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Last Night: Prog Nation at the Buell

Last Night: Prog Nation at the Buell
Big Elf

Progressive Nation
Dream Theater, Zappa Plays Zappa, Big Elf, Scale the Summit
August 25, 2009
Buell Theater
Better than:
Reliving high school memories by flipping through a yearbook.

Let me admit to a strong bias up front: I spent at least three of my teenage years with a diet almost exclusively composed of the music of Frank Zappa. As my peers followed Beck, Weezer and other rising stars of the late '90s, I was dedicated to collecting each one of sixty-plus albums from the late composer's hulking oeuvre, and faithfully memorizing every nanosecond of every piece of music I could find. My tastes eventually expanded, but as I sat in the spacious Temple Hoyne Buell Theater on Tuesday night, waiting for the first of four bands billed as prog rock to begin, my inner sixty-year old had taken over, and it was giddy at the prospect of hearing Frank Zappa's music played by his son and an ensemble of competent musicians in a live setting.

My inner adolescent's bias didn't completely whitewash the rest of evening's program. The other three acts offered a wide menu of sounds rooted in some of the best parts of progressive rock music. During choice moments of both the Dream Theater and Scale the Summit sets, the music theory snob in me was fully sated, as eight-stringed guitars belted out complicated modal melodies and six-string basses spelled out seemingly impossible accompaniments. As a musical counterweight, Big Elf's performance incorporated enough brazen vocals and distorted guitar lines to lighten the other groups' seriousness and self-importance. All told, Scale the Summit, Big Elf and Dream Theater offered a composite set marked by impressive musicianship and sheer stagecraft.

But my ears perked up the most at the part of the program devoted to Frank Zappa, to the songs that I'd imitated on guitar to for countless hours and days in high school, the complicated compositions that defined a new direction in my musical progression as a youth. Unfortunately, while it was refreshing to hear those cherished tunes played live, my most coveted act of the night offered some disappointments. Because of my bias, the first two acts of the night would feel like a mere warm-up. For all their respective chops and sheer attitude, Scale the Summit and Big Elf would serve as a preamble.

Last Night: Prog Nation at the Buell
Dream Theater

But the band's sound and performance style soon made the pompous stage make sense.
I'd never seen Dream Theater live, so I wasn't fully prepared for the theatricality of the whole affair. As drummer Mike Partnoy pounded on a gargantuan set that included three bass drums; as keyboardist Jordan Rudess played lines with the image of a computer generated wizard on a separate screen behind him; and as lead singer James LaBrie crooned dramatically about rites of passage and meeting people in the ocean, I started to fully appreciate the epic mood this band was going for.

And their efforts seemed to work on the loyal crowd spread across the different levels of the Buell. At times, the cliché and preening drama of the whole production seemed too much for me; I had a weird sense that I should be playing a role playing game, reading a Phillip K. Dick book or wearing a wizard hat. But the crowd ate up every single theatrical stunt, every one of LaBrie's larger-than-life gestures and maudlin antics.

The fact that the group boasted a well-honed dynamic on songs like "A Rite of Passage," "A Nightmare to Remember" and "Hollow Years" probably helped. There was no lack of speedy guitar solos, complicated keyboard lines or epic bass accompaniments.
But the pretension of the whole production eventually wore on me. As a giant screen showed computer-generated images of scarlet clad monks and marching elephants, I suddenly had the desire for an act that was a bit less epic, a group that relied less on cues from the pages of rock and roll hyperbole.

But hey, maybe I was still disappointed that I didn't get to see Terry Bozzio, Steve Vai or, more appropriately, Frank Zappa himself.

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK
Personal Bias: I am a huge Zappa snob, so I may be a bit too hard on Dweezil's efforts to celebrate his dad's music.
Random Detail: The sight of tuxedoed ushers at the Buell guiding prog rock fans to their seats during thunderous guitar solos was absolutely hilarious.
By the Way: In my mind, "Inca Roads" is still one of the most impressive musical compositions penned in the last fifty years.


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