It’s definitely a sign of the times that one of the world’s greatest all-around musical artists — the guitar and keyboard virtuoso, master composer, and singing bassist, drummer and percussionist Mike Keneally (www.keneally.com) — is part of a tribute act.
Thankfully, and predictably, it’s not just a standard tribute to any pop or classic rock band or performer. ProgJect (www.progject.com) is the brainchild of Massachusetts-born drummer Jonathan Mover, whose recording and touring credits include Aretha Franklin, Joe Satriani, and The Tubes. Last year, he ventured out with Keneally, keyboardist Ryo Okumoto, vocalist Michael Sadler, and bassist Matt Dorsey to salute historical progressive rock titans such as Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Rush, U.K., and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
“Jonathan is good friends with the drummer in my band, Joe Travers,” the Arizona-based Keneally says by phone from Mover’s home in Los Angeles as ProgJect prepared to fly to Chicago for an August 24 tour stop.
“Jonathan called Joe one day in 2021 to talk about ProgJect while I was at Joe’s apartment, so when Jonathan asked him about me, Joe was able to hand me the phone. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to tie myself into essentially playing cover songs, but he made a strong case. He already had the vision, and the arrangements, for a whole set list. And it was a very thoughtful and thought-provoking approach to music that I loved.”
ProgJect’s first tour included two outstanding separate shows at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton on April 29, 2022, and the quintet returns to the venue for two more separate shows Sept. 29 in slightly different form. Last year, ProgJect performed material by The Tubes, Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, U.K., Bill Bruford, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. This time, Mover will again be joined by Keneally and Okumoto, with the remaining personnel drawn from the stable of talent the drummer has culled for the quintet, this time including guitarist/vocalist Marc Bonilla and bassist/vocalist Ric Fierabracci.
‘I call us an homage band,” Mover says, distinguishing the difference between paying tribute to an individual group or artist and saluting an entire sub-genre across the board.
“The band is on fire right now,” Keneally says. “I suspect that, over the next six weeks or so, it might just be terrifying. I’m doing a lot more singing this time around, and we’re all just so locked in with each other that everything feels really strong.”
Each musician in ProgJect has notables on their résumé, but Keneally is the quintet’s best-known quantity because of a very prominent one on his list. Remarkably, his first professional gigs were as part of the band led by the complex, genre-defying composer, guitarist and vocalist Frank Zappa (1940-1993). After securing the position of guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist as a 25-year-old in late 1987, Keneally recorded and toured in the final 1988 ensemble led by Zappa, who would retire from touring after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.
But ample live highlights of Keneally’s time with his mentor exist, from the 1988 gem Broadway the Hard Way through the 2021 two-CD release Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show, recorded at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, N.Y.
The Long Island-born Keneally exploded with post-Zappa creativity in the 1990s, both as a bandleader and sideman. His explorative 1992 solo debut hat led to other highlights including the mind-blowing trilogy of Boil That Dust Speck (1994), Half Alive in Hollywood (1996) and Sluggo! (1997). Concurrently, Keneally toured in the band of fellow guitarist, Long Islander and Zappa alum Steve Vai while singing and playing guitar, keyboards and percussion in an incredible quartet rounded out by bassist Philip Bynoe and drummer Mike Mangini.
The 61-year-old multi-instrumentalist’s subsequent catalog includes true solo recordings on which he sings and plays all instruments (like Nonkertompf, 1999), performs his compositions with the symphonic Metropole Orkest (The Universe Will Provide, 2004), and collaborates with XTC vocalist/guitarist Andy Partridge (Wing Beat Fantastic, 2012).
Keneally’s own group also knows no bounds, featuring longtime bassist Bryan Beller, guitarists Rick Musallam and Griff Peters, and drummer Travers. Evidence includes the concert albums Guitar Therapy Live (2006) and bakin’ @ the potato! (2011), plus studio efforts from Wine and Pickles (2008) through the new The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat, Keneally’s first release in more than six years. During the 2010s, he also toured as a multi-instrumentalist with another Long Island guitarist, instrumental rocker Joe Satriani. He, Vai and Keneally were born within both a few miles and a few years of each other in New York.
“John Petrucci [from American prog band Dream Theater] and [fellow Zappa alum] Warren Cuccurullo are from there too,” Keneally says, citing other progressive guitar examples from the island. “And any number of guitarists I’m forgetting. It’s a strange phenomenon. I don’t even have a theory for it.”
A keyboardist for years before he took up guitar, Keneally sometimes plays both. As in simultaneously, with his left hand soloing on the neck of his guitar as his right hand tickles the keys. The duality is a summation of his approach to music, which has been as heavily influenced by the likes of Todd Rundgren and Joni Mitchell; John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, and Steve Reich and Leonard Bernstein as by the multiple prog giants he salutes with ProgJect.
“My own music is definitely highly prog-informed and influenced, but I don’t think it’s prog,” says Keneally. “So people can have a hard time wrapping their hands around what I do. But I grew up learning a lot of the ProgJect covers off of records as a teenager. And it means a lot to be able to stand out on a stage and play them now.”
Other recent touring and recording activities include work with Canadian vocalist and guitar hero Devin Townsend, plus the occasional Zappa legacy project like The Zappa Band, which includes several of Keneally’s bandmates from 1988. There’s also One Shot Deal, Travers’ salute to Zappa. In addition to being one of the world’s most underrated drummers, Travers is the longtime “Vaultmeister” for the Zappa Family Trust, which preserves the late musical giant’s legacy. One Shot Deal includes several members, Travers included, from guitarist and son Dweezil Zappa’s former tribute act Zappa Plays Zappa.
While he hopes to get Travers and his other bandmates out on the road again under his own name soon, Keneally is currently locked and loaded into ProgJect’s tour, which will close its second month of road work at the Funky Biscuit.
“I don’t want to give away the new things we’ll be doing since last year’s shows there,” Keneally says. “But Jonathan is so creative with medleys. When he gets an idea, he constructs a series from the original recordings and sends us his edited collages. For this tour, he realized that most prog music from the ’70s that’s endured was U.K.-based. But there were several American prog bands of that era that he really liked, so we’ll be doing a 13-minute opus of six different U.S. prog groups, along with several other pieces we didn’t play last year.”
If You Go
See ProgJect perform separate 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. shows at the Funky Biscuit, 303 SE Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton
When: September 29
Info: 561-395-2929, funkybiscuit.com