Neal Morse Band NYC Feb 17
Photos by Bert Saraco/Express Image
With incredible momentum behind them (no pun intended …well, maybe) The Neal Morse Band brought their current tour, featuring their live performance of the current double CD, The Similitude of a Dream, to The Highline Ballroom in NYC. Standing in for The City of Destruction on this night would be Chelsea, the neighborhood housing the venue, with its long line of fans shivering in the cold, wondering if their cars would still be there after the show, and trying to figure out what ‘doors open at 6PM” actually meant since we were still on line at 6:45.
We pilgrims eventually made it inside, although the totally sold-out room meant that any hope of getting a seat (or ordering any food) was indeed nothing more than the similitude of a dream, with fans crammed into every inch of space. Fortunately, the energy of the band, the quality of the music, and the emotional intensity of the performance would more than make up for the uncertain start of the evening.
A pre-recorded orchestral overture began as the house lights dimmed and Neal Morse, microphone in hand and wearing an Emperor Palpatine-like hood, introduced the “Long Day” theme, which would return with genuine power and impact more than once. At the end of Neal’s solo spot the full band explodes into the overture from the album, a furious piece of progressive rock, with interlocking themes, driving bass lines, heavy riffs, soaring guitar lines, thunderous drums and heavy, intricate melody lines – a glimpse into what was to come throughout the next nearly three hours.
I remember upon listening through Similitude for the first time, that this was a concept that certainly would lend itself to a theatrical treatment and, in fact, this is the most theatrical stage show yet from Morse and company. Neal himself goes from hooded traveler to steam-punk goggled troubadour, to an ominously half-masked specter. Bill Hubauer’s jaunty cap, thick goggles, vest and bowtie may or may not represent the main character in his tour-de-force, “The Ways of a Fool,” but either way, he’s a striking character onstage. All of this takes place in front of a screen projecting moving and still images related to the story (The Similitude of a Dream is, in fact, the more familiar-titled Pilgrim’s Progress), adding a strong visual impact to the proceedings.
Of course, the playing was impeccable. Neal plays more keyboard than guitar these days, and is freer to roam the stage as a kind-of singing guide to the story, trusting Bill Hubauer to handle various keyboard tasks (which, along with sax, mandolin, etc. he does with amazing flair and groove) and emerging guitar-hero Eric Gillette to tend to axe-duties. Randy George is the bedrock bass under the music, driving the songs and adding surprisingly fluid solo lines where you least expect them. Providing thunder is - of course - the drummers’ drummer, the crowd-pleaser, the “hey, New York!! How’s it going?!” guy of the band – Mike Portnoy. Portnoy’s use of every inch of the elaborate drum kit supplies fills and patterns that are a story all their own.
Of course, all participants add to the stunning vocals, especially the solo quality of Morse, Gillette, and Hubauer. All five members tackle complex vocal workouts like the middle sections of “Ways of a Fool,” and “Author of Confusion” impressively.
The band sounded wonderful at this same venue two years ago, almost to-the-day. Now they sound, not just two years better – they sound, in some kind of rock universe time continuum puzzle, twice as good. This band is fueled by passion propelled by energy, and equipped by enormous talent. By the time the band reached the emotional peaks that end the album, the crowd of jaded New Yorkers were on their feet, many with tears in their eyes. Uh… not me, of course (no, really – there was something in my eye). The encore featured three songs from their previous album, The Grand Experiment, ending with a powerfully rendered version of “The Call.”
The Neal Morse Band, at this moment in time, as a vehicle for Morse, might just be providing the best music of Neal’s career. These hand-picked collaborators have added textures and variety that are keeping Neal’s very personal spiritual message fresh, and musically potent.
When they come around again, make the pilgrimage and join in the dream…
- Bert Saraco (words and images)
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