Tribute acts are the latest acid for the masses, especially in South Florida. Most of the artists being paid tribute to have either died or are still touring past age 50 — meaning they’re often popular enough to charge exorbitant fees for concert tickets to compensate for their lost recording royalties in the musical streaming era.
So consumers who either can’t, or decide they can’t afford to, see artists like Tom Petty, Prince, The Who, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, or the Eagles settle for tribute acts to them, tickets for which are comparatively only a fraction of the cost. That accessibility is usually a trade-off involving a lack of musical quality, but in a market like ours, listeners seem willing to give inequality a pass as long as they’re hearing their favorite songs.
Yet ProgJect (www.progject.com), which played two separate three-quarter-full shows at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton on April 29, offers something different — a tribute to the majority of worthy acts from the entire subgenre of progressive rock. Drummer Jonathan Mover (Marillion, Joe Satriani, Aretha Franklin, The Tubes) came up with the concept after subbing on tour with Canadian Genesis tribute act The Musical Box in 2019.
ProgJect also features vocalist Michael Sadler, guitarist/vocalist Mike Keneally, keyboardist Ryo Okumoto, and bassist/guitarist/vocalist Matt Dorsey. The quintet stopped at the Funky Biscuit during its long-awaited first tour, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic since the band’s inception.
“I call us an homage band,” the Massachusetts-born Mover said from his home in Los Angeles before the start of the tour. “Our foundation is the prog giants like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. After that are branches like Gentle Giant, Rush, Jethro Tull, U.K., and Peter Gabriel. And others, of course.”
“Others” came early in the 90-minute opening show in the form of “Up From the Deep” by The Tubes, the underrated San Francisco band that’s blended comedy and theatrics into its own progression, notably in the 1970s and 1980s. The piece was appropriately highlighted by Mover as he played a set of tubular bells set up behind his expansive, customized Pearl drum kit.
A “Siberian Khatru/The Gates of Delirium” Yes medley followed, featuring three-part vocal harmonies by Sadler, Keneally and Dorsey; Okumoto’s dramatic stretched-armed attack on separate keyboards, Keneally’s late high-note histrionics, and Mover’s use of a gong. Still, the vocals remained a bit buried in the mix early on.
That was rectified by the middle of the subsequent King Crimson medley of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One/One More Red Nightmare/Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two.” Keneally alternated between finger-picking and using a standard plectrum to navigate Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp’s unique mixture of classical and metallic elements during what became an early gem. As was the Genesis medley of “Firth of Fifth/Cinema Show,” with Okumoto’s emotive piano intro, plus Sadler’s use of a guitar-and-bass double-neck instrument, combined with bass foot pedals as he and Keneally performed Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett’s six-stringed harmonies.
The 60-year-old Keneally was, as always, a whirlwind throughout the show. The best-known quantity within ProgJect, the Long Island, N.Y., native landed the challenging role of guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist in Frank Zappa’s final 1988 touring ensemble while he was only in his 20s. He’s since wowed audiences as a singing multi-instrumentalist within the bands of guitarists Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, and created his own singular form of progressive rock with his Beer for Dolphins trio and self-titled quartets, quintets and sextets over the past 30 years.
Sadler, who had plenty of down time over the course of the evening’s long instrumental passages, has a primary prog association with Canadian rock band Saga, which first formed in the late ’70s. Okumoto’s prog band is 30-year-old Los Angeles-based act Spock’s Beard, and fellow veterans Mover and Dorsey (Sound of Contact, In Continuum, Beth Hart) have been effective rhythm section members for artists both prog and pop.
“When Saga did its 20-year anniversary tour,” Sadler said, “our support act was John Wetton. Just John, singing and playing acoustic guitar. And he played a beautiful song that we’d like to do for you now.”
Wetton (1949-2017) was best-known as the lead-singing ’70s bassist for King Crimson, yet ProgJect chose the ballad “Rendezvous 6:02,” by his influential band U.K., which also featured keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson and drummer Terry Bozzio. Keneally and Dorsey left the stage to only Sadler, Okumoto and Mover, who employed percussion instruments including an Earth chime in the piece’s stripped-down arrangement. Yet the singer, who was otherwise solid to remarkable all night, took liberties with Wetton’s soaring vocal melody that tended to undercut its beauty.
The original U.K. lineup featured Wetton and Jobson with guitarist Allan Holdsworth and drummer Bill Bruford — whose own subsequent, influential self-titled quartet was rounded out by Holdsworth, keyboardist Dave Stewart and bassist Jeff Berlin in the late ’70s. A Bruford medley including “Hell’s Bells,” “The Abingdon Chasp” and “The Sahara of Snow” showcased Keneally and Mover, who was heavily influenced by the iconic drummer, whose career included banner work with Yes through the early ’70s and a 25-year stint with King Crimson thereafter.
All five ProgJect members are filling a closet’s worth of big shoes, but perhaps none more than Keneally and Mover. The guitarist not only has to recreate the intricate parts, but also the disparate tones, of Fripp, Hackett, Holdsworth, Steve Howe, Greg Lake, David Gilmour, Alex Lifeson, and Martin Barre. And rock drumming doesn’t get more complex than in prog, where Mover navigates the patterns of Bozzio, Bruford, Alan White, Phil Collins, Carl Palmer, Neil Peart, Clive Bunker, and Barriemore Barlowe.
Keneally is also an equally impressive keyboardist whose second childhood instrument became guitar a few years later, so he was as influenced as Okumoto by Keith Emerson’s work within the ’70s trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer. That group’s medley included frenetic readings of everything from “Karn Evil 9” to its cover of Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown,” complete with enough cowbell accents by Mover to please Christopher Walken. It also included a comically long guitar strap malfunction for Keneally — who soloed on with a smile, and as only he can, while Sadler held his guitar in place and a roadie furiously tried to get the strap back on for more than a minute before finally succeeding.
The guitarist’s lone lead vocal was during “Wish You Were Here,” the opening Pink Floyd track in a late highlight collage that included “Money” and “Have a Cigar.” King Crimson’s epic “21st Century Schizoid Man” would then close the show, with Okumoto strapping on a Key-Tar hybrid instrument late and trading phrases with Keneally, with the two firing notes at each other like fighter pilots.
An encore Genesis medley of “Dance On a Volcano/Los Endos/Squonk” left the crowd begging for more. Sadler and Keneally sang the harmonies of Peter Gabriel and Collins; Okumoto recreated the textures of Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks, Dorsey again utilized his double-neck and bass pedals, and Mover showcased the influence of the band that jump-started him into creating this unique homage.
Still, the crowd could only beg for more because a late show necessitated the quintet’s hasty early exit. The first show would feature nothing by Jethro Tull or Rush, two of prog’s titans, as the band audibly whittled down its usual set list on stage because of time constraints. Perhaps future ProgJect tours through South Florida will feature multiple nights at the Funky Biscuit rather than multiple shows on one evening, allowing this impressive band to also dip toes into Mover’s promised forthcoming catalogs of Zappa, Brand X, and the Dixie Dregs.
Ironically, the last words would go to Keneally before the first show even began: “It’s a shame you can’t see our entire two-and-a-half-hour experience.”