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Neal Morse

The Neal Morse Band - Live in Saint Charles, Illinois, February 2019

Review by Josh Turner

In a snap, Neal Morse took center stage behind his keyboards with an arsenal of guitars in tow. Modeled after most of his creations, the music began with an overture. Longtime listeners would know that these themes would be reprised later with lyrics in the presented key. Morse has followed this formula to a tee in many of his past successes. The biggest noticeable difference was in his appearance. He donned a white hoodie, glasses and a beard. Maybe this was his otherworldly clone like that shaggy Vulcan or Superman’s loony twin.

The instrumental transitioned to touching verses sung all by his lonesome before the lights went dim. It was at this time the rest of his avengers made their presence known. Morse picked up a guitar, and the program turned bombastic with smoke effects. After a wardrobe change offstage, he slithered back like a panther in attire that was completely black. It was  here that we encountered an early highlight in an emotive tune called “The Dream Isn’t Over.” When he chanted how he left his father, he pulled the heartstrings taut.


Josh Turner
 
Josh Turner
 
Josh Turner

Next came “Welcome to the World,” which is a progressively-catchy pop song of sorts quite akin to classical Spock’s Beard. It was also where he started to give clues as to where he was on the album by showing the title on the back-screen. This trend continued sporadically throughout the show. As he was playing a double album in its entirety, these cues provided much-needed guidance. One could get lost in this musical adventure; an adventure that is practically absent of pause. It was also at this point that his sound engineers had things dialed to perfection. Due to this and the musicianship, the waves emitted throughout the concert hall were only a hair shy of studio quality.


Josh Turner
 
Josh Turner
 
Josh Turner

Next on deck was a sweet ballad, “A Momentary Change,”  but the tranquility was short-lived. The peaceful disposition was replaced by a song with a sinister nature called “Dark Melody” whose ruminations were apathetically ended by the arrival of a ticking clock. Then, a mix of dark and light was featured in “I Got To Run.” This provided the ideal segue to the subsequent song, “To The River.” The melodies in this ditty are as gorgeous as your first crush. His voice was especially on point this night and going for additional challenge points, he pulled out Ghidorah’s little sister: a mauve-colored guitar with two necks.

Shortly thereafter, he encountered some kind of keyboard issue in real life, which would not have been apparent had he not said anything. He took this opportunity to provide what he calls extra music while his crew got the kinks worked out. Again, the interlude seemed as if it was meant to be there and begged the question why the deleted scene was ever cut in the first place. Forty-five minutes had passed and we were getting a comment that loosely referenced Yes. Voila, the undulant parts of this undocumented piece weren’t too unlike, “Roundabout.”

With minimal discussion from the workhorses leading up to this makeshift appurtenance, the music came full stop. We were told a story of Morse’s daughter, Jayda, who makes no apologies for being a Taylor Swift fan. In his kid’s defense, she takes note of the fact that her father’s music is deep in meaning and has a special place with his fans; beyond the comely popstar’s schmaltzy hits. Without further ado, the title track finally appeared, and the keys, in particular, embodied The Who’s, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”


Josh Turner
 
Josh Turner
 
Josh Turner
In its aftermath, we were threatened with a little metal shaped object. Morse blew into it and let out a shrill noise followed by a scream of, “Can You Feel It?”

The air got sucked out of the room, and the subsequent theme, “Venture in Black” was drearier than a horror flick. John Carpenter would be proud of this sequence. As the shape stalks his victim and the atmosphere grows increasingly somber, Morse modified a lyric to incorporate nearby Chicago. Like a joke in the midst of a potentially-perilous kerfuffle, the audience awkwardly laughed to break the tension. Soon after this kooky cliffhanger, the high-pitched, happy beat of “Hey Ho Let’s Go” and the empowering outro “Beyond The Borders,” It was  time for intermission.

For better or worse, the second act subverted expectations whilst hitting the same notes. After another overture, the two-headed dragon-like instrument made  its reprisal in, “The Dream Continues.” Skipping ahead, the merry man and his minstrels performed “Vanity Fair.” Like Vader’s attempts to recover the guarded plans in Rogue One, this witty ditty was a standout sandwiched between the standard canon. In this case, however, the main character was dressed as the Mad Hatter.


Josh Turner
     

Mike Portnoy finally talked by introducing the second installment of “Window to the World.” As if a trigger to ignite the track, he exclaimed, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” And in “Elements of Fear”  RD-D2 made an appearance, but instead of his patented glide; he had adopted the herky-jerky tendencies of BB-8. A short while later, the guitarist, Eric Gillette, sang with soul “The Great Despair,” as he gently played his fretted pet. Leapfrogging to the last, he also nailed the vocals in, “A Love That Never Dies” as he took our protagonist to the river’s edge and intoned about the tears of our goodbyes. Like a churchgoer overcome with the holy spirit, a fan yelled, “So good!”

Unedited, enhanced and uncut, this release was just right. No bonus material was necessary for a re-watch. By the awe expressed, not only by this fan, but many others, it was obvious that those in attendance got everything they desired. After several hours non-stop, nobody was even demanding an encore. Still, moments later, an image of a television set appeared on stage. It showed footage from the Neal Morse Band that appeared to be going backwards in the archives until it finally settled on his first album, Testimony. Like the Wizard of Oz, Morse was giving his friends, both old and new, a way to start again in “The Land of Beginnings.” The story did not end there, either. Without delay, he dispensed rations from each season’s harvest (Testimony, One, Question Mark, Sola Scriptura, Lifeline, Testimony 2, Momentum, Grand Experiment, Similitude of a Dream) while projecting the associated album cover overhead. He ended back where he started: a specimen of the one he just played to completion.

Like “Empire Strikes Back,” the sequel to the masterpiece was probably the highlight of the night. With little to do in the area this time of year other than getting frostbite, he and his band of talented maestros entertained the masses like the mightiest heroes in a summer blockbuster.


Josh Turner
     
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2019  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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