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TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE

Jean Roby – August 2016

 

Last May, my wife, our son and I attended the Terra Incognita Convention in Québec city. The three-day prog event featured nine concerts, all of them quite praise-worthy by any standards, but then, with distance and hindsight, I chose to focus on two of them. First, German band RPWL opened the Convention with a tribute to Pink Floyd, which was a special event in itself. And, since I had interviewed them last winter, Italian band Unreal City’s gig had a special significance. Both concerts raised emotions and strains of ideas that transcend the time frame and range of the setting in which they took place.

 PRESENT PERFECT SIMPLE

RPWL play Pink Floyd’s The Man and The Journey

The present perfect simple expresses…

 … an action that is still going on or that stopped recently…

In forums, at prog rock events (festivals and concerts) or even by chance meetings that lead to some impromptu conversations, it still happens to come across people who pout over tribute bands or will scratch any band that dares to do covers. And, in the process, they let you know also that they are die-hard fans. Their denial is usually based on the conviction that, contrary to other popular music genres, the raison d’être of progressive rock is musical creation rather than performance, the latter being so low a rung on their scale of things that it can only generate scorn. This point of principle has always seemed to me quite paradoxical – if not outwardly twisted.

A few years ago, I watched a documentary dedicated to Gilles Vigneault – born in 1928, poet, publisher, singer-songwiter, and one of the most celebrated personalities still active today in Québec. In the movie, Vigneault said that there were folk songs of which we knew hundreds of different versions – and their differences lay not so much in the lyrics, but mostly in their music. From that fact he drew conclusions that can be summarized as follows : each performance – or cover version – is a creation because, to perform is to create anew, though never quite exactly as that first time. As far as he may be from the prog rock realm, this national bard does shed quite an appropriate light on the issue at hand.

Furthermore, all symphonic orchestras and all classical musicians in the world devote at least 90 % of their time performing pieces that have been composed by others, most of them dead for centuries. Even though orchestras and soloists do perform original works, it is very much the exception rather than the rule. Does it imply then that all these musicians are but crude copycats, less-inspired artists, people to scorn at rather than to be admired because they are merely performers rather than composers ?...

Finally, if we take these die-hard fans’ point of principle to its logical conclusion, we end up with something absurd. Is playing on stage an original work, be it a song or an instrumental piece, by the same band who recorded it previously a creation… or a cover ? Since we do not expect a live performance to be a duplicate of what has been recorded – otherwise, why would we attend a concert rather than listening to the record at home ?... – , it leads to the fact that each performance of a given work is a cover in itself, different from the one that came before and the other one that will follow. Since there are as many versions as there are performances on stage, thus each of these covers is a re-creation of the original work, just as Vigneault explained.

In short, to try and distinguish between creation and performance is an illusory problem. It sets up useless categories that are, in the end, harmful to the whole of prog rock. Also, it denigrates – or even worse, it dirties – the respect and admiration musicians feel towards their peers (or idols), feelings that are so powerful that they entice them to play covers.

 

… but has an influence on the present.

The passage of time often leads to memory erosion, and then our mind tends to hang on only to the most striking moments. So it is with Pink Floyd, we remember generally The Dark Side of the Moon (1973),Wish You Were Here (1975) and The Wall (1979), but less so Animals (1977)… and so we forget that, between 1967 and 1972, the band recorded seven albums, two of which were movie soundtracks. From the spring of 1969 right up to early winter 1970, Pink Floyd performedThe Man and The Journey, live suites made of various pieces from their repertoire, some of which were still « works in progress » to be recorded later under different titles, while others were never released.

By deciding to perform excerpts from these suites, RPWL paid a warm tribute to one of the founding bands of progressive rock. And, no less important, the German musicians did something quite worthwile for the audience. For some, they brought back memories and, for others, they unveiled unknown aspects of the legendary British band – our son had never suspected that Pink Floyd had been so experimental, and the next day Unreal City’s Emanuele Tarasconi and Francesca Zanetta concurred in much the same way. For each and everyone, RPWL showed how Pink Floyd’s music was a clever combination of various musical sources (among them blues, psychedelic rock and contemporary classical music) and experiments (sound effects, sampling, unusual percussions for the era, electronic gimmickry, etc.). Notwithstanding the uncompromising quality that wrapped every cover, it is the up-date aspect in particular that striked me most, because it has shown beyond any reasonable doubt how and why tribute bands and covers are vital for progressive rock. They restore and maintain the lore of the genre… all of which can but energize creation.

During their early years in the late ‘90s, RPWL were a Pink Floyd tribute band. Thus, it is no surprise that they developped a priviliged intimacy with the maturing processes that led eventually to Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason’s unique, branded sound. To that effect, Yogi Lang had warned us – we should not be surprised (or ashamed !) if we could not identify a single song. And, even if that was the case for many of us (somewhat to our own dismay !), we were all spell-bound, awed by the sheer audacity of Pink Floyd that, simultaneously, never let go melody down the drain. The end result was that the public realized that maybe history had been too hasty when it put away that « Pink Floyd of the origins » in the closet.

 

It puts emphasis on the result.

The concert could have ended there, but RPWL had decided – almost on the spur of the moment – to add a second part : Pink Floyd songs that have since become iconic hits for the band and prog rock classics in their own right (Time, Money, Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Have A Cigar to name but a few). All performed so we would not go back home without having heard at least some songs we knew ! RPWL’s generosity went hand in hand with the passionate brilliance with which they played, especially Kalle Wallner on guitar and Markus Jehle on keyboards, over which Lang’s voice always managed to get through, always as powerful – if not more – as the rythm section of Werner Taus (bass) and Marc Turiaux (drums).

To put it simply, RPWL has proven that, if prog rock is so rich a musical genre today, it owes it to its past, a past that has to be kept alive by playing it over and over – and not only on our CD player. Because, where music is concerned, perfection and simplicity are not out of reach, but a present to be grateful for… And to demonstrate that without a shadow of a doubt, the next day RPWL performed an enthralling close to two-hour set featuring their own shining, diamond cut-like music !

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