GIG REVIEW: An Evening With THE NEAL MORSE BAND Live at The Mod Club, Toronto
Prog heads were lining up for more than three hours in freezing temperatures outside of Toronto’s The Mod Club to see The Neal Morse Band. And as would be expected for such dedicated folk, there was a sense of excitement, strangers talking for hours about the prog bands they’d seen and when and trading info about new bands; all that before ever getting inside. Inside there was a friendly buzz of chatter. The local prog fan base, made in part of the online group Toronto Prog, were evidence that the show was to be a major social event for prog nerds, and as this was Neal and company’s first visit to Toronto there was a great deal of anticipation. We were not disappointed.
The venue darkened and an image of the album art for their new album, ‘The Similitude of a Dream,’ came into view on three screens. The video panned through the interior art of the album, which the band would soon commence to play in its 100-plus minute running time entirety. Then Neal appeared, with a lone flashlight and dressed in a hooded sable garment as he sang the opening track “Long Day” before the rest of the band kicked into the instrumental opener “Overture” with the power and precision that would be the hallmark of the entire show. Possibly the biggest trademark of the prog genre is its technicality and the virtuosity of its musicians, and Neal surrounds himself with some of the best in the business. The biggest name is of course drum legend Mike Portnoy, who as always put on a flamboyant clinic in rock drumming. Along with him was the long time collaborator, bassist Randy George, and relative new comers to Neal’s bands, guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboardist Bill Hubauer, all of whom also shared lead and backing vocal duties at different points throughout the show.
As mentioned previously, they performed their most recent album in its entirety. It is important to say that this most recent album is a two disk concept album based on the book “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and is a full blown rock opera of sorts. In keeping with this fact Neal tapped into his inner Peter Gabriel and he wore a variety of outfits, changing masks throughout the show to correlate with the different characters and events in the story. Especially effective was the bone-white and emotionless mask he wore during the second half of the show (appropriately enough during the track “The Mask”) over which he had written lies that we show the world, such as “I’m good,” “I’ve got it all together. Also significant was Neal’s change of covering from a sable shirt and hood throughout the show to a pure white hooded shirt for the two closing songs. The symbolism of the character purified, forgiven, and washed clean is obvious, but also vital to the message of his story and was a perfect touch. And the entire band rose to the occasion of the theatrical music, with one of the fieriest and tightest performances I’ve ever witnessed, and they did it with flourish and an almost childlike enthusiasm. It was clear from the beginning they were having a blast. Especial notice should be given to Eric and Bill for their excellent lead vocal work; Bill’s performance as the Worldly Wise Man on “The Ways of the Fool” was exceptional, and Eric hit so many high points I lost count. And to finish it off, the band ripped into the final four songs with a frightening abandon, ending with the soul soaring and joyful “Broken Sky/Long Day (Reprise)” in a manner that left the entire audience elated.
After the thunderous applause closing the main set, we were treated to a three song encore; the title track from the Momentum album, the wonderfully heavy and complex chaos of “Author of Confusion” from the One album, which ended with one of Mike’s signature drum solos. The crowd’s reaction was rapturously gleeful as would be expected. They finished the night and closed the nearly 3 hour set with “The Call” from The Grand Experiment, which was the perfect closing to a night of prog glory.
In short, The Neal Morse Band puts on a prog concert for the ages with this current tour, and all five musicians are playing at the top of their game. The crowd left in high spirits without a disappointed person in the venue. If you’re a prog fan you owe it to yourself to see this tour, whether you’ve seen Neal and company many times, or if you’re like me and last night was your first. You’ll be in for some of the best, and most life-affirming music being produced today. And in a world that’s growing darker by the day, that’s no small thing.