Report from Progfest ’93
Progfest ’93: A Tale of Two Parties
by Mike Borella
ProgFest '93 was held on May 29th, 1993, in UCLA's Royce Hall, in Los Angeles California. It was organized by Greg Walker of Syn-phonic, David Overstreet of Art Sublime, and Gary Whitman of Citadel, to bring together progressive rock fans around the world for an evening of music. This is my account of the festival, which includes events leading up to the show, and some of what happened afterwards. ProgFest '93 was more than any one person could narrate, but this is my attempt at doing so. Hopefully, between this review and those of others, individuals who did not attend ProgFest will have a better idea of what the event was like.
I've decided to tell my story chronologically and introduce new characters as I met them. ProgFest '93 was more than just the music of four bands, and I hope to make that apparent in this account. I don't try to be objective in my description of the music or the image of each band, because I think that such attempts are futile. Instead I provide an honest account of my perception of the event.
It all started Monday, May 21st, with a call from David Overstreet, unhappily announcing that the original plans of a two day festival with eight bands had been changed into a one day festival with only four bands, due to financial problems. With little over 200 tickets sold, they could not afford to rent Royce Hall (at $20,000 a night) for both nights. Episode, Now, Citadel, Kalaban, Anglagard, Quill, Djam Karet, and IQ were the eight bands; of those, Citadel, Quill, IQ, and Anglagard remained. Naturally, I was disappointed in hearing this news, as the three bands I wanted to see most were Anglagard, Kalaban and Djam Karet (roughly in that order).
The next morning I got a call around 7AM from Mike McLatchey, who had just received a call from Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet. Gayle was very upset, not only about Djam Karet being bumped from the show, but also in the way the situation was handled. Apparently, who got to play and who didn't was a "political" decision, based on who had a stake in the running of ProgFest, and could draw an audience. As an aside, I can't blame the organizers for deciding what they did - ProgFest may not have happened at all otherwise - but this started me thinking that ProgFest could turn into an expensive fiasco.
The next few days brought little in the way of news, and I was so buried in work that I had no time to think of the upcoming trip. As a result, by Friday morning I wasn't excited about going - I was treating it like just another three day weekend. I was driving down to LA from Davis, accompanied by Brian Gould. We left at 9AM, with less than eight hours of sleep between us. The six-hour drive through central California is about as boring as a six-hour drive can get, in respect to scenery. Brian and I speculated on the event, agreeing that Anglagard was the reason that we were going. This Swedish six piece had recently released their debut, Hybris, to stellar reviews from even the most critical reviewers. It seemed like the progressive world, which includes fans of many different genres of music, had come to agreement over Anglagard. Greg Walker dubbed them "the best progressive rock band in the world today" in his latest catalog. Mike McLatchey found Hybris the best album recorded in the last 15 years, and other writers, reviewers, and fans were heaping similar praise on this young band. Brian and I both felt that we might not have gone to ProgFest if Anglagard had been canceled, as neither of us were fans of the other three bands remaining.
One long, tiring trip later, we arrive in LA at 3PM, and check into the Hollywood Legacy hotel soon after. Since the rest of our party was still on their way, we decided to go music shopping. I'd been to LA before but had never hit the music stores. First on our list was Round Sounds in Redondo Beach. After an hour long struggle with LA traffic to drive 25 miles, we arrived to one of the best progressive selections I've ever seen in a store. Ed, the owner, is a progressive fan, and would play any CD we wanted to hear over the store's stereo system. This was a bonus, considering he stocked many obscurities that I've always wanted to hear. Brian and I left two hours later, each of us $100 poorer. After a brief dinner and navigation check, we headed across town to Pasadena to visit Poo-bah's. Another highly regarded carrier of progressive music, Poo-bah's stocked quite a bit of good music, but in comparison to Round Sounds, was very disappointing. Little of what they had wasn't available in many Bay Area stores. Calling it a night we returned to the hotel.
In the mean time, Mike McLatchey, Mike's girlfriend Aimee, Peter Thelen, Mike Ohman, and John Szpara had arrived, and the beer was flowing. We kept the door open and the music playing in order to entice other prog fans in the hotel to come join us. We were moderately successful, until three members of IQ showed up, with roadies in tow. Things took off then, as Mike, John and Paul of IQ mingled with the many American fans that had never dreamed of seeing IQ play in the states. I chatted with John for some time and enjoyed his stories and sense of humor. We endured the comments about "bloody lousy American beer," though that didn't stop the Brits from drinking most of it!
As the party meandered on into the early AM, people from all over the US, as well as Europe showed up. At times there were two or three different languages being spoken within earshot of each other, not to mention two dialects of English! Greg Walker and David Overstreet briefly stopped by (neither of which looked anything like what I'd expected - funny how talking to someone over the phone can give you a false idea of what they look like), as well as several members of Anglagard. However, the Anglagard-ers were tired from a day's rehearsal, and try as we might, we couldn't get them to stay very long.
While the party continued until about 4AM, I couldn't bring myself to stay awake past about 2AM. A combination of little sleep, much driving, and much more beer had made me near comatose. I was feeling progged-out: overdosed with prog talk and music (yeah, it happens). I retired to mine and Brian's room and crashed until about 9 the next morning.
The next day started with breakfast and a trip to Aron's record store in Hollywood. Aron's comes highly recommended by many, and they do have a reasonably large selection of progressive rock. However, most was fairly common. We returned to the hotel and killed an hour before leaving for the show. Arriving at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus around 3PM, I couldn't help but be impressed by the venue. Royce looked like it was built in the early 1900's, and resembled a castle more than an auditorium. With balconies and turrets, it was definitely majestic looking enough to house an evening of progressive rock!
A line gathered outside the main entrance, and progressive aficionados mingled. Among others, Bernard Gueffier of Musea was there, handing out catalogs and magazines. We picked his brain about upcoming releases. He mentioned that there were "five pages" of albums that Musea wanted to release in the next few years. It seems that Musea mixes releasing obscure rarities with more commercial projects, in order to break even. Many obscure discs sell poorly, such as the recent re-release of the Moving Gelatine Plates' 1970 debut, which sold only 300 copies. Jean-Claude GranJeon, the editor of Harmony magazine was also there, passing out free copies of his publication.
While the hall's outer doors opened by quarter to four, the inner doors remained closed until after the sound check. We killed time at the merchandising area. Episode was there selling their new disc (which apparently had returned from being pressed only hours before), and trying not to sound too disappointed about not getting to play. Progression magazine had a booth up, as well as Kinesis discs, and Syn-phonic. The largest draw was Syn-phonic, as Greg Walker had supplied about half of the label's back catalog, as well as Djam Karet, Citadel and Anglagard discs. The new Kalaban disc was also for sale, in an album-sized jacket, not unlike the Quill release.
This also gave us time to wander and mingle with progressive fans. I met several prog rockers in their 40's who were unaware of the comeback that progressive music had made. With the little publicity that the genre gets, this isn't surprising. They had found out about ProgFest by accident! They seemed amazed that so many people in their mid-twenties were into this kind of music, and that many of us knew so much more than they, the long-time fans, did.
From all this mingling and talking to people, I discovered that almost nobody had heard of Anglagard. In my immediate circle of prog-friends, they were well-listened to, but it seemed that 9 out of 10 attendees of ProgFest had no idea what they sounded like. In general, I think that most people had come to see IQ, and very few were there to see the other bands.
The inner doors opened shortly after 5PM, and my group (McLatchey, Thelen, et al) got second row center. The hall had about 2000 seats, of which maybe 550 were filled. Not too long afterwards, the lights dimmed and Citadel hit the stage. A nine-piece from LA, Citadel features two guitarists, a bassist, a violinist, a keyboardist, and string bassist, a drummer and two percussionists. I had heard their album, The Citadel of Cynosure, once before. I wasn't impressed by that listen, but I was hoping for the best. Their music is best described as "Progressive Metal meets Masters of the Universe." The fantasy concept melded well with their "diet-prog" sound, but the overall show became campy. Between each song, an announcer, dressed in a cloak with two flashlights strapped to his head, wandered to a mic and told the ongoing story behind the music. Unceremoniously dubbed "Flashlight Man" by concert-goers, I couldn't help but laugh at how serious Citadel seemed to take themselves. The swords and sorcery gimmickry was made even more humorous by the anachronism of singer Gary Whitman. He wore the tight spandex pants that are characteristic of someone who's been living in LA way too long. Citadel's music was a mix of heavy prog-rock and neo-progressive. While they were tight and well-rehearsed, they never approached the complexity that such a nine-piece could have pulled off. The show never was anything more than corny - I was waiting for Skeletor and He-Man to show up! They wrapped things up in about an hour and while I have to give them an 'A' for effort, they came across as a joke. The audience applauded politely throughout the show, but the overall crowd response afterwards was a near-unanimous thumbs down.
Anglagard was next, and as they set up, I asked around about them, but no one except the people I came with had heard of them. So I began hyping. "Anglagard will blow you away," I told them. "You won't believe your ears." "Uhhh, sure." they responded. "We'll see." In about half an hour the lights dimmed and the Swedish sextet took the stage, which was equipped with no less than three mellotrons. They played their album "Hybris" in its entirety. From the opening track, Jordrok, I saw the jaws dropping. Anglagard's complex sophistication won over a neutral crowd in a matter of minutes. At the end of "Jordrok", they received a rousing ovation. They continued through, staying strictly to the album, except for a five minute addition to the final track, "Kung Bore". At the end of the set, they received an incredible standing ovation which brought the house down. The crowd couldn't believe the band, and the band couldn't believe the crowd! They were flabbergasted at a response that they never dreamed that they'd get. As they took their leave from the stage, the chants and noise continued for five minutes until they agreed to come back for an unplanned encore. But the biggest surprise was yet to come - Tord, the vocalist and rhythm guitarist, announces, "The Musical Box!" They ripped into a flawless rendition of the Genesis classic. Playing material that the fans were familiar with brought down the house yet again. Unfortunately, that was all the material they had, so Anglagard took their bows to an immensely appreciative audience. As the lights came on, mutters of "My God!" and "That was incredible!" whispered through the audience. There was a rush to the merchandise booth and the remaining Anglagard CDs sold out in minutes.
I wandered the crowd after Anglagard, and bumped into a few more people I knew, various acquaintances from here and there. I also felt extremely hungry, especially since I had not eaten in about seven hours. So I grabbed a small sandwich and some coke (the drink!) from the convenient catering bar set up. Total price? Five dollars. Not progressive at all. Unfortunately that's what vendors can do to a captive audience.
At the merchandise tables, yet another seller had arrived, this time all the way from Brasil. His wares were several of the new Brasilian bands, such as Sagrado and O Terco. I snatched a copy of the re-issued Quantum disc, mainly upon a friend's recommendation (it's amazing how I can rationalize about spending money when I'm in the mood).
Back in the auditorium, Anglagard was tearing down and Quill was setting up. I wasn't paying much attention to the on-stage goings on however, as everyone was still talking about Anglagard. I spewed a few well placed "Told you so!"'s to the newly converted Anglagard fans around me. While they weren't ready to toss their IQ discs yet, they did run out and grab the Anglagard CD.
I also met Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet, and we talked for a few minutes about this and that. He was still upset about not getting to play (and who can blame him?) but he was in attendance anyway. He spoke of being an independent artist and how Djam Karet had managed to slowly become a "successful" indie band by promoting themselves over the last few years. It isn't very well known that an independent artist almost always makes more money on CD sales than a signed artist, unless the signed artist is very successful. Entering into a contract with a large record corporation often incurs hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, which must be paid off before the band can actually turn a profit on their own material. Since indie artists have no middleman and little overhead, they usually turn a respectable profit if they sell only a couple thousand discs. Gayle said that the profits from each Djam Karet release goes back into the band's bank account to fund the next release. It goes to show how progressive music can be a break-even, or slightly profitable business, and I stress, that this is one of many reasons why the progressive scene must remain independent!
Suddenly the lights dimmed and everyone's attention was drawn to the stage, as dry ice rose over a keyboard stand that would make Wakeman and Emerson feel right at home. Several racks of keyboards were on the right, a Steinway grand piano graced the right-center stage, the drum riser was in back, and the bassist's platform was in front on the left. Quill certainly set the mood with the majestic horns they began their show with. Overall, their sound was probably the best mixed of the evening, and their lighting was also excellent. Keeping in mind the fact that keyboardist is the president of Apogee sound, the company that did sound for the most recent Grammy Awards show, this isn't at all surprising. Off to a quick start, Quill impressed me at first with their power-trio approach and sound. Keyboardist Ken Deloria is a very accomplished musician, as he played difficult keyboard parts with ease. Drummer Jim Sides also sang lead, which, as many of you know, can be extremely difficult for a drummer to do. Not to mention that the drum parts he was playing were difficult at times.
Quill started strong. However, after the first twenty minute track (of three twenty minute tracks) I was wondering when they'd change styles. Unfortunately they never did. The most well known comparison I can make to Quill obviously is ELP. But ELP mixes styles from song to song, from jazz to fusion, to classical, to pop..., and so on. Quill remained with the same majestic, symphonic style for the entire hour-plus that they played. Towards the end I was waiting for them to finish, and I nearly nodded off. While I respect their musicianship, I can't recommend this band to anyone. Apparently they are working on releasing a second album, but if it is anything like the first, I'll pass.
Although they received a fair bit of applause as they left the stage, no one stood, and few people seemed unhappy to see them go. I took another walk over to the merchandise tables, but nothing new was there. Then came a quick break for coffee and a brownie (only three dollars this time; what a bargain!) and back to mingling. As the other members of my group were doing, whenever I bumped into someone I knew, or talked to someone interesting, I'd invite them back to the hotel for our after party. We were set on having one hell of a blast.
Back in the hall, IQ was ready to go on around 11PM (I was oblivious to time at this point, though). Before they hit the stage, the announcer mentioned about a special guest in the audience, and Peter "Still Looking for the Hit Single" Bardens stood to take a bow. After the show someone told me that he was impressed by these new progressive bands so much that it made him think of returning to progressive rock.
IQ took the stage to an enthusiastic crowd response and tore into renditions of their earlier material. Their playing was tight and the sound was good. After a couple of tracks from The Wake, they played a song from the new album, Ever (which I found rather unimpressive, though IQ fans of old will probably like it) and the 21 minute Last Human Gateway. This one earned them a standing ovation. In all, they played for over an hour and a half, featuring one more new song (titled "The Darkest Hour" which had a really cool jam at the end) and many older ones. They received standing ovations both before and after their encore. After IQ, Greg Walker, David Overstreet and Gary Whitman came out to take a bow. Politics aside, they deserved a thanks from everyone for making ProgFest happen.
While ProgFest was now officially over, the after party was to begin. Back through busy LA streets to the hotel, and we kicked things off. There were more people there than I had imagined. I can't possibly remember everyone, but I'll try. Progressive fans were crawling out of the woodwork. There were long-time prog-heads from all over the US, many of which had been collecting for years, and were into making new contacts for trading and so on. Peter Nicholls and Paul Cook from IQ showed up (Paul apparently could stomach American beer for two nights in a row, no matter how much he complained). Randy Graves from Kalaban was playing us their new album (which sounded quite hot). He, like Gayle Ellett, was disappointed about not playing, but taking it well. He spoke of Kalaban playing out in the Bay Area before long.
It was a night of hearing the new music and discussing the old. One individual brought a demo tape from Dave Gryder, a new US prog artist, that was absolutely stunning. I met several people that new more about the obscure European bands (and knew more obscure bands) than I'd ever dreamed. Most everyone had a positive attitude and was enthusiastic. I was afraid that I would become progged-out once again, but it never happened. In fact, it kept going until 6AM.
During the night I met several people that I'd only conversed with on the phone or via mail, and many others from the newsgroups on the Internet. The members of Anglagard showed up and, unlike the previous night, decided to stay for a while. Eighteen year old drum-wizard Matthias was garnering praise from everyone. His performance had left many people in awe of his skills. When I asked him whether Anglagard had expected such a response, he said that the show had surpassed their wildest dreams, and that he was nearly in tears after the encore. Anglagard bassist Yohan cornered several of us on the balcony and gave us a crash course in Swedish. After hearing everyone pronounce the band's name as "En-gla-guard" all night, he set about to correct us. "No, no, repeat after me, En-gla-gourdt. En-gla-gourdt. Say it, say it." Try as we might to wrap our tongues around the unfamiliar syllables, I doubt that any of us got it right. The inflections were quite difficult to master, especially after several beers! We talked with Yohan about bands and music, and he mentioned that some of Anglagard's favorites were: Genesis (big surprise), Shylock, and Yezda Urfa. In fact, they had wanted to do a Yezda Urfa cover in place of The Musical Box, but decided against it since few people would have recognized it. I wish they had anyway. That would have been amazing.
Yohan spoke of the progressive scene from his homeland, and mentioned about a new band called Anecdote that is very good, as well as the reformed Samla Mammas Manna. He also tried to get us to pronounce Samla correctly, but it was beyond hope. Perhaps the most interesting news about Anglagard was their ages; no one was over 24. Being older than one of my favorite bands came as a minor shock to me, and I can only imagine how the senior proggers must have felt. Other members of the bands continued showing up, as well as luminaries and the festival organizers. All in all, it was one hell of a way to meet people, staying up all night in a Hollywood hotel room, with progressive fans from all over the world. Somehow, without warning me, the sun rose, and I realized that now was the time for sleep. Most everybody had called it a night, except for the most die hard partiers, so I found my bed and was instantly asleep.
Sunday was relatively uneventful. Waking up around 11AM, I was tired and worn out. The last two days were taking their toll. Breakfast was a quiet affair - no one had the words to sum up our experiences and the energy level was low. Nonetheless, we headed out to Claremont for a trip to Djam Karet drummer Chuck Oken's record store. He stocks an impressive selection of progressive goodies, and again I found myself spending more money than I should have.
By this time I felt the real world calling. Progressive music is really just a small corner of my life (yet a very enjoyable one) and I had responsibilities elsewhere that I was beginning to look forward to fulfilling. So I bade Mike, Aimee, Peter, Brian and John goodbye, and left alone for a six hour drive home.
In retrospect, I feel as that if we ever want to see something like ProgFest'93 happen again, we should learn from the successes and failures of the show. Here are some general observations that I'd like to share with everyone, and I hope that if any of you are ever in a position of influence in the organization of a progressive festival, that you consider at least consider them:
An expensive concert hall is not necessary. Aesthetically pleasing, but it is not worth the price of having to cancel half the bands.
The concert organizers and band members should be two mutually exclusive groups. This will give the organizers the power to make the tough decisions without having to worry about the mechanics of the festival. For example, the festival would not have happened without financial and technical support from Citadel and Quill, yet these bands got very little in the way of a positive response from the crowd.
One or two mid-sized names are needed to draw a crowd. Most people at ProgFest seemed to be there to see IQ. Djam Karet was also a draw (until they got canceled). However I don't suggest picking a commercial headliner just to draw concert-goers, because this will detract from the overall quality of the show.
Progressive rock festivals should be for the unknown and unheard of bands. Anglagard was a stunning example of how an outsider can become the highlight of a show. There are many new and obscure bands that are more consistent and harder-working (and if I must be opinionated, much better) than any of the well known ones.
Progressive music must remain underground. However, there is a need for networking among fans. Many of the biggest collectors know each other personally. The newbies and smaller collectors should try to network. If, god forbid, progressive music ever becomes mainstream, it will destroy the bands' integrity and music, just like it did in the late seventies. Please, let's keep Hollywood, the large corporations, and commercialism out of this genre. Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Does anybody want the new century to sound the death knell of prog once again?
In order for festivals to work, people need to work together, and also need to show up. In music, egos can be large, but we all need to swallow our pride so that events like this can happen. While I strongly believe that supporting any progressive band, just because they are progressive, will deflate prog music as fast as commercialism (the quality of prog music must be kept high, otherwise it will become a joke), I also strongly believe that supporting the bands that have the greatest potential for the future is one of the most important things a progressive fan to do. Even if there is only one band you like at the next festival, go anyway - you may be surprised.
[Mike Borella is a progressive rock fan from Davis, California, He attends college at U.C. Davis and works there as a telecommunications researcher. Please see Mike's "Progressive Music Contact Service" announcement on the next page.]