Monday, August 17, 2009

A Tale of Two (or Nine) Concerts - Part I

Hiya, kids - did you miss me? Wait a sec, don't answer that. I'll assume from the awed silence that you did. Ahem. I was away for a few days with K on a little trip to celebrate the anniversary of her birth (more on that in a bit). That trip just happened to be bookended by two amazing musical happenings I was able to attend.

3RP, Mk. II - The Bands

Two weekends ago marked the second (annual? hopefully!) version of the Three Rivers Progressive Rock Festival (aka 3RP) at the Pepsi Cola Roadhouse outside of Pittsburgh. Although it's located pretty much in the middle of nowhere (but a stone's throw from Pitt's big outdoor shed, oddly), it's a pretty good venue. It's small enough to make 400 or so people sound like a full house, it's got plenty of parking lot surrounding it, and it's set up to feed (and libate) a crowd as well as entertain them. It's also only 40 minutes from K's house, so no complaints here.

Last year, I only managed to take in three bands (out of ten) due to scheduling conflicts. This year, however, the calendar goddesses smiled upon me and I was able to take in as much as I wanted, which turned out to be nearly everything, with a couple of exceptions. Without further ado, here's my thoughts on the bands I saw over the weekend.

Edensong opened the festivities on Saturday morning. They were probably one of the more highly anticipated festival openers in recent years, as their debut album, The Fruit Fallen, has gotten rave reviews since it was released last year. To be honest, the album hasn't really clicked with me yet and I hoped the live performance would really rock my world. It was very good, but I'm still not convinced. Talented guys and exceptional players, but I'll not queue up for the next album just yet.

Second up was Colorado's Singularity. Prior to the fest, I tried to pick up their latest album from my dealer Greg, but it was out of stock, so I was stuck with their second album, Between Sunlight and Shadow. Somewhat serendipitously, they ended up playing all of that one from start to finish (all tracks segue, as Zappa would say), in addition to several from the newer one. Although they were a little rough in spots (the guitar player had a couple sloppy moments and the vocals weren't quite right) I like their style - sort of spacey symphonic prog - and ended up buying the new album after the set.

The middle of the lineup was one of the two bands that really drew me to 3RP this years, Phideaux. Ever since discovering Doomsday Afternoon last year, they've crept up near the top echelon of my favorite bands. With this performance, they're squarely in amongst the elite in my book. Senor Xavier and his large band (drums, guitar, 2 keys w/a double on sax, four chick singers w/a double on violin) navigated his densely packed arrangements with skill, dexterity, and power. Valerie Gracious has a great voice and it mixes well with Xavier's. The two unreleased tunes were great, so there's something to look forward to as well!

Up next was Saturday's sub-headliner, It Bites. Honestly, I'm not really a fan. They seem more like a straight up 80s power pop band with some proggy flourishes than a "real" prog band, but that's not the problem. They're stuff just doesn't connect with me, whether it's the old Francis Dunnery stuff (like him solo, tho') or their comeback album, The Tall Ships (which lots of people love, so I'm obviously missing something). Maybe it's the regular use of nonsense lyrics or frontman John Mitchell's insistent attempts to turn things into an arena rock show, I dunno. Either way, a passable 90 minutes, but I'll leave it at that.

The headliner for Saturday night was the other band I really wanted to see going in, IQ. They were one of the first bands I discovered when I found the prog mail order houses (Tales from the Lush Attic being in the initial trio of albums I got that way), so seeing them live and in the flesh was a real treat. They didn't disappoint, although I thought the material from the new album was a bit weak and I was a little bummed they didn't dip further into the back catalog, but those are minor quibbles. After a day full of music, their set breezed by, so much that by the end of "It All Stops Here" it barely seemed as if they'd begun.

Given Saturday's lineup, it would be hard for Sunday's to disappoint, although I found it a little less enthralling. To be sure, five bands a day is a lot of music to digest, even if it's all excellent. Eleven in the morning on Sunday rolls around just a little more slowly, after all. That being said, the three bands I hung around for on Sunday all had something to recommend them.

Waking up the Sunday crowd was Pittsburgh's own Persephone's Dream. Of all the bands at this fest, they leaned on the theatrical elements the heaviest, with their female lead singer looking like a much more attractive version of Arthur Brown, complete with gold cape! I've never been a huge fan of that kind of thing, as it takes just the right circumstances to keep it from just coming off as silly. "But wait," you're saying, "aren't you a huge old Genesis fan? With all the fox heads and what not?" Yeah, but I didn't know about any of that stuff, much less see evidence of it, until I was well under the spell of the music, so I can let it slide. Speaking of music, PD were pretty good, if unexceptional, but made good use of a dedicated percussionist here and there. They also pretty boldly came out and did a large hunk of the as yet unreleased album Pan's Labyrinth, which shares nothing but the name with the brilliant film from a few years back.

Second up Sunday was one of the hits of the festival with almost everyone, Syzygy. Hailing from Cleveland (never has a group of people from the Mistake on the Lake been so praised in Steel City!), the now quartet (up from a trio on their debut CD) brought along a dedicated vocalist for the occasion. They were obviously happy to be there, feeding off the energy of a crowd of people who actually appreciated prog. The same is true for most all of the bands I saw, but you could really tell these guys were getting an extra level of bliss out of the experience. They rocked, I have to say, but at the end of the set I was left a little numb by the whole thing. It was all "good," but nothing really grabbed me as "great." Glad to have seen them, however, no doubt.

The middle band on the bill Sunday was Tennessee's Glass Hammer. Long a sort of Steely Dan of prog, basically consisting of Steve Babb and Fred Schenchel (who is literally half the man he used to be - on an older DVD I have he looks like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons air dropped into a synth rig!), the band tends to expand and contract over albums and the occasional live show. For this show, they were down to a lean five piece and, again, having a lot of fun playing in front of an appreciative crowd. They played a couple of new tunes, too, and dredged up some old favorites. A good set and a good way for me to end the day and the weekend.

I skipped out on the two last bands for Sunday - Crack the Sky and King's X - because they're not really my thing and, like I said above, two days full of bands makes for a long weekend. I've heard good reports on both, so maybe I made the wrong call, but who knows. I'll have to wait for the DVD of this year's fest before I can tell, I guess.

Of course, in good proggy fashion, this post has become a multi-part epic. Join me for part two, won't you?

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