August 23-24, 2008 – 3 Rivers Prog (3RP) Festival
While I have attended many prog festivals in California, mostly CalProg down in Whittier, I had never really considered flying out to one of the bigger prog fests on the East coast, like NEARFest or ROSFest. That is, until I heard of 3RP a couple of months ago. Looking at the line-up, I felt an immediate urge to reach for my credit card and book plane tickets, hotel room and VIP tickets to the show.
And the line-up was definitely impressive for any fans of Spock's Beard like myself: not only would SB get a two-hour co-headlining slot on the first day of the show, they would be immediately be followed by Neal Morse, the founding member of Spock's Beard who left the band back in 2002 to pursue his solo career. No doubt that the evening would be eventful for that reason alone, as a reunion of sorts seemed inevitable! Spock's Beard has been touring the US very sparsely lately, as their last appearance on the West Coast was at last year's BARFest in San Francisco - which was up till now the furthest I had travelled to watch these guys perform live.
To top this off, there were many of my other favorite prog artists lined up for the second day of festivities: namely IZZ, the Rocket Scientists, the California Guitar Trio, and The Flower Kings. I would have flown across the country even if just half of these guys were playing! Even better, VIP tickets were available for sale, giving access to an exclusive after-show party with all the bands at the end of the first day. From that point on, the decision to make this my first cross-country concert experience was a no-brainer. Tickets were purchased and travel arrangements were made, at a rather high cost, but in hindsight it was worth every single penny...
However, drama preceded the festival. A couple of weeks before Spock's Beard was scheduled to appear, there was a report that their keyboardist Ryo Okumoto had his jaw broken in Japan and was stuck in the hospital. Preparations were made to find a suitable replacement by the band, although in more ways than one his flamboyant theatrics are a staple of the current incarnation of the band. Knowing Ryo personally, we were also worried about him. A few days later, an announcement on the Spock's Beard website stated that Ryo would be released from the hospital in time to make it to Pittsburgh - albeit with just a couple of days of lead time. Worries were alleviated, but we were glad we would get to see Ryo after all.
Fast forward to August 22, when our plane left Los Angeles for Pittsburgh. By a happy coincidence, we ended up sharing our flight with "Papa" Jim Harrel, a fixture of the California prog scene, and organizer extraordinaire of the annual CalProg festival, which I have been attending since its very beginning in 2004. I guess my Spock's Beard T-shirt made me stand out from the other passengers! :) After our plane landed, we headed to our hotel across the state border in western Ohio, and we were ready for a promising weekend of prog!
We got to the venue on Saturday morning in time for the first act of the festival. The Pepsi-cola Road House is a fairly small venue in the middle of rural western Pennsylvania, which apparently typically houses mostly country music events. In hindsight, the venue was ideal for the first edition of this festival, as it was just the right size for the audience, had a great sound system and acoustics, working air conditioning and provided the intimate feel sought after by prog fans. Each band had its own vendor table on one side, and other vendors were sharing the other side of the venue. Outside, a tent was setup with chairs and tables, and food and drinks were available throughout the weekend. The staff was always very friendly and easy-going.
We got to our seats at the fifth row in the center section, and waited for the show to get started.
The first band of the day was Manifesto, a local instrumental trio. Their music was very guitar-oriented, and was a fitting first act for the first morning. They were very talented musicians, and their drummer seemed to be in a leadership position as he would be coming from behind his kit to speak to the audience. Their set was rather short at 45 minutes long but it was enjoyable.
After a short break, the second band came on, named The Mandrake Project. Compared to the minimalist Manifesto, they had a much bigger line-up of musicians. Another instrumental band, they had almost every instrument in duplicate: two drum kits, two keyboard players, two guitars, a cello, violin, not to mention some home-grown percussive instruments! Their music was probably the most eclectic of the day, if not the whole festival. They were mixing genres from classical to disco, jazz fusion.... Truly a very progressive sound! After the show I bought their CD A Favor To The Music and had it autographed by the band.
Ryo Okumoto and the fans (I'm on the left)
During the break, while hanging out in the tent outside the venue, Ryo Okumoto showed up and started talking to the fans. He was visibly pleased to see us and I wasn't expecting to see him so early in the day. A fan had a custom T-shirt made especially for him with a picture of the CT scan of his broken jaw, as well as the "Ryo is Rock'N'Roll" line. Priceless! I learned later that he had missed his flight from Japan twice because he passed out at the airport! As a result, he arrived in Pittsburgh only late the night before the show and was at the venue early in the morning to go through the songs before the festival started !
Next up was Gongzilla, the first band so far to feature some vocals, though they had some long instrumental jams as well. They felt a lot like a jam band at times, and featured two guitarists. They also had a keyboard set up on the side, that wasn't used for a while. During the sound check we thought we had recognized Ryo playing on it but it seemed a bit far fetched to me... I was soon proved wrong as the band brought him in as a special guest on a couple of songs! I guess Ryo couldn't wait to show that he was in top form to perform at this festival... In any case, this was a very nice surprise! I heard that they had met a while ago while the band was touring Japan and had talked of jamming together at some point. Glad it happened then!
As the evening loomed, the band which was our main motivation for flying across the country to attend 3RP was getting ready to set up. It was nice to see them finally play on a decent size stage again, as the last time we had seen them live was on the very cramped stage of the Independent club in San Francisco. Their gear has become more consequent with the years, as Nick D'Virgilio now uses his own keyboard, in addition to his guitar and drum kit, and in addition to Ryo's already massive keyboard rig.
They were slated for a two hour long show, which included songs from most of their albums. Highlights from their set for me included Thoughts Part 2 and the long epic The Great Nothing which I had not seen performed in its entirety in a very long time!
The band was great and full of energy as usual. NDV was being a great frontman, Alan Morse on guitar was running all over the stage, and Ryo was being completely over the top, considering his medical condition. At one point he even jumped on his keyboards, having feet and hands on each side of his rig! People had to come on stage to make sure the whole thing didn't collapse and he didn't hurt himself more... That was rather scary. It looked like there was something wrong with him at some point, but that would only become clear later.
Ryo being crazy!
To be fair, at times it felt to me that the band was not as tight as they used to be. I spotted what seemed to be some obvious mistakes here and there, but then again it is a part of the live experience. Also it's understandable considering the limited time of rehearsing they had together for this show, and Ryo's late entry and bad health status. Overall, it was still a very impressive performance by any reasonable measure.
There were solo spots for Ryo, as well as the obligatory drum duel between NDV and Jimmy, where Alan actually joined in at some point.
And then the much anticipated moment came... For the encore, Nick came back on stage and announced that they had a special "surprise" in store for the audience (wonder what that could be?). They actually took a while to set up the stage to accomodate Neal's gear - apparently he needed his own keyboard and guitar gear. To fill the time, Ryo came back on stage for one of his trademark jokes, but instead did a bit of Japanese karaoke! :)
Ryo's Karaoke Minute
And then it happened: Neal Morse came back on the stage, hugged his old bandmates, and they started their performance of the original epic The Light in its entirety! Nick was back on drums like good old times, Ryo and Neal were again sharing keyboard duties, Jimmy Keegan was also still on his drum kit.... And Neal. Wow. There are no words to express how powerful this performance was. It was a very emotional moment for myself, and I am sure for many other people in the audience, remembering the first time I saw this band at the Troubadour back in 2001. These 20 minutes of magic alone were worth every penny of the price of the plane tickets.
The Light with a reunited Spock's Beard
Funny thing: apparently Neal was not comfortable with some of his original lyrics in the song, dropping a "fucking", and even an entire line about "not needing no savior". Hardly surprising considering his strong Christian position now, but I always thought that this would be a cheesy thing to do. Why pretend it never happened? Words have no magic powers.
After the spectacular reunion, the venue was cleared once more so that Neal's band could set up. This turned out to take considerably longer than expected, and by the time their set started they were over an hour behind schedule. As a result, Neal announced that they had to cut one of the songs from their set, the only song from his upcoming album Lifeline. Fortunately, he will probably perform it at the show in Downey which I will also be attending.
Neal's set included only music from his post-Spock's Beard Christian albums; he only played epic songs, especially a really long epic from his latest album, Sola Scriptura. His band, while very good musicians, didn't quite have the stage presence of Spock's Beard. Neal could definitely hold his own and that made up for it somewhat, but to me it was palpable that the audience was not as enthusiastic as during Spock's Beard's set. Despite the very high quality of the music, the heavy amounts of Christian dogma being shoveled through the lyrics was sometimes hard to digest. Since last seeing him live in 2003 on the Testimony tour, his material has become increasingly preachy. I try to tune it out when listening - and it never stopped me from buying all of his albums... but I felt it really had a negative effect on the performance. Also his Testimony-era band I thought was really better, with big name musicians like Mike Portnoy and Randy George, it just wasn't the same kind of show. And the theology was more subtle and personal, and thus more palatable.
After his regular set ended still rather later than scheduled, I really didn't think the rumored Transatlantic reunion would happen on that day: my pet theory was that Neal would show up the next day during the Flower Kings' set. But I was proven wrong! The encore started with the Transatlantic song, We All Need Some Light, that Neal frequently performs at the encore of his shows... However he was joined by Roine Stolt on guitar. To top it off, Mike Portnoy jumped in on the drums in the middle of the song! The reunion wasn't complete without Pete Trewavas on bass, but it was still the closest we could hope to get.
We All Need Some Light
They continued on to play the 25-minute epic, Stranger in Your Soul, in its entirety. Again Neal showed his showmanship by hopping all over the place and even walking in the audience at some point. He even took over drums from Mike Portnoy while he was still playing! The audience was going wild, just like for the Spock's Beard reunion! And that was the conclusion of an absolutely incredible first day of music. There was no longer any lingering doubts that this trip was money well spent... And we were only halfway through!
Stranger In Your Soul
I couldn't help but think of the contrast there was between Neal Morse performing his solo material with his band, and performing what was essentially his own material with his old friends in Spock's Beard and Transatlantic. Setting aside the emotional aspect of the reunions for a moment - it was very clear that everybody was just having a lot more fun: the audience, the bands, and even Neal himself. I am not saying that Neal wasn't having fun - his performance was obviously very emotional on a more personal level... but I am not sure it was as communicative.
In short, I wish that Neal would learn from the experience of these reunions and realize that reconnecting with his real-life friends is more enjoyable and fulfilling for everybody than trying so hard to connect with an invisible friend. Maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part, but I really would like to see more of these reunions... and so would all the other fans!
But the evening wasn't over, as we had access to the after-show VIP party in the Pittsburgh Holiday Inn Express & Suites hotel. Because of the various delays and the distance from the venue, most people didn't get there until 2am. They were serving food and drinks, and most of the people involved in the festival were present, especially the bands.
Being among the first batch of people there, we grabbed some food and sat down at one of the vacant tables. As more people came in, we were eventually joined by several members of the Flower Kings, including Roine Stolt himself!! Later walking through the halls, I would bump into Mike Portnoy, and all other members of Spock's Beard except for Ryo. We got pictures with almost everybody, got autographs, got to hang out... It was just great to be in the same room as all these talented musicians.
Mike Portnoy and me!
When chatting with Dave Meros, we learned why Ryo wasn't at the party. It turned out that he passed out during Neal's set, and was unresponsive. An ambulance was called, CPR was performed on him by somebody in the audience, he was revived and sent to the hospital for the night. Ryo literally gave his best on that evening, and he almost paid for it with his life. He is a true prog hero - reckless, but doing what he loves at any price. :)
We left the party and were back at our hotel somewhere around 4am. It was becoming clear that we would likely miss at least the first band on Sunday at this point, as we badly needed rest from an eventful day.
As predicted, we missed the entire set of Kalon so I can not comment on their performance. To make up for it, we bought a copy of their CD and had a quick chat with this local band at their table.
Unfortunately we also missed the entire set from IZZ. I had seen them a number of times at past CalProg festivals, and I know they are a great band. Knowing they would be performing at the upcoming CalProg in October, they were rather low on our list of priorities compared to sleep and lunch, I am sorry to say. We still hung out with the band for a bit, got pictures taken, and i bought a copy of their new live album. Great stuff, and looking forward to seeing them again soon!
Next up was another band I had seen before at CalProg, the Rocket Scientists. They're a very keyboard-oriented band, their sound incorporating a lot of Erik Norlander's playing. Mark McCrite adds some very nice vocals and guitars, and Don Schiff plays the unusual NS Stick instrument (a prototype of the Chapman stick that seems more geared towards bassists). They played songs from their extensive repertoire, including from their latest, Revolution Road. They were also joined by Erik's wife, Lana Lane, on vocals for the last few songs. She very often - if not always - sings on the records as well as live performances of this band. Likewise, her husband produces and plays keys on her own solo records, which are also pretty good.
Don Schiff on NS Stick
California Guitar Trio
The California Guitar Trio is another favorite of mine, although their connection to prog rock is rather tangential. As their name implies, they are basically three guys on acoustic guitars (with some effects added), no drums. As they explained, they are disciples of prog guitar legend Robert Fripp, having studied with him for a couple of years at his house in England. I have seen them live a number of times, and as a guitarist I always found them to be very good musicians. The first time I saw them live they were opening for the Flower Kings a few years ago in LA, so it is funny that I got to see them again immediately before the Flower Kings at this festival.
They played some of their original compositions, as well as their usual mix of various covers, from classical to rock. I especially enjoyed their cover of Pink Floyd's Echoes - complete with the psychedelic jams! Of course they had to play their cover of my favorite song of all time, Bohemian Rhapsody. They even pointed the microphone towards the audience, who then started singing the lyrics... The middle chorus part is always a crowd pleaser.
The real surprise though came when I noticed the keyboard rig that was setup on the side. The obvious answer was a surprise guest. It looked suspiciously like the keyboards Erik Norlander was using on the previous set, so that was my guess... But again I was proven wrong as Ryo Okumoto, literally back from the dead, was back for yet another guest jam! The man is unstoppable, and obviously was hell-bent on showing it to the prog fans. Before they launched in their spontaneous jam, he made a little speech to thank the woman who saved his life the night before. I captured it all on video below...
Ryo with the CGT
After the show, he came out and hung out some more with the fans, having many pictures taken. His son Sage was also here. Thanks to the Flower Kings taking longer than expected to set up, we had the opportunity to talk to him at length about the events that preceded, but I won't get into details here.
The Flower Kings
The last band of the festival was another one of my all-time prog favorites, along with Spock's Beard. Having them share the bill at 3RP was one of the things that really made me want to go in the first place. Last time I saw them live was over a year ago in Whittier, at another CalProg special event. They always put together a great show. I hadn't realized that they had a line-up change, since some of the musicians were new, including a new drummer and a new second keyboardist complementing Tomas Bodin, a role once held by Pain of Salvation frontman Daniel Gildenlow.
They played a very good set to a very enthusiastic audience. They played one new track from their upcoming album. I have to admit my memories are a bit blurry as we had listened to a lot of music by this point. There was no big surprise in stock for their encore. It was a very fitting conclusion to a fantastic couple of days of music!
This first edition of the Three Rivers Progressive Rock Festival was a resounding success on pretty much every level. I would definitely consider making the trip back again next year, if they manage to get a lineup of bands even remotely as enticing as this one. So many things were done right: the venue was great, the sound was awesome (with a few mic problems here and there but the volume was perfect and never overpowering), the staff and fans were welcoming, there were plenty of opportunities to mingle with the bands, the breaks were adequately managed, and there really was no serious hiccup. A very laudable achievement for a first effort. Kudos to Howard Levy, the organizer of this event!
There are just a few minor things I think they could improve for the next years: it would be nice to have an ATM within reasonable proximity, as most vendors only took cash and we all ended up spending a lot of money on CDs and shirts. The closest bank was a few miles south near downtown Burgettstown. The on-site food could have used a bit more variety - and off-site options were almost non-existent, short of a drive to nearby West Virginia.
Our flight back to LA was on the following Monday evening, so we had a day to recuperate and visit the Pittsburgh area. It turned out we also shared our return flight with Papa Jim. :)
This trip was everything I hoped it would be, and then some. But I have to admit that the star of this festival, as evidenced by his multiple appearances, was Ryo Okumoto. Facing tremendous obstacles, he didn't hesitate to literally put his life on the line for the opportunity to revel in the glory of performing for his fans. I greatly admire his commitment to his craft, however reckless.
He is a true renaissance artist, a good friend, and Ryo indeed is the incarnation of Rock and Roll!
Ryo and us