Far away in a parallel universe just south of the River Thames, thousands over the past decade have made the journey to worship at the high temple of prog, the House of Progression.
From the neo-prog generation of bands including Pallas, Pendragon and Twelfth Night to contemporary crowd pleasers such as Tinyfish and DeeExpus, the Peel in Kingston-upon-Thames counted them in and counted them all out again, along with the fans, who packed out the often cramped bar area to see some truly outstanding performances.
The times they are a-changing. The bands have simply got bigger and bigger while the House of Progression is now re-inventing itself and branching out to embrace other venues. However, it was the House of Progression that begat an idea which came to fruition last year. It went something like this. “Let’s not just have an evening of awesome music – we’ll turn it into a whole ******* weekend!”
Well, if you are going to attempt such a feat, it does make a difference that the would-be organisers are a couple of five star prog zealots with a track record of organising, managing, marketing, publicising, broadcasting, negotiating and writing….to which you can now add flyering, as well as a prestigious music award.
With such a vision, Jon “Twang” Patrick and Geoff Banks ventured forth, maybe with a variation of that immortal line from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come” on repeat play in their minds. It was also a bonus that most of the bands they wanted to invite along were on speed dial on their mobile phones and almost without exception, all of them counted themselves in.
As a result, on a bright July weekend last year, with the Hampton Court Flower Show also being held literally a couple of miles down the road, the first ever Celebr8 festival took place at the Kingston Hippodrome and, in its own special way, a little bit of history was created.
And why was that? Well, first and foremost, the two day bill was probably among the best showcases of British prog ever assembled in one line-up – from IQ and Pallas, both doyens of neo-prog who continue to re-invent and re-energise themselves, to the quirky eccentrics Tinyfish playing their last live show, to prog pop’s finest It Bites, the classy Magenta and peerless The Tangent, whose set seemed to go supernova: such was its intrinsic beauty, many in the audience were clearly in tears.
So that’s a brief recap of the music. However, it is also worth remembering that one of the bands due to appear, leading US prog band Mars Hollow, imploded only weeks before this, their UK debut at Celebr8, and led to the departure of Kerry Kompost, their wonderfully twinkly founder and bass player.
All those involved with Celebr8 up until then had developed a huge soft spot for Kerry’s upbeat enthusiasm, so when the band split, he was totally shattered – as were the organisers.
But then there came to pass a major eureka moment somewhere out in the madlands of the south west London suburbs. It was along the lines of: “Let’s put in an acoustic stage. That way, we can have even more ******* amazing musicians playing, including Kerry and his mate Matt Brown.” Kerry not only ended up with Matt on the acoustic stage, but also provided one of the weekend’s defining magical moments, joining Touchstone for a no holds barred rendition of Tears For Fears’ Mad World.
Why else was it making history? Many of the festival goers had travelled great distances to be there, notably from the USA and other parts of Europe. Also, thanks to the wonders of social networking, which had played an integral part spreading the word (and continues to do so this year), most of the fans already knew each other and those that had only met online previously, were soon shaking hands with and hugging each other in person.
What is more, the bands know their fans and that in turn instills an air of camaraderie and friendship, probably seldom found in any other genres of music. Of course, you never know who else might be coming along as a fan to watch. Last year, Steven Wilson slipped in on the Saturday evening. An orderly queue soon formed….
Finally, there was the reaction from the staff at the venue itself who basically said, we were all welcome back anytime because probably for the first time in its history that weekend, peace broke out in Kingston’s leading swinging hotspot.
Now, with the weekend of May 11 and 12 just two days away, cometh the hour, cometh the festival, cometh the bands and most importantly, cometh the fans.
Again, the choice of bands is so diverse and mouth-watering, it does not matter whether your style is prog metal, neo prog, nu prog, symphonic prog, prog lite, prog over easy, Kentucky Fried Prog, acoustic prog, crossover prog – oh spare me the labels, there will be something happening at some point on the main or acoustic stage that will melt your mind.
Where to start? That’s pretty easy because the stand-out, once in a lifetime band is the marvellous Mystery, here making their first-ever UK appearance. The Canadian musical project headed by Michel St-Pere has undergone so many changes over the years, including a tragic death, but still they have emerged sounding more sensational than ever. You only have to hear their latest album, The World Is A Game, to realise that.
It also helps that the band’s singer is Benoit David, the possessor of one of the most beautiful voices in prog, who completed a couple of tours of duty with Yes and contributed to Fly From Here. Between you and me, I am so glad his voice is now back where it truly belongs.
Talking of great singers, there is Threshold with the mighty Damian Wilson, voted best male vocalist in the recent Classic Rock Society Awards. At the awards night, Twang very cunningly gave Threshold’s new album to MC Bob Harris while on stage receiving his own award as the CRS’s Unsung Hero. It is a long story which I am sure Twang will be delighted to tell you over a pint or three.
Back to Twang again for the next “must see” band Frost* who formed part of the Frost*Bites double bill at that very hectic and entertaining night at the Scala in Islington just before Christmas. This is a band that unfailingly demonstrates there is indeed a very thin line between madness and genius, which they are more than happy to cross when the part absolutely demands it.
This is even more so now that Jem Godfrey has ruled himself out of chief keyboard playing duties due to a broken finger. In the true spirit of prog, the great Andy Tillison has learned Jem’s musical lines and will be doing the honours in his place. This is their only live UK show this year so and with this unique new line-up, it has now become a once in a lifetime occasion.
Their appearance also means that guitarist John Mitchell will be performing twice yet again like he did at the Scala. With the stylish, seasoned campaigners, Arena the headline band on the Sunday night, this is history more or less repeating itself from last year but without frantic air travel this time. Last year, he was with Arena at Loreley on the Saturday night and Sunday night, he was back in ol’ Kingston town to top the Celebr8 bill with It Bites.
So those are the main headliners who are worth the admission money alone but further down the bill are two bands making their UK debuts, both of whom have lady singers, but it is there that the similarities end. District 97 are one of the most exciting new prospects on the scene, fronted by the dynamic Leslie Hunt who made it into the finals of American Idol, the US equivalent of, say it quietly, The X Factor.
Dutch/Spanish band Harvest, fronted by the equally striking Monique van der Kolk, could prove to be one of the surprise packages of the weekend with their own brand of highly listenable, accessible prog. Just before they appear on the Sunday will be Alan Reed, who has also sung with them. For this festival, the former Pallas frontman, whose First In A Field Of One was one of 2012’s stand-out albums, will be joined by his electric band The Daughters of Expediency.
Completing the bill on the main stages are two of the fastest rising stars of the British prog scene. The first is IO Earth, masters of mesmeric prog, who will be performing with their lovely new singer, Linda Odinsen. Last but not least are the polished technocrats, Haken, a band of outstanding ability and one that the festival organisers have nurtured and supported since their formation in 2007 by giving them regular slots on the House of Progression bills.
But, as the old catchphrase goes, that’s not all, because somehow, we are all going to have to hotfoot it across to the acoustic stage throughout the weekend, where, it is fair to say, a star cast of musicians, all of whom have had an important, integral part to play in the House of Progression, will be performing.
The cast comprises Maestro Tillison, who was so memorable with the Tangent last year; ditto Simon Godfrey from Tinyfish, along with guitar legend Matt Stevens and Knifeworld, Stu Nicholson and Dean Baker from Galahad. Last but not least, there will be Twelfth Night’s Mark Spencer, which brings the story of the House of Progression full circle because it was TN’s performance nearly a decade ago, which began it all.
I’ve said my bit now and have given you a few good reasons why 1) prog is the best genre of music to follow and 2) it does not get much better than this. For all the hours, all the love, all the passion, all the frustrations, all the knock-backs and ultimately, all the satisfaction both Twang and Geoff experience in their organisation and preparation, they make dreams come true for so many, not least of all for themselves.
At the end of the day, we are all fans in it together. That, in itself, counts for so much and is reason enough to celebr8.
Just 2 days to go. All you need to know is here: http://www.celebr8prog.com/Home.html