Introduction and Friday 4th October

The organisers at ProgPower Europe excelled themselves this year. They achieved a great mix of known and unknown bands. There are fresh new bands and grizzly old bands, but nobody as old as me of course. I’ve often said about ProgPower Europe that I don’t care who’s playing because it’s always a voyage of wonderment. The place is great and the people are good. Ah, the people. Personally I’ve reached the point where half the time I can’t remember the panoply of band names, and have full scale amnesia when it comes to album or track titles, and especially lyrics, but there are those people who live and breathe all of this stuff in such a serious way as if their life depends on it. They are fanatical, mad even, but good people. Then there are those good people who drink themselves into a sleep-deprived stupor but still manage to string together coherent, intelligent and thought-provoking sentences in English, which isn’t their native language. Most English people can’t do that. And then there are philosophers like Tom de Wit, Håkan N and Jeffrey. All good people. As for me, I just look on and scribble stuff down as if I know what I’m doing. I am probably mad as I go round trying to hunt down diet hagelslag – basically sweetened hundreds and thousands as we’d call them which Dutch people devour for breakfast – but in any case whichever side of sanity I sit on I still can’t remember song titles. So let me paint you a picture of sorts, most probably without song titles.

Thursday night’s pre party involved a performance from Ragnar Zolberg, formerly of Pain of Salvation, who I’m not that keen on. I gave that a miss. So I started with the “real thing” on Friday. I once regarded Voyager as progressive wallpaper, and didn’t go much on the last performance I saw from them. My view is more charitable these days, as I’ve heard some whizzbangers from the band in a harmless pop tune melodic prog sense in recent times, so was pleased to see that the Australians had made another long trip to open up proceedings on the Friday evening. I managed to avoid the bollocking I got from one of the organisers a couple of years ago for my “grandad look”. Conformity is the thing, you see, in spite of all the gestures to suggest the opposite, and for me Voyager fit neatly into that category. Not really fitting in with my blood-speckled Serpentia t-shirt, I eagerly anticipated the bass rumbling through the floor as I do at every concert, regardless of who’s playing. Voyager started explosively with “Hyperventilating” – identifiable easily by the fact that the title is repeated in the chorus ad nauseam – and pleased the crowd with their brand of heavy prog pop. The singer, who in my world at least looks like he’d had a haircut accident – has a great voice and used the echo effect well. After an equipment malfunction, the band continued with “Brightstar”. It was all very happy and clappy, becoming bouncy. I liked this catchy, anthemic and yet dark material.

The style altered as the set went on and I felt they lost their impetus. The songs were increasingly more obscure and treacly, lessening the impact. Meanwhile the band members themselves showed great personality and presence. I did however feel they overdid the gimmicks and banter between the singer and bassist, which amounted to a private joke over tax returns and whether bassists can read. Ripping up newspapers never struck me as much of an entertainment form, and Voyager did nothing to dispel this theory. Like the music, the point was lost. I did appreciate the singer throwing carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes into the audience – good for our health, and as he commented, a bit different from the crowd throwing things at them. Not that we would have, as the momentum was restored with “Ascension”. The band plunged us into outright heaviness and approached the end with a delicious carroty number. Voyager proved they could play monstrously heavy pieces with hard and catchy pop, and were entertaining. Yet the performance lacked continuity, or to use the translated term that the Swedes apparently use for this, the red thread.

My wife Celine was here with me in Baarlo this weekend. Actually she wasn’t at the JC Sjiwa club because she’s not that interested in the music. She knows who I like, and Voyager don’t feature in that conversation. Now the last time I saw Diablo Swing Orchestra was at Camden Underworld, Celine was with me and we had a ball. A Butcher’s Ballroom, maybe. That performance led her to appropriate my Diablo cds to go with my / her Taiwanese black metal albums, which along with Gilbert O’Sullivan, Bee Gees, the Brass Funkeys, classical music (various) and Chinese opera must enable her to lay claim to the world’s most eclectic collection. Celine wasn’t with me because although she likes Diablo Swing Orchestra, she decided that a one day ticket was too expensive – I suppose if the place is full of fanatics it doesn’t matter but this is one to note. I can’t say I was greatly impressed with Diablo’s last album – a bit flat by comparison to the others – but with this troupe you don’t know where to look and there’s never time to take breath.

Eight musicians took to the stage. They didn’t look as uniform as the last time I saw them, but they were distinctive nevertheless. Amongst them was a lady dressed for a 1930s occasion, a professorial cellist and youthful looking, pale-faced gent dapperly attired in a black shirt, silver tie and white slacks. The band started a little slowly but quickly became unstoppable. Each of the Magnificent Eight splashed riots of colour as they danced, sang and played their infectious combo of swing, jazz, mariachi, metal and more. So we swung from the ambience of a Mexican café to the beats of the Jungle Book, and the strains of a tv drama. This is a world where virtuosity meets dilettantism, where fun meets darkness. Since what moment in time did cellists joined in the headbanging? All eight played their part and added colour to the canvas.

The female singer is no longer operatic but is more like Kate Bush with attitude. She combined on high in the range vocals with the pale faced trumpeter. An early highlight was the band’s rendition of “Black Box Messiah” with the trumpeter and trombonist combining on vocals and causing us, as the presenter suggested, to imagine we were listening to Japanese schoolgirls. It was a riot. We were having a ball. The audience inevitably responded to the hyperactivity playing out on stage. I had been lucky previously to see them play in an enclosed space, and here at ProgPower this served them too. Diablo Swing Orchestra packed in energy in abundance. I laughed. I smiled. I moved. I didn’t know where to look with all this activity going on. People danced as far as space allowed. The presenter made an unnecessary comment about Brexit and Boris Johnson, which was unfortunate, but I’ll forgive him as “Bedlam Sticks” and all that followed swept us along merrily. The band stepped up their game as the set progressed and injected more life, movement and colour when you wouldn’t have thought it possible. Even the cellist danced. Oh my. What a wonderful, joyous hour and a half of fun courtesy of eight prodigious musicians who share a clear passion for music.

Review Andrew Doherty

Photos Alex Blokdijk