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Prog Rock Festival Delivers Impressive Variety in Maryland

Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy's second installment of his Progressive Nation tour rolled into Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., on Aug. 1, offering progressive music fans a healthy does of old and new music in the progressive rock scene.

The package tour is working its way through the United States with four bands in tow -- headliners Dream Theater, direct support Zappa Plays Zappa and openers Bigelf and Scale the Summit. For this tour stop only, the show also featured a special set by Seattle, Wash.-based rock veterans Queensr˙che.

Dream Theater, on the road promoting its new CD and first Billboard Top-10 entry, Black Clouds & Silver Linings, offered a set of music that would either be welcomed or dismissed, depending on your view of the band's recent output. That is because for this stop, the band chose to feature only material from when keyboardist Jordan Rudess joined the band (1999). Some fans see that moment as the turning point where technical proficiency moved front and center over emotionally resonant lyrics and music.

During the set, the disconnect between the lyrics and music became real clear without any songs from the band's first five albums to balance out the set. The show was bookended by the opening and closing numbers from the current album -- "A Nightmare to Remember" and "The Count of Tuscany" -- and also featured the lead single, "A Right of Passage."

With only eight songs in the 90-minute set, Dream Theater never picked up momentum and much of the power of the songs was lost while the technical proficiency was put on display. The lone exception was a beautiful extension of "Solitary Shell" from 2002's Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, which featured a tight, emotionally charged exchange between guitarist John Petrucci and Rudess.

These songs, in addition to others played, all featured extended instrumental passages, leaving lead singer James LaBrie (who sounded as strong as he has in recent tours) off stage seemingly for more time than he was on stage. At this show, he comes off as almost a secondary citizen on stage.

But on the flip side, Dream Theater's audience likely is not at the show because of a charismatic front man, but rather because there is a deep appreciation for the musical abilities that are put on display. And while the set may not have resonated with some people in the audience, the overwhelming majority vocally showed their appreciation for the headlining set.

Zappa Plays Zappa

Portnoy has made it well known that the music of the late Frank Zappa is one of his key influences, leaving no doubt as to why Zappa Plays Zappa, led by Frank's son Dweezil, was invited to join the tour. And what was on display was the complex, yet satirical nature that defines Frank Zappa. Whimsical tunes such as "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" take on an interesting life when the amusing lyrics are backed with such a deep soundtrack.

The music of Zappa embodies the essence of what progressive music is, drawing from any and all genres and melding it together in a unique way, leaving it to be almost indefinable by your standard genre tags. The musicians assembled on stage clearly were up to the challenge and produced a tight, eclectic 75-minute set that resonated with the crowd.

Queensr˙che

Queensr˙che's set mirrored the format the band is using for its current headlining tour, albeit a shortened version for the one-off festival stop, with three suites of music drawing from three albums: 1986's Rage for Order, 2009's American Soldier, and 1990's Empire. Queensr˙che showed that from a musical perspective, it could still keep the spirit of the band's classic sound intact, despite numerous guitarist changes over the past decade.

However, the years have not been as kind to lead vocalist Geoff Tate, who clearly has lost some of his signature upper range. That being said, Tate performed admirably, belting out as strong a set of vocals as his current state would allow.

Judging from the amount of Queensr˙che t-shirts in the audience, there were plenty of supporters for the band. But given the nature of the show, one has to question certain song selections. The four tracks from Rage for Order -- "Neue Regel," "The Whisper," "Screaming in Digital," and "Walk in the Shadow" -- certainly got the audience pumped. But some steam was lost when the four songs from American Soldier were showcased: "Sliver," "Man Down!," "A Dead Man's Words," and "Home Again."

Any momentum that might have been lost was quickly regained by the closing one-two punch from Empire -- the album's lead track, "Best I Can," and its title track -- both of which drew the loudest reaction from the audience.

Bigelf & Scale the Summit

Bigelf preceded Queensr˙che with a half-hour set, melding sounds reminiscent of early Black Sabbath with the more psychedelic stylings of early Pink Floyd by way of a modern spin. Scale the Summit, the all-instrumental quartet, started things off at 4:30 p.m. and put on a solid, technical offering.

Progressive Nation 2009:

Dream Theater
Zappa Plays Zappa
Queensr˙che
Bigelf
Scale the Summit

Aug. 1, 2009
Merriweather Post Pavilion
Columbia, Md.

-- Gregory Twachtman


Copyright 2009, Brian Heaton. All Rights Reserved.