GIG REVIEW: An Evening With JOHN PETRUCCI, MIKE PORTNOY, DAVE LARUE & MEANSTREAK Live at Danforth Music Hall, Toronto
Last week, progressive metal fans in Toronto were treated to a night of top-tier musical entertainment, as the one and only John Petrucci performed a sold-out show at Danforth Music Hall in the home stretch of his North American tour. Best known as the guitarist for the legendary band Dream Theater, with whom he has toured extensively for over three decades, Petrucci had never before embarked on a headlining tour as a solo artist. Petrucci’s incredible instrumental power trio was rounded out by Dave LaRue on bass, and Petrucci’s former Dream Theater bandmate Mike Portnoy on drums. With support from the recently reunited thrash metal band Meanstreak, this tour hit a total of 36 different cities across the United States and Canada from October 5th to November 20th.
Taking the stage first at 8 pm was Meanstreak, an all-female thrash metal band from Westchester, New York. Originally formed in 1985, they released one full-length album, Roadkill, before disbanding in 1994. Prior to reuniting earlier this year and being announced as the supporting act for Petrucci’s solo tour, Meanstreak had been dormant for longer than most other bands even exist. With that said, if you didn’t know that this band hadn’t played together for almost 30 years, you wouldn’t be able to tell while watching them. Fast-paced riffs in songs like The Congregation gave guitarists Lena Sands and Marlene Apuzzo ample opportunity to show off their ferocious down-picking and soloing abilities, while Snakepit and Nostradamus showcased drummer Yael Rallis’ rhythmic double kick chops. Aside from the tracks off Roadkill, Meanstreak’s hard-hitting 8-song set also included some picks from an EP titled The Other Side, and even some new tracks – vocalist Bettina France announced that they’d be releasing an EP early next year. The band closed their set with a song off the upcoming release entitled The Dark Gift, and if this song is indicative of what’s to come, with its soaring vocals and intricate harmonized guitar lines, their new music might be their best yet. As a side note, and a fun bit of trivia, three of the five members of Meanstreak are married to current or former Dream Theater members. Lena Sands, Marlene Apuzzo, and bassist Lisa Pace married John Petrucci, Mike Portnoy, and John Myung, respectively.
At a quarter past 9, the house lights dimmed, and the sold-out audience rose to their feet for a round of enthusiastic applause as John Petrucci and his bandmates walked out onto the stage. The trio kicked off their set with the title track from Petrucci’s most recent solo album, 2020’s Terminal Velocity, and followed that up by segueing directly into The Happy Song, another selection from the latest album. Drummer Portnoy was often on his feet between rhythmic shots, doing his best to hype up the crowd and get them clapping along. If for some reason anyone in the room was unfamiliar with the work of John Petrucci, it would have become obvious very quickly why he’s recognized as one of the best there is. His playing is remarkably advanced, and yet he somehow manages to make it look easy. Intricate flurries of notes are executed with precision, and he maintains a healthy balance of melody and technicality. One of the early highlights of the night was Jaws of Life, a track from Petrucci’s first album Suspended Animation. One of the heavier songs of the set, the opening riff features Petrucci making use of the low end of his seven-string guitar range, and it certainly got people in the crowd banging their heads along to the music. The Oddfather showcased the band’s ability to move seamlessly between a variety of different time signatures. It also featured some cool syncopated grooves performed by drums and bass in perfect lockstep, while Petrucci played one of his more melodic solos over top.
During a break between songs, Petrucci took a few moments to introduce his bandmates sharing the stage with him, though it’s highly likely the vast majority of the fans in the room were already well aware of who they were. Petrucci spoke of how much he had always loved LaRue’s bass playing, which is why he had been hired to track bass on both of Petrucci’s solo albums, released 15 years apart. When introducing drummer Mike Portnoy, Petrucci gave the audience the condensed version of their history together – how they had met at Berklee at 18 years old, how they had founded Dream Theater, and how they had gone on to play in that band together for 25 years. He also mentioned that this tour was the first time they had performed live together in 12 years since Portnoy had left Dream Theater in 2010. It was fantastic to see the reunion of these musical juggernauts, who very clearly have a deep friendship and strong musical chemistry.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Petrucci’s music is very guitar-centric, but there were several moments during the set where he would step aside in order to let one of his bandmates share the spotlight. Gemini featured an incredible bass solo by LaRue, who masterfully crafted a compelling solo arc, gradually building both dynamically and in rhythmic complexity. Tunnel Vision, another track from Suspended Animation, ended with a two-minute drum solo over the song’s main riff by Portnoy. Alternating between playing with and against the riff, he also managed to work in several stick tricks before cuing the end of the song, much to the delight of the audience.
On top of the impressive display of musicality and technical ability, it was also quite evident throughout the show that this trio of friends was having a great time on stage. Portnoy in particular was in fine form, twirling his sticks at any given opportunity, and even playing drumstick catch with someone standing side stage, all without missing a beat. Petrucci would sometimes work in little snippets of other songs into his solos, and exchange sly knowing looks with LaRue and Portnoy. At the end of a song called Damage Control, the trio jammed on the James Bond theme music, accelerating faster and faster before bringing it to an end. While introducing another newer track called Snake In My Boot, Petrucci half-jokingly told the audience that he wanted this one to be his prog equivalent of We Will Rock You, and taught the clapping pattern that continues throughout the song.
The set concluded with Temple of Circadia, another heavier tune that makes use of low-end riffing, palm-muted rhythms, and big half-time drum grooves. As Petrucci and the band walked off stage, they received a standing ovation from the crowd, who began the inevitable chant for one more song. After a few minutes, the crowd roared with approval once more as the trio returned to the stage to play the encore, closing the night (for real this time) with Glasgow Kiss, from the Suspended Animation album. The band expertly navigated the feel change from the triplet to duplet feel in the middle of the song, and Petrucci once again showed off his impressive musical chops with some tasty soloing. The crowd remained on their feet for several minutes after the song ended, and the band members soaked it all in, taking their time to wave to the fans and show their appreciation.
Instrumental progressive metal is a difficult genre to play, and it’s even more challenging to be able to push the limits of one’s technical capabilities on an instrument while still making music that people want to listen to. John Petrucci, Dave LaRue, and Mike Portnoy have all been performing at a high level for decades, and they demonstrated repeatedly over the course of the band’s 90-minute set why they’re considered to be among the very best. It may have been Petrucci’s first solo headlining tour, but based on the warm reception from the audience, coupled with the amount of fun the musicians appeared to be having during the performance, it’s unlikely to be too long before the next one.