This was the fourth installment of this annual event, which has now grown to a full four days. The so-called "Press Party" on the night before the festival begins has seemingly turned into a full blown concert night featuring three bands. As usual, the event was full of surprises, both musical and otherwise, and as always was a great four day vacation for anyone who attended. As a group of hotel neighbors put it, "This makes up for all the tours that never seem to come through Phoenix". For others from northern states, it was a great break from the cold winter weather. And with a number of vendors and labels in attendance (Musea, Syn-phonic, Record Heaven, Luna Negra, Record Runner, Periferic, and several others) it also seemed to be something of a four-day CD shopping spree.
Bands were pulled in from all over Europe and South America. A late cancellation by Sweden's Flower Kings resulted in a headlining appearance by the John Wetton Band, two members of which are also members of British band Jadis, who opened the proceedings on the final day in their first gig in the western hemisphere, playing a number of songs from their just-released 4th studio album, followed by a repeat appearance by Hungary's After Crying. Once again, After Crying stunned the audience with an impressive set of progressive rock numbers, duos and trios comprising various band members, and fusions of jazz, folk, chamber and rock.
Other repeat-performances included France's Halloween, who turned in a very different set from the one played here a year ago. The band seems to be growing and assimilating more avant-garde elements into their sound, and nearly half their set was material being recorded for their fourth studio album. Panama's Equinox were back for the second time also, now a five-piece fronted by a very young female vocalist, with original guitarist/vocalist Marco Linares nowhere to be found. This was the same lineup which performed at Prog Day last September. L.A.'s Ten Jinn was back, for their third performance in as many years, sporting a new bassist and guitarist, and six new songs from their upcoming third album.
The surprise on the big stage was Finland's Five Fifteen. Entering the lobby after their set, another concert-goer put it succinctly "That wasn't really prog, but that was more fun than I've had at a concert in a long time". Indeed, shirtless wildman-singer/guitarist Mika Jarvinen - with face paint and fly-eye-glasses led the six-piece through a set that could be best described as late sixties/early seventies psychedelic hard-rock, until joined by Nik Turner of Hawkwind fame on sax and flute for the second half of the set, culminating in their cover of "Silver Machine". Their cover of "I Am The Walrus" drew lengthy applause, and second-singer Marika Liuski proabably gets the prize for most powerful female vocalist of the weekend. Speaking of female vocalists, there seemed to be a propensity of them over the course of the week, and Mariela of Argentinean band Nexus did not go unnoticed, both for her power and sensuality, as well as having the good sense to get out of the audience's face during the band's many purely instrumental sections - something which detracted from both of Equinox' sets.
For those interested in purely instrumental virtuosic prog, one needs to look no further that the set turned in by Sweden's Isildurs Bane, a symphonic five-piece with mallet percussionist, who played material mostly drawn from "Cheval", "The Voyage" and "Mind, Vol.1", their most recent three studio albums. For contrast, their set was followed by Scottish band Pallas, with a strong focus on lead singer Alan Reed, leading the band through a more accessible rock set that focused on material from their eighties albums, and their current release "Beat The Drum". Both bands did what they do very well, and were well received by the appreciative audience.
Every Baja-Prog has its surprises, and this one was no different. Opening the proceedings was Chile's Tryo, a band that started their set as an acoustic trio of guitar, cello, and hand drums/mallets, reminiscent of some Windham Hill artists like Nightnoise or Shadowfax, and ended it sounding more like a heavier Discipline era King Crimson. Following their performance on the opening night, sales of their three CDs in the lobby was brisk, while Mexicali based acoustic-fusion band Huesol played on a side-stage, with Cast's Dino Brassea joining them on flute. My only complaints of the festival are (1) that this excellent band was almost completely drown out by the din of the lobby: it doesn't make sense to have a completely acoustic band play in such a noisy environment, and (2) that on the opening night both Tryo and Equenox were allowed to play hyper-extended sets of nearly two hours each. Both bands wore the audience out. Fortunately both were allowed to play more concise sets on the final day at the Café Literarario at El Teatro del Estado, the main venue.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the week was Mexico City's Kromlech, a four piece whos set consisted of one long (~1 hour) multi-part instrumental piece, combining a number of styles and ideas from symphonic to fusion to folk to more challenging forms. With their debut release only 4 months old, this is definitely a band you will be hearing more about.
As always, the final performance of the week was followed by a party at promoter Alfonso Vidales' home, this years party being the most crowded yet. Once again, the entire event was very well organized and planned, and came off very well with no significant delays or problems. Alfonso runs a tight ship every year, and other festival promoters could learn a lot from the way Baja Prog is organized.