My Neal Morse Band Journey & Concert Experience
Let's start near the beginning of my Neal Morse journey. As a drummer myself, I of course have drummers that I "idolize" and admire, which of course influence and inspire me in my playing too. For me, that can be a wide range of favorites depending on the genre of music. Modern jazz greats like Dave Weckl and Billy Cobham fall into that category, but when it comes to rock and metal, there are a vast amount I could list, but at the top of that list would be one name, and anyone fairly close to me musically knows that to be Mike Portnoy.
I first discovered Mike's playing around 1994 when I moved to Long Island, New York, and heard of the popularity of the somewhat local band Dream Theater. They were gaining popularity and had just released their third album, and I was hooked. For the next few years I followed along with all of the recordings and projects of Portnoy, and even joined one of the DT international fan clubs, getting periodic magazines and special fan club CD releases.
Within those magazines there were ads and references to other similarly prog type bands, and it was there that I discovered the band Spock's Beard, featuring Neal Morse on vocals. I do not recall for sure, but I believe I did not jump on the Spock's bandwagon immediately — I think they were just not "metal" enough on first listen. Then around 1999, the mags started speaking of this forthcoming release — a super group of sorts — featuring four musicians from four larger named prog bands. This groups was Transatlantic, and featured Portnoy on drums, and Neal Morse on keys and vocals. It was played up so much and so often as this amazing release, that I felt compelled to grab a copy. I kind of initially felt the same way about that release as I did with other prog bands, they just weren't metal enough like Dream Theater.
I stayed on-board the Transatlantic train, buying the next release too, and I listened more and more and started to get hooked. So I went back and started buying and devouring the back catalog of Spock's Beard. Then it all seemingly came to a stop as the announcement rang out that Neal Morse was quitting Spock's and Transatlantic. The reason? Because he had recently converted to Christianity and felt he needed to go in a different direction.
I was enthused about the Christianity part of course, but saddened by the musical departure since I was only recently getting into it deeper. Then a couple years later, the news started getting around of a forthcoming Neal Morse solo project, and the most exciting part of it (to me at least) was that former band mate Mike Portnoy would be performing all of the drumming on this release. Of course I did not even hesitate to pre-order it with no knowledge of what it would sound like, just based on Portnoy's involvement.
Well, that was 2003 and Neal's release Testimony hit my player, and blew me away. A two-disc rock opera of sorts, telling the story of his early music career and right through into his conversion to Christianity. It was musically awe inspiring, with a wide variety of styles, but enough of a metallic edge to make me happy. I fell in love with the album and the man's music. I quickly hoped on board the Neal Morse Inner Circle "fan club" and have received a disc of material (audio and video) every other months since that time (yes, I have a ton of them after 13 years), and have grabbed every regular release of his since. The band members around him have shifted at times over the past 14 years, but there has been two constants through each and every release — amazing music, and the drumming skills of Mike Portnoy.
The two of them have also, over these last few years, went on to release other simply amazing releases with the reformed Transatlantic, as well as two (a third in the works) non-prog, commercial rock masterpiece releases with another somewhat super-group situation — Flying Colors.
So, jump forward to a few months ago, November 2016, I get the opportunity to interview Neal regarding his then forthcoming release The Similitude of a Dream — a double disc concept album based loosely on the classic John Bunyan book, A Pilgrims Progress, which I have read multiple times and have a great appreciation for. I approached the interview with fear and trembling, I mean after all, how do I stay professional when I just want to ooze out all of my fan-boy excitement? Overall I think I held it together well enough to get through (read the interview here). Shortly after that I checked their tour schedule to find they were coming within reasonable closeness to me, and decided to consider making the trip out to see them.
So, I mention to my wife the desire to make the almost four-hour trip for the concert, and she stated she would like to go too. So we decided to make plans to leave the kids behind and take a (much deserved) one night date-night for the concert experience. Once those plans we made, I reached back out to the PR contact that had arranged my original interview, and asked if there was any way I could schedule a face-to-face interview at the concert venue. Plans were discussed, and arrangements were made to interview the band on show day. I was also issued a photo pass ticket for the show, but since I had already paid for our tickets, and am not a pro-photographer, I called my friend who was one, and who does a lot of concert photos in the area, and had them come along.
I began working it out to see about doing the interview on Facebook live. Then, the day before the show, I get word from my contact that they would have to cancel the interview due to time issues. Then a few moments later a reply that it is back on, but it would be with Randy George, not Neal or the band. I was saddened that I was not going to meet Neal face to face, and Mike for that matter, but was happy it wasn't totally canceled.
So, come show day, we may the journey up, and arrive a bit before our scheduled interview time. The photographer, my wife and I went to the venue, spoke with the tour manager, and were escorted into the venue to find a suitable, quiet place for the interview. Once located, we got set up a little and Randy entered. In case you are unaware, Randy is a video pro, and creates/edits/produces the majority of Neal's video releases, so he offered some pointers on best set up for the interview, as far as camera and people placement. That helped it to look less like a simple person holding their phone and hitting the record button. I know these guys are pressed for time and tired while on the road, but Randy was ever so patient and gracious for the whole thing.
The Facebook live event was somewhat successful, though the volume was a bit low, and the weak signal caused it to abruptly cut off at a little over eleven minutes. Fortunately I had a GoPro running as a backup, and so the full 17-minute interview video is also available.
After the interview, we exited the venue, and with a bit over 3 hours to kill before doors open, we went next door to eat. About an hour into our meal, the staff started rearranging the tables directly beside us, converting the front of the place into a long table. I overheard someone ask what was going on, and the waiter said "The band playing next door is having a meet and greet here soon." I called him over, confirmed what I heard to be true, and asked if we had to leave before it, and he said no, we could stay — so we did.
The closer it got to six o'clock, the more fans started filing in. Now you see, originally, my initial plans were to go to the solo as well as shell out the funds to do the meet and greet. I was going to have the whole experience, but that changed when my wife wanted to come and we made a couples get-away out of the event — so there were no funds for the meet and greet. But alas, God look down on my plight, and instead, tossed me right into the middle of the meet and greet for free. True, I did not get to either meet nor greet anyone, but I got to watch from about 10 foot away.
We then made our way back to the venue, acquired the photo pass, waited in line, and entered the arena. My wife made her way to a comfy seat in the balcony, while I headed to the floor in front of the stage. The doors opened two hours before show time, so it was rather boring just standing there for two hours, but it paid off when the show started.
Actually, one humorous story from the "floor time" was while I was killing time, I was reading through the Facebook Neal Morse forum posts, and ran across a guy who said he was eating at the restaurant and was surprised to find out the meet and greet was happening there. So I commented on how I too had found myself in that predicament. About five minutes later, I hear this voice say "Jeff McCormack?" I look over and it is the guy whose post I had just commented on. What are the chances he was standing that close to me? Well, we spent the rest of the show shouting and singing together from up front, as I had found one opening close to the stage and planted myself there. It was directly in front of Neal, and there was no pit, so we were right up against the stage.
Sadly, I had not given it as much forethought as I should have, and so I found that my positioning was amazing for seeing every one of the band members, except one — Mike Portnoy. I found that Neal's keyboard directly blocked my view of Mike back there on drums. So, while I could see sticks moving across toms, the keyboard was at the perfect level to totally block his face, except those times when he stood up. Oh well, live and learn — maybe next time.
As mentioned, I had been reading lots of fan comments in a Neal Morse forum on Facebook, and people were consistently exclaiming it to be the best concert they have ever been to, so I had high hopes. By the half way point intermission, those hopes had been met. The show was so amazing, and I found it hard to think that it was only half done. The second half was as good as the first. The show consisted of them playing the entirety of the new album, in order, both discs, nearly two hours of music of musical bliss. It came off as a rock opera, because that is basically what it was. It was a story, and there were even some costume type elements used.
Everyone was on top of their game, and the prog elements — the starts and stop and time changes — were spot on as the band flew flawlessly through the songs. The majority of the alternating lead vocal offerings were by Neal, Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette, and each were a joy to the ear with shouts of approval by the crowd. Honestly, the album is amazing to hear, but it was even more impressive watching them pull it off live. Watching it right there really brings to life not only the quick timing and switching between band members, but just the sheer talent involved as they weaved their instruments into something so beautiful; something not as easily perceived in audio format.
From a musicians stand point, observing them pulling off this album live was just breathtaking. For the average listener, it was a beautifully presented story put to a wide variety of music styles and masterfully played. The people there were very appreciative of it, and all of those around me were singing, clapping, shouting along the whole time (well, okay, there was this one guy beside me who never seemed to move the entire time. No response, no head bob, no clapping, no mouth movement, nothing it seemed. Maybe he was too captivated to move, I don't know).
Randy had mentioned in the interview, that one difference they notice between US crowds and overseas crowds, is that overseas they scream and sing almost every word and every music melody through the show; while in the US, they are more subdued, and at times often just sit and watch. Well, at this show, I think the crowd was quite responsive the whole time (or was it just me making all that noise?).
But of course, all good things must come to an end, and this night's music did just that. The whole story was over, but left us wanting more, which we did get, as we were treated to two encores, Agenda and The Call (both from the previous album, The Grand Experiment). The crowd went wild and of course sang along as always. Honestly, the energy during those last two songs seemed even higher than the rest of the concert. The audience was on fire in response to the band's fire! We still wanted more, but two and a half hours of music was all we were getting, and it was indeed over.
We were some of the last ones to leave, mainly just because of the equipment we had to pack up, so the venue was empty by the time we walked out. What mere minutes before was filled with the joy of the Neal Morse Band, was now filled with silence - and of course a rining in my ears.
We made out way out, and got in line with those purchasing merchandise, and once finished, we made our way out to the quiet, cold streets. As we walked past the side of the venue where the tour buses were, we saw a small crowd of concert goers anxiously awaiting a possible meet and greet post-show encounter. My initial thoughts were to join the people for the one last-chance to meet Neal and Mike face-to-face, but knowing how tired the band would be, I did not want to bother them (that, and my wife wouldn't let me). And so my quest to meet the two was not met — this time.