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Progressive Rock Concert Reviews

The Syn

Live in Milwaukee, January 2006

Review by Josh Turner

When I got to the venue, I was surprised to see Alan White on the marquee. As my friend Adam said when I called him after the show, it would be great to see Chris Squire, but an event with both of them is something special. For the record, Adam is a drummer himself, so I can understand his envy. When I walked inside, I was instantly stunned. I've never seen Shank Hall so packed. It was standing room only. For the earlier set, I was able to find a place in the back, but after all my trouble; I decided I had to get closer to the stage. I came across a fellow named Mark who had an open seat upfront and he was kind enough to let me sit next to him. It turns out he flew from Florida to see this show. He justified this trip, because it was his favorite group and they had a very limited tour (13 stops to be exact). In the brief moments before the concert started, Mark described the band as a cross between The Who, Pink Floyd, and Yes. With this, my interest was greatly piqued. If they were even a fraction of those bands, I'd be an extremely happy camper.

While I was sitting next to an expert, I was not familiar with this band beyond their name. Obviously I've heard of them, but I had not heard their CD's nor was I able to find a working sample or sound clip online. For the most part, I was flying blind. Syndestructible was their first and only album since their 1967 debut so they were completely off my radar. While I was not sure what was in store for me, from the opening song, they exceeded my expectations. Even though I was running on fumes, it was next near impossible to fall asleep with this kind of action around me. It was like jets flying overhead. From the get go, they were excellent. To say Chris Squire still had it would be a colossal understatement. From start to finish, he was simply amazing. Already, I was thrilled by my decision to make the trip. Right away, I felt the small sacrifice was worth a much larger forfeiture in order to be in the presence of these legendary musicians.

In hindsight, the bass was mightier than the pen that night. For that matter, it bested the guitars, keyboards, and even the drums. Regardless of how the songs were written, Chris had a way with the interpretation. He adds so much to the atmosphere with his subterranean notes and he excavates sunken treasures from the sonic tapestry. Did I mention he still has it? While I was beaming from ear to ear with content, the weary traveler sitting next to me was overjoyed and ecstatic. It may have been expensive for Mark, but he leaned over and told me it was worth the trip. He said this was their best and even better than he expected.

While Chris was the highlight of the show and could do no wrong, the songwriting was nothing to sneeze at. For a side project, the songs were very well-written. They reminded me of the bands that Mark mentioned, but in terms of mood, emotion, and composition, I thought of Karmakanic and Kaipa. I can also see how Yes' Magnification may have been immaculately conceived and manifested from the loins of this band. These songs were domestic, kind-hearted, and sympathetic. While they borrowed something new, they also took subject matter straight out of their past

As for the remaining performers, Alan was assuredly on fire (normally, the drums are officially done by Martyn Adelman). Steve Nardelli (the singer), Gerard Johnson (the keyboardist), and Shane Theriot (the guitarist) who could honestly be listed as unknowns, were actually on par with the famous duo. While the majority was there for Chris and Alan, the solos of these three were actually capable of pulling interest now and then from the main attraction. It's worth noting for the record that Steve played with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Shane frequently tours with LeeAnn Rimes and the Neville Brothers. So, they aren't completely out of the loop. While I can't say whether or not Gerard has worked with any renowned artists, his skill is worthy of fame. His abilities reminded me of Tomas Bodin, who is somebody I hold in very high regard. Steve joked that Gerard is French or English and acted as if he really didn't know. He was a funny guy. The inside jokes between the members and fans were rampant throughout the affair. As for Steve's singing, he was a combination between Roger Daltry and Roger Walters, sometimes singing, sometimes chanting. Other times he touched upon the vocal verses as if he was talking. Often he was elegant and expressive. Last, but not least, Shane's range was virtually limitless as he cycled between the styles of funk, blues, jazz, and rock. His technique was so expansive; you'd have to take your pick at random of whom he may emulate. As soon as I thought I had his influences gauged, he tried on some other digs. While this trio rented their roles from others, I guess you could say that Alan and Chris had no choice, but to play themselves in this spectacle and drama. I have to mention, I thought they were much older than I expected. It's the first time I've seen them live and with all the footage out there, it's easy to think of them in their heyday. While they might have matured more than I thought, their playing was youthful, chipper, and in good spirits. Chris, in particular, was so vivacious at times, it seemed like he would leap into the audience. During his most passionate passages, he raised a leg as if he is Ian Anderson on the flute. None of them was arthritic and the music just jumped off the stage. To this day, Chris still puts everything he has out there. He also has a certain style and flamboyance. He wore a tie-scarf hybrid, stretch pants, and a pressed white shirt. This is intriguing, considering others his age would be lounging around all day in a moo moo.

As for what they played, it is hard to break this down into individual songs. I was so mesmerized by the music; I had nary the chance to write everything down. My head was filled with such wonderful melodies; I could hardly jot down a comment or take a mental note for that matter. In either case, I'll give it a shot and try to mention some of the peaks and highlights. Fortunate for the crowd that night, there really were no valleys.

They had a strong start with a respectable rendition of song they call "Breaking Down Walls". This bathed my mind in charming melodies and I feel victim to a thorough brainwash. This was followed by "Some Time Some Way" and it stretched into "Reach" as its outro. I was caught off guard and entranced, so these first couple songs went by in a flash. They occupied all the waterways of my mind, leaving little room for channel surfing.

Just when I regained control of my consciousness, next came an attentive and alluring piece called "Cathedral of Love." It wasn't too unlike The Flower King's "Church of Your Heart." They draw from the same spiritual guidance and inspiration as this newly prominent band. While these old-timers drew from their past material, the music was in no way outdated. It could easily be interchanged with these modern melodic wonders. In this song, Alan groped the skins while Chris duly fondled the bass. The rest of the musicians, the younger guys if you will, weren't too shabby either. The guitarist's contributions reminded me of Krister Jonzon at times. The keyboards manufactured many sounds that personified the flute from Theo Travis. For that reason, the music created juxtaposition between The Tangent, Jethro Tull, and Karmakanic.

"Phoenix Rising" was another strong piece in the set. It was the first chance Chris had to sing. As the concert progressed, Chris' backing vocals became more and more integral to the music. His high notes and harmonies added to his resume, extending his portfolio, and consequently, gave the songs unmitigated fringe benefit in return. During this song, Alan was not to be forgotten as he tapped the cymbals with finery and finesse. At times he wasn't that gentle, kicking the stuffing out of the kit.

While they played nothing outside of The Syn's discography, they did give us something unavailable and new. "Silent Revolution" was an unreleased piece that they promised to put on a future production. As they said, it might not be available yet, but it was already recorded. To divulge a secret and let you in on a spoiler, this is a truly great song and gives me more reason to think they aren't yet ready to turn in the towel. This is by no means re-hash of "Fragile", "Close to the Edge", or "Owner of a Lonely Heart". It's fresh and even after all this time; it seems these guys are still progressing.

Afterwards, they appropriately went back in time, but instead of returning to the present, they went to the distant past. They ruminated in nostalgia and played three sixties songs. As far back as they took us, they actually sounded brand-new. I'd venture to guess, they didn't sound this way back then. The new instruments and embellishments over time must have really exaggerated the sound.

For this trip down memory lane, they chose "Grounded," "Flowerman," and "14-Hour Technicolor Dream." They dedicated this portion of the concert to their fallen comrade, the original keyboardist of the group, Andrew Jackman. They referred to him as a great musician, music-mind, and friend. I have heard the members of Yes and Genesis referred to as the fathers of progressive rock. They said he was the grandfather of the genre. During this segue, they reminisced and joked about how Chris was once "this" high then just like that they started with "Grounded." They performed these songs as a medley without stopping in between. While they were separate songs, it was a very smooth blend.

"Flowerman" climbed into the conservatory. With a green thumb, these expert landscapers really made the garden grow. I had penchant and predilection for this piece as it tuned in clearly to all my preset radio stations. For this reason, I'd say it was my favorite song of the concert. It had insightful lyrics and intellectual harmonies. While the head coach of The Flower Kings was busy in another continent, Steve Nardelli was a suitable stand-in. In this sixties struggle for civil liberties, he led his troupe to victory. Guiding these melodic maestros; it was as if he was Roine Stolt that night. However, he didn't speak like someone from Sweden, because he originates from London. As one would presume he spoke and sang with a strong English accent.

In "14-Hour Technicolor Dream" Alan snapped a few heads by performing a drum fill that closely imitated and paid homage to Keith Moon. It's an interesting take on another legend. I was told by fans seated around me that these musicians really admired The Who and with songs like this, it was plainly obvious.

After the medley, Steve adorned an acoustic guitar. It's at this point the music was put on pause. While Steve was prepping and the technicians helped the others to tweak their instruments, Chris entertained the audience with a long story. After all the hoopla, they jumped right back into the music. In a flash, they finally came upon the acoustic song. Steve said it was called "21st Century." He kidded that it was originally called "20th Century" back when it was written, but they wanted to update the title to make it timely. Like before, it too had a Magnification vibe about it. The song promoted peace and to support the premise, Steve referred to it as their protest song.

"City of Dreams" came next and it's a song that shows them in all their Yes glory. It's the first time in concert that Chris plays the bass as a lead instrument. It was one of their better songs and a real sight to see Chris run through the chords in this one. It seems the concert was building up to stronger numbers. This alone was proof as to why you should see this band live and not just think of them as a side project. Like the passages from "Close to the Edge" where Jon sings, "I get up, I get down" we get more clichéd lyrics. I recall hearing Steve say with furious fondness, "Always remember, we are members of the human race." It presented a feel good sensation and the way it was delivered, it didn't have to be poetry to have true impact. To share even more commonality with Yes, there was an "open your eyes" reference in this song. They took it one step further and asked the listener to open their minds as well as their heart. They sung about how dreams come true and told us someday we'll arrive at the city of dreams. I talk about the lyrics, because it resulted in one silly comment. They cited that this place, this city where all your dreams come true, is Milwaukee. While it's an amusing remark, as Funkyzeit Mit Bruno would say in D Ali G Show, "I zon't zink zo!" The city they passed through is far from utopian and I have no explanation what would prompt such a silly statement as the tour didn't just come from Cleveland (to any residents who take offense, disregard my disapproval and replace it with Gary, Indiana). Then again, I'm sure like Madlibs, it's just plug-and-play depending on where they find themselves.

I hardly have any complaints about the show, but if I had to come up with one point of criticism, it would be this one petty glitch. During "The Promise," which was what came next, an annoying light danced around the ceiling. While it was a distraction, I wasn't sidetracked with it too long. The music was so energizing and engaging it zoned me into a distant place, bringing about an out-of-body experience. Gerard personified Rick Wakeman in this song. Like Depardieu, he had poise and oozed of self-assurance, but unlike the actor, his face was expressionless. Shane played along with Chris in the grooviest of solo sections. These shared moments that bordered on the psychedelic. Following the absorbing numbers that were previously mentioned, this was as sticky as glue. After being served a whopper combo with cheese, this was the prize in the happy meal. There were many solos compounded by a risky whirligig of runaway rides. This song was ultra-progressive, but like a goopy pop song, it had a unyielding build-up suspended above the bridge. They are not only great musicians technically, but good songwriters as well. This cut in particular was politically-charged and profound. They broke down the walls with free-spirited lyrics. It's interesting, how they have captured and interpreted the current times. They stood up and delivered, making good on their pledge. The finger man from Ramón Menéndez' dramatic comedy would be without words in response to their resourceful rhetoric. Not to mention, this track had quite the potent finish. For some reason, it reminded me of "We Agreed" from Magnification. It declared a treaty and emanated a sense and independence. The waiting is over, freedom is for everyone. With the compassionate king's crowning coronation, the completion of the celebration came with a series of superfluous sound bites. With this, eyebrows rolled, grimaces surfaced, and bodies squirmed to realign their position. I heard many say they thought the quips and clips at the end were quite witty.

After a bunch of rambunctious songs, they said their thank you's and quickly got off stage. As you may have guessed, they got a standing ovation. In effect, you could say an encore was expected. With all the anticipation, they didn't fail to liberate and inspire the people. They came out quickly and performed one last number. Steve, the funny man as it seemed, joked that it was nice to be back and with that, they chose "Golden Age" as the encore.

All in all, it was a great experience. I have one final point to make and then I'll leave you to chew on this excessive amount of cud. I recall not getting into Tales from Topographic Oceans after many numerous attempts in my past. Mark says if I have to spin that until I'm 60 before I get into it then do it. I intended to play it when I got home. As I write these concert memoirs, I'm playing through the album. I have a new appreciation for it as a result of the concert. The Syn seemed to bridge the gap that night. If you enjoy The Who, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and needless to say, Yes, check out their new album and if we're blessed with another tour, do not miss it!

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