Words by: Dennis Cook | Images from: us.progressivenation2009.com
Progressive Nation 2009 Tour :: 08.27.09 :: San Jose Civic Auditorium :: San Jose, CA
Prog rock gets a pretty bad rap these days. Sure, in its bloated '70s heyday it bankrolled ELP's spinning pianos and air-lifted drum kits and allowed Rick Wakeman to perform a rock opera based on King Arthur surrounded by ice skaters, but there's something cool about prog's ambition and bombast. Our daily lives are rarely "epic" and prog injects some much needed drama and loft. That it's never gone away – despite the best efforts of punk, new wave, grunge, etc. – speaks to its staying power and permanent place in rock's sub-genres.
|Dream Theater :: Progressive Nation Tour 2009|
One also caught a glimpse of prog's endurance from the huge age range gathered at the San Jose Civic for Dream Theater's annual Progressive Nation Tour, where black clad, acne riddled teens in band tees mingled with downtown businessmen revisiting their youthful passions and grandpas in '09 Slipknot shirts. And thanks to the headliner and their way with Journey-esque balladry, the number of women actually hit as much as triple digits by Dream Theater's set. This year's bill was rounded out by Zappa Plays Zappa, Bigelf and Scale The Summit, which, taken together, offered up enough technical expertise, genuine melodrama, belly shaking high jinks and manly rawk to satiate even the broadest prog appetite.
If Explosions In The Sky got deep into Tales From Topographic Oceans and Cliff Burton era Metallica they might sound like Scale The Summit, a Texas four-piece so fresh faced I'd card them before buying them a drink. With only 20 minutes, they decided to run 'n' gun, slamming ahead with all their might for the just arriving crowd, who almost universally tucked in and paid serious attention to their jazzy instrumental hardness, which also suggests a less melodically inclined Umphrey's McGee with similar twiddly guitars and heavy duty low end. Two large video screens bookended the stage, offering close-ups for the three openers and a Pandora's Box of excellent film and animation footage during Dream Theater. Scale's "The Great Plains" was a John Ford Western given a metal makeover, and "City In The Sky" was dedicated to the headliner and shared some of DT's wide-angle romance and chop-fueled storytelling. In plugging their new album, Carving Desert Canyons, they made sure to note they also had tablature for the guitarists in the audience, rightly noting, "This is a Dream Theater show."
Close your eyes and you might mistake Bigelf for vintage Deep Purple, a thick slap of bruising, sexy guitar, swinging rhythms and old school Mellotron and organ swells. Open your eyes and you found top hat sportin' lead singer Damon Fox madly pressing keys, mascara rimmed eyes wide as the screaming face from In The Court of the Crimson King on his t-shirt, as the rest of this Los Angeles quartet swam through acid test psych, struttin' glam and what could be the best Hammer Horror soundtrack you've never heard. A throwback that doesn't really seem like a throwback, Bigelf were awesome, the sort of dudes you can smell from a distance, a pungent bouquet of bong water and sweaty late night jam sessions. Opener "The Evils of Rock & Roll" and follow-up "Painkillers" were full of neat twists and effective stops, restoring some of the original danger and mystery of the original hard rockers. "Disappear" was a giant size slow burn – moving, dreamy and way cool – that bettered the studio version, as did much of this set, which culminated in a tune about money with lush keys and a heavy pop sensibility that compared well with The Zombies
|Zappa Plays Zappa :: Prog Nation '09|
There's a delightfully grimy quality to Zappa Plays Zappa that instantly sets them apart from Frank's more cerebral hound-doggin'. It's not that dear old dad couldn't shred mightily but Dweezil Zappa and his youngbloods willfully throw more grit into the workings, emphasizing the good time feel of many Frank compositions, an earthy aura to match the often ribald lyrics. Beginning with a tough little combo of two guitars, bass and drums, they banged away at "Apostrophe" with ballsy bravado. This band, which no longer contains any Frank veterans, is in no way cowed by this material. Even truly challenging songs like Sheik Yerbouti's "Broken Hearts Are For Assholes," perhaps the set highlight, were tackled with aplomb, and it was fun to watch Dweezil stand back, not singing or playing for the first two minutes or so, as he observed whether his comrades would pull off the insane Greek chorus vocal sparring and hairpin shifts of "Broken Hearts," or his obvious delight later as they mastered the delicate corridors of "Inca Roads" and built a steamy improv during "Filthy Habits." Much of ZPZ's interpretations are fairly orthodox but they've permitted a Motorhead-esque impoliteness to creep into some pieces, surfacing frequently in the molar rattling bass of Pete Griffin. Still, much of their mission is to keep the legacy and music of Frank alive and his presence loomed large, especially in the spot-on Frank phrasing of lead singer Ben Thomas and more quietly in the moustache and soul patch silhouettes on the bass drum. Boffo set by a band that is proving indefatigably enjoyable every time out.
Despite being around in some form for nearly 25 years, Dream Theater is a group that's either worshipped fanatically or almost entirely unknown. Yet, they curate and headline this international celebration of prog rock – subtitled this year "One Nation, Under Prog..." – and mount a seriously impressive production jammed with nifty lighting, artful stage design, creative video inserts AND play at a nose bleed technical level most jazz and classical musicians would envy. Simple they ain't (except when they go for your heartstrings), Dream Theater put on one of the more delightful, dense heavy rock displays I've witnessed in years. While familiar with their more recent albums, including this year's excellent Black Clouds & Silver Linings (JamBase review here), it was enlightening to see/hear their older material like the fusion masterwork "The Dance of Eternity" unfurl with finger blurring skill. While predominantly metallic in tone, there's oodles of complexity to their tunes, and even when they softened up for a song like "Hollow Years" it still felt pretty substantial. And the Journey reference in the intro fully extends to lead vocalist James LaBrie, hard rock's answer to peak period Steve Perry, a belter of seemingly infinite power who can tone it down to a whisper just as effectively.
|Dream Theater :: Progressive Nation Tour 2009|
However, it was bassist John Myung who took home MVP honors from this gig. In a word, Myung is dazzling, a sophisticated, unrelenting maestro who I'd love to see in a head-to-head with Reed Mathis one day. Each band member is worshipped (and probably rightfully so) by their hardcore fanbase in much the same way as Yes, and watching them ply their trade I could understand why folks fixate on them. It's baffling why guitarist John Petrucci isn't mentioned in the same breath as Vai, Satriani or other guitar gods of the late 20th century, and keyboardist Jordan Rudess is so clever and enjoyable - a rocker on his instrument in the tradition of early Edgar Winter - that he overcomes the potential silliness of his wizard hat and animated wizard sidekick, and even partially redeems the much reviled keytar by having a custom model that looks like a Klingon batliff. Drummer Mike Portnoy handles the devil's-got-me-by-the-balls grumble vocals as he works the biggest goddamn drum kit I've ever seen (three kick drums, a gong, countless toms and cymbals) with bestial intensity and a wicked grin. Taken together they make music that's quite smart, slightly overblown and yet retains some of the garage echoes of the original Alice Cooper band, which surfaced mightily on "Rite of Passage," one of the new album cuts that proved positively feral in concert.
Dream Theater celebrates prog's excesses and honors the still lively tradition by championing new acts like Bigelf and Scale The Summit. Most of Theater's material maintains a post-Metallica heft which is split open by jammy improvs, steel boot skull kicks and brainy fables. They conjured up a night of fabulous sensory overload and proved a real surprise to this relative neophyte.
Dream Theater Setlist
A Nightmare To Remember, A Rite Of Passage, Hollow Years, The Dance of Eternity, One Last Time, Solitary Shell, In The Name Of God, The Count Of Tuscany
The Prog Nation Europe tour begins September 23 in Finland; complete tour dates available here.
JamBase | Progressing
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