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Progressive Rock Concert Reviews

Spock's Beard

Live in Quebec City, July, 2007

Review by Sonya Kukcinovich Hill

Spock's Beard has drawn many musical comparisons through the years, most often to progressive giants early Genesis and Yes. Indeed, Dave Meros' Rickenbacker sound is frighteningly close to Yes' Chris Squire, especially his sophisticated use of counterpoint in advanced rhythmic passages. Yet there is something completely non-European about the Spock's Beard sound. This is clearly an American band, and the accented style played is so soulful and funky in addition to the signature progressive passages. One can hear why Meros credits Tower of Power's Rocco Prestia as one of the bassists he most emulated in learning to play.
On a dime Meros shifts from the classically influenced Rickenbacker sound to the classic Fender Jazz style, with walking eighth notes hitting squarely in the center of the beat, just like Prestia. Keyboardist Ryo Okumoto plays a beautiful jazz arpeggio over the top, sounding like Keith Jarrett or Joe Zawinul on a Fender Rhodes, and one wonders if he or she is listening to prog rock or one of the Miles Davis bands from the Bitches Brew era. Alan Morse's guitar enters, sometimes reminiscent of Jeff Beck, sometimes like Frank Zappa, sometimes in harmonic minor like Al DiMeola. Tasty little melody lines pop in and out. Every note is engineered to perfection, with the harmonic diversity of Steely Dan. Wait, make that Steely Dan on steroids.

Many call Spock's Beard the best progressive rock band in the world today. It is easy to understand why after hearing them live in concert. Never signed to a major label, the band was originally the brainchild of virtuoso founder Neal Morse, who toiled for years in writing and recording conceptual music for and with the group. While this kept their performance integrity strong, Neal Morse's personal stamp on the band kept other band members from contributing new material of their own to the repertoire. Morse left the group in 2002 to pursue a direction in Christian based prog that has resulted in some excellent work being put forth, but it also created new opportunities for brother Al Morse and the rest of Spock's Beard.

The entire band is writing now, but it is Meros and Nick D'Virgilio who have taken over a significant amount of the group's composing responsibilities. D'Virgilio shifted from being the band's primary drummer to lead vocals, and he and tour drummer Jimmy Keegan both have full kits on stage. D'Virgilio warms up like an expectant opera singer before the show. His register is warm and strong as a baritone, but his voice soars magnificently to contralto without a hint of falsetto. Once the show begins, his tonal quality and intonation are spot on as he attacks every entrance with soulful passion. The music since 2002 has been less classically influenced and, indeed, sounds more twentieth century, a la Bernstein at moments, but without the orchestra.

Le Festival d'ete' Quebec is a ten day affair, and this year featured groups as diverse as Britain's Ozric Tentacles to the very popular Nickelback. Yet it was Spock's Beard who brought thunderous applause and appreciation for their sophisticated music - music that has not forgotten that melody matters, that rhythm is more than a digital sample of four measures of some creepy song from the eighties. This is also a group that understands that real drummers are a must and that multiple time signatures add dynamic tension and release to music, that Afro-Cuban rhythms juxtaposed over both classical and jazz theory create the music that will last into tomorrow, at least as far as American music is concerned. Sadly, the recording industry gave up on truth in music years ago, which is why the boys in Spock's Beard have to keep numerous side projects alive in order to make their creative dreams come alive. My review of a few of the pieces in the concert performance follow, focusing on three compositions also released on the band's ninth studio CD last fall, which is simply called Spock's Beard and is referred by the band as just "Nine."

The show was outside in the evening, on a beautiful 6th of July evening in Quebec City, one of the most beautiful and friendliest places this writer has encountered on the North American continent. The performance opened with "On a Perfect Day,” summarizing both the weather as well as recreating the opening cut from the band's latest CD. When the CD was released last autumn, it was this opening cut that immediately grabbed my ears' attention. While the piece could stand alone as a great modern rock number if the tone deaf music industry would actually get a clue, the nearly eight minute number captures many of the nuances and themes characteristic of a truly musical act that would cause the music professors from your local university to shake their heads in amazement. You can call them indulgent if you wish, but solo treatments are never overblown, repetitive or boring with these guys. In fact, everything sounds downright tasty, which is the most any good musician can expect when listening to the work of another. The piece is a power ballad, but not sappy in any way at all. Great dynamic control and grand ensemble hits followed beautiful melodic interplay between vocals, piano, and guitar. There was no musical garbage, just a beautiful piece of integrity that could rate as a clinic in composition.

Later on, the group performed "Skeletons at the Feast." While the title is a tongue-in-cheek comment on Meros' fascination with skeletons ... indeed, his Myspace page reflects a general interest in skeleton collecting ... the number opens in a meter with eleven beats per measure, something one might expect from Pat Metheny but played more aggressively accented like trumpeter Don Ellis' writing from the 1970s, albeit with rock accents instead of jazz when taken in totality. Okumoto's feature in the middle of the song comes across like Keith Emerson at his finest, trailed by Billy Cobham's post Mahavishnu funky harmonic fusion stylings. The accented percussion preeminently drives the piece forward and makes the odd meter fit like a glove. This is an amazing instrumental number, and the crowd roared in appreciation.

"As Far as the Mind Can See" is a four part Meros masterpiece running some seventeen minutes. Part I is called "Dreaming in the Age of Answers,” which is a medium tempo, well thought inference backed by a strong backbeat, transitioning into a melodic bass solo reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius or Jimmy Haslip. The piece moves into a hard bop feeling with Hammond B-3 accents until the melody line starts. This second part, "Here's a Man,” is pure fusion, and one would expect to hear this style from Soulive or the Yellow Jackets. The third part is markedly Beatlesesque, called "They Know We Know." It is slow, driving rock, complete with Chicago syle horn countermelody and ensemble vocals sung with expanded intensity, transitioning to synthesizer solo in double time, followed by an orchestrated transition to the final theme, called "Stream of Unconsciousness." The orchestral parts build in layers to a large grandiose musical finale incorporating many bits and pieces from prior themes. D'Virgilio re-enters with a slow, soulful, almost bluesy line, building to a driving rock ending. This is an exceedingly interesting composition, and sets into fact that Neal Morse's much publicized leaving of the group has allowed for a healthy musical expansion by the other band members. Indeed, Spock's Beard stands strong as one of the most intriguing and musically valid performing groups in the world today.

The group performed plenty of older SB compositions, including Neal Morse's "Thoughts, Part 2,” "Crack the Big Sky,” and Meros' "Surfing Down the Avalanche.” This writer must be emphatic in saying that D'Virgilio has solidly grabbed the lead singer role as his own, embraced it, and is constantly working hard to improve his already excellent game. Indeed, he has surpassed his predecessor in putting an unmistakably excellent voice in front of one of the best performing electric music acts today. Okumoto is a keyboard dervish on stage, always decked out in a skull decorated bandana, sometimes crashing a keyboard to the floor as his equipment fails his athleticism. But his playing is fantastic, with extremely advanced theory knowledge of chord structures that have roots in gospel, R & B, and jazz. His solo number screamed both excellence and diversity, and must be witnessed to truly be appreciated. D'Virgilio and Keegan were fantastic on drums, both individually and in their duet feature. This was very high level and consummate playing. Alan's guitar work was beautifully tasty on both electric and acoustic throughout the entire show, and Meros' playing wass clean, solid, and downright spectacular for the whole of the evening.

On and off stage, the members of the band respect each other greatly, embrace one another as friends, and pursue their various side projects and businesses so they can afford to deliver some of the most creative modern music written today to the world stage. The genuinely appreciative Quebecois crowd made the group very happy. This night belonged to progressive rock's greatest act, Spock's Beard!

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