Concert Reviews

Last Night: Prog Nation at the Buell

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.

Scale the Summit, a young Texas-based quartet, proved that the devotion to music snobbery and gymnastics did not die out with prog acts like Yes and King Crimson. Relying on the full sounds of a nine-string guitar and a six-string bass, the band offered instrumental compositions deeply rooted in modal acrobatics and speedy flights up and down obscure musical scales. Songs like "The Great Plains" and "Saragossa Sea" (the band seemed fixated with geographical themes) offered expertly executed rounds of finger-tapped solos and dense insistent rhythms.

It was rock designed for lovers of theoretical feats, a sound seemed inescapably apt for a prog rock showcase. Considering the group's young age (none of the players looked older than 24), the instrumental fireworks they offered seemed all the more impressive. While Scale the Summit reveled in the theoretical and instrumental elements of the prog genre, Big Elf offered more in the way of raw attitude and raucous rock.

Decked out in an oversized top hat and a purple coat, the bearded lead vocalist and keyboard player Damon Fox recalled the manic enthusiasm and insistence of a young Ian Anderson. The rest of the quartet, similarly clad in long, ratty beards, could have fit in seamlessly to any respectable metal band. The group's sound offered paeans to both of these aesthetic cues. In frantic keyboard lines spelled out on a Hammond organ, Fox offered tightly executed melodies. Meanwhile, guitarist Ace Mark and bassist Duffy Snowhill offered lines that alternated between being frenzied and plodding. The unlikely combination of dizzying melodies and ear-splitting distortion ultimately worked. Despite some lapses in sound quality and chemistry, the group pulled off a psychedelic circus feel, while retaining the musical chops that gave them the right to call themselves prog.

As the crew for Zappa Plays Zappa starting setting up the stage after Big Elf, and I found a rush of adolescent memories rushing back into my mind, even as my curiosity was heightened. I'd seen the group under separate configurations three times before, and during each show, at least one veteran from Frank Zappa's 30 years worth of  touring bands appeared as part of the act. Terry Bozzio, Steve Vai, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Ray White all appeared at the other shows I'd seen.

But at the Buell on Friday, there were no living testaments to the glory of Frank Zappa's live ensembles. Instead, it was Dweezil and six other members trying to recreate the sound from studio recordings or live albums. That's not to say they failed. Renditions of especially challenging compositions like "Inca Roads," "Pound for a Brown (On the Bus)" and "Don't You Ever Wash that Thing" came off without a hitch, and featured impressive solos from band members Scheila Gonzalez, Joe Travers and Billy Hulting. Dweezil did his best to summon his father during specific moments of "Pound," using hand gestures to lead the band through improvised instrumental sections.

But without the presence of at least one veteran, the effect felt a bit flat. Vocalist Ben Thomas tried to fill big shoes on songs like "Inca Roads," "Willie the Pimp," "Montana" and "Outside Now" - summoning songs originally performed by musical giants like George Duke, Captain Beefheart and Ike Willis. Unfortunately, he didn't always succeed in his efforts.

In a state divided between the exhilaration of seeing my inner music nerd propitiated in a live setting and the disappointment of what seemed like a lackluster performance, I watched with curiosity as the crew started assembling the grandiose stagecraft that would mark Dream Theater's set. The set seemed downright Wagnerian, with an epic scope and size that seemed more appropriate for an opera or a Broadway tragedy. The grand hangings, the monumental risers for the drums and the huge back screen seemed out of place at first.

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.

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.