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Prog Spring 

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Prog Spring

Some guys buy sports cars to ward off a midlife crisis. Michael Eisenberg threw himself into booking prog rock.

Eisenberg, a 42-year-old clerk and occasional trader at the Chicago Board Options Exchange, has been an avid prog fan since his teenage years. But he stumbled into the role of concert promoter about a year ago, when he learned that one of his favorite bands, the Belgian group Present, was embarking on its first U.S. tour--and that Chicago wasn't on its itinerary. "I E-mailed them and asked them what it would take to get them here," he says. "They asked me to make them an offer. I didn't know what I was doing, I'd never done this before. I just wanted to see the band."

He pooled resources with a handful of fellow prog fans to present Present with an acceptable figure, and, after getting no response from the Empty Bottle, his first venue choice, he persuaded Ray Quinn, who owns Martyrs', to host the show. "The turnout was decent considering that there was a Bulls playoff game that night," says Eisenberg. "We had about 60 people. I really enjoyed myself too." His next show grew out of the first: the drummer in Present, it turned out, was friendly with Chris Cutler, who was drumming for singer-songwriter Peter Blegvad, formerly of prog behemoth Henry Cow. Blegvad was coming through in September; would Eisenberg like to put on that show as well?

But though Eisenberg was happy to help, he didn't get serious about booking until November, when his marriage of five years ended in divorce. This year so far he's already booked or helped present six shows--all at Martyrs'--and coined a name, Outre Music, for the operation. "I do have more spare time now," he says. "When I was married I probably wouldn't have been able to do this. I'm channeling a lot of energy into this when I could have just been wallowing in my divorce or bad days at work." Or putting a down payment on a Miata.

When it comes to music on the fringe--and in 1999 prog rock remains way out there--it's almost always fanatics who make things happen, putting on punk rock shows at VFW halls or sniffing out vacant warehouses for raves. Eisenberg's audience is primarily white men over 35, and he was fortunate enough to find an aboveground venue willing to accommodate him regularly (Ray Quinn admits to a little King Crimson fetish himself). But the prog shows he has booked so far--from Blegvad to French guitar hero Richard Pinhas to Allan Holdsworth disciple Scott McGill--have been presented in the same for-the-love-of-the-thing spirit.

Eisenberg grew up in Skokie. "When I was 13 I got turned on to King Crimson and Gentle Giant and from there I went crazy with it," he says. "This was in the mid-70s and I listened to all the big bands like Yes and Jethro Tull." At the end of the decade, when punk and new wave supplanted prog in the underground and Yes and ELP spawned the awful Asia, Eisenberg turned his attention to jazz. Then, in the mid-80s, he discovered Cuneiform Records/Wayside Music, a D.C.-area label and mail-order firm that specializes in avant jazz, new music, and underground prog, which had continued to thrive overseas even though the big American distributors weren't interested. "I was amazed by the sheer vastness of [Wayside's inventory], all of these bands that I had never heard of," he says. The catalog launched his fascination with classically influenced European bands like Art Zoyd and Univers Zero, whose Roger Trigaux later formed Present.

Since then, in Eisenberg's eyes the world of prog has only expanded. "You don't have to write eight- or ten-minute songs to be 'progressive.' It's just the fact that you're moving forward," he insists. "I know it's pretty difficult if not impossible to come up with original ideas in music--everything is influenced by what you've heard in the past--but I think it's all about melding your influences together in such a way that it somehow sounds different." This definition allows him to include everything from posthippie jazz-rock weirdos Gong (whose sometime guitarist Bon Lozaga he presented at Martyrs' not long ago) to British art punks This Heat (whose founder Charles Hayward he says he dreams of presenting some day) under the prog umbrella. For a time he even explored drum 'n' bass, but he says now that it has "no staying power."

Eisenberg lost money on some of his early shows, but the last few have broken even--about 150 people turned up to see third-gen California proggers Spock's Beard and a return appearance by McGill last weekend. Quinn says that Outre's success has encouraged him to start booking some prog concerts on his own: this Friday and next, respectively, he's bringing in legendary French freaks Magma (see Monica Kendrick's Critic's Choice) and the popular Pink Floyd-inspired Porcupine Tree. House of Blues is also getting in on the act, presenting Gong and English neohippies Ozric Tentacles--both too expensive for Eisenberg or Quinn--over the next couple months.

Eisenberg is helping Quinn promote his shows as coproductions of Outre Music, but when he books a show himself, he's still the one fronting all the money. Friends pitch in to spread the word with mailings and phone calls, but the Internet is Eisenberg's most effective tool. "It really links the audience together--and it's a very fanatical, but geographically scattered group of people," he says. To get on the Outre Music electronic mailing list, write to Eisenberg at meisenberg@earthlink.net.

"I know I'm not going to get rich doing this," says Eisenberg. "It's not going to be like it was back in 1972, where prog bands could sell out the Chicago Stadium. But if I can just get a decent core audience they'd realize that there's a lot of new energy, a lot of new blood out there. I feel that if I can get the word out people will come."

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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