DVD REVIEW: THE NEAL MORSE BAND – “Morsefest 2015”
The term “epic” is tossed around very loosely in the modern age. Originally used to describe a long narrative poem recounting heroic deeds, along with length, the essence of a journey was most important. The journey of Odysseus is, after all, more important than his eventual homecoming. Now, however, an epic is generally used to describe anything and everything that is big, long, or simply impressive. “The steak dinner I ate last night was epic!” I can see Homer and Virgil rolling their eyes from here. Once in a while, however, something comes along that is epic in both the traditional sense, with a long story and journey, and also big and impressive. And Neal Morse’s upcoming 4 CD/2 DVD (or two disk Blu Ray) release ‘Morsefest 2015’ quite accurately fits the bill. It contains all of this two day music festival held in his home town of Nashville, TN, which included performances of both ‘?’ and ‘Sola Scriptura’ in their entirety, plus additional songs each night, totaling 5 hours of music and an hour long documentary. Reviewing this behemoth of live prog brilliance is nearly epic in itself. But I shall endeavor to do so, and will tackle each disk separately.
The heart and core of the music on both nights is of course The Neal Morse Band which then as now is comprised of Neal Morse (lead vocals, keys, guitars), Mike Portnoy (drums, backing vocals), Randy George (bass), Bill Hubauer (keys, vocals), and Eric Gillette (guitars, vocals). Having seen this band only a month or so ago I can attest that as a group playing tight, highly complex and emotional music, they are hard to top. And for Morsefest they were joined each night by additional musicians, added percussion, strings, horns, and choir as well. The result took the already massive sound of the original recordings and elevated it to be even bigger and, if possible, more powerful. They are also joined by two special guests, but more on that later. There’s no point in lying; I’m coming to this as a massive fan, both of all Neal’s work (and Mike’s for that matter) but of the two albums as well, so seeing it all early was a big treat and the performances more than met my rather high expectations.
The first disk opens with “The Call,” the opening track of what was then the band’s latest album. As to be expected from a working band, they tear into it with great gusto, and this proggy classic serves as an excellent warm up for a long evening, as does its follow up song “The Grand Experiment,” the title track of said latest album. I won’t go into detail for each track, but the next song deserves special notice. “Go the Way You Go” was an unexpected delight to hear. This song is from the first Spock’s Beard album ‘The Light’ so it was very cool to see Neal going into the vault as it were and pulling out a classic from what’s one of rock’s great debut albums. The enjoyment the band takes in playing it makes the performance that much more special.
After this song, Mike takes the mic, and announces that the next song came from him delivering a challenge to Neal: Take a song that you absolutely hate, in this case the Jimmy Webb/Richard Harris oft despised “MacArthur Park,” and turn it into a prog epic. Well Neal took him up on it and drew it out to over 13 minutes, so a mini epic. The end result is well played, and certainly better than the original, but the dull melody remains the same, as are the dopey lyrics. And really I can’t hear the song without hearing Weird Al Yankovic’s infinitely better parody of it, so in the end it’s nothing I’ll be coming back to.
They follow it up, however, with a more typical prog epic, “A Whole ‘Nother Trip” from Neal’s mostly pop song filled debut solo album in 1999. I was ashamedly unfamiliar with the song before watching the performance of it, and although it will never go down as one of his great prog epics alongside the likes of “The Water,” “The Great Nothing,” or any of the epics with Transatlantic, it’s a great and rather quirky song, and, as Mike explained, it was the first time ever being played live, which made it a bit more special. They end the first set with another first live performance of “New Jerusalem,” a rather slow, but effective, song, and a fitting way to end.
It is then an hour and twenty minutes into the show that the first strands of music, with video accompaniment of ‘?’ are heard. The album was Neal’s third solo album after leaving Spock’s Beard, and conceptually his most obscure. It is essentially the telling of the Temple of the Old Testament and the transition from God’s presence in a physical building then, to the presence being the human soul after the arrival of Jesus. If you’re really interested, and don’t know the album already, I suggest finding and reading the lyrics online as I don’t have the time or space to really go into it further. ‘?’ is one of Neal’s most melodic albums, and though there is certainly plenty of fast, aggressive, and complex, playing it’s also his lightest album as well. I imagine, however, that most people interested in purchasing this live set are already familiar with the album and want to be able to see it performed live and are wondering about the execution of it. Unsurprisingly, given the musicians on hand, they deliver a near flawless performance of the album without a stop. The addition of the choir raises the choral nature of the music nicely, and the end is especially worshipful, for lack of better description. But Morsefest was held and shot inside a church, and given the music and the man behind it, that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone viewing it. However, even among his fans there are those who complain about the religious nature of Neal’s current output. It is more pronounced in these performances than even earlier DVDs, and at one point Neal’s minister comes out and gives a brief minute long “sermon” about the temple then and now. There is a moment like this on the CD, but it is more “intrusive” in a live setting. None of this really bothers me (although the guy coming out is a bit jarring and takes one out of the music for a moment), but as it might turn some off, it seemed worth mentioning. Ultimately, though, the band performs an hour long encore of a fantastic album with skill and passion and the crowd was obviously elated at its end. Well known guitar virtuoso (and opening act) Phil Kaeggy joins them at one point as well, and gives a blistering finger picking acoustic guitar solo. And the listening and viewing pleasure of the home fan should be equal to theirs; the mix is crisp and well balanced, and unlike so many concert films being made now, the editor actually knows how to edit and the shots last longer than 3 seconds, and show the musicians hands while they play, and generally let the viewer take in the show as they would if they were there in person.
So ends the first night.
The second evening primarily consists of a full performance of Neal’s fourth album ‘Sola Scriptura’ which tells the story of Martin Luther and his part of the Protestant Reformation (approximately 1517-1648). This album was before last year’s ‘The Similitude of a Dream,’ his heaviest and most aggressive (musically) album to date, and the power, both musically and vocally of the piece really shines in a live setting. It’s one of his better regarded albums, although the part of me who spent months studying Luther and the Reformation, and years studying the time period, raises a few eyebrows at his historical conclusions, it remains an emotionally and spiritually intense and fulfilling album. It’s also a massive release, over 80 minutes live, and the two opening songs alone clock in at over an hour in length. Simply put, performing this album under any circumstance is an impressive and difficult affair; doing so after performing an entire other album the night before is truly remarkable.
The band is joined, as the night before, by a choir and accompanying musicians, and as the night before, the addition expands the music and draws it out more than on the CD. This is a good thing, although a band performing an album note perfect live is more than worth hearing, hearing them add things to it and expanding on some of the instrumental passages makes for a new listening experience and really makes it worth the time and money to view these versions. Not all additions are as welcome; during the second track, “The Conflict,” Neal brings out two dancers to add to the show. One of them is his daughter Jayda, and the other a family friend. Personally I can’t stand dancers being added to a show, especially a prog show; they don’t add anything, and the music is at its heaviest and most intense of the album, and they’re more distracting than anything. However, Morsefest is a family affair, Neal’s son plays percussion, and I’m not about to throw stones at a man who includes his family in his professional life when he can, so while it doesn’t work much for me, it’s not egregious and others might not care.
The two epics are followed by the shorter and more worshipful “Heaven in My Heart,” which focuses on Luther’s most famous expression “here I stand, I can do no other.” The girls join again in this slower song which, while the least progressive, is probably the most emotional and beautiful of the evening. They finish with “The Conclusion” and end a truly remarkable performance perfectly. As the main part of the second disk a prog fan really can’t ask for much more than we get from the performance of this album, but from a long time fan perspective the highlight of the evening is still to come. After an acoustic performance of “Waterfall,” the stage lights dim and the opening keyboard strains of the Spock’s Beard classic “At the End of the Day” is heard, and an image of ‘V,’ the album which the song opens, appears. This made me especially happy as this was the first Spock’s album I ever heard or bought and my introduction to Neal’s music back in 2001. But Neal wasn’t finished. As the lights come up Mike Portnoy is no longer behind the drum set. Instead we see Nick D’Virgilio, the longtime drummer and second vocalist of Spock’s in his place. Needless to say, the crowd responded enthusiastically to this delightful surprise. Watching the two of them play and sing together is an absolute delight, and it’s obvious how much they’re both enjoying it. Clearly it’s time for a full Spock’s reunion. Well, that likely won’t happen, but we can always dream.
Once the song is over Mike rejoins the band and Nick goes forward with Neal and they launch into the final song from Neal’s final album with the band “Wind At My Back” one of the most loved of their songs. It’s a praising and glorious song on the album ‘Snow’ and in this live setting is, if anything, even more so, it’s a true treat to see and hear and yet another highlight. Not to be outdone, however, the band has yet another surprise in store as to end the night they do a nearly 17 minute medley of Mike and Neal’s other band Transatlantic’s masterpiece ‘Whirlwind,’ which consists of a single 79 minute song. How does one squish an album/song than long into a mere 17 minutes? In this case, by focusing on the beginning sections. And although some of the best parts of the song are missing (given the circumstances how can they not be?), the medley works very well and closes an epic evening on a fitting note. All in all, over the two disks the result should be more than enough to please any self respecting prog fan, and impress anyone with an iota of musical taste and artistic integrity.
As long as this review is, there is still one more thing to comment on, and that is the hour-long documentary. For those keeping track, this brings the viewing total to over six hours for the home consumer. Interesting as it is, the documentary will never be viewed as often as the two concerts, however it does provide some interesting and worthwhile insight. When this was performed, the previous Morsefest was done only 11 months prior, meaning this was the second time the band was called on to perform massive amounts of often new material over two consecutive nights (with no repeated songs which isn’t normally done while touring) in less than a year, which is no small accomplishment. It is also shown that Mike showed up a mere three days before the performances as he had been touring with Twisted Sister beforehand. As he points out, at the time he was a member of seven different bands (four with Neal) and he had to get himself in a different mind frame as the type of music, and the playing required for the two bands couldn’t be more different. What I found most impressive was something that answered a question from the first concert. Halfway through the first night Neal tells the crowd his daughter Jayda had won the Homecoming Queen. The random announcement in the show, however, is because Neal risked being late for his own festival so he could be with her for the car parade right before. He showed up mere minutes before going on stage because of a family obligation, and I can’t think of anything that speaks greater to his character, or for having his priorities in the right place, than that.
At the end of the day, ‘Morsefest 2015’ is an utter triumph for The Neal Morse Band and the plethora of guest musicians and others who made it happen. The performers are all at the top of their game, and over two consecutive nights perform some of the most complex and emotionally and spiritually intense and beautiful music you or anyone else is likely to hear. Despite the hefty cost for the set when it comes out, anyone who considers themselves a fan of Neal, progressive rock/metal, and even music in general would be wise in acquiring it, and find the investment in money and time more than worthwhile. The video is clear, and wonderfully edited and timed, and the music properly mixed and clear. Indeed, I’m hard pressed to think of a better produced and filmed concert DVD. This is highly, highly recommended.