DVD REVIEW: SPOCK’S BEARD – “Snow Live”
In 2002 prog rock masters Spock’s Beard released what many fans consider to be the band’s masterpiece; a sprawling nearly two hour concept album about a psychic albino simply titled ‘Snow.’ The album is routinely mentioned in the same breath as The Who’s ‘Tommy’ and Genesis’s ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ when discussing classic concept albums. The band was at their mightiest and achieving a level of success they had previous only dreamt of.
And then Neal Morse left the band.
Neal of course was the band’s primary composer, lead vocalist, keyboardist, guitarist, and founding member. His departure from the band, following his conversion to Christianity and feeling that God called him elsewhere, sent shock waves throughout the international prog community. Fans were shocked, friends of Neal were shocked, and the band itself was blindsided by the decision. There would be no tour of the album, or any form of a formal goodbye. To many it was paramount to Peter Gabriel leaving Genesis.
Spock’s has carried on and are still going strong, and Neal has put out some nine prog albums under his own name in the 15 years since his departure. But fans have still dreamt of a reunion, and more importantly a chance to finally see ‘Snow’ performed in its entirety. I know I personally doubted the day would ever come. Then last year it was announced that at Neal’s annual Morsefest Spock’s would join together, the current members with the past and do a single performance of the album (one more performance would later be done in Europe). This year the DVD/CD of that historic performance, ‘Snow Live,’ will finally be released, and it was worth the 15 year wait to see it.
The concert film begins with brief static and a written statement about how ‘Snow’ was the only of their albums never to be properly performed: until now. This segments into brief reflections from the band members that made the album. It then moves directly into the concert hall, or more specifically Neal’s home church where Morsefest is held. The acoustic guitar intro to “Made Alive” is heard as Neal sings the short introductory song. I know I won’t be the only one who got chills hearing it. Then the rest of the band starts in with “Overture” and the very vocal crowd makes itself heard. Morsefest has become quite a large event over the years, drawing fans from around the world for the two day celebrations of Neal’s music. The reunion announcement assured a maximum capacity of hardcore fans.
By the third song “Long Time Suffering” the band is firing on all cylinders. As stated previously the reunion was made up of all band members, past and present. Besides the departed Neal, there was Nick D’Virgilio returning to take his place behind the drum kit, and to cover his lead vocals (he took over for lead vocals after Neal left originally, but at the time of this recording had departed; he has since rejoined). Neal’s brother Alan Morse (guitars, vocals), Ryo Okumoto (keys), and Dave Meros (bass, vocals) make up the rest of the band from the original line up. Joining them is current Spock’s vocalist Ted Leonard (guitars, vocals) and Jimmy Keegan (drums) who has left the band since this recording. They are also joined by a sax and trumpet player on several occasions.
With that many people on stage, and that many egos at play, one could imagine that the result would be less than ideal, especially as the two newest members had no part in the creation of the album they are playing. One would however be very wrong. The band is made up of some of the most gifted musicians in all of prog, and the result of them joining together is simply stunning. The duo drums are especially powerful together and add an extra level of heaviness during the more aggressive numbers. Truth is by the time “The 39th Street Blues” kicked in halfway through the first set I’d shed more than a few tears of pure joy witnessing it. Besides a flawless musical execution it was vocally spot on as well. Neal as always sounds fantastic. I was curious how they would use the other two vocalists, as Nick sang two songs on the album, and Ted of course wasn’t present at the time.
My questions were soon answered, as Nick came out from behind the kit to sing “Welcome To NYC” (which he didn’t sing on the album), and Ted sang the metal fueled “Devil’s Got My Throat.” In truth it took me a bit to warm up to other people singing these songs, but it made sense. First it gives them something to do vocally, which is only fair, and logically the parts they sang belonged to different characters and giving them their own voices was a very nice touch. Furthermore, all three sit and sing the mellow and chilling “Solitary Soul” together. It’s a beautiful moment. And as always, the whole band sang the complex vocal counterpoints (a Spock’s signature) with clean precision. As the album is a double album, the concert is split into two halves and the first set ends with a rousing rendition of the first version of “Wind At My Back.” It got the crowd on their feet singing along with the band.
The second set jumps right into the aptly named “Second Overture” before the story of Snow and his struggles continues. The performances continue to shine and production value remains. Thankfully this DVD bucks the modern trend of countless cuts and shots that are held for a total of three seconds. Frequently the shots focus on the musicians hands, which I’ve always thought is the best part about watching a live DVD, as when you see a band in person you’re generally not close enough to watch them work their magic on their instrument. The sound is also excellent, very clear, and the vocals are always clear and bright no matter the chaos that’s going on around them.
Nick takes over the lead vocals on the two songs he sang on the album, “Carrie” and “Looking For Answers,” which are spot on. The story continues from there, and Snow’s world slowly unravels, with the manic nature of the music heightening that aspect. Unexpectedly Jimmy comes out from behind the set to sing “Freak Boy Part 2” and he does an excellent job, with close, hands-on interactions with the audience. Another highlight is the instrumental “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mister Ryo Okumoto On the Keyboards” which should be self explanatory. Ryo gets out the keytar, and does a fun, highly engaging solo, walking through the aisles, and interacting with the crowd. It’s a lot of fun, and the crowd loves it.
The concert ends with a musical and emotional climax, starting with “I Will Go” in which Snow wakes up in a hospital and has a conversation with God, pledging to do the work he’ll be called to do. With the 20/20 advantage of hindsight the song can clearly be seen as Neal’s explanation and goodbye to the band and the fans. It took some of us a while to pick up on it, but it’s really a beautiful way to say goodbye. Neal is a very emotional and passionate performer, and by the end of the song and the beginning of “Made Alive Again/Wind At My Back” he’s in tears and choking up as he sings. I’m fairly positive he wasn’t the only one there to do so, nor will many viewers be able to hold them back. “Wind At My Back” has long been considered one of Spock’s best, most emotional, and spiritual songs (without being ostracizing) and this live version, with whole band and the crowd caught up and singing, is simply lights out. It’s the perfect ending for a dream come true of an evening.
There is however still an encore to consider. It consists of only two songs. First is the acoustic “June,” which is rather short, and the crowd enthusiastically sings along with most of it. With that out of the way, the band jumps into what may be considered a new classic. In 2015 Spock’s put out the two disk best of album ‘The First Twenty Years,’ which covers all eras of the band. For this release Neal composed a new Spock’s song, one that covered all the musicians, and all three vocalists. “Falling For Forever” on the disk runs just under 20 minutes and has all the elements of classic Beard. Live it’s drawn out to be closer to a half hour and includes an extended drum duet between Nick and Jimmy. It starts on the sets, but soon they begin to include music stands, speaker boxes, etc… as they make their way to the front walk of the stage to play on the floor with both sticks and hands. It’s a humorous and entertaining display, before jumping back into the rest of the song. It’s an ideal ending for what is quite frankly a perfect evening of prog rock bliss.
‘Snow Live’ unsurprisingly comes in several different physical versions, besides the usual Blu-Ray, it comes in a 4 disk DVD/CD combo, vinyl edition, and a limited Artbook version. The second disk contains a documentary that runs just over an hour. Besides extensive interviews with band members (Neal especially, as he wrote it) it has a number of segments that are Q&A from the Morsefest show. Fans of the band and album will find plenty of interest. Given the amount of time that has passed since the album’s release, I had forgotten its proximity to 9/11 which came into play during the writing and recording process. I also found the general consensus that in the long run Neal’s parting worked in favor of the band and his solo career quite interesting as well. It’s a good documentary, though not probably something most viewers will come back to often.
It terms of critique I have very few issues. One thing I’m not a fan of is the extensive use of blue lighting throughout the show. While it makes sense for the story, extreme blue lighting does not come across well on camera. And the segments where it is used are very noticeable. The blue light on screen severely washes out images, the musicians almost look like they are covered with animation when the strong blue light is used. Whether this is a result of viewing a digital copy or not I don’t know. But I have seen the same in other concerts where strong blue light is used. The other thing is the concert is shot in a church sanctuary; and quite frankly churches are lousy places to hold a rock concert. Even with a walkway the musicians are further removed from the crowd than in a typical concert setting, and having seen Neal’s current band twice in the past year, I can attest that the intimacy felt in normal concert halls is not found here. The performance is still fantastic, and the band certainly gets into the music, but I can’t help but feel a more intense and powerful performance would have been captured had the show been shot elsewhere.
In conclusion, Spock’s Beard have, after 15 years of waiting, delivered a performance that will be loved and appreciated by all fans. ‘Snow Live’ is a landmark release by the band, and a once in a lifetime show captured for all. I really can’t recommend it highly enough for any fan of the band or prog fans in general. The album is captured perfectly, in all its emotional and often spiritual heights. I’ll end this review by quoting one of the best loved lines the band ever penned, and I can’t think of a better way to put what this release will mean to many.
‘And my soul has been kissed just because you exist…’