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? Live
Artist: Neal Morse
Label: Radiant Records
Time: Disc 1 - 12 tracks / 60:22
           Disc 2 – 7 tracks / 77:35
You’ve gotta’ love a project with a title that confuses spelling and grammar checkers every time it’s reviewed! One thing’s for sure: with Neal Morse you get your money’s worth. 
Never one to skimp on the music, Neal gives us more than two hours and fifteen minutes of pure prog rock glory on the double-disc, ? Live (that’s the title – don’t blame me), which gives us a document of Morse’s 2006 concert at The Columbia Club in Berlin. As if a live version of the entire ‘Question Mark’ album wasn’t enough, we get a generous helping of songs from the One album and a fine encore (listed as ‘bonus tracks,’ for some reason) consisting of a medley of fine songs from various phases of Neal’s past work. If you’re already familiar with Neal’s solo work, or as part of Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic, you’ll certainly want to hear what he can do on the road, outside of the studio, with assembled musicians that most of us might never have heard of, but certainly turn in a fine – and occasionally brilliant – performance. 
A perfectionist in the studio, in this live environment we get to hear Morse working with less control but more energy. At various points we even hear what sounds like on-the-fly instructions from Morse to the band (‘Three times… break!’) as they navigate through the long, complex compositions. Anyone who’s heard the studio version of the ? album (and I highly recommend it as essential to any prog rock fan) knows that the vocals and instrumentation are challenging, to say the least. 

For those concerned about the absence of drummer Mike Portnoy and some of the other usual suspects, rest assured that Morse’s music is well-served by Collin Leijenaar on drums, Elisa Krijgsman on guitars and vocals, Jessica Koomen on vocals and keys, Wilco Van Esschoten on bass and vocals, and Henk Doest on keys – needless to say, Neal plays his usual role, handling vocals, keyboard and guitars throughout the performance. Thanks to the skill of these players (and, no doubt, to some live samples to create choral effects, etc.) the music not only retains the dazzling musical twists and turns of the original recording, but adds the power and emotion that only a live performance can deliver. Occasional rough spots in the vocals, or tricky instrumental moments where you can hear the band finding and reaching for places you can only get to in moments of inspired effort adds to the humanity of the piece and actually serves to illustrate the tension of the Spirit interacting with the soul, which is what so much of Morse’s music and lyrics deal with. None of this is to say that the performance is anything less than impressive and totally up-to-standard, as this exceptional group of musicians (assembled in Europe by Neal and Collin) display an impressive command of the material – it’s simply the nature of the live performance of a challenging work that actually brings out an almost noble quality to the players as it’s ‘do or die’ time in a live environment. There’s a warmth and humanity about a live recording that makes listening a special occasion, and this is one such recording. Meanwhile, Neal is readying the DVD release of Sola Scriptura Live, for release a bit later this year, which (based on a preview trailer at promises to be another explosive, intense live concert experience.
It should be no surprise – especially to those familiar with Neal’s solo work – that the lyrical content of these songs is rich and deep with Biblical imagery. Morse occasionally deviates from the original recordings to offer some fresh, spoken spiritual insight or encouragement, which seems appropriate, given the nature of the songs and the emotional involvement of Neal, the composer (although there’s a word to the Berlin audience that’s perhaps too specific to belong in this package – but this is, after all, a document of a particular show…). In a genre that is often a bit too cold, too technical, and too pretentious, it’s refreshing to see an artist like Neal Morse break down those emotional barriers and really connect with the audience. 
There’s no ? about it… this is essential prog/art rock, and a CD that you need to add to your collection. 
Bert Saraco    


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