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Neal Morse

The Neal Morse Band - Live in Saint Charles, Illinois, January 2017

Review by Josh Turner

The album, "Similitude to a Dream," is nearly two hours of seamlessly integrated music. The Neal Morse Band played it in its entirety with a single intermission where the discs split. The discussion was kept to a minimum.
 
Morse's voice was crisp and clear like the cool breeze on this chilly winter night. While the material was released no more than two mere months before the concert, it was practiced and pitch perfect. Without knowing that it was hot merchandise, nobody would have been the wiser to its newness. Regardless of its newborn status, it was well rehearsed. As for the venue (the historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, Illinois), the music reverberated off its hallowed walls with a lively spirit. The sound was balanced and true thanks to Onesti Entertainment, but it was the musicianship of Neal Morse (lead vocals, keyboards, guitars), Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals), Randy George (bass, vocals), Eric Gilette (guitar, vocals), and Bill Hubauer (keyboards, vocals) that deserved the accolades reserved for world-class,  hardworking, well-traveled minstrels.

The songs were analogous to Transatlantic’s earlier works. It would be easier to believe this was that supergroup’s latest works than the “Kaleidoscope” album. Likewise, this was the best live crew that Morse has put together. Neither Spock’s Beard nor Transatlantic could nail the notes or maintain the beats like these four did on this night. Nothing less than exceptional was anticipated from Portnoy, and he delivered as expected. Gilette’s guitars were vibrant, whereas Hubauer’s keys were the embodiment of whimsy. Lest we forget the remainder of this quintet, George’s bass was fun, funky, finicky, and finely-tuned. As for Morse, he was the competent ringleader in this progressive extravaganza. Altogether, they did their numbers in tight formation without breaking rapport. While the tracks were entangled within one another, the fans still found moments to clap between the gaps. One fan leaned over and mentioned that this was the best thing Morse has done in his career. Everyone in attendance seemed to be enthralled with the fact that this divine recording had come to rapture.


Josh Turner
 
Josh Turner
 
Josh Turner
Morse was Johnny on the spot at eight o’clock: starting early, on time, and without an opener. Without pause, The Neal Morse Band plowed through 12 different themes: "Long Day" [D1T1, 1:42], "Overture"  [D1T2, 5:51], "The Dream"  [D1T3, 2:28], "City of Destruction"  [D1T4, 5:11], "We Have Got to Go"  [D1T5, 2:29], "Makes No Sense"  [D1T6, 4:10], "Draw the Line"  [D1T7, 4:06], "The Slough" [D1T8, 3:03], "Back to the City"  [D1T9, 4:19], "The Ways of a Fool"  [D1T10, 6:48], "So Far Gone"  [D1T11, 5:21], and "Breath of Angels"  [D1T12, 6:32].

The music was often inspirational. As if rendered by hypnotists, the crowd was mesmerized: undulating uncontrollably, dancing, and rarely taking their eyes off the stage. The chosen genres in this eclectic mix hearkened to The Who, Deep Purple, Styx, and The Moody Blues.

Within the initial stack, “The Ways of a Fool,” was a highlight. This particular song sounded like something from the discography of Genesis; topped off with a round of well-executed harmony that was the giver of goosebumps.

The oddest reference, nestled amidst “Makes No Sense,” had something to do with smoking a bowl of something herbal. It seems as if levity has been added to this holy rollers’ shtick.

Morse was a chameleon whose mannerisms and attire blended like camouflage with his groovy music. On several occasions, he wore something that looked as if it were derived out of the stillsuits described in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Later, he became something akin to Alexandre Dumont’s famous protagonist in the song named, “The Mask.” An accessory interspersed at times for no apparent reason, he and Portnoy wore goggles that would have been useful if flying gyrocopters in Mad Max’s world.

An hour in, the crowd was inevitably given time to reflect in the form of an intermission. This peaceful interlude between alleged strangers was more like a powwow than a potty break. There was a good energy in the air as everyone had positive commentary to share.

With all that transpired, it was only 9:30 PM. Axl Rose wouldn’t have even stepped foot in the door by this time.

After tacking on two more songs, "Slave to Your Mind" [D2T1, 6:27] and "Shortcut to Salvation" [D2T2, 4:36], Morse finally talked to the crowd; unnecessarily apologizing for the break taking longer than 20 minutes. To be honest, most in attendance needed a moment to digest all that had been experienced as evidenced in this communal mingling.

Socializing aside, "The Man in the Iron Cage" [D2T3, 5:16] and "The Road Called Home" [D2T4, 3:24] had a more serious vibe. Alternatively, “Sloth” [D2T5, 5:48] was amusing with stuffed animals hanging from George’s guitar and a sloth splayed upon Portnoy’s drums. The one and only outtake, “Nothing makes Mike grin like sleeping in,” was a play on words from the lyrics. This led to an intimate discussion with Portnoy about the town of St. Chuck.

The giddiness continued with “Freedom Song” [D2T6, 3:59] and Morse got everyone in attendance to clap. Then, Morse sprinted in and about the crowd for "I'm Running" [D2T7, 3:44]. Afterwards, he donned a disguise for "The Mask" [D2T8, 4:28].

Around this time, his voice started to fade, but lo and behold; it boomeranged back for "Confrontation" [D2T9, 3:59). Finally, we see the hero’s face in the videos that accompanied the performance.

As if it were the bombastic ending to "Rogue One," this progressive squadron finished strong with "The Battle" [D2T10, 2:57). "Broken Sky/Long Day (Reprise)" [D2T11, 9:58] left viewers with hope: replays, sequels, prequels, and reprisals of the stalwart material.

Two encores later, consisting of “Agenda” and “The Call” (both from The Grand Experiment), the crowd was thoroughly satiated, and the clock hadn’t even struck midnight yet. The Neal Morse band was punctual and poignant. It was an outstanding concert. All who had participated were recipients of a golden ticket that was Wonkaesque.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to know that some fans jammed out to the album on the way home. The Neal Morse Band was a beaming light from the heavens on what would have otherwise been a cold, dreary night.

 


Josh Turner
 
Josh Turner
 
Josh Turner
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2017  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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