Friday night was the kickoff of this year’s Progressive Nation tour in support of Dream Theater’s new album Black Clouds and Silver Linings. The co-headliner for the tour is the six-piece extravaganza Zappa Plays Zappa fronted by Dweezil and featuring the music of his late father. The two support slots were originally slated to be two groups from Sweden: Beardfish and Pain of Salvation. Last month it was announced that both bands would be unable to make it overseas due to some financial woes with their record label, and shortly thereafter the tour was re-billed with the Houston instrumental metal quartet Scale the Summit and a progressive/psychedelic rock band from California called Bigelf in the two opening slots.
Last year’s Prog Nation tour ended at the Fillmore in Miami Beach with a fair number of technical glitches including a Spinal Tap-esque moment where the venue’s fire curtain came crashing down, separating Opeth’s drummer Martin Axenrot from the rest of the band in mid-song. Luckily, Friday’s show seemed to go off without a hitch.
I had arranged to interview Dream Theater’s drummer Mike Portnoy at his hotel in Miami Beach. The day before the concert, I was informed that MP was unavailable but that I could sit down with singer James LaBrie instead. I arrived at the hotel’s lobby about fifteen minutes early to check my equipment and go over the material, but once the concierge got wind that I wasn’t checking in, I was asked (very politely, mind you) to get off of the premises. They could buzz the room for me but I didn’t have that information, so I ended up having to wait outside. The tour manager apologized and told me that there had been some fans camped out trying to meet the band earlier.
I spoke with LaBrie for a few minutes about the new album, future tour and video plans, his new solo album (which may be released in the first half of 2010), and his involvement in the sci-fi rock opera Roswell Six. Most surprisingly for me was the fact that the New York group has never played at the Madison Square Gardens. He had some more press to do so I thanked him for his time and headed over to the Filmore.
Openers Scale the Summit were incredible. They played a short set of songs from their new album Carving Desert Canyons, that featured tons of intricate, interwoven tapping lines. I was really surprised at how melodic they were. Instrumental metal bands tend to go off the deep-end of technicality, pushing the boundaries of their art form to the extremes, often at the expense of any non-musician listeners. STS’s members are all very technically proficient but the focus was on the group’s songs rather than the soloing abilities of it’s members.
The night’s second band was the Los Angeles group Bigelf. Decked out with bellbottoms and a scarf, the biggest top-hat I’ve seen this side of a Tom Petty video, and surrounded by stacks of vintage synthesizers, singer/keyboard player Damon Fox brought a serious 70’s vibe to Prog Nation. Although their note per minute ratio was dangerously low compared to the rest of their tourmates, the group was able to do a lot to evoke the early sounds of progressive rock with the swirling textures provided by the Hammond organs, Mellotrons, and Moog synthesizers. The majority of the songs they played came from their latest album Cheat the Gallows, with the highlights being Blackball and The Evils of Rock and Roll. The vocals were hit or miss and I felt the few sections without keys fell flat, but I have to admire the group’s dynamics and crushing stoner-rock grooves.
I was skeptical about Zappa Plays Zappa, as none of the current members were alumni of Frank Zappa’s touring bands and I had expected to see heavyweights like Steve Vai, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Terry Bozzio sharing the stage with Dweezil. I was blown away by some of the best playing I’ve ever seen from these young players. Although they did play some of Frank Zappa’s more popular humor songs such as Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow, and Montana, the focus was on all things technically challenging and unorthodox such as Inca Roads, St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast, Village Of The Sun, and even the bluesy Bamboozled By Love. Dweezil’s guitar playing was worth the price of admission alone, as he nailed the tone and technique of some of Frank’s finest playing. It would be hard to pick an MVP amongst these fine players: Billy Hulting excelled at odd-time marimba runs and trading percussion fills with drummer Joe Travers; Scheila Gonzalez’s eerie ability to accompany her saxophone playing on the keyboards; lead singer Ben Thomas, who was able to channel just about every singer from Frank’s past, including a raspy Captain Beefheart shout through a megaphone for their closing number Hot Rats.
Opening with their show with thunderclaps and a theatrical curtain drop, Dream Theater immediately delivered the goods with A Nightmare to Remember. Two other songs came from their latest album and the rest of their set was a fairly good cross section of their repertoire, my favorites being selections from the A Mind Beside Itself suite from Awake. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess always seems to have a new toy to show off and this time it was in the form of a passage played on the touchscreen of an iPhone running the Bebot application. Everyone’s playing was flawless and the crowd was very receptive, especially to the twenty-minute-plus epic The Count of Tuscany.