become an annual tradition. The first Progtoberfest was held in October 2014. After the death of legendary keyboardist Keith Emerson last March 2016, festival promoter Kevin Pollack decided to bring Progtoberfest back and pay tribute to the progressive rock pioneer. Progtoberfest II included an astounding line-up of 26 bands playing on two stages over three days. Yes, you heard it right, 26 bands. I was graciously invited by Kevin as the official photographer for the event, but as much as I tried I couldn’t cover all the bands. My good friend and prog-connoisseur Kris McCoy (who besides Kevin is the other big promoter of Progtoberfest anywhere he goes) was also in attendance, and despite this chronicle being narrated in first person at all times, in really is the fruit of a combination of both our personal impressions, alongside with my pictures. Without further ado…
With its growing progressive rock scene, Chicago is the ideal backdrop for an October music festival. Travel accommodations are easy to find. Public transportation is exceptional. The weather is beautiful. And Chicago is home to Reggie’s, an enjoyably gritty venue with an attitude. The tight multi-floor graffiti-covered hangout sports two music venues, a restaurant, a record store, and a roof top bar. Reggie’s Rock Club is the larger warehouse-style venue. Three rows of stage-front padded folding chairs and an upper level balcony provided reserved seating for those who purchased an upgraded ticket. General admission was standing room only. Reggie’s Music Joint, the smaller stage, has a restaurant atmosphere with tables, booths and a seated bar. Buffet trays of shredded barbecue, chicken wings, hot dogs, and sides provided fuel those who purchased the VIP upgrade.
To accommodate the sheer number of bands, the set schedules had a sizable amount of overlap between the two stages. But with only a 20 second walk between the rooms, it was easy to jump back and forth to sample all artists and determine which act was the best fit for your current frame of mind.
I think it’s important to acknowledge the bonds occurring within the progressive community. In addition to showcasing outstanding musicians, prog-festivals provide a place for like-minded individuals to meet, exhibit their passion, and make new friendships. In the music scene, proggers can be seen as the social outcast nerds. Festivals such as Progtoberfest afford me with the opportunity to be with my own kind, to catch up with people from all over the country that I met years ago at other festivals. I can imagine it to be similar to how a Trekkie feels at a Star Trek convention. The prog-scene is a family. It was amazing to catch up with the friends that I see only once or twice every few years. I was also able to meet face-to-face with people I had only chatted with online in Facebook groups such as the Progtoberfest Guild.
Being unfamiliar with many of the bands, I spent a good deal of my time moving around Reggies trying to soak it all in. I caught large pieces of most sets but only a song or two from others. Every band had something interesting to offer. Here is a brief rundown of the bands in the order they performed.
Zip Tang: The native Chicago eclectic prog-band provided a strong opening for the festival Friday afternoon with their modern blend of jazz fusion and space rock with heavy nods to 70s progressive rock roots. The modern rock air of Zip Tang is essentially fresh, interesting to hear and slippery as art. Their great jam reminds, occasionally, of pure rock and new art. The firm classic influences are nice and beloved, but also rapid, carving ZIP TANG as both original and alternative in progressive rock’s deep stream.
Mano: This contemporary, Middle Eastern-inspired instrumental band delivers a live intensity with flute and violin on the front lines. Their compositions utilize musical textures and sounds from varied genres of contemporary, classical, and world music; fusing a rock rhythm section with classical and world instrumentation to bring a unique and energetic live music experience that journeys through intense, thematic unison lines contrasted by sections of virtuosic improvisation. Mano is another integral part of the local prog-scene in Chicago, and their performance on stage was second to none (To the point that my wife wanted me to buy their CDs right after the show)
District 97: They don’t need much introduction nowadays. Their most recent album “In Vaults” (2015) was critically acclaimed and it’s easy to see why. District 97 delivered a fantastic set (Despite the fact they were scheduled to play in the Music Joint stage, which is the smaller of the two as mentioned earlier); merging challenging and adventurous instrumental sequences with accessible and catchy vocal passages commanded by the charisma and hooks of vocalist Leslie Hunt; all of the above rounded by the terrific drumming of Jonathan Schang. This is a band that will go places, way further than they have gone already.
Paul Mutzabaugh Quintet: Versatile Chicago keyboardist Paul Mutzabaugh has been on the scene for over 15 years performing with numerous artists too long to list both live and in studio. Paul and company paid tribute to jazz fusion group Return to Forever by masterfully performing the 1973 album “Light as a Feather”.
Tribute to Keith Emerson: Fanfare, an Emerson, Lake & Palmer tribute delivered faithful renditions of hits and deeper cuts off he core ELP albums from 1970 through 1977, presenting the music with the energy, drive and virtuosity for which ELP was so well known. The band, consisting mainly of members from Sonus Umbra, was joined near the end of the set by guitarist Mike Keneally and District 97 drummer Jonathan Schang.
Galactic Cowboy Orchestra: This four-piece from Minnesota merges classic prog elements with art rock and bluegrass. Someone defined their sound like “The Galactic Cowboy Orchestra sounds like Bela Fleck meets Rush, goes out to breakfast with John Coltrane, and gets home in time to go golfing with Jeff Beck”, and that colorful description pretty much sums up what the band sound is about. I suppose you could consider them a 4.5-piece band if you count the baby inside of visibly pregnant fiddler/vocalist Lisi Wright. Their powerful cover of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” was a crowd favorite.
Brand X: Late 70s British jazz rock/fusion group Brand X reunited after years of rumors to embark in what was dubbed “Reunion Tour”; and they had the mission to close the show on Friday night with their current line-up featuring longtime members John Goodsall (guitars), Percy Jones (bass), and Kenwood Dennard (drums). Being their first album “Unorthodox Behavior” one of those vinyl I treasure the most, seeing them live was a magnificent experience. The iconic group performed masterful recreations of material from their earlier albums, with Goodsall’s signature picking and Kenwood’s otherworldly drum patterns stealing the show.
To read the second part of this article, click here.