DOWN IN HOLLYWOOD ... PROGFEST '94

copyright 1995 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue#24 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - Dec '95


It was the first weekend of November 1994. Rainclouds scudded in from the Strait of Juan de Fuca & collided with Mount Seymour, dumping an oversize load on the Fraser River delta. The fading light of the afternoon leached the colour out of the scenery at Vancouver International Airport giving the surroundings a dreary black & white effect. As the deluge pelted the runway I said my goodbyes to Wayne Diggins, who was leaving for Thailand. My destination was Los Angeles. It would be six months til I'd see Digs again, and I would see him off to Thailand again six months after that. But that's another story.

The reason for my week in Los Angeles was business. I had been contacted in September of 93 by a man named Greg Walker, who told me he had gotten my phone number from Paul Horn. A little bell rang in my head as I heard Greg mention an album of mine that Paul had produced in 1973 at Vancouver's Mushroom Studio. The album was Ptarmigan', a collection of acoustic Westcoast musings I had co-written with Glen Dias. The LP had originally been released on Columbia of Canada & had long since spiraled into oblivion.

Greg's L.A.-based "Synphonic Records" was interested in re-releasing the project. Yay! His company is one of the largest Progressive rock labels in the world & specializes in re-releases of obscure 70's material as well as offerings from current artists. You can imagine my surprise. During the ensuing months I acquired the master tapes from Sony Records for Paul Horn & he turned them over to me. Negotiations with Synphonic Records were a painstaking endeavor & I thought that a trip to L.A. would speed things along. I chose to attend Greg Walker's 2nd annual "Progfest" in order to meet the man. As a Progfest conventioneer I got a corporate rate at the lavish, art deco, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

I arrived a couple days before the festival so I could get a feeling for the city and collect some music business data. My hotel was situated on Hollywood Boulevard, kitty-corner from the Chinese Theatre in the heart of Tinsel Town. I could see the "Hollywood" sign from the window of my immense room. I was there 2 days before I discovered that I had a 2nd bathroom. A golf cart would have been handy for trips to the hospitality bar. After a few hours of acclimatization I made my first incursion into the wholyweird night. My first sight was a broken window signed in spray paint, "Tell them Bobby Fuller is back!". (Fuller, of I Fought the Law' fame, was found dead in a car under suspicious circumstances. It is rumoured that a rogue cop forced him to drink gasoline.)

During the next few days & nights I became a denizen on the boulevard of broken dreams. I saw a couple of movies open, Stargate' and Frankenstein', both stinkers. I ambled eastward amongst the dispossessed & the possessed through urban decay on dirty streets. Past tawdry sex shops & wig stores. In Frederick's of Hollywood I saw Madonna's bra (so who hasn't?). I passed by the Capitol Records Tower. Even this landmark has seen better days. A battered awning swung loose in the dusty wind. Around the corner I stopped into the Frolic Lounge' for a couple of well drinks served by a genderly ambivilent bartender. I hummed a popular Sheryl Crow melody to myself amidst the afternoon drinking set. Outside I paused under the Pantages Theatre marquee denoting the next evenings performance of Sandra Bernhardt & the Strap-ons before heading back down the gauntlet to my room.

I spent a futile couple hours on the phone @ $1 per call trying to get through the computer & receptionist screening walls of the major & minor record companies. I had to do it, I was there. Only A & M accept unsolicited material so keep that in mind, folks.

The next day I headed west on Sunset to check out the music shops. Acres, nay hectares of vintage axes, amps & state of the art goodies. Relatively expensive as I recall. Carvin, Mesa Boogie & The Music Store dominate one block. Bring plastic. -Travel Tip #3.7: (Remember when travelling out of the country to bring proof of ownership for any instruments or equipment that you bring with you so you don't get hassled by Customs when returning. Sign the green declaration slip before leaving Canada.)

I passed the Chateau Marmont with its Hollywood bungalows, the infamous ending place of John Belushi. I walked by the Sunset Grill, a roadside burger stand popular with the death set. Warily I continued on to the massive Virgin Record Store & found a CD of my favorite B.B. King album, "There Must Be a Better World Somewhere", which features songs written by Doc Pomus & Dr. John. I joyfully grabbed a brew at the Harley Davidson Cafe before checking out "The House of the Blues". A consortium of owners including Dan Ackroyd have put together a franchise of these nightclubs & they are impressive indeed. I happened along during the sound check for none other than Dr. John. The atmosphere vibrated with voodoo indeed, as the band ran through a couple of numbers while the good doctor conferred with Coco Robicheaux about the evening's set list. My per diem had dwindled so I excused myself from the surroundings & dragged my dogs back to my tinsel town digs to rest up for the next day's event & my raison d'etre la, "Progfest"!

The next morning I enjoyed a long, colourful city bus ride down to the eastern end of Hollywood & Sunset Boulevards through the predominantly Hispanic area of East L.A. eventually ending in the war zone of Hill Street in the heart of Downtown. Not a great neighbourhood. Off the main stem by 2 or 3 blocks of deserted streets lay my destination. A short jog. Even shorter at a dead run. TAXI!

PART 2 - PROGFEST
L.A. Variety Arts Theatre - Nov. 1994

Progressive Rock conjures up a variety of images. Northern European Neoclassical influences placed over a bombastic percussive bed rife with complex time signatures & riff heavy liet motifs.

Vocalisations can be menacing or soothing-or both. Instrumentation tends to be keyboard-dominated with analogue sounds being highly sought after. The Mellotron rules. B3s, Arp & Moog abound. Rickenbacker basses figure highly, because of their thick bright tones that cut throught polyrhythmic passages. This is thinker's music, a dreamscape's soundtrack, intellectual mind massage, sci-fi with a gothic edge. Get it?

Prog gods include King Crimson, Yes, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, ELP & Genesis (their earlier incarnations in particular). Scores of lesser known bands are arrayed through the pantheon of Prog. Hawkwind, Gentle Giant, Soft Machine, the Strawbs, etc...

Don't assume that this is an entirely retrospective genre however. There are hundreds of new prog bands & an underground culture surrounds them quite delightfully. Just when I thought grunge & rap were sounding the death knell of musicality I became aware of the Prog movement. There are several magazines devoted to Prog & an international network is supportive of it. There are also many slash/subdivisions to Prog: /hard rock, /metal, /classical, /psychedelic, /ambient, /electronic, /trance, etc.

In Greg Walker's estimation as the head of Synphonic Records, my 1974 album, "ptarmigan" represents a kind of acoustic Prog & his eventual re-release of it on Cd will prove helpful for yours truly. Apparently its production is due to begin after Progfest 95.

Progfest 93 featured 4 bands: Citadel & Quill from the U.S. and IQ & Anglagard from Europe. The first event was successful enough to repeat & expand.

The 94 version had 2 bands from France, 2 from Sweden, 4 from the U.S. & 1 from Australia. The venue for the concert was the L.A. Variety Arts Theatre. The following is a review of that event.

Day one kicked off with "Halloween", a group from France with a foreboding sound reportedly influenced by H.P.Lovecraft. The female singer, Geraldine LeCocq cavorted foppishly providing a visual focus to their dark tones which featured the violin of Jean Phillipe Brun. At one point she punctuated her performance with handfuls of dried leaves tossed high above the stage to swirl down through the strobing lights. Spooky stuff. Must have really impressed the stage hands. They have 5 releases on Musea Records (France).

Up next were "Kalaban", a group from Utah with a decidely turgid sci-fi predeliction. They prefaced their performance with a libretto which may have helped decode some of the lyric passages.. They could have benefited from more dynamic sensitivity. If these guys weren't on stage they'd be hitch-hiking UFOs. Successfully. If you are interested in joining them acquire the Cds, "Don't Panic" or "Resistance is Useless" on Synphonic.

They were followed by a highly professional unit from Philadelphia named "Echolyn". This ensemble had a tough tight rock sound with a very tasty guitarist, a powerful lead vocalist & some well arranged harmony passages. They wisely handed out promo Cd singles at the door. Look for "As the World", on Sony/Epic Records.

Closing the first night were the only group who had been at Progfest 93, "Anglagard" from Sweden. This ensemble was truly mind boggling with 2 Mellotrons, flute, 2 guitars, male/female harmonies and a fabulous drummer named Mattias Olsson. Lyrics mostly in Swedish. Ja, fer sure! They have 2 releases, "Hybris" & "Prior to Epilogue" on the Mellotronen/Colours label.

Evening #2 opened with a Bay Area ensemble called "Episode" & marked the first instance of cover material, including Pink Floyd's "Echoes". Nicely performed with 2 keyboards, bass, guitar, drums, female lead vocal, harmonies & cello. Unfortunately I missed the original material at the start of their set. They have an LP on Synphonic entitled "Into the Epicenter" & a CD on Alabaster called "Starlight Tales".

"Anekdoten" were next up & turned in a remarkable performance with guitarist Nicklas Berg doubling on Mellotron, bassist Jan Erik Liljestrom providing vocals mostly in English, cello by Anna Sofi Dahlberg & percussion by Peter Nordin. This Swedish ensemble made a deep connection with with their music & received the largest ovation of the weekend. At one point they were joined by a trumpet player whose extended solo added a jazzy inflection to the gnome like vocalisations of Jan Erik. Their discography includes the Cd "Vemod", on Virta & "Eleven on One-to-Ten" on Meantime Records.

Next a bit a theatre by a leather jacketed Kevin Gibert who appeared with a boombox blasting out a recent commercial hit by Prog turncoats Genesis. His mock horror at the top ten tune was followed by the destruction of said boombox & an ensuing set with "Giraffe" featured Genesis' "Lamb Lays Down on Broadway" in its entirety.

A bit too much cabaret for me so I adjourned to the lobby to schmooze. There I met Peter Thelen, editor of Expos magazine from San Francisco. I was amazed when he told me he had a copy of "ptarmigan". As Billy Winter says, "Its a small world but I wouldn't want to paint it."

I also talked with "Anekdoten" who were embarking on a 15 date tour with a Detroit group, "Discipline". Their tour would culminate with an appearance at "Progscape" in Baltimore. They were very excited at the response to their set & I wished them well. Nice folks. I browsed at the promo table & returned to see "Minimum Vitale".

The French group "Minimum Vitale" features a female lead vocalist, Sonia Nedelec who possesses a haunting stage presence & a beautiful voice. Twin brothers Theirry & Jean-Luc Payssan play keyboards & guitar with Charly Berna drumming & a Will Cardinal look-alike, Eric Rebeyrol on bass. Theirry used a beautiful accordian sample on his keyboard & their music had a decidely 15th century influence. Medieval rock. Mais oui ! They have several releases on Musea including "La Source" from 1993. Recommended!

Closing out the festival was the reunion performance of an Australian Prog legend, a group called "Sebastian Hardie". Their set included a perfect reading of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" & a smattering of material from their mid 70s releases: "Four Moments", "Windchase", "Windchase-Symphinity" & Mario Milla's "Epic III". I don't know whether it was a lack of prog perspective on their part or just the MOR reading of one of their early hits but I found the groups featuring current original music to be more interesting.

The last day of the Progfest "94 event was the convention/party at the Hollywood Metropolitan. Prog Labels, collectors, dealers & fans crammed a room that was wall to wall with vinyl, Cds, cassettes, posters, T-shirts & paraphenalia. A claustrophobic collectors paradise. Any curious folks out there can investigate the following sources:

-Expos Magazine: 43553 Ellsworth St. #B, Fremont, CA. 94539 (6 issues @ $16. CAN)
-Music Uncovered: 22833 Bothell-Everett Hwy. suite 1121 Bothell, WA.(Quarterly $4. US)
-Prognosis Magazine: 1415 Fulton Rd. Suite 205-A27, Santa Rosa, CA. (Bi-mon. $20. US)
-Synphonic Records: P.O. box 2034, La Habra, CA. 90631 (Free catalogue)
-Musea Records: 68 La Tinchotte- 57117 Retonfey, France. Fax: 87366473 (catalogue)
-Aeon Music: P.O.Box 6185 Torrance, CA. 90504 (catalogue)

Note: Monte Nordstrom has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 8 albums to date (Nov '99). He performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.
Email Monte at: nordstro@islandnet.com

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