EVENT RECAP: MORSEFEST Makes UK Debut As NEAL MORSE Shares His Testimony

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Words and photos by Grace Hayhurst

Historically, Morsefest has been hosted annually for over a decade in Tennessee, USA. But in 2023, “the man who puts the Morse into Morsefest” as Mike Portnoy would say, Neal Morse decided with a push from God to take the festival to Europe for the first time, hosting the event inside of the Poppodium Boerderij in the Netherlands.

Now, with another push from God to do it all again, Morse took the show to London, UK. Or more specifically, to Trinity Church in Brentwood, a small village far outside of the major metropolitan area for this two-night spectacle.

Each year, full albums are chosen to perform in full to mark the special occasion to really give the full effect of the stories that Morse tells, particularly so given near every work of his is a concept album. The shows are given the “Morsefest special treatment” with the addition of live brass, choir, strings, and additional percussion.

This year, he chose to bring “Testimony” and “Testimony 2” to the table. A pair of albums that share much of Morse’s life journey, his joys in moving closer to God, as well as highlighting various difficult sections of his life struggling to find work, but also sharing more incredible personal anecdotes of family illness – such as with daughter Jayda who was born with a severe heart condition. This is his “Testimony”.

Before we get into the show, however, I believe that It would be disingenuous to talk about Morsefest without mentioning the price of the tickets. Starting with the cheap seats at £200 ($250USD*) which provided a side view of the stage, which wasn’t much of a view at all, up to the standard price of £275 ($350USD*) for a front on view towards the back of the venue, up to the £520 ($663USD*) ticket for the full VIP experience which allowed for a seat in the front few rows right up close to the band, as well as some exclusive VIP merchandise, a two-course meal, and a meet and greet with the band.

*Currency conversions are approximate at the time of writing the article

As a comparison for £267, you could get a weekend ticket to this year’s Download Festival in the UK to see an absurd number of bands of far higher notoriety. Although I do understand this isn’t an entirely fair comparison.

There are a few reasons why the show is as expensive as it is, and I counted at least 25 personnel helping to make the show go on, including the core band. Sound engineers, stage techs, lighting engineers, additional musicians on stage, all of whom have to learn the set in full for a one-date tour – although granted this is now the 3rd time the “Testimony” edition of Morsefest has been performed.

The other thing of note is that the majority of the staff were American, with some musicians from Germany. That’s a lot of flights to pay for, combined with accommodation and transport for the week. With only a few hundred tickets on sale, it’s clear that the economics of the show don’t quite add up, particularly so given the venue was only half sold.

Maybe a larger venue with a lower ticket price, closer to the metropolitan center of London, would have attracted enough people for economics of scale to take effect. And with Morse’s on-stage comment “Believe me, we aren’t doing this for the money”, it seems a real shame that such a spectacular performance was reserved only for those with a high amount of disposable income. And with the festival being far outside of the city, and finishing past midnight, it meant that hotels and car transport were a requirement for attendance. An organizational oversight is maybe an understatement given the plentiful number of venues closer to the center of one of the most populous cities in Europe.

With that out of the way, we can start to dive into the experience of the show – and it truly was a special experience.

Running the show behind the scenes was Joey Pippin, who took to the stage to introduce everyone to the festival. “Neal has been crying all day” he announces, before giving away some raffle items, and subsequently introducing Haken’s Ross Jennings – the musical start to the evening.

In 2021, Jennings released solo album “A Shadow of My Future Self”, from which he performed several songs in an acoustic fashion. Having worked with Morse before on the D’Virgilio, Morse & Jennings project, it seems a natural fit that he would come out and open up the show – even throwing in Haken track “Deathless” for those fans that may not be familiar with his solo record. Although in my opinion, you really should be.

After a short interval, a 2-minute countdown began on the screens behind the stage as a chamber orchestra of musicians assembled including choir, brass, wind, and strings. “Testimony” was about to begin. The band started with “The Land of Beginning Again,” naturally as there are no deviations from the original album order with this performance.

For those unfamiliar with the level of musicianship of this live band, they are truly an incredible spectacle to witness live. Randy George (Bass), Mike Portnoy (Drums), Bill Hubauer (Keys), and Eric Gillette (Guitars) all provide performances that surpass the peaks of your typical prog rock players. They are not just technical players, but all round entertainers too with backing vocals that intertwine together to create the most soothing of timbres when the harmonies really kick in.

Photo by Grace Hayhurst

Midway through the first half, Morse stated “This is heaven on Earth for me” – and you can clearly see that in his performance. He’s incredibly excitable, jumping around the stage and creating a spectacle of his music. Not just playing the notes.

Some of the AI-generated backing visuals were a bit of a turnoff during the performance, but there were other more meaningful art pieces being shown throughout on screens behind the stage. Collages of Morse’s life including photos of him on tour, with friends, family members, and more, made the performance much more personal.

In “Break of Day,’ we are provided with an incredible viola solo from the backing chamber orchestra – which really does make this performance special. Being able to hear all of the nuanced parts from the original record live, not to a click.

Photo by Grace Hayhurst

After a short intermission between acts, the entire band sees an outfit change from black to white, which can only be interpreted as seeing the light of God, as the lyrics on the record describe.

One highlight from this half has to be yet another viola solo where he played the same passage over and over again getting faster each time. And just to really show off, George does the same on his bass much to the entertainment of the crowd.

During “Rejoice,” we start to see a standing ovation at this seated concert with audience members all over standing up, singing, and clapping along to the music. We’re almost at the end of the record, and hearing all of this music played to an incredibly high standard, possibly for the last time ever, can you blame anyone for being overwhelmed at this moment?

The band thanked everyone for coming along, and implored that those coming to the Inner Circle show the following day get there bright and early for the 11 AM start!

Now, what is the Inner Circle show? The Inner Circle is a fan club started by Neal Morse to give fans exclusive access to demos, recordings, updates, and more for a monthly membership fee. As I wasn’t a member, I didn’t attend this event – and nor did any other regular concert ticket holders as they weren’t permitted to partake. However, I did hear that a number of stripped-down acoustic tracks were performed, including Spock’s Beard numbers “Open Wide the Flood Gates”, and “Wind at My Back.”

Photo by Grace Hayhurst

Onwards then, to night two. With no support on offer, the band took to the stage immediately opening with “The Healing Colors of Sound.” A Spock’s Beard epic from the 1999 album “Day for Night” which was a delightful throwback to eras of music’s past, and interesting to see the backing bands take on the various parts remaining faithful to the original whilst still bringing their own personalities into the performance.

Portnoy takes over the mic to let the audience know that despite his return to Dream Theater, “We will do it all again”, referring to performing more in the future with the Neal Morse Band. A relief for many I’m sure as Portnoy has been an integral part of the band’s live performances and studio recordings for many years.

Jennings then made a surprise return to the stage, joining in to sing on “Supernatural,” a bonus track from “Testimony 2.” He breathes life into the song, dueting with Morse much to the joy of the audience.

Finishing up with the final bonus track from “Testimony 2”, “Seeds of Gold,” this 26-minute track keeps the band on their toes. Toward the end of the track Morse and Gillette trade guitar solos back and forth before merging into unison for a passionate performance.

Photo by Grace Hayhurst

The format was once again the same, with a full performance of the main disc of “Testimony 2” with no deviations or alterations. Although this evening sans brass band. You could tell straight away that it was going to be an emotional performance for the band, not only not knowing when they’d next play together on stage, but if they would play the music from the Testimony albums again in full.

And the audience started to cry almost just as much as Morse during track “Jayda.” A story from Morse’s personal life about his daughter being incredibly unwell during infancy, and having a hole in her heart. It goes that Morse’s wife led her congregation in prayer to pray for the safe healing of daughter Jayda and that the next time she was taken to the hospital, they couldn’t find the hole in her heart.

They searched and they searched
But found nothing wrong
‘Cause they couldn’t find the hole

Other personal highlights from this evening’s performance included “Time Changer”, “The Truth Will Set You Free”, and “Road Dog Blues.” While every song on the record has its own special moments, these three always stand out to me for really showing off the variety in compositional styles that Morse has mastered.

Photo by Grace Hayhurst

The band were just as energetic on the second night, although Morse did have to stop jumping up and down as much at one point to prevent the battery in his wireless pack from falling out. And you could really tell he was conflicted about having to limit his enthusiasm.

The closer to the end of “Testimony 2” that we got, the more emotional everyone in the band got. Portnoy highlighted that he’d never played with anyone else who required a box of tissues on stage, but they were very necessary for Morse as these final few tracks were incredibly moving for him.

As the evening came to a close, the audience was left overjoyed by what they had seen. Discussing how kind members of the crew had been, how welcoming regular Morsefest attendees were, and highlighting various parts of the two evenings’ performances with each other with no universal consensus on what was the best record.

Photo by Grace Hayhurst

However that aside, the musicianship was top-notch throughout the whole weekend – they are an incredible set of musicians that know no technical limits to their playing. The source material is accessible, full of variety, moving, and musical. I can say with certainty that it was nothing but a treat to see these performers come together again, accompanied by a chamber orchestra, and put on a truly special performance for the small audience that did get together the money to witness this unique event.

May we all have the opportunity to witness Neal Morse and his band come together again in the future.

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