Concert Review: Progressive Nation 2009

On Sunday, Progressive Nation 2009 hit the Chicago Theater in downtown Chicago, IL., and my wife and I had the pleasure to go.  We have waited all summer for this show to finally arrive.  The concert was some of the best five hours of progressive rock I have heard.  I wasn’t familiar with all of the musical acts.  In fact, the two bands that started the evening had huge shoes to fill in my mind.

See, when I first bought tickets in June the lineup included Dream Theater (the organizer), Zappa plays Zappa, Pain of Salvation, and Beardfish.  Unfortunately, Pain of Salvation’s and Beardfish’s funding was pulled as result of their sponsoring label declaring bankruptcy or something to that effect.   I am a HUGE fan of Pain of Salvation, so when I heard they weren’t coming, I was deeply disappointed. Especially since this was supposed to be Pain of Salvation grand return to touring the states because of a political boycott against the Bush administration.  Oh well…  I have to admit, I don’t know that much about Beardfish, but I was looking forward to hearing them.  I hear they are great and at some point I need to check them out.

The replacements ended up being two groups I had never heard of before: Bigelf and Scale the Summit.  Since I don’t know much about Beardfish, I can’t speak much about expectations from Scale the Summit. However, you can’t ever replace a group like Pain of Salvation. Ever! I have been following Pain of Salvation for several years now, and going from known act to an unknown one was a little disappointing.  Needless to say, Bigelf had some tremendous shoes to fill.

Scale The Summit

Scale the Summit (STS) began the evening with a 30 minute set, approximately.  Having never seen or heard them, first impressions were these guys are young, and indeed they are.  It turns out the average age of the quartet is 22. STS is a four member instrumental progressive rock group comprised of two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer.  Although the music was good for what it was, I couldn’t help but come away with the feeling something was missing.  And, no, it wasn’t a vocalist.

For instrumental music to succeed there is needs to be a solid arrangement between the members throughout the arrangement.  The musicians need to play off of each other to act as vocal replacement.  In essence, the instruments are the voice.   The bassist and drummer had great parts and both clearly have great chops, but the guitarists don’t need to play the same thing all the time. At least that is what it often sounded like.  The guitar playing was lack luster for an evening leading towards amazing virtuosity.

That said, I think these guys have potential.  STS is young and there is nothing like them out there.  Most groups don’t try to make it as an instrumental act, so you have to give credit where credit is deserved.  STS is pioneering instrumental rock for the next generation.   STS has a unique style mixing melody, interesting rhythms, and beautiful harmonies in a progressive rock/jazz fusion musical language.   There is a rich blanket of sound that engulfs the listener from song to song.

STS do need to improve their stage presence.  They need to find a way to communicate with the audience.  Once again, I think this will come in time as the guys play more together, gain experience, and mature musically.  To their credit, Chicagoans really weren’t in the theatre, but that shouldn’t matter.  Musicians play for the audience they have, not the audience they hope to have.

Despite their deficiencies, STS was worth watching as an opening act.  While I won’t rush to buy their album, I do intend to follow how STS progresses.


You have to love an act with a lead singer wearing a top hat, green velour jacket, and sparkly black shirt while surrounded by electronic organs and synthesizers.  Prior to the show, I checked out their MySpace page, and the sound quality didn’t do these guys justice.  In fact, I was planning on being disappointed, but on the contrary, these guys rocked.

Bigelf has a classic rock sound reminiscent of early Black Sabbath meets The Doors meets Led Zepplin.   The music is hard, heavy, and fun to listen to.   Watching these guys was entertaining.   I have to admit, after listening to them, I am surprised I hadn’t heard of them prior to the tour.

Their set was about forty five minutes of psychedelic blues rock.  Bigelf is one of those groups where you either love or hate them.  I can’t say I love them yet, but I am on the path to doing so.  Amazingly enough, moments of what I heard have stuck with since the concert, which is surprising considering the following acts.

All in all, I would see these guys again.  In fact, I am already searching for their music in various online music platforms.  If you have a chance to check these guys out, I would.  One more thing: While checking out Bigelf’s website, I noticed an interesting piece of news; Alicia Keys appears to enjoy Bigelf.

Zappa Plays Zappa

How do you begin to describe Frank Zappa?  Even if you don’t love his music or understand what he stood for, the man, simply put, was a genius.  He died well before his time, but his contributions are felt to this day.  Zappa’s fight against calls for censorship in the 80’s and early 90’s are legendary.  I can’t say I am huge fan, but I know enough to have a tremendous respect for the man that has influenced many of the musicians I listen to day in and out.   You also have to admire Dweezil Zappa for carrying the Zappa tradition and bringing Frank’s music to young listeners.

If John Cage and Igor Stravinsky had a kid who was taught music by Miles Davis, but instead decided to play Rock, you get Frank Zappa.  If you have never heard Frank Zappa, then you must listen to some.   If anything, it will broaden your musical horizons.  Frank’s music is fusion with a little musical theater, and, no, I DON’T mean Broadway.  I mean more theatricality as written in as part of the musical journey.    Zappa’s lyrics are satirical, crude, odd, and funny as hell at times; Poetry set to music.

The highlight of the set had to be when Mike Portnoy, drummer from Dream Theater, joined Zappa Plays Zappa for a wonderful song called “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes.”  There were a lot of Zappa fans in the crowd, but they really came to life when Portnoy was on stage.

The entire Zappa band, which is comprised of two guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, a percussionist, a singer, and a keyboardist/saxophonist/flutist/singer (yes, she played all of this), has some serious chops.  The keyboardist/saxophonist/flutist/singer has to be one of the most versatile musicians I’ve ever seen on stage.

All in all, you have to take Zappa for what it is – a roller coaster ride of a musical journey.

Dream Theater

First off, I have to give kudos to Dream Theater for organizing a great tour with amazing musicians.  I hope Progressive Nation continues for many years to come.

This was the sixth time I’ve seen Dream Theater, so I knew what to expect from these guys.   I first saw Dream Theater when the guys were just starting out after just releasing   Images and Words while I was in high school in El Paso, TX.  So, I have a followed these guys since the beginning, almost.  Needless to say, my wife and I are Dream Theater junkies, and these guys didn’t disappoint us.

There was nothing they did that was out of the ordinary.  It was two hours of straight up, in your face Dream Theater.   DT really didn’t play any of their signature ballads this time around either.  Instead, it was all the newer, heavier, and longer works with nothing performed prior to Metropolis Part II: Scenes From A Memory.  Jordan Rudess, the keyboardist, had a short solo, but other than that, these guys were intense.  Hardly any breaks, and none of the guys missed a beat.  Of course, they rarely ever miss a beat.

I have to admit, it was nice to not hear “Pull me Under” performed in a concert of theirs.   I love the song, but they have some many great hits it was nice to hear other songs performed.  In particular, I was really moved with the “Sacrificed Sons” performed with images of 9/11 on the big screen behind them.  It really brought the song to life in a memorable and emotional way.

I also really enjoyed the encore “The Count of Tuscany.”  After hearing it live, I think I appreciate it even more.  Other highlights include “A Rite of Passage,” “In the Name of God,” and “The Dance of Eternity.”

Dream Theater concerts are always one hell of an experience, and this one was no exception.

Final verdict: If Progressive Nation 2009 is coming to your town, GO!

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One comment on “Concert Review: Progressive Nation 2009
  1. I’m not sure how Scale the Summit sound live but their two albums, Carving Dessert Canyons and Monument are great instrumentals.

    I would love to see Bigelf live too.

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