A cool night at the end of July brought my wife Jin and I out to a great club in San Francisco, Cafe Du Nord, to check out a slew of progressive and art rock bands. Although I can’t quite recall how I heard about this gig, I knew that both Matti Bye and Inner Ear Brigade were both going to be there; this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Inner Ear Brigade is a band I’d been looking forward to seeing for a long time, one of those bands that for one reason or another, every time they were playing something would come up and I wasn’t able to make it. At any rate, when they hit the stage, my first surprise was the lack of the vocals from their fantastic debut, Rainbrow. This was initially a bit of a disappointment since their songs really felt like they needed the vocals to glue them together; however once the band hit their groove they pulled off a fine display of whimsical jazzy rock, full of interesting chord changes on the guitar and lots of noodling on the keys. I’m certainly looking forward to another chance to see these guys, this time at the Nor Cal Prog Festival.

After Inner Ear Brigade wrapped up a fun set, Dominique Leone’s band started carting gear up onto the stage. And let me tell you, they had a ton of gear, with so many musicians on percussion that I was wondering how they were all going to fit; with at least seven band members and loads of gear between the drums and vibes, I was convinced that their equipment was going to spill off the stage. It was definitely a cool sight. You could describe Leone’s style as pop songs but with some extended ideas that make use of lots of textures, tending to tread into some occasional krautrock, disco, and even avante-garde territory, a group that really banks on the use of repetition to propel ideas forward. In the end, it wasn’t really my cup of tea though, as I thought that with so many musicians on stage there would have been much wider possibilities than what was displayed. But I must say it was nice to see Ava Mendoza up there on guitar (who I’d seen previously with Fred Frith) bringing her unconventional playing to the table.

Next to hit the stage was Corima, and my oh my, I was hoping for something powerful with this SoCal based Zeuhl band. I had no idea what I was in store for. The best way to describe Corima’s live sound is a steamroller. These guys were so heavy, so intense, so brutal that they might just scare Christian Vander himself. Speaking of the Magma founder, I could see in Corima’s drummer the very facial expressions of Mr. Vander, not to mention many similarities in drumming style, which were very welcome, but taken to a more fierce level with a heavy metal-esque sort of agressiveness. I have honestly never heard a band without guitars sound so heavy, but between the screaming sax and violin, brilliant piano/keyboard work, and quick moving basslines these guys could bring most extreme metal bands to their knees with their blend of Zeuhl, Latin, electronic, jazz, and 20th century classical. Corima is a fascinating band whose brilliance moves beyond power to raw passion; I’d go out and see these guys again in a heartbeat.

Once and Future Band also happened to be a pleasant surprise to my ears. I’d generally characterize these guys as ‘ambitious classic-style rock,’ but what makes Once and Future Band a delight is simply the fact that Ojha, Robinow and Eckert are first class performers. By ‘performers’ I don’t mean that they run and jump around wildly. What I mean is that these guys absolutely dominate their instruments to the point where whether they’re playing something complex or not, it all sounds absolutely perfect. From well executed organ and rhodes solos to tasty jazz-infused rock drumming, steady basslines, and good old classic rock vocals, Once and Future Band had me sold despite the fact that I don’t normally find myself listening to this sort of music at home.

At this point it was getting pretty late and I was exhausted, I mean like physically tired to the point where I was wondering if I needed to go home. I’m sure glad I didn’t though, because Matti Bye and This Forgotten Land were a thorough inspiration during every millisecond of their performance. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Having previously reviewed Walrus I thought I had a good idea of what to expect, but this was a whole other beast. The best words to describe these Swedes would be ‘delicate,’ ‘heartfelt,’ and ‘moving,’ a group that has ability to masterfully take a beautiful melody and work, shape, and built its arrangement in ways that will bring tears to your eyes. After coming straight over from the Silent Film Festival at the Castro with just enough time to set up and play (they were originally supposed to go on fourth, but couldn’t make it in time),  Matti Bye (on tron and organ) and his gang of cello, violin, bass, and drums managed to deliver one of the most emotional and dynamically rich performances I’ve ever witnessed, including some of Matti Bye’s moving film compositions. Kudos to these guys for coming out after a long day at the festival and delivering such a stellar performance.

In the end, the first ever SMiLE! Progressive Rock Festival was a success. Apart from seeing a slew of fantastic performances at a ridiculously low price, it was nice to meet Neil Martinson, (the organizer of the show and quite an eclectic and entertaining dj) who’s as charismatic and kind as any host I’ve seen as he certainly goes out of his way to float around the crowd and make all who are at present feel welcome. Throw in the fact that we had the common bond of both having attended Baja Prog in Mexicali, and it made for a very memorable evening. Can’t wait for next years’ edition of the SMiLE! Progressive Rock Festival.