This past weekend I was lucky enough to stumble upon the NorCalProg Festival, almost by sheer luck. Life has a way of doing that to us, providing us with exactly what we need even though we didn’t know it. A few weeks back, I posted a review of Psychic for Radio, and through that was put in contact with Peter Matuchniak, guitarist for Gekko Projekt, who mentioned in regret that it was too bad the Lady lived in Europe, because the inaugural edition of this festival was being put on in San Francisco. Lucky me lives a mere thirty minute train ride from the City. I was off.
One thing to note, the San Francisco Bay Area is a dry land when it comes to prog. The bigger names make their rounds, but as far as a smaller scene, it just isn’t present or I haven’t found it. I was elated when I walked up to the venue, the Z Spot, knowing I was about to be treated to five bands over a span of eight hours, something I never thought I would experience without flying halfway around the world. Z Space is a charming little venue, nothing more than a converted warehouse space for different forms of performing art. The crowd was sparse, but the signs of old prog fans were present in all attending. From the shirts to the ponytails to the vibe in the conversations present, I was in the midst of some ancient prog wisdom. I shut my mouth, opened my ears, and bathed in its glory. Then it was time, the first band, Headshear was up.
The stage was set for all the bands, quite a site to see the massive array of drum kits, keyboard stands, amps, guitars, microphones, all floating on a tangled sea of cable. It was the first of many surreal moments that night. A small part of me wanted to strip down and run freely among the denizens of this musical forest. Fortunately the wiser part of me decided that eight hours of prog would be a more enjoyable evening than a night in the Mission Districts lock up. At the front of this mass of instrumental madness was Headshear, kicking the day into gear. As with most opening acts in this type of show, they appeared understated. Small five piece kit, two guitars, a bass, and a few smaller amps. The equipment belied what came out of the monitors. They kicked the show into gear in style with an aggressive approach at the older elemental style of prog, and handled it deftly for the most part. A few technical glitches let the audience know what would be the one demon for the night, that sea of cables had some gremlins in it, and they were here to stay. Not one of the bands was untouched by them, but each band handled them with class and style. Headshear ripped of a number of tunes, the highlight part for me was the interplay between the two guitars, they handled the dance so deftly. Whatever one thought of the understatement of the venue, there was nothing understated about the music, it was the first sign that on top of a wealth of incredible music, I was also going to be treated to something unexpected that night, a glimpse at the heart and soul of music itself. Strip away all the pretensions, all the glitz and glam, and let both performer and audience celebrate in the beauty of music itself, it was a joy I was treated to over and over throughout the day.
In classic festival fashion, the first band’s equipment was taken away, the stage got a bit sparser, and the equipment grew. Fractal was next, more prog, but with a slightly aggressive technical edge. Josh Friedman’s vocals were mostly of the spoken word type, but done with an impatient and hasty edge to them, quite an effective trick to carry an audience with. As Fractal went off, Gekko Projekt took over, and boy did they ever. Here were four guys who knew their respective instruments very, very well. Alan Smith’s drum fills were explosively cascading, Vance Gloster deftly maneuvered over a wide array of keyboards, Rick Meadows kept a precision like pace on bass while sliding up and down the lower spectrum of awesome, and Peter Matuchniak, a rather humble and collective man when I met with him before the show, came to a passionate peak the moment the pick touched the string, nothing but pure soul came out of that axe. Keep an eye out here for more on Gekko Projekt and their guitarist Peter in the coming weeks.
Then something truly unexpected and amazing came next. Cyrille Verdeux, pianist and composer for Clearlight, came on stage to perform the Infinite Symphony album in its entirety, accompanied by a backing track of the other instruments, drums, cello, etc. He shuffled to his instrument a man coming on in years, but the moment he started to play, he turned into the accomplished master he is, and for the next hour, literally owned all present, young, old, male, and female, no one had a chance. The amassed crowd sat in stupefied wonder, being drawn more and more into the music, to a point where the individual seemed to disappear, and only the music remained. It was a moment of life I will take with me forever.
The last act was Quasar. By this time, the sea of instruments had dwindled down to theirs. It was ironic that the biggest technical glitches belonged to the headliners and the ones who spearheaded the festival to begin with. Some bad microphones hindered the incredible vocal talents of Karen Gaiser and Robert Robinson, but it was soon fixed, and was full speed ahead after that. With the stage cleared, Quasar had more of a chance to show it up, and boy did they,Gaiser leading the way with an animated and active performance that lived up to her soaring and deeply emotionally textured vocals. As to the band, all instrumentalists were in top shape. Greg Studley was a rapid fire machine on his guitar, ripping through each song with subtle fury. The rhythm section of Paul Johnson and Keith Turner on drums and bass respectively were nothing short of amazing, and Robinson’s keys gave the music the color it needed on top of his incredibly powerful male lead to Gaiser’s female. By the end, the audience was theirs.
Was it a perfect night? No, was the love of music present though? More than I have ever experienced. I didn’t feel like an audience member, it was more than that. I felt like I was given a one night visit to an ultra secret club of talented musicians. They shared with me the finer details of what was happening on stage and behind it. When the sound was off, the musicians looked to their peers in the audience for feedback, who needs a sound crew when one has twenty extremely talented ears at hand to give guidance and feedback. We of the prog world, both fans and musicians, take pride in our different nature. Some call it gaudy, elitism, or snobbery, but for this fan of prog, it is the freedom that comes with throwing out the standard rules, and letting the heart and soul of the music free. This, above all else, was very present on this special night.
I left the Z Space elated, lifted to new heights by all the wonderful music, but little did I know my show hadn’t ended. After taking a wrong train, and having to disembark and waited for another, I came across a street performer with a guitar and a tiny amp. I watched in wonder as he rifled through Zeppelin’s Ten Years Gone and Kashmir. Folded bills left my pocket in appreciation of this very special encore.