Abingdon United Football Club, Oxfordshire
8th July 2023
TPA were once again back at Abingdon United Football Club in Oxfordshire for the third iteration of Prog For Peart festival, with sixteen bands to entertain the prog faithful over two days, all in aid of research into Glioblastoma Multiforme – the brain cancer that claimed the life of Rush drumming legend Neil Peart. Organiser Mark Cunningham and his team worked tirelessly to make it another very enjoyable, friendly, intimate and wonderfully musical event. Here, David Edwards collects the updates he posted over the event – edited and enhanced as necessary – to hopefully capture the spirit of this great festival, and honour some of the superb performances from the musicians, with insightful contributions from TPA colleague Leo Trimming.
Photographs kindly supplied by Jim Donnelly of AnaXa Images. Please contact him if you’d like to obtain full-sized copies of any of those used in this review.
[You can read the report for Day One HERE.]
[David] Saturday kicked off with a lovely and vibrant set of melodic rock with Forgotten Gods – fronted by our very own festival organiser, Mark Cunningham – who sang with great aplomb and was backed by an engaging set of talented musicians. The band had a nice twin-guitar front line of Max Hodges and Steve Harris and a lush keyboard wash from David Boland, creating a richness of sound over a tight rhythmic foundation from Mike Kentish and Dave Hallett. ‘Alive’ really hit the ground running and a moving ‘Alone’ (already impressive in the soundcheck) was a real standout. I loved the epic progginess of ‘The Pillars of Petra’ and the poignant, deeply personal ‘Vigil’ showed the diversity of mood in the band’s repertoire. A refreshing throwback to sparkling 80s riff-driven rock with a solid beat and power ballads that went down very well. They even threw in a sort of Neil Peart tribute at the end with ‘Everybody’s Hero.’ The surprise of the festival in many ways. I just need to stop thinking of them as ‘Forgotten Sons’!
[Leo] Day 2 opened with Forgotten Gods. Who?! Well, this is only about their second gig and features Prog for Peart organiser Mark Cunningham on vocals. There’s me thinking ‘Oh well, he did put this great event together for charity so let’s be kind!’ That was COMPLETELY unnecessary as Mark and his fine band won over the audience with an excellent set of melodic rock with some really good songs full of great tunes, ear catching melodies, high quality musicianship and some touchingly impactful lyrics. Forgotten Gods launched positively into the upbeat ‘Alive’ about a memorable alpine motorbike ride and then they delved into the emotionally impact of ‘Alone’ based on Cunningham’s memories of a young woman he knew from his youth workdays in the North East – he’s quite a lyricist. This ‘soundcheck’ song (as it will henceforth be known) also showcased the excellent double guitar attack of Steve Harris and Max Hodges who were both excellent. Harris used to play with Ark and Paul Menel (ex-IQ) and is clearly a class performer… but so is Hodges and the rest of the band. The epic grandeur of ‘The Pillars of Petra’ took the band in a decidedly more ‘prog’ direction with Eastern tinged keys and eerie guitar. The elegiac ‘Vigil’ is about the sad death of Cunningham’s mother when he was a teenager, and it drips with a sense of loss and melancholy with Harris somehow emulating a Scottish sounding whistle on his guitar! It’s a fine tribute to Mark’s mother. The gig fittingly ended with ‘Everybody’s Hero’, inspired by ‘Nobody’s Hero’ by Rush… it’s a stirring ending to an excellent set from this new unknown band – if they continue in this way, being unknown will be a thing of the past.
Trilogy, originally an 80s prog rock group from Essex, reformed in 2022 and are celebrating their 40th anniversary. At Prog For Peart they delivered a well-received classic prog set today. and the trio of guitarist/keyboardist Paul Dennis, bassist Mark Bloxsidge and drummer Nik Szymanek, were clearly having a great time back in the saddle. Melodic guitar-led prog with driving bass, drums and pedals! – but musically closer to mid-period Rush than the classic-era prog bands from the 70s. Although earlier technical issues limited them to a 35-minute set, it flowed very well, with ‘A Legion in Morocco’, ‘Sahara’ and ‘Break!’ showing an ability to produce melodic, yet complex prog rock. ‘Arctic Life’ from those early days was a jaunty number and the band ended with a superb version of the ‘R30 Overture’ medley by Rush as a tribute to Neil Peart (I had a wonderful time playing air drums to it!) This is a rejuvenated band well worth keeping an eye on.
Grace and Fire are a melodic prog metal band who have really been making waves over the last year or so, with several notable support slots – including Threshold. Drawing on their impressive 2021 album, ‘Elysium’, they packed a punch with their contemporary take on power prog. In André Saint they have a charismatic vocalist and Aaron Gidney adds soaring guitar lines and heavy riffs as necessary. Tim Ashton on bass and Graham Brown are an exuberant rhythm section, while Joshua Gidney adds those lovely prog keyboards that enhance their sound so well. Starting with the atmospheric instrumental ‘Overture’, followed by ‘Elysium’, the debut album was well-represented by the likes of ‘Chains of Sanity’ and ‘Paradise Lost’. The keyboard-led ‘Sea of Dreams’ show they can handle light and shade very well, and the epic, ‘The Great Divide (Part 1 & 2)’ was a real set highlight, with the dynamic interplay between the band members fresh and vibrant. The intense ‘Eyes of the Seer’ was an impressive end to a well-received performance. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of this band in future. Quality fayre for sure!
Next up were Ruby Dawn – a new band fronted by vocalist and keyboardist, Carola Baer – who brought their dreamy hypnotic mix of prog and groove-led rhythm to the festival. Dave Salsbury adds some nice extended guitar soloing and Ian Turner and Adam Perry provide a solid, toe-tapping beat. Hints of a Pink Floyd ambience at times. Drawing from their debut album ‘Beyond Tomorrow’, they started with ‘Break Down’ followed by ‘Star On You’ and then ‘Man Where’s Your Heart’, and these displayed the full range of their expressive and emotional sound. Amongst the highlights were the atmospheric, Eastern-tinged ‘Into the Sun’ (with echoes of early Floyd and flowing psychedelia). Carola certainly wrings out a lot of emotion in her vocals (a Stevie Nicks lilt at times?) and with the likes of ‘Dances on Mars’, ‘Dust and Fire’ and with the powerful, almost U2-like ‘Other Side’ towards the end, the band went down very well with the late afternoon audience. An impressive, mature and lovingly contemplative performance – Ruby Dawn are definitely a new band worth following based on this appearance.
The afternoon teatime slot for any festival is always a difficult one to negotiate, but Band of Rain deserve praise for their enthusiasm and positivity throughout. Originating from Dorset, Chris Gill’s changing musical ensemble have been going for a while in various forms, but the current sextet represents a renewal of sorts. Their eclectic mix of psychedelic prog swayed and flowed dreamily across the hall. Drawing on songs spanning many of their previous albums, new vocalist Jan Setter bravely tackled the changing vocal range and key of these older songs, adding a theatrical, storytelling style to them. Starting with ‘Cloudburst’ (all the way back to 2004’s ‘Deep Space’ album), followed by ‘Ghost Town’ and the expressive ‘Vampire’, it was clear that Simon Kay’s and Chris Gill’s guitars were shaping the sound, but they were complemented by Chris King’s lyrical keyboards. The ever-smiling Diane Fox on bass and stand-in drummer Rick Hambleton provided a solid backbone. ‘The Black Book of Carmarthen’ (from 2021’s ‘The Sun King’) was a set highlight – with Jan giving us some old Welsh language text at the end. ‘Innocence’ and ‘Toys’ (from 2017’s ‘The Dust of Stars’) rounded off the performance nicely. Whilst the set was a touch one-paced at times, and the new line-up are still finding their feet, there were some intriguing moments of musical interplay and atmosphere throughout.
I’ve been waiting to see Scottish melodic prog rockers Long Earth come over the border for several years, so I was really pleased to see them at last. Based in Glasgow and formed in 2016, they have two albums under their belt, although it was 2020’s ‘Once Around The World’ that made up the majority of the set. They started off energetically with ‘We Own Tomorrow’, followed by an impressive new song entitled ‘Sand’ – which bodes well for the 3rd album. The contemplative power ballad ‘My Suit of Armour’ really showed off Martin Haggarty’s expressive vocals, with some stunning guitar from Renaldo McKim. The whole band really excel on ‘Spring’/’Summer’ with a Mike Baxter’s keyboards adding some lovely proggy texture and David McLachlan and Alex Smith are so solid rhythmically. Sadly, a bass guitar technical issue meant no ‘Winter’ – but a stunning version of the dark ‘A Guy From Down The Road’ – with Martin’s clear vocals and story-telling skills to the fore – ended a very well-received set of quality melodic rock with prog flourishes. Hopefully more people will discover this friendly, talented, and enthusiastic band soon.
[David] It’s rare that a musical performance can be transcendental in nature, but it certainly happened tonight. The most intense and mesmerising performance of the festival was undoubtedly given by Tim Bowness. Supported by the incredible Matt Stevens on guitar and members of Rain (John Jowitt, Andy Edwards and Rob Groucutt) – he delivered a deeply emotional set full of diversity and range. Starting with a hypnotic, brooding and emotional trio of No-Man tracks (‘All the Blue Changes’, ‘Time Travel in Texas’ and ‘Wherever There Is Light’), then through to more recent solo tracks such as the rhythmic ‘The Warm-Up Man Forever’, and then onto the beautiful ‘Sing To Me’, the musical intensity was wonderful. The pounding musicianship on the prog-funk of ‘Bigger Space’ was stunning and through the anthematic ‘Rainmark’ and dark despair of ‘Mixtaped’ – the audience were completely enthralled. ‘Things Change’ had an intensity I’ve rarely experienced in music and Matt’s frenzied electric guitar, Andy’s pounding drums and John’s reverberating bass had to be seen to be believed. Throughout, Rob’s understated guitar and keyboards kept everything lovingly grounded, whilst the ‘Fonz-like’ Tim prowled the whole stage to great effect. An encore of ‘Brightest Blue’ was the perfect comedown and even the normally serious demeanour of Tim was peppered with lovely moments of humour and appreciation of the band around him. What a truly progressive masterclass!
[Leo] Tim Bowness and his band were simply majestic, weaving sonic tapestries of light and dark, heavy and delicate. Tim has wisely surrounded himself with class musicians with Matt Stevens in resplendent and scintillating form with his unique guitar style. Rain provided the rest of his band with the versatile Rob Groucutt on keys and acoustic guitar, and of course the top-class rhythm section of Andy Edwards and John Jowitt on drums and bass (both ex-IQ / Frost*) and both brilliant. At the centre, Tim was cool and charismatic with an unexpected wry humour. His voice was sublime on a range of tracks from his No-Man collaborations with Steven Wilson and his own great solo material. Matt Stevens wrestled and manipulated his guitar like it was some sort of beast, conjuring weird and wonderful sounds. Amidst the maelstrom Tim was serene and his unique voice cut through the evening beautifully, especially the gorgeous encore ‘Brightest Blue’ which entranced the crowd. Tim and his band were truly special and so different – a great call by Prog For Peart – I loved it!
[David] A special festival ended on a real high with Abel Ganz from Scotland playing a wonderfully vibrant and melodic hour of their enchanting brand of prog, rock, folk, jazz and pop – all mixed together in a truly unique way. Mick Macfarlane’s vocals and guitar playing were lovely, but every member brought their own skills and charm to the performance. Stephen Donnelly and Denis Smith on bass and drums respectively were as solid as a rock, while new member Dawid Zielinski supplied beautifully flowing guitar lines throughout. I particularly enjoyed Alan Hearton’s stabs of Hammond organ amongst his keyboard work. Starting with the beautiful ‘Close Your Eyes’, they moved to the epic ‘Unconditional’, which just had everything that makes the band so special. Complexity but always melodically accessible. ’The Life of the Honey Bee and Other Moments of Clarity’ and ‘One Small Soul’ reminded us of how special that 2020 album was – a true companion in those lockdowns – and in ‘Sepia and White’ you have a sublime piece of prog rock (and so much more). Despite the unfortunate curfew restrictions, no set would have been complete without a communal ‘Thank You’ – and we left the hall with our spirits lifted high. What a smashing way to end a great festival!
[Leo] Abel Ganz finished an excellent weekend with a cracking last gig. These are assured intuitive performers full of passion and they enchant the late-night audience with a set full of acoustic charm, rock power and an enjoyable groove, especially from their ‘Baron of the Bass’ Stephen Donnelly who absolutely nailed the splendid opening to the absolutely brilliant (and resonant) ‘Sepia and White’. New guitarist Dawid Zielinski really adds some spice on the guitar, particularly the classic ‘Unconditional’. Mick Macfarlane adds some great guitar of his own, but it is his soulful voice which touches the soul, particularly on the touching and apt ‘One Small Soul’. For me it was a great pleasure to get round the side to see (lifelong Rush fan) Alan Hearton in thrilling close-up detail on his keyboards and organ, particularly on the stirring solo on ‘Sepia and White’ (what a bloody brilliant song!!) Denis Smith was the assured backbone of the band with his usual cool aplomb. The crowd loved this set of emotional warmth, infused with rock, blues, jazz and even a bit of ‘country Prog’ with the encore of the appropriately named (and partly Scottish Gaelic) ‘Thank You’. What a way to finish the gig and the whole weekend… and as Denis Smith said after the gig, it’s a great way to dress rehearse for Loreley soon in Germany!
It was a pity that for the second night running the headline band had to cut a few songs from their set due to the curfew – hopefully next year maybe the final end time for the evening will be scheduled a bit earlier to give some grace if the timings slip a bit, still giving time for the headliners to do their full sets.
That’s it for Day 2. Finally, a huge thanks to Mark Cunningham and his festival team, the wonderful musicians and some of the nicest prog followers you could ever wish to meet. Of course, there are always area that can be worked upon for next year – not least giving more time for band changeovers and the ability to run on in case of technical issues. A few more attendees will always be welcome for this charity event as well. However, overall Prog For Peart remains a truly special festival which I really hope can continue. See you next year, proggers!?
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