Jim Robinson assembled a stellar prog line-up at the NJ Proghouse, better know as the Forum Theater in Metuchen, NJ, on November 13, 2004. Featuring rising stars Frogg Café from Long Island, as well as legendary act Happy the Man, this was a night of wonderful progressive rock and fusion, from two of the genre's finest. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo and Webmaster Greg Stewart joined the few hundred strong for a few hours of scintillating prog rock.
Read on for the complete review!
This particular night happened to be a surprisingly below average evening temperature wise ,and the prog faithful gathering around the Forum Theater gladly piled into the venue once the doors opened around 7 PM. For those not familiar with the Forum Theater, it's a relatively old, small, yet cozy theater, probably capable of holding anywhere from 300-400 people when packed to capacity. While there weren't quite that many fans in attendance this night, I'd day there were easily in the 250 to 300 range, and everyone was in a festive mood (including our good friends over at InsideOut Records, who were in attendance working hard on their documentary). I mean, how often do you get to see 70's pioneers Happy the Man, as well as a stellar opening act like Frogg Café, who are quickly making a name for themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
Frogg Café, recently announced as one of the bands to perform at NEARfest 2005, and hot off some shows in Europe and Canada, made their way to the stage with a slightly different line-up from when I had seen them last. New guitarist Steven Uh has replaced longtime member Frank Camiola, and the band also had a guest horn player on stage for a few numbers, which added a great new element to their mix of fusion and prog sounds. In fact, the trombone worked quite nicely with Nick Lieto's trumpet, especially on the new songs from the soon to be released CD Fortunate Observer of Time on ProgRock Records, of which the band performed three if my memory serves me correctly. The new tunes seemed to impress the crowd quite a bit, so I think we are in store for a gem from Frogg Café in 2005. These songs had a very symphonic sound to them, complex yet melodic, mixing elements of Gentle Giant as well as Frank Zappa's Grand Wazoo period. The band also performed the title track from their 2003 release Creatures , as well as an oldie but goodie from their 2001 debut, called "Space Dust." Bassist Andrew Sussman and drummer James Guarnieri are a killer rhythm section, with Sussman's slippery and gymnastic grooves playing off Guarnieri's rock solid foundation quite well. Bill Ayasse amazed as always with his beautiful, yet at times searing violin work, which worked well against his across the stage rival Uh who added a nice jazz-fusion element with his liquid guitar tone. While most of the material is instrumental, keyboardist Lieto added his melodic vocals on a few cuts, and in between performed some stellar keyboard textures and jazzy trumpet solos.
For the folks who had not heard much of Frogg Café prior to this performance, it seemed like they were converted to fans. The band was tight, melodic, and seemed to be having a great time on stage. They go from symphonic prog rock to fiery, complex fusion effortlessly, and if this performance is any indication, the NEARfest audience is in for a real treat next July.
What more can be said about Happy the Man that hasn't already been stated many times. These guys are class personified, plain and simple. The bands 70's material hinted at some of the Canterbury fusion, yet was highly melodic and symphonic, and most definitely American. Veterans Stanley Whitaker, Frank Wyatt, and Rick Kennell are still manning the mantle, while newcomers David Rosenthal on keyboards and Joe Bergamini on drums round out the current line-up.
Let's make on thing perfectly clear, Rosenthal and Bergamini and both monster players, and fit this band extremely well. Rosenthal is able to handle all the Kit Watkins passages on the older material with ease, and his highly textural work on the newer songs in simply gorgeous and full of life. The band played a majority of the new album The Muse Awakens, including some of the mellower and more melodic cuts like "Il Quinto Mare", "Maui Sunset", and "Lunch at the Psychedelicatessen", as well as the complex scorchers "Contemporary Insanity" and "Barking Spiders." These songs fit in well against such classics as "Stumpy Meets the Firecracker in Stencil Forest" (featuring insane workouts between Whitaker's guitar, Wyatt's sax, and Rosenthal's keys), "Ibby It Is", "Knee Bitten Nymphs in Limbo", and "Service With a Smile." This is a band that, despite being apart for over 20 years, are completely locked in and comfortable with themselves. They hold a certain presence on stage that few bands can muster, and each one is a virtuoso musician, yet their music is by no means all about chops. The crowd was loving every minute of their near 2-hour set, and probably would have stayed for another 30 minutes had the band kept playing. One surprise was the inclusion of a small piece from the often overlooked album Death's Crown, a rarity that was good to hear, especially as it is so stylistically different from the bands 70's material, much more in an early 70's prog style with little fusion influence. Hopefully Happy the Man will treat their fans to another short tour in 2005, as now that they are back together it would be nice to soak them in as much as possible.
Kudos to Jim Robinson and his staff, who have continually put together some great shows the past few years in New Jersey for all East Coast prog fans to enjoy. We all need to help out Jim's efforts and spread the word of these special shows, in hopes that he can continue to book these types of events. It's always great to get together with friends, old and new, at shows like these Keep up the good work Jim!
Written by Pete Pardo
Photos courtesy of Greg Stewart