Understandably, this whole Progressive Nation thing is a big deal in prog-rock (or at least prog-metal) land. At one point I think there were four separate threads going on about this tour over at ProgressiveEars, and who knows how much activity there’s been on Mike Portnoy’s forum, the Opeth forum, or the various relevant Yahoo! groups. The tour made its stop in Washington, DC on Monday night, and I went to see what the hubbub’s all about, camera in hand (all photos are at Flickr).
Of the four bands participating — Dream Theater, Opeth, Between the Buried and Me and 3 — I’ve seen the first two (2-3 times each, I can’t remember anymore), am a big fan of the third’s new album Colors, and am totally unfamiliar with the last. Overall I was most excited to see BTBAM; I haven’t been a Dream Theater fan for a long time now, and once I started getting into the more extreme end of extreme metal, Opeth started seeming a little less interesting to me as well (though I still quite enjoy their stuff when I get the hankering to give it a spin).
In any case, I showed up at the venue, DAR Constitution Hall (a 3,700 seat theater), a little before 7pm. I’ve never photographed a show at DAR before, so I spent a few minutes wandering around figuring out what to do. I picked up my photo pass and then got conflicting instructions from staff about where to go from there. I ended up going through some backstage door and getting led to the stage area by a friendly member of BTBAM (I was too distracted by wondering where the hell I was going to engage him in much conversation, but did find out that he’s one of the members from my hometown, Winston-Salem). He actually led me to the stage itself — and I found myself at the very back of the stage just as 3 were beginning their set. Uh, not exactly what I had planned, but ok. I made my way around the wings and got down to the audience area where I was supposed to be. DAR has no photo pit, but I was told I could shoot from the aisles, and found out later (during Opeth’s set) that I could also shoot from the front row of seats right up against the stage, which were unoccupied.
For more on the photography end of this show, check out my photography blog. Now that we’ve gotten to the point in the story that I’m in the venue, what about the music? I was mildly interested in 3, mostly because people have been absolutely raving about their opening set for this tour. In the past I never read anything about their music that made me think I would particularly like them. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure whether I particularly like them, as their music made almost no impression on me. Most of that is my own fault; I was paying attention to getting my bearings in the venue instead of listening. So, put that one down as an incomplete with apologies from the grader. Circumstances were only slightly better for BTBAM as I had to spend the first half of their 30-minute set working out a pass issue, but I did get to see them do “Viridian” and “White Walls” and they fucking blew my head off. Colors was an album that I thought was just ok at first but has really grown on me, and in the live setting these guys pulled it all off with aplomb: the quick shifts in mood, the tricky time changes, the range of styles from Floydlike shoegazing to death metal volume and intensity. The bass solo in “Viridian” raised the tension just enough for them to bring the house down with “White Walls.” The crowd seemed fairly responsive, but then again I was in the front, where folks were bound to be most engaged.
After BTBAM I figured I’d seen my highlight of the show already, and I was more or less right. Opeth put on a solid set — interestingly, thanks to the compressed time limits (they only had an hour to play), they opened with “Demon at the Fall,” which was actually a little disconcerting to me. I kept expecting them to walk off the stage at the end of the song, since that’s what they usually do. They played a range of stuff from their career, including one of the snoozers from Damnation and a song from the forthcoming album Watershed. I don’t really do the illegal downloading thing, so I haven’t heard the leaked version of Watershed that’s been making the rounds for a few months, but I liked the new song (”Heir Apparent,” I think) with reservations. There were some awesome riffs but it probably could have been cut shorter by a couple minutes (really I could say this about a lot of Opeth songs, so that’s nothing new).
Otherwise, it was Opeth and not a lot more needs to be said. Lots of slow sections that burst into killer riffs and death-metal growls. Lots of banter from Mikael Åkerfeldt. Someone yelled “Freebird.” (Someone always yells “Freebird.” Seriously, I think we need legislative action here. Note to people who like to yell “Freebird” - you are not anywhere near as clever or funny as you think you are.) The sound was awful. Like, really awful; the bass drum overwhelmed everything, especially the vocals. This seems to be the case every time I see this band and it makes me sad.
Apart from the sound, though, I dug Opeth’s set and waited for Dream Theater satisfied that I’d already seen two pretty good sets, with absolutely no expectations for the last. Just to clarify: I used to love Dream Theater. Images and Words and Awake are two of the albums that originally got me into the whole prog thing, and by association into adventurous music in general. Even as recently as Scenes From a Memory (and especially Live Scenes from New York) I would count myself a fan. But things went quickly downhill from there, and I can’t really say I much like anything that came after Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. It’s telling that the last time I saw the band live (a long time ago in 2002, back when Usenet was apparently still relevant judging from my old post), I thought the best stuff they did was a medley of old material and a cover of Metallica’s Master of Puppets.
This time around, I went in with no expectations and came away pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Dream Theater’s set. I think I would have liked it even more if I stuck around for the encore, in which they played, well, a medley of old stuff. But what I saw was pretty decent; the new material still doesn’t do a whole lot for me, but these guys have the showmanship thing down, and even if I don’t really dig what they’re playing, at least they are entertaining. When they played “Take the Time” I was really, really reminded of how much better I like the odd-time riffing from the old albums as opposed to the mile-a-minute shredding on some of the newer ones; and some of the songs they played from Scenes From a Memory also came off quite well.
I did start getting a little restless after Jordan Rudess pulled out his wireless keytar thing and played a shredding duo with John Petrucci, and when James LaBrie’s voice started going from somewhat coherent and controlled to, uh, less so. So I booked out of there before I was reminded of all the reasons I don’t like this band as much as I used to. It seems to have worked, as I look back on the concert now with good feelings. The highlight for me was definitely BTBAM — and I would really like to see them on a headlining tour sometime — but the rest of the sets were pretty solid as well. The venue seemed pretty full and folks were getting into the bands, though the turnout for Dream Theater was way, way higher than for anyone else, which was understandable but still made me a little sad to see. It was interesting to see the tension of folks who were there for Dream Theater listening to metal with growled/screamed vocals — not surprisingly, during the BTBAM and Opeth sets there were a fair number of people that retreated to the concourse and downstairs lounge.