Progressive Nation 2009

August 29, 2009
Greek Theatre
Los Angeles, CA

Review by Shawn Perry

Oh my, how progressive rock has changed since the glorious days of yonder. No longer limited to the old-school-mega-gear-head-in-the-galaxy-quasi-time-signature-antics of King Crimson, Genesis, ELP, Yes and others who followed in their wake, modern progressive rock’s unilateral popularity has spawned any number of subgenres.

You have your neo-prog mixing it up with fusions of raga, jazz, folk, electronic, symphonic and psychedelic space rock. Then you have progressive metal, which, it in its pursuit of head-banging power thrusts married to superior musicianship, has birthed a nest of mutations and deep-seated deviations. When the topic of progressive metal comes up, Rush is an obvious contender, with Queensrÿche in close pursuit. And then there’s Dream Theater.

Over the course of its 20-year history, the New York-based quintet conjures an accessible, yet musically staggering pedigree that liberally borrows from the masters as it sheds the skin of the dinosaurs, effectively trailblazing a new progressive rock era. This, in turn, has enabled them to take certain incarnations and likeminded thrill-seekers under their wing.

Mike Portnoy, the group’s outspoken, multidextrous percussionist, in particular, has championed many of those surfing on the progressive rock wave into the 21st century. Putting his band in the driver’s seat, Portnoy is behind the Progressive Nation 2009 tour, with Dream Theater headlining and Zappa Plays Zappa, Bigelf and Scale the Summit supporting. The tour wrapped its North American leg in Los Angeles at the Greek Theatre. It was a full evening of prog with some odd and welcomed detours.

Scale The Summit got things started at 5:30 with a tasteful 30-minute set of proggy instrumentals to stir up the natives. They are a young, prodigious quartet, a couple studio efforts under their craw, staving off the progressive metal tag, choosing instead to call their music “adventure metal.” Maybe so as they embarked upon a harmonious journey strewn with melody and technical know-how (love that dual two-hand-tapping) — traits the small but growing legions of progheads filing into the Greek could imbibe.

Bigelf brought a more theatrical, hallucinatory experience to the party. Self-described “impresario” Damon Fox (or is it Professor Diablo?) stood front and center, squeezed in between Hammonds, Minimoogs, Leslies and Orange amps, donning a top hat, cape and diabolical glare. “We’re here to melt your face,” he announced before offering a commanding vocal with an edgy rasp, but one that can be equally reduced to a demure Marc Bolan purr. Yuppity yup.

The all-bearded band’s dark, brooding style has been described as “Black Sabbath-meets-King Crimson-meets psychedelic circus” and songs like “The Evils Of Rock And Roll” and “Blackball” (both from their album Cheat The Gallows) capture the essence of that idea to a tee. This is epic stuff as vintage-sounding keyboards, horns, guitars and drums grease up the underside, from loopy to hook to lackadaisical jam to psycho drama fall-out.

Like Scale The Summit, Bigelf thanked Portnoy for having the band on the bill. The drummer sat in for “Blackball” and told the audience their album was his favorite of the year. Believe me, having people like Mike Portnoy and Linda Perry (their album came out on her record label) in your corner isn’t a bad thing at all.

Zappa Plays Zappa, Dweezil Zappa’s amazingly well-executed tribute to his late father, the great Frank Zappa, came on just after 7:00. I’d seen a show during the first Zappa Plays Zappa tour in 2006, and was astonished with the musicians Dweezil had on board. This included Napoleon Murphy Brock, who appeared on some of Frank Zappa’s albums from the 70s. Others like Steve Vai and Terry Bozzio also showed up to play at various Zappa Plays Zappa shows.

Tonight, 2006’s core band of mostly younger players and chronic Zappa freaks, were holding down the fort and honoring the integrity of the music. Over on one side of the stage, Scheila Gonzalez played keyboards and blew the sax while Billy Hulting kept it cool on marimba, mallets & assorted percussion. Bassist Pete Griffin, guitarist Jamie Kime and drummer Joe Travers played steady, heavy and accurately. And new vocalist Ben Thomas did his best “Frank” on “Please Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” and “Montana.”

After random swipes at “Apostrophe” and “The Black Page,” the group was joined by Portnoy, a huge Zappa fan, for “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” and the Grammy-winning “Peaches En Regalia.” Vai slipped into the audience during the set, but didn’t join Zappa Plays Zappa on stage. Either way, it was great hearing songs from 70s albums like Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe and One Size Fits All. This is one tribute that makes sense.

Dream Theater came on just before 9:00. With the Greek at near capacity, the crowd erupted as “A Nightmare To Remember” and “A Rite Of Passage,” a pair of new ones from the band’s latest album, Black Clouds & Silver Linings, got things started. From there it was a matter of heavy tomes like “Hollow Years” and “Beyond This Life” alternating with extended solos from guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung and keyboardist Jordan Rudess. Of course, Portnoy also took the spotlight, but we’ll get to that later.

The thing about a band like Dream Theater is the fact that each player is a virtuoso. You can use the old-school-mega-gear-head-in-the-galaxy-quasi-time-signature-antics of King Crimson, Genesis, ELP and Yes as a reference point, but for a group with three former Berklee College of Music students, the bar is considerably raised.

It's convenient to compare Petrucci and Myung to Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee or Steve Howe and Chris Squire, but the speed, precision and dexterity of the younger Dream Theater musicians come from a certain pedigree and discipline. Rudess, of course, minimizes his approach with a single computerized board that enables him to paint textures and apply lines that transcend the fireworks associated with Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman.

And in the middle of it all is the unassuming Canadian vocalist James LaBrie. With a range that sits somewhere between Rob Halford and Steve Walsh, La Brie is the right singer for this music. His austere presence and relatively safe delivery poses no threat to the other players. He simply walks off stage during the solos and doesn’t attempt to distract the flock. A very smart move.

A big moment came when the drummers from Zappa Plays Zappa, Bigelf and Scale the Summit took turns playing on the huge Dream Theater drum set (this is where the excess is) with Portnoy. Some might call it a given that the host of the party is gonna show up the openers, but each man held his own well enough to make it interesting. That was until Steve Vai and Dweezil Zappa joined Petrucci and Rudess for a balls-out guitar jam. That was just insane.

Closing with “The Count Of Tuscany,” another new one, Dream Theater serenaded a dazed audience — pummeled mentally, physically and spiritually by the pomp and circumstance of Progressive Nation 2009. Is a new wave of prog coming over the horizon? Stay tuned as the tour picks up in Europe this fall with Dream Theater, Bigelf, Opeth and Unexpect.

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