GIG REVIEW: An Evening With THE NEAL MORSE BAND Live at Opera House, Toronto
Prog rock legends The Neal Morse Band were back in Toronto, ON just two years after their last visit. The previous show found them performing the entirety of the new at the time ‘The Similitude of a Dream.’ Memories of that incredible show were much on the minds of those waiting in line outside The Toronto Opera House to see the sequel to that album ‘The Great Adventure.’ This new album has not yet been out a month, so was still very fresh in the minds in the crowd, indeed a few people I talked to hadn’t heard it yet.
The show began with Neal coming out wearing the white hoodie he wore for the concluding song of the previous album, “Long Day” as the opening of the new albums “Overture” picks up directly where the song left off. As he was joined by the rest of the band they exploded into the 10-minute overture in a frenzy of prog rock, and metal. After over two years of near-continuous touring, and recording this band made up of Neal, Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Eric Gillette, and Bill Hubauer, are already in mid-tour form, and as tight as a band can get.
Like the last tour, Neal wears an outfit to coincide with the main character of the story, in this case, the abandoned son of the ‘Similitude’ protagonist. As he is an angry young man, Neal appears on stage with a scruffy few days worth of beard growth, and a lot of black leather and “grundgy” clothing. He adds goggles to the ensemble, and bulkier clothing as the band tears through “Welcome to the World” and “A Momentary Change.” This new album is a considerably darker, and heavier work than the last, a reflection of the anger of the youth. The dark lighting and passionate intensity of the performance greatly enhancing the already formidable “Dark Melody” which electrified the audience and sparked a bout of headbanging that would make any metal band happy.
As was very obvious, the band and Neal especially are having a lot of fun playing this new material, the title track was a joy to witness, with Neal laughingly air drumming along with Mike, and deliberately making over the top gestations throughout his guitar solos. Too often prog audiences and performers take the seriousness of the music – and themselves too seriously. This band does not fall into that trap; they’re very serious about their craft, and the precision of the performance, but they’re clearly having a lot of fun doing it.
No greater example of that is in the second act after the intermission. The beginning of “Vanity Fair” is on the quirky and funky side, before the song itself goes into what could well be described as “circus mode.” Neal emerges from the side of the stage wearing a frock coat, and top hat (with a mardi gras style mask) looking for all the world like a demented combination of The Mad Hatter, and Captain Beefheart circa ‘Trout Mask Replica’ years. It gets the crowd going, and is a last bit of fun before the darkness of the last half of the album descends.
At this point, Mike announces his upcoming “vocals stylings” (his description) and begins the thunderous drumming of “Welcome To the World 2” starting the character into the dark world of depression, and fear. It all culminates in what is one of the finest songs of the band’s career “The Great Despair” which is powerfully sung and dominated by guitarist Eric Gillette. To say Eric held the audience in his grasp throughout would be an understatement of the highest order. This is rapidly followed by “Freedom Calling” where the main melody of “Dark Melody” is brought back. The vocal performance for this is dominated by Bill’s high ranged vocals before the band goes into the extended instrumental section. This portion of the song is arguably the heaviest thing Neal has done, and Randy’s bass was successful in shaking the foundations of the theater. What stands out the most however was Portnoy. Mike played out of his mind during this song, with a flurry of odd time signatures, and footwork worked into his solo and reminding everyone why he remains the gold standard in prog rock and metal drumming.
The band wrapped up the set with the emotional, and stirring and ever hopeful “Love That Never Dies.” When first hearing, and reviewing the album I thought that it tried a bit too hard to reach the heights of its closing predecessor, but expected it would shine live. And while it has grown on me in meaning the more I listen to it, it does truly shine when performed. Neal was quite literally in tears by the end.
After a nearly two hour set, most bands would be happy with playing a single relatively short song to round things off for an encore. Neal and company, however, treated us with a 25-minute medley covering every album of his solo career. From the solo acoustic “The Land of Beginning Again” from ‘Testimony’ to finally closing with the later parts of “Broken Sky/Long Day” off of ‘Similitude’ the concert came full circle, ending where the show began. And it closed out a perfect evening of prog rock and was more than worth the 4-hour drive I had to watch it.
The Neal Morse Band currently stand on their own in terms of live performances. I’ve attended more prog rock/metal shows than I can conveniently count, but every time I’ve seen Neal and co, they show themselves to be a very special band. Both is their dazzling musicianship, and precision, to the passion, and love they have for the music they make together. If you’re a fan of the band and they come within a 5-hour radius, make the trip. If you’re a prog fan, but not familiar, make it anyway as well. I don’t know what other shows I’ll take in during the rest of the year, but I’d wager they’re going to be going downhill from here.