ProgDay--the only outdoor progressive music festival in the United States--is entirely due to a certain Peter Renfro, a packing/mailing storeowner of Bilbo Baggins-ish charm, whose passion, money and resources are all devoted to this rarified musical genre. Since 1995, the Mt. Pleasant native and UNC-Chapel Hill grad has bucked popular tastes and trends to put on the fest. (In '97 alone, he sunk $10,000 of his own money into the project.) Renfro spends his time e-mailing other prog fans, keeping abreast of prog news and arranging to bring groups from around the world here to North Carolina. This year, Indonesia's Discus, featuring Anton Praboe, "one of the best clarinetists in Indonesia" (just how many clarinets are there in Indonesia?), won the farthest-traveled award.
Most of the attendees seemed to have been bitten by the prog bug back when Rick Wakeman was journeying to the center of the earth, when Tull's Ian Anderson was being fitted for his first codpiece or when Yes members were mapping their first topographic ocean. I spotted a few vintage Gentle Giant shirts as well as people sporting King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Powell, Genesis and Osric Tentacle tees. The crowd was appreciative and extraordinarily polite, but this isn't music to clap along with or dance to. Sometimes up to an hour in length, the average prog composition--with its tempo shifts, time changes and instrumental complexities--lends itself to introspection rather than interaction. These musical flights of fantasy are best piloted from an armchair. (Even at the Cat's Cradle segment of the weekend, the audience was seated.)
On the whole, the prog rock scene is truly alternative: a word-of-mouth, information-trading network of people who have deserted the musical mainstream to follow an insular musical form. But, having survived into a new millennium, what is this beast they call prog?
For Kopecky (three Wisconsin brothers whose last name is ... Kopecky) it's guitar runs a la Yngwie Malmsteen over instrumental "compositions" augmented by ice bells and synth choral pads (a portable metal faerie choir!).
"Here's one titled 'Bartholomew's Kite' off our latest album, Serpentine Kaleidoscope," announced guitarist Joe Kopecky, as if you hear titles like that every day. They also played "Heaven's Black Amnesia," (inspired by Sylvia Plath) and a note-riddled composition inspired by "the swirl of autumn leaves." At one point, bassist James Kopecky sat on the stage, took off his shoes and played an acoustic sitar while Paul hit the toms with his hands for an ambient number. Business as usual for a prog band.
Finland's aptly named Höyry-Konen ("steam engine" in English) engaged their aural assault fronted by a Dr. Demento-ish, specs-wearing oddball in an ill-fitting tux. The Finn six-piece can only be described as Brechtian industrial rock as performed by Pere Ubu's David Thomas with Robert Fripp on guitar, or early Genesis arranged and conducted by Captain Beefheart. The rest of the group--a tall, striking trombonist/flautist wearing a Third Reich leather trenchcoat, a virtuoso cellist and rock guitarist, bassist and drummer--meshed their talents to produce music that defied time signatures and comfy harmonic intervals. Adjectives don't exist to describe what Höyry-Konen sounds like, but the band had truly "progressed" into its own avant garde zone.
Completely different were the two Italian groups, Mary Newsletter and Malibran. Malibran was more like prog fusion, a band of older guys rocking out with flute and sax solos, and a bearded man passionately belting heartfelt prog melodies in Italian. Detroit's Tiles played progressive metal with an operatic singer who sounded like Ian Gillan or Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson. Although Discipline--a staple of the nouveau prog scene--didn't play this year, Discipline's Mathew Parmenter--sporting his trademark mimelike whiteface--ran through a solo set at the Cat's Cradle. Parmenter, who resembles a pre-shaved Billy Corrigan, was surprisingly low-key and casual. In fact, the whole scene was incredibly unpretentious and friendly, as if both the bands and the audience were just as happy as clams to be in the presence of so many fellow aficionados.
As the temperature dipped into the 50s for Sunday's outdoor fest, some kind souls set up a table with hot drinks as the bulk of the crowd sat on the lawn braving the wind over the pond. In terms of musicianship, it was technique over melody, virtuosity over soul. Prog is--hands down--the whitest of all music. But it inspires slavish devotion in a few people, those born carrying the rare prog chromosome, perhaps. Some parents had even brought their prog offspring.
Unfortunately, flogging prog to the Triangle has been a losing proposition for Renfro. Unless he finds backers, ProgDay 2000 will be his last. His efforts to get college radio involved have failed, locals seem to avoid the fest as if were the site of an Ebola outbreak. I myself had gone because I wanted to see how the "prog" half lived and rocked; I expected the weekend to be an extended Kids in the Hall skit peopled by nerdy Middle Earth dwellers and dudes wearing capes. While I didn't come away a full-fledged "starship trooper," I respected the peace-going ways of the progophiles. And only one guy wore a cape.