ProgStock 2023

ProgStock 2023

Rivoli Theater, the Williams Center, Rutherford, New Jersey, U.S.A.
Friday 6th – Sunday 8th October 2023

This will not be your typical concert review. But then, ProgStock is not your typical prog music festival. Yes, there are numerous bands from numerous genres, meet and greets, merch tables and food stalls, and all your best friends you haven’t seen since last year. What makes ProgStock unique is its attitude. If you are not here to have the best time, check your pulse – you likely don’t have one. Along with the music presented over three days, there are lectures, films, Michelle Moog-Kousa representing the Bob Moog Foundation, album listening parties, world-renowned pumpkin sculptor Deane Arnold, artists Paul Whitehead, Michael Bennett and Annie Haslam, and between acts there is always music on the plaza outside courtesy of genial keyboard wizard Robeone.

For the sake of brevity, I will stick mostly to the music. If you have never been to ProgStock, you might be a bit turned off when you discover that many of the same artists show up year after year. This is, in fact promoters Tom Palmieri and Ann Rinaldi’s secret weapon. By having some of the artists return frequently (Rachel Flowers has appeared every year, but Dave Kerzner runs a close second), the staff and artists have developed a special relationship that manifests in collaborations both in the studio and inside the concert hall, as we shall see. The three days are divided into themes this year, ProgStock’s first at its new home in the beautiful city of Rutherford, New Jersey, literally in view of Metlife Stadium and the NYC skyline. Friday night is prog/fusion night. Saturday is dedicated to American acts, and Sunday to international acts.

Before the music begins, Patrons and ‘Progducers’ of the festival are treated to an early Friday afternoon delight. In one of the smaller rooms of the complex, Patrick Moraz (Yes, Moody Blues, Refugee) holds court. Vivacious, funny and all-around entertaining, Moraz treats the small crowd to a video from Swiss TV circa 1979 in which he composes several pieces on the spot. A panel composed of synth genius Larry Fast and Michelle Moog-Kousa ask several questions before opening up the proceedings to the attendees. As you can imagine, many of them are keyboardists as well, so there are numerous equipment questions. What is unexpected is how Moraz makes every answer not only informative but incredibly funny, thanks to his irrepressible personality.

The music proper begins with Ad Astra, an instrumental prog fusion band. Guitarist Joe Nardulli leads the proceedings, but it is bassist Harold Skeete who is the real secret weapon, along with drummer Tony Savasta. Together, they put the ‘rock’ in prog rock. Keysman Eric Davis emphasises the fusion half of the equation, but he has trouble being heard in the mix. Still, the set is full of meaty instrumental prog-fusion delights that entertain the crowd and Ad Astra goes down quite well.

Jen Young & Travis Larson of Travis Larson Band

After a short set change, Travis Larson Band continues the guitar-centric fusion evening with another high energy set. Guitarist Larson is joined by bandmates Jennifer Young (bass) and Dale Moon (drums). The presentation is decidedly leaning more toward the rocking side of prog, but the odd time signatures and Young’s prowess on the bass are enough to satisfy any die-hard progger. The music draws on influences like the Dixie Dregs and Eastern motifs, gaining in both complexity and ferocity as the set rolls on. Grud is a highlight with its emphatic time changes.

The headline act on Friday night is The Mahavishnu Project, noted for their liberal interpretations of early Mahavishnu Orchestra music. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Birds of Fire, one of my favorite albums, the band performs the entire record. What I had expected to be the highlight of my night was instead a big letdown. Led by drummer Greg Bendian, the band (bassist Brian Mooney, keyboardist Neil Alexander and guitarist Robbie Mangano) are all phenomenal musicians, however stretching out a 40 minute album to 90 minutes is an indication of just how liberal their interpretations are.

Neil Alexander & Brian Mooney of Mahavishnu Project

Often, I found myself wondering what song they were actually covering, until some recognisable sequence of notes came along. I did miss the violin, a key instrument in the original band. Rachel Flowers joins the band for several songs, including the massive jam One Word, and offers a beautiful vocal interpretation of Smile of the Beyond.  Flowers remains with the band for a much more successful tribute to Jeff Beck, including a funky Play With Me, the gorgeous Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers, and Dance of Maya, before Saga vocalist Michael Sadler joins the band for a rousing rendition of ELP’s Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Part 2 to close the set.

Erik Norlander

Things get off to a late start on Saturday (a running theme at ProgStock), but when Erik Norlander (Rocket Scientists) hits the stage, it’s all energy. Using backing tracks to help build the songs (is this a thing now?), Norlander runs through a short set of solo material, setting the stage for Aziola Cry. Composed of Touch Guitarist Jason Blake, guitarist Mike Milaniak and drummer Tommy Murray, the band treat the audience to a stunning set of heavy prog with time changes galore. The level of musicianship is off the charts, yet at the heart of it all are well constructed compositions. Blake and Milaniak trade leads back and forth while Murrays drumkit – the size of a small city – gets a major workout. The song Pervasive Sameness explores a variety of textures and sounds, and for a short while features something as close as the band gets to a traditional guitar solo. The 22-minute epic The Ironic Divide gets the best reception of the afternoon as the song shifts from one hypnotic riff to another before the Touch Guitar takes over the heavy lifting. The drums never settle into a repetitive pattern, so they often become the focus, expressing delicate threads of sound one minute to thunderous bulldozers tearing down mountains the next. Five instrumental acts in a row, but Aziola Cry make the most of their moment.

Randy McStine (Lo-Fi Resistance, Porcupine Tree) performs a mostly acoustic solo set which never stints on guitar heroics and passionate vocals. All the while, on the screen in the background, Paul Whitehead paints to the music. Economy of Differences is performed on electric guitar and drips with remorse and regret about the things that separate us as people. An incredibly touching moment comes on Adopted Son, an emotional and heartfelt song that McStine dedicated to his dog, Bruford. His short set ended with Before, a song about the divisiveness of social media. McStine is a natural and engaging entertainer, and he deserves a full set with a band next year.

Matt Dorsey

Multi-instrumentalist Matt Dorsey appeared on the strength of his new album, Let Go. Like McStine, he had performed a solo set last year. His band included keyboardist Andrew Colyer (Circuline), McStine on bass, and brother Chris Dorsey on drums. With the new album clocking in at a short 30-minutes, it left Dorsey plenty of time to offer a couple of new songs during the set, while Whitehead continued painting on the screen. The balance of time was dedicated to some interesting covers. The show opened with a fine version of Peter Gabriel’s Red Rain. During a solo spot midway through, Dorsey covered Chris Cornell’s Sweet Euphoria and a gentle version of PG’s Mercy Street. With the full band back on stage, they launched into a spot-on cover of Rush’s Subdivisions, where Colyer shone and Dorsey flubbed the lyrics. With the entire Let Go album included and another new song on offer, what was left? Comfortably Numb of course!

Rachel Flowers

Rachel Flowers returned to the stage for her own solo set, in which she performed a number of songs from her upcoming album, In the Moment. Flowers is adept at many styles, and the new songs were mostly improvised instrumental jazzy tunes that could have been released in the 1940s. Mellow Song found Flowers vocally chanelling her inner Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. Her set ended with a song she wrote for the new United Progressive Fraternity album, and Mark Trueak and Steve Unruh offered their assistance on Who We Really Are to end the set.

Saturday night headliners Dave Kerzner Band are regulars at ProgStock, and easy to see why. Prolific as Kerzner is, there is always new material to promote. This time around it was forthcoming album Heartland Minds, Vol.1. An album about his breakup with a girl in California which led to a road trip, the songs are actually quite Beatle-esque with a somewhat Pink Floyd vibe. Guitarist Fernando Perdomo is not only the most interesting element musically, he is also the most interesting visual on stage as Kerzner’s madcap foil. Matt Dorsey is back on guitar and regular drummer Derek Cintron rounds out the band. Video taken from a car traveling a lonely California highway played throughout the set, offering visual context for the stories in the songs.

Fernando Perdomo of Dave Kerzner Band
The new album comprised the first half of the show, after which Dorsey picked up his guitar and Perdomo his bass, the band launching into the entire Dimensionaut album, celebrating its tenth anniversary. Kerzner announced that former bandmates Simon Collins and Kelly Nordstrom had been invited but were unable to attend, so with the help of vocalist Durga McBroom (Pink Floyd), violinist Joe Deninzon (Kansas, Stratospherius), Michael Sadler, Sally Minnear, and Randy McStine, the album was brought back to life with originals Kerzner and Dorsey in featured roles. It was a reminder of not only what a stellar album Dimensionaut remains, but how much Simon Collins was an essential part of the sound. With so many musicians moving around on that stage, the logistics must have been a nightmare. Still, the crowd ate up every second of it. Highlights were Pale Blue Dot, vocalist Sally Minnear on Beyond Illumination, and Sadler’s vocals on I Am.

Joe Deninzon & Michael Sadler with Dave Kerzner Band

Dave Bainbridge and Sally Minnear opened the proceedings on Sunday afternoon. The Celtic-flavoured spiritual music was heavy on Iona – including selections from The Book Of Kells, Open Sky and Heaven’s Bright Sun albums. Both performers are multi-instrumentalists; Bainbridge moves deftly from guitar to keyboards to bouzouki and Minnear from percussion to guitar and woodwinds. Still, backing tracks were used often to fill in the sound. Minnear’s vocals are as pure and clear as you’ve ever heard, and she steals the show. Bainbridge’s guitar solos are transcendent, his tone unique. Iona tunes like Kells Theme, Chi-Ro and Songs of Ascendence are given new life with Minnear’s vocal prowess, but it’s their cover of Gentle Giant’s His Last Voyage that brings the crowd to its feet. Beautifully done.

Michel St Pere & Jean Pageau of Mystery 1

Next up is Canadian band Mystery. Right from the first notes, the band lunges for the jugular and never lets go. Theatrical vocalist/keysman/flautist Jean Pageau is a phenomenal frontman who pulls you into his stories, and his incredible voice keeps you there. Band leader and guitarist Michel St-père is less animated, staying to his corner of the stage, but his never-ending smile tells you just how much he is enjoying this. Bassist Francois Fournier and drummer Jean-Sébastien Goyette assist on vocals, while guitarist Sylvain Moineau provides the rock star looks and attitude. Keyboard player Antoine Michaud played quietly but adeptly in the background. The set list was heavy on the new album, Redemption, including the title track, Behind the Mirror, and the epic Is This How the Story Ends?, but classics like As I Am and Delusion Rain helped round out what for me was a near-perfect set.

Michel St Pere & Jean Pageau of Mystery

After a huge delay due to technical issues, Patrick Moraz took the stage to perform several “instantly composed” songs. After soliciting a series of notes from the crew, he sat at the grand piano and performed a song based on those notes. A showman start to finish, Moraz dazzled on any number of electronic keyboards as well, embracing sounds from the worlds of rock, jazz, classical and electronica. Warm, engaging, and maybe more than a little eccentric, Moraz is a wonderful performer who makes you feel like he’s performing in your living room for you and some close friends. He brought the house down with an exquisite rendition of Soon from his days with Yes, and closed his all too short set with a piece of his Modular Symphony.

Patrick Moraz

Finally, it was time for the headlining act, more than two hours late. Unitopia in no way disappointed. Comprised of vocalist Mark Trueak and keysman Sean Timms, this iteration of the band was assisted by Steve Unruh (Resistor) on guitar and violin, drummer Chester Thompson (Genesis), guitarist John Greenwood, and Don Schiff (Rocket Scientists) on stick. Despite a false start again due to technical glitches, the band regrouped and restarted opening song The Garden. Seated through most of the set due to back issues, Trueak gave a master class in singing.

Mark Trueack & Sean Timms of Unitopia

As if it were possible to top such a magnificent opener, the band launched into several songs form the new album, Seven Chambers. Broken Heart was up first, a personal and profound song about surviving illness (Trueak and Timms both survived heart attacks). Trueak sang with a passion that only one who has been there can express, making the performance incredibly poignant. That was followed by Something Invisible, with its beautiful classical guitar and violin interludes. Greenwood’s performance was generally sublime, but this song in particular stood out. The Stroke of Midnight is a song written from the point of view of a stroke victim by Greenwood, who just happens to be a doctor. The band joked that he corrected any medical mistakes in the lyrics so they would all be authentic.

John Greenwood of Unitopia

The Uncertain is an Unruh epic that closes the album and was dedicated to departed members of the ProgStock family. Greenwood and Unruh took the opportunity during this song to battle each other note for note on guitar and guitar/violin – everyone was the winner in this instance. The finale was the epic Tesla from the Artificial album. The audience joined in on singing the chorus: “We are, we are, all part of the whole, all part of the whole” for what seemed like forever. This was truly an experience I did not want to see end. But end it did, at least on the stage. That performance will live in my heart a lifetime.

As I have mentioned, ProgStock has its issues with timing. For me, even though I like to complain about it, that is part of its DIY charm. Go into it with open eyes and ears, and there is no way you will be disappointed. ProgStock is truly a family, both on and off stage. Tom Palmieri and Ann Rinaldi are like the parents who allow you a little more leeway than maybe they should, but you love them for it anyway. Next year, if you have not been already, do yourself a favour and go. I already miss the guys I hang with regularly, and each year there are new friends added to the fold. Hang around outside and talk to the artists as they mill about with the rest of the crowd. Oh, and have the best time ever. You can thank me for it later.

[All photos by John Giordano.]

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