The Underground Railroad - (L to R) Kurt Rongey, Michael Richardson, John Livingston and Bill Pohl
(Photo by Fred Trafton)
Originally published in Gibraltar Webzine Issue #1 -- January 2001
When I heard that The Underground Railroad was going to be playing at Break Time in Denison, Texas, my first reaction was ... "you're playing where"? Why would one of the premiere new Progressive bands be playing in a little bar in the middle of nowhere? Well, why not? It was close by, so I grabbed a friend and my digital camera and we hopped into the car and tried to find this place ...
"What we're playing here tonight is called 'Progressive Rock', or 'Symphonic Prog'. It's kinda wierd and complicated, and they used to play it back in the '70's ..." It was Michael Richardson, the Underground Railroad's new bassist (also keyboardist and vocalist), addressing the small crowd between songs. It almost sounded like an apology.
Underground Railroad Guitarist Bill Pohl
"Right," interrupted guitarist Bill Pohl. "Like everyone here didn't ride up with us."
"I was talking to them back there," said Michael, gesturing to a pool table behind me full of biker types smoking cigarettes and steadfastly ignoring the band. The band had already played much of their debut CD, Through and Through by this time, but the part of the audience actually listening was pretty small. Maybe 20 people, and it was true that most of them seemed to be friends of the band.
But let's back up ... my friend Alan and I found the place a little before 9:00pm on Saturday night, January 13, 2001. We went in and found the back corner where the band's equipment was already set up. I ordered a beer and we talked and waited. The leather-clad biker types milling around didn't seem to care that a couple of nerdy-looking guys had come in and sat down at the first table in front of the band. I was wondering if there was going to be many people here to see Underground Railroad. Evidently not.
About 9:45, I saw keyboardist Kurt Rongey come in with a lady I assumed to be his wife (which she was). He recognized me from my picture in the GEPR and we got a chance to chat awhile. Kurt is one of the most laid-back guys I've ever met. I asked him why they had chosen to play here of all places. "Well," he said, "Michael our new bass player lives here in Denison and has played here with a number of other bands. We just want to start getting out playing to get ready for our NEARFest concert. It's no big deal, we didn't even really publicize it much. We're just here to play, it doesn't matter who shows up."
If you didn't know, The Underground Railroad was the first band signed for the annual NEARFest progressive rock festival this year. I asked him what he thought about that. "Yeah, that's great," he said. "That will probably be the biggest thing that ever happens to this band. And if it is, that will be fine." He told me that they are scheduled to be the first band of day two, which he sees as a great time slot. "Nathan Mahl played at that time in '99, and everyone loved them."
Underground Railroad Keyboardist Kurt Rongey
He seems to take his music very seriously, but he doesn't seem to take himself that seriously. By which I mean he doesn't have a swelled head about his music or any unrealistic expectations about "making it big" as a Progressive rock act. He told me that he got a surprise phone call at work from a guy who said, "I have your CD!" Kurt is a program director for WRR-FM, Dallas' classical music station, so he was confused. The station had put together a CD of classical music to support the station, but when Kurt asked if that's what he was talking about, the guy said, "No, no. Your CD, the one with 'Book'". Of course, he was talking about Kurt's debut solo CD, Book in Hand, and had put together that this guy on the radio must be the same Kurt Rongey. Kurt isn't used to people recognizing him for his Progressive Rock work.
By this time, the rest of the band had arrived, and Kurt quickly introduced me around, then they got down to business. They quickly tuned up (the equipment was mostly ready) and launched into "May-Fly" from their Through and Through CD. A great song, with lots of complexity and interplay between the musicians. Michael Richardson was still playing the bass part using sheet music, but as near as I could tell he didn't miss a beat.
They followed up with what was basically the entire Through and Through CD, namely "Through and Through", "Mars", "Comprachicos of the Mind" ("Watch out," said Rongey before the sync synthesizer intro, "this might hurt your ears!"), "In the Factory", and "The Doorman". Then they treated us to a debut of three new songs they've been working on, "Creeper", "Love Is a Vagabond King" and "Lattice Circus". Perhaps it was just that they had warmed up or the mix was getting better, but I liked these three new songs even better than the first part of their set (and I love the Through and Through tunes!).
Mini-movie (two frames) of Kurt Rongey at the
Actually, the mix was a major problem throughout the evening (or maybe I should say Through and Through the evening, ar ar). Nothing against drummer John Livingston, but the drums were overwhelming the melodic instruments. That wasn't John's fault, the rest of the band just couldn't crank up their instruments loud enough on their PA system to match his powerful drumming. Not only that, but the sound of beer bottles crashing against the trash bin and people yelling out conversations behind me didn't do much for the band's presentation. This was particularly annoying during the spacey, hypnotic (and quiet) sections which came across sounding sort of unfocused due to the interference of bar noises.
The fact that they were mixing themselves from the stage rather than having a sound man for this concert also didn't help. It wasn't possible to do any real-time changing of the instruments' sound levels because someone would have had to stop playing to adjust the mix. Still, in spite of the problems, the band was fantastic and played a great set of live symphonic progressive rock with textures that rivalled their CD in complexity and orchestration.
After the set, Kurt came by to chat some more. I
accused him of being an Echolyn fan, I thought I heard
a lot of influence from them in the Underground
Railroad's music. He got a strange look on his face and stood up ... he
pulled up his sweater to reveal an Echolyn T-shirt
underneath. I guess that answered my question. But then he sat down and said, "It's
amazing to me. Every single review of Through and Through mentions the
Echolyn influence. It's true that I really like them,
but I didn't think it came through that strongly in my writing!" Well, maybe
not that strongly. But as a reviewer, it's hard to find ways to describe a band's
music to people when you only have text and no sound. To me, their music is about as
close to National Health or the original
UK album as it is to Echolyn.
There's also reminders of Gentle Giant and several
of the Canterbury bands, and more than a bit of
Genesis, especially some of the piano parts which remind
me of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. But in reality, they don't really sound
like any of these bands. They have a style of their own, and it's a great style.
Bassist (/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist) Michael Richardson and Drummer
John Livingston (Photos by Fred Trafton)
Michael hit "play" on a tape player, and the opening synthesizer noises of "2112" poured out. From the microphone placement, it was obvious that Michael was going to do the entire Geddy Lee thing ... bass, synthesizers and vocals (except for the bass pedals, which were still in front of Bill Pohl). Let's just say I was skeptical about what this would sound like. It's hard for me to imagine anybody but "the Old Geddy" (as opposed to the New non-screaming Geddy) screaming the lyrics to this piece. When the instrumental intro paused and Michael sang, "And the Meek Shall Inherit the Earth ...", I thought, "not bad, but we'll see in a moment ..."
Then, the power chords began playing, and Michael stepped up again and began to belt out "The Temples of Syrinx": "We've taken care of everything, The words you hear the songs you sing..." It was incredible! This guy sounded exactly like Geddy Lee! The strain was clear on his face, as he turned bright red singing in this register. But it was perfect! I looked over at Kurt's table with an amazed expression on my face ... he just smiled and shrugged.
They continued with their renditions of "Xanadu", "A Passage to Bankok" ("This is a song about ... uhm ..." stumbled Michael. "It's a song about pot," Bill assured him), "Fly By Night" and "La Villa Strangiato" to name a few. They were all great, faithful to the originals except where Bill Pohl took off on the guitar solos which tended to sound more like John McLaughlin than Alex Lifeson. But that's fair, Bill's solos don't need to match the Rush solos. After all, he's not Alex Lifeson, why should he solo like him? Kurt heckled them gently by requesting that they play "Huckleberry Finn". (Rush fans, at least, should chuckle at this)
By this time it was 1:00 am, and I had a two hour drive home, so we had to leave before the end of this amazing set (I'm not as young as I used to be ...). But both sets were excellent. I'm looking forward to seeing these guys at NEARFest without the "ambience" of Break Time interfering with the sound. -- Fred Trafton