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Simon Godfrey's Letter From America

Chicago and Prog; it goes together like lingerie and high heels and I feel equally at home in both. Chicago and Prog that is. The mental image of me in the latter…

Well, never mind.

The city is an impressive place to visit, located as it is in the mid-west of America, on the shores of Lake Michigan. It was the birthplace of mail order shopping (the Sears catalogue company was founded there), a hotbed of crime and vice during the prohibition years and saw the building of the world’s first ever skyscraper. In short, the inhabitants of this city are clearly bonkers and justifiably proud of it.

Like New York and my home town of Philadelphia, Chicago has a thriving progressive scene. District 97, Sonus Umbra, Pavlov, Cheer-Accident, Mano, Riddle House and Zip-Tang are some of the many bands who call the windy city home.

The reason that I descended upon this musical metropolis was to attend Progtoberfest 2014, the inaugural progressive rock festival located at Reggies Rock Club in the south of the city. Arriving at the hotel slightly ragged around the edges from the trip, the first person I bumped into is Spock’s Beard drummer, Jimmy Keegan. I was almost instantly re-invigorated by the encounter as our Mr K is a very affable gent and a fantastic raconteur. We quickly bonded over our love of great cymbals and incredibly rude words.

A short ride from the hotel in what seemed like the school bus stolen from the set of Mad Max II, was Reggies and I simultaneously loved and hated the place. I loved it because the club had two venues, three bars, great food, a record and clothing shop, all in one building. I hated it because within about 10 minutes of checking everything out, I was broke. On the upside I had all the vinyl, CDs and Motorhead branded kilts any man could ever desire in one lifetime.

The biggest (happy) surprise was just how familiar things felt as I walked into the venue. If I closed my eyes, I could have been at the Summers End or Celebr8 festivals back in the UK. There was the friendliness and relaxed camaraderie, the eager buzz between old friends and the perennial question asked at all festivals; where’s the toilet?

The acts began to take to the stage in both venues and the crowd gleefully sloshed back and forth between the rooms, eager to encounter the next bit of musical magic. I started to chat to the fans and as the hours (and the booze) passed, we all began to exchange the usual kind of banter that fellow festival go-ers indulge in. Everybody seemed to think I was Australian except one very drunk individual who swore blind that I had a Welsh accent.

It must have been all the kilts I was carrying.

The music for Progtoberfest was extremely eclectic. From the unbridled inventiveness of Stick Men, the jaw dropping arrangements of Thank You Scientist, the intricate prog metal of District 97, the middle eastern power of Mano, the superbly bonkers Cheer-Accident and the ambient soundscapes of Steven Wilson’s keyboardist Adam Holzman, through to the anthemic chord work of Dream The Electric Sleep, the neo-stylings of Presto Ballet and the symphonic grandeur of Big Elf and Spock’s Beard; no-one walked away disappointed.

I left the venue on the Sunday night, declaring unstinting loyalty and promises to keep in touch with all my new festival buddies (soon to be Facebook buddies) and staggered off to bed a spent but happy force.

The Monday morning arrived and while I was still dog tired, I knew I had a plane to catch. The last interesting encounter of the festival came in the form of sharing a taxi back to the airport with Burnt Belief and Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin. Some might have taken the opportunity to chat to him about his set at the festival the night before but not me. Perhaps it was our shared nationality [Colin’s Australian. He was born in Melbourne! - Aussie Ed.]or the fact that we were both obviously knackered and still had to face a long journey home, but both of us unconsciously decided that silence was golden. As we left the taxi, we exchanged a gentle ‘Thank you from the deepest recesses of my heart for not talking’ nod and a smile. It was like a little bit of Britain, right there in Chicago.

I was even tempted to try and out-walk him to the airport gate but that might have been taking London commuter spirit a bit too far.

I’ll get him next time.