We are very happy to bring you a sonic documentation of the Progman Cometh festival, which existed for two years (2002/03) in Seattle, WA, and hosted an impressive number of important members of the scene as well as a number of bands that would broadly fit under the ‘avant-prog’ umbrella. For these recordings, which will be presented in mp3 format in several instalments, grateful thanks must go to Jerry Cook and the other members of Glass (more on Glass below) and Robert Carlberg, who is doing great work documenting the earliest recorded endeavours of Glass (some of them very Soft Machine-influenced), and will be making uncompressed versions of the music in this series available on their Bandcamp site, for a very moderate price.
First in the series is a ‘digest’ of the 2002 edition, with music by all the bands who appeared with one exception, SoftWorks, one of whose members objected to the performance being captured for posterity (thankfully their Japanese tour in 2003 was recorded and there is a superb release of that on MoonJune Records). The compilation was mixed and edited under Jerry Cook’s supervision in 2003 with the hope of this being released as a double-CD souvenir set, but it never happened. Since then two of the tracks (by Hamster Theatre and Pip Pyle’s Bash) have appeared on official releases, in both cases on Cuneiform Records, and thanks go to Steve Feigenbaum for allowing us to leave them in – obviously if you like what you hear, we recommend that you check out the parent albums, Hamster Theatre’s Quasi Day Room and Pip Pyle’s Bash’s Belle Illusion (links at the bottom of this page), and of course the other releases by the other bands featured here.
As a companion to the music I thought I would include my contemporary review of the festival in What’s Rattlin’? (my Canterbury-focused e-mail newsletter at the time, 1996-2004), which should be useful in providing some context behind the event itself and the participating bands.
You can listen to the compilation on this page or download it using the link at the bottom of the page, including CD booklet artwork.
“PROGMAN COMETH” IN SEATTLE – A REVIEW (2002)
As I’m typing these words [Saturday 24th August 2002], the Canterbury Festival is taking place a few miles outside the town where it all started. Many great bands were slated to perform there over the weekend, but very few of them can actually claim any relation to what is known as the «Canterbury scene» – especially since Caravan cancelled their appearance a few weeks ago, leaving Kevin Ayers as the only (reluctant) representative of the ‘family’ performing at the festival (I could add Jakko Jakszyk, but he’s appearing as part of a band consisting of ex-King Crimson members).
A few days before the Canterbury Festival, another festival was taking place, several thousand miles away, bearing the name «Progman Cometh». In a way, this was the reverse situation – this one, for this first edition at least, turned out to be a Canterbury Festival in all but name. Sure, a number of bands performed that did fit under the «progressive» umbrella (which is rather wide, anyway), but most of the headliners were «Canterbury» acts; and the number of musicians from the Canterbury scene appearing in one capacity or another (or several) made this the closest thing to a family reunion as is likely to ever happen. I understand even Robert Wyatt and Mike Ratledge were asked to be present, but both – rather predictably – declined.
The opportunity to attend the festival came as a last minute surprise to me. Obviously, travelling to Seattle isn’t the easiest or cheapest trip one could think of. Still, thanks to a lucky turn of events (uninteresting to detail here), I was able to make it. And I certainly don’t regret it ! Before I go into the details of what happened, I must mention first that the event was superbly organised, which made it possible for me to experience the festival without any stress or practical uncertainties (and this was certainly a first for me as far as music festivals go). Massive thanks to festival mastermind Jerry Cook, his wife Lorrie and their superb team, including hotel roommate Erik Poulsen, who took literally hundreds of photos during the weekend which I can’t wait to see.
Friday 16th August
The festival opened in the early evening of Friday August 16th with a one-hour performance by Glass, the band of which Jerry Cook is the drummer (and a bigger drumkit I never saw in my life – and I saw Carl Palmer twice!). Joining him were the Sherman brothers, Greg on keyboards and Jeff on bass and additional keyboards. They are not newcomers in any way – the band was formed as long ago as 1968 (!), and I understand a good deal of the impetus to do so was provided by a concert they attended a short time before, with Soft Machine and Jimi Hendrix sharing the bill. This having been said, Glass sound nothing like Soft Machine – they have a more polished, occasionally symphonic, progressive rock sound, which occasionally brings to mind an early, instrumental ELP. The compositions themselves, however, with the constant use of shifting time signatures, does show the influence of Mike Ratledge in particular. The trio’s set consisted of three numbers, two of them over twenty minutes in length, with a short, more intimistic interlude by Jeff in the middle. They were joined by several guests, including guitarist Pete Perdras, the rhythm section from Kopecky, and, last but certainly not least, Elton Dean. Elton was his usual brilliant self, whether wailing in «free» mode on the alto, or delivering heartbreaking melodies on his saxello. Sadly, this otherwise excellent set was marred by terrible mixing work from the desk, with little outside the low end audible. Apparently, the engineer was used to working with grunge bands and didn’t see any reason to operate differently. Fortunately, things quickly got better as the evening progressed.
Hughscore came next. This is only the second-ever live performance by Hugh Hopper’s American project since Hugh began working with the Seattle-based group Caveman Shoestore in 1995. So far they have made three albums together, with a fourth on the way (to be released next year). Alongside Hugh, the main members of the band are Elaine diFalco (vocals and electric piano) and Fred Chalenor (bass), joined for the occasion by drummer Tucker Martine, who had also (rather brilliantly) produced their latest effort «Delta Flora» (Cuneiform Records 1999), and newcomer Steve Moore on Wurlitzer piano and trombone. The set was rather short, clocking in at just 45 minutes, but provided a good representation of the band’s approach and sound. The obsessive, almost trance-inducing, repetitive riffs, the duelling bass lines (with Hugh, and occasionally Fred, taking solos – oh, that fuzz pedal !!) and the unique sound of electric pianos, are the most noticeable constants. Parcimonious vocals by Elaine diFalco, who is a really fine singer (her rendition of «Was A Friend» rivals Robert Wyatt’s in my opinion), and trombone flourishes from Steve Moore were more occasional pleasures. The set began with three new tunes which should appear on the next album : «Septal/Biker Riff Squad», which combines a theme by Hugh and one by former Caveman Hughscore drummer Henry Franzoni, and two Hopper/Chalenor collaborations, «0808» and «Disappearing Karl/Big Bombay/Sevmitch» – note that these are working titles. More familiar ground was then trodden with «Was A Friend», followed by a softer, piano-based song by Elaine diFalco, «Tokitae», before the gig suitably ended with one of the ultimate Hopper classics, «Sliding Dogs», in a rather ‘straight’ version. All in all, too brief of course but very convincing. Too bad this band can’t play live more often !
This first evening concluded with a truly outstanding group – Pip Pyle’s Bash. Indeed, this project stands out as one of the truly NEW Canterbury scene bands, which has become a rarity these days – long gone seem the days when there seemed to be one new group every week or so !! Anyway, this is something Pip has been hard at work on for a long time now, and not just the consequence of his recent departure from In Cahoots. In fact, I remember Pip telling me about his plan to form a band with Patrice Meyer and Fred Baker as long ago as 1999, shortly after his solo album «Seven Year Itch» had come out. After the endless overdubbing sessions and countless guest appearances, Pip wanted to go back to a band approach for his next «solo» project. There are echoes of several of Pip’s previous groups in Bash – the final incarnation of Equip’Out (1994-95), which already had Patrice Meyer on guitar rather than a keyboard player; and another unrecorded project, the trio Tertio (1994-96), again with Meyer, and organist Emmanuel Bex. In recent times, for practical reasons, Pip had thought of trying to find French players to make it a more viable venture, but finding it impossible to find a better bass player than Fred Baker (I can easily see why), he turned to another Brit for the keyboard position – Alex Maguire, a longtime collaborator of Elton Dean’s 1990s projects, who first came to attention as a pianist, but literally exploded as a Hammond organist on Elton’s latest album «Moorsong» (Cuneiform Records 2001), as part of a superb quartet which included Fred Baker and drummer Liam Genockey. Apart from a few (not so) old numbers, Bash played mostly new material, written by Pip over the last couple of years or so. I was privileged to hear some of these at the Midi file stage and they really sounded good. Five were played during the gig, but I remember there were more than that, at least ten – an unprecedented productivity for Pip !! The opening piece, «For Adiba», was a brilliant introduction to the style of the new band – less ostensibly jazzy than Equip’Out, but more open and improvisational than Pip’s previous groups with similar instrumentation. Let’s be clear : Bash doesn’t sound much like Hatfield or National Health. Actually, it sounds very little like anything I’ve heard, and that’s a good thing. Based on a simple and effective chord structure, stated first by the organ alone, «For Adiba» allowed the quartet to slowly come into its own as a collective unit. Subtlety and contrast prevailed, emphasizing the melodic writing, until the concluding polyrhythmic section, which came as a pleasant and effective surprise. Next came the oldest number played that night, «Cauliflower Ears», written by Pip in 1989 and premiered by Hatfield on their reunion TV gig the following year. For years this was Equip’Out’s opening number and a showcase for Elton Dean. Bash’s version has Maguire and Baker stating the theme, with Meyer only coming to the forefront for a solo towards the very end. Baker also played a monstrous fuzz bass solo. This is possibly my favourite composition of Pip’s, so I was pleased to hear it performed.
I was less enthused by the following number, «Vas-Y Dotty» (what this title is supposed to mean I’m not sure), a funkier, jam-oriented number which saw Maguire switching to Fender Rhodes. I found this one a bit lacking in melodic content coming after the superb «Cauliflower Ears». More ‘old’ material came next in the form of a bizarre (but effective) medley of Patrice Meyer’s «Carousel» (first recorded by Hugh Hopper’s Band and regularly played by Patrice’s various projects) and Alex Maguire’s «John’s Fragment», from Elton Dean’s «Moorsong» CD. «Carousel» began with a drum solo, leading to collective mayhem until the theme appeared in time for the transition to Alex’s theme, which of course showcased his organ playing, alas somewhat low in the mix. Alex is not an experimental Hammond player in the Canterbury tradition, preferring to use the instrument’s inherent sound (including the Leslie cabinet, of course). This brings the general atmosphere closer to older jazz trends, while retaining a contemporary style. But I was more than once reminded of the sound of Tony Williams’ Lifetime trio with organ giant Larry Young. The next number, «Biffo», another Pyle original, probably came closest to suggesting that particular influence, although Maguire switched to Rhodes halfway through for an inspired solo.
I haven’t really said much about Fred Thelonious Baker so far. Now, if there was a player performing at the festival who deserves much more fame than he has received so far, it’s him. This man can play literally anything, and actually does to an extent, since he has a busy career outside this scene with various folk-based projects, not to mention his own solo ventures, either as bass or guitar player. Fred’s bass playing is effortless and consistently tasteful, and why he hasn’t been featured on countless ‘all-star’ projects eludes me. Perhaps he’s turned major offers down ? I don’t know. Anyway, his own composition «Beautiful Thing» came next, a gorgeous ballad which was consisted largely of a long bass solo over a chord progression. No self-indulgence at work here – at the end, we were all begging for more of the same.
Back to a jazzy organ-led vein for «Pastis Present», with Pip’s cymbal work particularly standing out. Again, this music is hard to categorise and very different to anything Pip has ever done. Pip’s last new composition for the night, «Spoutnik», was, for me, the most moving, beginning with beautiful soloing from Fred over Alex’s liquid Rhodes arpeggios, into a romantic, lyrical theme, building up to a more lively section (Alex alternating between Hammond and Rhodes) with a long, elegant solo by Patrice. I’ve seen Patrice play many times, most frequently last year with John Greaves, and he can be a true ‘guitar hero’ if he wants to, but nothing I heard him play that night could be accused of being ‘flashy’ or vacuous. His solos build up fluidly from minimalistic lines to fast cascades of notes, with constant attention to melodic impact. This was even the case on his own «Horny Brownie», a regular inclusion in Hugh Hopper gigs over the last few years. Actually I saw Patrice perform this with Hugh’s band three months ago, and Bash’s version was significantly different – this was the full version of the piece, rarely performed, with more contrast between the loud and quiet sections, and a jazzier approach in general – there was in particular a Rhodes solo over a fast walking bass line with Patrice’s very effective rhythm work providing the ideal support. «Horny Brownie» was an ideal, energetic conclusion for Bash’s performance, which received a well-deserved standing ovation. Alas, no encore, as would be the case during the whole festival. Doesn’t really matter – I often find encores an hypocritical ritual.
Saturday 17th August
The second day of the festival began in the early afternoon on Saturday 17th, with an absolutely magnificent performance by Hamster Theatre, an offshoot of Colorado-based RIO/avant-prog masters Thinking Plague, but much more than that actually, and very different. Hugh Hopper walked out of this gig saying this was the best gig he’d seen in years, which I think is an appropriately succinct way of urging you to check out their stuff. I won’t go into more detail myself as I don’t want to spend another week on this review. Anyway, Gordon Beck was supposed to follow with a solo piano set, but having hurt his knee, he was forced to cancel his appearance, and Richard Sinclair replaced him on the spot for a solo set. This proved a rather ragged affair, but still rather pleasant, especially when Pip Pyle joined in on congas (!) for similarly unrehearsed renditions of «Binoculars» (just vocals and congas) and «Share It». Other songs played included the usual Caravan classics, a brief attempt at Camel’s «Breathless» (almost but not totally forgotten by Richard, and dedicated to the late Peter Bardens, its main author), and a beautiful, if also approximate, rendition of «Out Of The Shadows» from RSVP, now with (embryonic) lyrics. The afternoon finished with hard-rockers Phreeworld (I left after three or four songs, I just wasn’t in the mood for this kind of music, not really my cup of tea anyway), and the evening began with Kopecky, a power trio made up of three brothers of that name. At first I thought they were taking themselves a bit seriously, taking poses and stuff, but they eventually proved a talented and endearing bunch. And fortunately their material was all-instrumental !
Richard Sinclair came back, this time with Canterbury pianist David Rees-Williams, for a much better rehearsed set. I had witnessed the early days of that partnership a few years back when Richard led a jazz-orientated version of RSVP with Patrice Meyer on guitar and Tony Coe on clarinet. I found Rees-Williams a fine pianist, but lacking on the ‘electric keyboards’ side. With Richard’s decision to dispense with drums for the foreseeable future (that’s what I caught him saying sometime during the week-end anyway), their piano/bass duet I think works very well. It was great to see Richard concentrate on bass for most of the gig, as although he is a competent guitarist, you can’t beat him as a fretless bass guitarist… and vocalist of course. The setlist trod familiar ground with Caravan classics such as «In The Land Of Grey And Pink» and the finale from «Nine Feet Underground», but focussed mainly on material from his two albums of the 1990s. Two exceptions though : the opening number was Hatfield and the North’s «Licks For The Ladies», which I’d never heard Richard perform, and another welcome surprise was a rendition of Hugh Hopper’s «Long Lingers Autumn Time» (from Richard and Hugh’s 1983 duo project, later re-done by Robert Wyatt with new lyrics as «PC Jeebies») which was simply magnificent, much much superior to the original. The rest of the set consisted of «What’s Rattlin’?» (although Richard never actually said those words), the instrumentals «Barefoot» and «Felafel Shuffle» (originally an early In Cahoots number then known as «Final Call»), «Keep On Caring» and «What In The World». The whole thing was gorgeous, although I find most songs tend to go on a bit too long, with multiple solos and ad-libs, repeated verses, etc. A little more discipline would be welcome, especially since Richard’s handwritten setlist mentioned «Memories» as a possible encore, but we didn’t get to hear it as he’d overran. Instead, the set ended with another reunion, as Phil Miller joined Richard and Dave for a brief Hatfield medley of «Halfway Between Heaven And Earth» and «Didn’t Matter Anyway». Not an unforgettable musical high but a joyful sight to behold, and possibly the promise of future collaborations, who knows?
This second evening concluded with the festival headliner, then known as Soft Ware. I understand this name has now changed to Soft Works, but the members of this Canterbury supergroup remain the same – Elton Dean, Allan Holdsworth, Hugh Hopper and John Marshall. Although they have already recorded their debut album in London in June, this was their first-ever live performance together.
Given the low amount of time they’ve actually spent together, it is impressive how this band has quickly found its feet and risen above being merely the sum of its parts, creating its own musical identity. In a way this was to be expected, with four such strong personalities. This is precisely what made classic Soft Machine so great – each member being a unique exponent of his instrument, with an instantly recognisable style and sound.
Soft Ware/Works create their music from a rather sparse musical framework, using themes, chord sequences and bass riffs as a platform for individual and collective improvisation. The opening number was exemplary in this respect, being a reworking of Elton Dean’s classic “Seven For Lee”, retitled “Seven Formerly”, from which only the 7/4 bass motif remained – yet it effortlessly extended to 16 minutes of intense interplay. What struck me immediately was the amazing strength and authority of John Marshall’s drumming, from the first drum roll. I have since seen John perform with the classic John Surman Quartet (sadly, John told me ECM show no interest in recording a new album) and these qualities were demonstrated even more impressively.
Of course the key element in the band’s chemistry was going to be Elton and Allan’s ability to establish a fruitful dialogue as soloists. At first they seemed to follow the jazz rule of soloing one after the other, although there was more than just that going on, as Allan laid down some very beautiful harmonic layers behind Elton’s soloing; but there was a moment at the end of “Abrakadabra” (a Hopper tune formerly known as “Spans”) when they seemed to reach a level of almost telepathic interplay. Hugh’s bass playing, creating as it does a lot of space, was the perfect catalyst for that to happen.
The band played almost all of the material from their forthcoming album, omitting only Elton’s funky “Willie The Knee”, and adding as encore the only Soft Machine classic played that night, a very spontaneous version of “Facelift”, which Elton and Hugh launched into at Allan’s visible surprise and puzzlement. It turned out that Allan had never played that tune (and possibly never heard it!), yet he pulled out one of his amazing, lightning-fast solos during the middle part. Elton did a great job alternating between alto (mainly), saxello (occasionally) and Fender Rhodes piano. The arrangement worked better than I would have thought; the overall sound was always full, thanks to both Allan’s support job (something he doesn’t do very often but is actually very good at) and Elton’s comping; and the changes in instrumentation didn’t seem forced, they just made for a greater variety.
All in all, a performance that did not disappoint, and suggested even greater things for the future.
Sunday 18th August
Phil Miller’s band In Cahoots, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, had never performed in the US before. So it was somewhat logical that the setlist for this appearance should resemble a ‘best-of’ of its career to date. It included one or two tracks from each album, with the notable exception of “Recent Discoveries”, which seems to have grown out of favour with its composer since its release.
Some of the pieces dated back to the very early days of In Cahoots – “Above And Below” (with, as introduction, a guitar/piano duo version of Alan Gowen’s “Arriving Twice”, an affectionate nod at the late keyboard player), “Your Root 2” and “Second Sight” – all performed on the band’s 1983/84 BBC sessions – were supplemented by the amazing “Green & Purple Extract” / “Hic Haec Hoc” / “A Simple Man” medley, clocking in at almost 20 minutes, which was a sort of dream choice as opener as far as I’m concerned – I’d been dying to see InCa perform this one day!
The last two albums were represented with the intimate “ED Or Ian” from “Parallel”, and a surprising sextet arrangement of “Delta Borderline” from “Out Of The Blue” – one of the two pieces of that album which didn’t have horns on them. This served to show Phil’s compositions’ malleability, as did the enriched arrangements of “Above And Below” and “Hic Haec Hoc”.
Old stuff, then (I understand Phil has a substantial backlog of material waiting to be rehearsed and recorded, though), but a major element of novelty too – for the first time ever, In Cahoots performed with a drummer other than Pip Pyle. Earlier this year, Phil and Pip decided to go their separate ways for a while and concentrate on their respective projects, so Mark Fletcher has now filled the spot. Mark is an experienced player in various fields (his main Canterbury credentials being previous collaborations with guitarist John Etheridge), and he did an awesome job considering he’d (1) never heard the music before rehearsing it; (2) begun band rehearsals two days before the show; (3) was still sight-reading charts during the performance !! On a couple of occasions, I found his playing not entirely adequate (you can’t beat Pip on “Above And Below”, for instance), but I heard no mistakes, and Mark even had the guts to embark on an impromptu battle with Pete Lemer’s synth on the intro and outro to “Your Root 2” – to Phil’s visible hilarity ! Mark proved himself an immaculate musician, a great performer and all-around great guy (he and Jim Dvorak certainly make up a great comic duo !). We’ll surely miss Pip but Mr. Fletcher is as good a replacement as we could possibly hope for.
View a video of Phil discussing the above-mentioned Medley with footage from the Progman Cometh performance:
The succession of In Cahoots and Daevid Allen’s University of Errors on that final evening of the festival served to illustrate the amazing variety of musical idioms contained within the “Canterbury school” tag. With University Of Errors, there was an aspect of “back to the roots”, with a very rock n’roll energy and the inclusion of a number of classic early Soft Machine songs, plus the presence of Kevin Ayers for the final third of the set. Having seen UoE again in Paris three weeks after Seattle, I must however say that this group is in no way a nostalgia trip. There is a very modern energy and attitude to the band, and old and new material is combined into a very coherent and consistent whole.
University Of Errors is in many ways a rockier, less spacy version of Gong, as demonstrated with the new version of “Pothead Pixies”, which is played almost twice as fast and with incredible energy. Josh Pollock is an incredible guitarist, with a very distinctive personality, playing with the apparent disregard for technique of a punk musician, yet delivering some pretty complex work with great precision. The Seattle gig added an extra element to his show since he broke two strings, and made the process of replacing them an integral part of the event !! Jason Mills, although he looks like a 15-year-old kid, was similarly impressive, a great combination of strength and subtlety. Finally, Michael Clare (who doubles as the group’s road manager) is a very solid bass player, an anchor, exactly what the music requires.
UoE played a large selection of numbers from their new album “Ugly Music For Monica”, including a re-vamped “So What?”, the classic Miles Davis theme that Daevid had already covered on his ‘jazz’ album “Eat Me Baby, I’m A Jellybean”. One of the best and funniest moments in the performance came when Josh introduced a cover of King Crimson’s progrock masterpiece “21st Century Schizoid Man”, with suitably altered lyrics. The parody was seemingly aimed at what presented itself as a “prog” festival, but was only partly appropriate as Progman Cometh featured very little of the overblown, pompous side of prog which the song aimed at deflating.
The last third of the set was very special since the quartet were joined by Kevin Ayers on vocals and rhythm guitar for a few songs. This turned out to be a very nice moment, albeit rather short. Kevin began proceedings with a new song, which surprised many of us, but a new album does seem to be on the way for the not-too-distant future… Classic songs followed – the beautiful “Hymn”, once co-sung by Robert Wyatt, and a few old Soft Machine songs like “Clarence In Wonderland”, “Feelin’ Reelin’ Squealin'” (Kevin and Daevid sharing lead vocals – a great sight!) and “Jet Propelled Photographs”. It was nice to see this sort-of Canterbury festival end on a reference to where, and with whom, it all began.
There were a couple of footnotes to this final evening – first, University Of Errors were joined by Richard Sinclair for a rendition of “O Caroline”. I thought this would be unique to the festival, but UoE re-did it (without Richard of course) at the Paris concert. Finally, what had been planned as a one-hour jam between all participating musicians was reduced, due to time restrictions, to a 10-minute ‘blow’ by an ad-hoc group of Elton Dean, Jim Dvorak, Patrice Meyer (using Kevin Ayers’ guitar!) and Fred Baker with, on drums, the man who has to be thanked for those three days of musical delight, Jerry Cook. The jam was energetic and intense and all participants visibly enjoyed the occasion. One amusing sight was to see some of the technical crew add additional cymbals and toms to the drum kit throughout the brief performance – Jerry was playing Jason Mills’ rather simple kit, and this was apparently far below Jerry’s requirements as a drummer!!
Thus ended the first edition of Progman Cometh, hopefully to be followed by many others. Obviously the word-of-mouth from those in attendance has been excellent, and hopefully in the future there will not only be excellent music from talented musicians, but also the attendance level such an event deserves. There is only this far to go to reach (near) perfection. Keep up the good work, lads!
Check out the Glass and Cuneiform Records Bandcamp pages –
and more specifically, as mentioned above –
(with guest appearances by Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and Richard Sinclair)