“Hello Morsefest! Wow! It keeps getting better! We never think it can get any better and then it does!” Neal Morse is radiantly beaming as he stands on the stage’s catwalk and greets the audience. It’s a half-hour into the final performance of the double-concept album of The Great Adventure, and the first natural break in the music where he can address the crowd. While it might sound like he is boasting, his words carry humility, amazement, delight. And truth. Indeed, after a run of five previous Morsefest weekends, this moment feels like the brightest and boldest yet.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to the beginning. The weekend music festival known as Morsefest was first suggested by the pastor at Morse’s church near Nashville, the site where he embraced a path of Christianity many years earlier. Although Morse was reluctant to take up the suggestion, and even more hesitant to name it after himself despite Mike Portnoy’s prodding, eventually he was won over by the prospect of performing his album One from start to finish for the first time. Each subsequent year has seen him and the Neal Morse Band performing entire albums from his catalog, or introducing unreleased material like last year’s Jesus Christ the Exorcist, or having special guests from other parts of his career like Spock’s Beard. As the ambitions in production have grown each year, likewise the sense of “fellowship” among the audience has deepened at the same time. Happily, although the setting is a church and many in the crowd are Christians, the main glue holding it all together is love for the music which leads to a welcoming spirit for followers of any faith or of none. For those who can’t make the trek to Nashville, the weekends are professionally filmed and recorded, released the following year in Blu-ray and DVD sets, sometimes with lavish art book packaging. The whole scope of the festival has grown organically without a long-term vision. Indeed, at the conclusion of each weekend Morse himself has never been sure if there will be another one the following year… until now. This year is the first time they have confidently mentioned that there will be another one in 2020, and that it will be one “you won’t want to miss!”. If that’s the case, the words of a certain sea captain come to mind: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” And no, I’m not referring to Noah.
For all intents and purposes, this Morsefest is sold out for the first time ever. What that means isn’t exactly clear – more chairs always seem to be able to be added for the 1,000 or so people who can squeeze into this hall – but there is no doubting that the lines to get in have never been this long, and that the fever pitch of excitement has never been this high. Which is saying a lot, considering what’s gone on here in the past such as the only U.S. performance of the Spock’s album Snow. The Friday night concert is usually smaller than Saturday night but this year is an exception as the first performance of the band Flying Colors in nearly five years is about to take place and the crowd is bursting at the seams. Opening artist Randy McStine takes the stage armed only with an acoustic guitar which belies his far-reaching talent on a variety of instruments, not the least of which is his searing lead electric playing. But tonight we’ll just get his passionate lead vocals over the six acoustic strings, which is pleasure enough for a half-hour set. McStine takes a brave approach by playing a set comprised of nearly all brand new material: 6 songs played continuously as a 25-minute “suite”, followed by a “mini-Ted Talk” about the elements of his life that have brought him here today. Many of these new songs are available for individual purchase on his Bandcamp page, but they are likely new tonight to most concert-goers’ ears. The aggressive “Bottom Feeder Blues” comes off convincingly in solo format, “Idle” features transcendent vocals and glistening chordal changes, and his ambient looping experiment “Skrol” intrigues many in the audience. Indeed, at the break Bill Hubauer goes in search of McStine to share how much he loved the set.
Friday night headliner Flying Colors are in the curious position of debuting material from an album that hasn’t yet been released. In light of of that, they choose to play only 3 songs from the upcoming Third Degree which is somewhat of shame given how strong the rest of the album is, but they reportedly plan on adding more songs from it once the release date in October has passed. Fair enough, and that leaves plenty of time for a wide range of songs from the first two Flying Colors albums which will leave everyone satisfied. Mike Portnoy and Dave LaRue take the stage first, getting the rhythm of the train in motion as “Blue Ocean” comes into view. It’s a fabulous opener as one by one the rest of the band join in, from Steve Morse’s concise guitar riffs to Neal Morse’s response on keys to Casey McPherson’s lyrical entrance of “In a momentary place, it was written on the wall, but it never really came to us at all.” By the time the band reach the chorus, it is clear that Flying Colors is back. The band have released two singles from the new album by this time, so they are sure to include these for the sake of audience familiarity. But there are also benefits to performing at Morsefest: “More” gets an added boost literally by having a horn and string section join them for the performance which makes the live debut of this song extra special. “You Are Not Alone”, the ballad from the forthcoming album, is given extra gravitas as it is revealed that the subject matter involves Casey’s efforts to rescue people from their flooded homes during the Harvey hurricane, as a personal video of those events is played behind the band during the performance. Casey is quick to share that in the light of such events, all divisions of color, political affiliation and economics fall away and we are left with raw humanity. The impending approach of hurricane Dorian only amplifies the message.
The band choose to feature several of their longer songs, with the masterful “Infinite Fire”, “Cosmic Symphony” and new mini-epic “Crawl” all getting airings. Steve Morse is in fine form, exuding mastery and humility at the same time. He seldom engages the audience visually, but stays focused on his instrument at hand and we are all the richer for it. Casey sounds spot on, although he struggles a little with a certain range of high notes in the first half of the concert, occasionally not having any sound reaching the microphone. But by the time “Peaceful Harbor” is played he is fully warmed up and hits each falsetto flawlessly. After inviting the crowd to join in on various harmonies, the Morsefest choir of six women on the stage bring the song to new heights for a highlight of the show. Powerful renditions of “Kayla”, “Forever In a Daze” and “The Storm” also dazzle, among others. Neal Morse may not be at the center of the action for this evening, but he is joyously grinning throughout the night during his own spotlighted sections and also while reveling in Casey’s delivery. Indeed, the whole band seems to be cheering for Casey which is quite sweet given that he starts off early in the concert by saying, “Well, they haven’t fired me yet.” He may be the youngin’ in the band but the sense of camaraderie and support is palpable. Upon closing with a blistering “Mask Machine” the Morsefest audience cheer loudly and can only wish that Flying Colors were more active on the touring circuit. It’s a grand performance and debut show for their short tour which has scattered dates through December.
Night two carries an equally – if not even stronger – fevered pitch amongst the crowd as they line up before the show. Unfortunately a delayed sound check keeps the queue in an anxious and overly-heated state as everyone awaits the opening of the doors for the general-admission seated show. But as the first notes of The Steve Morse Band hit their ears, all previous discomforts are forgotten. It’s been seven years since this band has played together, but they agreed to offer a short opening set at Neal’s specific request, with Morse and LaRue being joined by long-time drummer Van Romaine. Steve Morse wryly comments that he felt he had to accept Neal‘s invitation to play, given that Neal named the festival after him. (In case you are wondering, there’s no relation between the two Morses) Their high energy set is immediately embraced by the crowd, starting off with “Collateral Damage”, “Name Dropping” and then a gorgeous “Vista Grande”. For those who haven’t heard Steve play this kind of material previously, they quickly realize that there’s a whole lot mor(s)e to him than just his role in Flying Colors. The band brings out Bill Hubauer to join them on keys for a track they’ve never played live before, “Long Lost” which also was a request from Neal, followed by the rocker “Simple Simon”. Closing with the Dixie Dregs classic “Cruise Control”, the band leaves the crowd in a frenzied state. Steve’s smile is wide, while LaRue and Romaine seem thrilled to have the power trio back together. May this inspire them to go on to future endeavors!
Two years earlier Morsefest featured the final performance of double concept album The Similitude of a Dream. It was a grand sendoff for an incredibly important album in The Neal Morse Band’s career. This year the final performance of The Great Adventure awaits. One might wonder what the big deal is, given that the band had already toured these albums across the States and Europe previously and in fact most of the people in the audience have probably attended one of those shows. The answer is revealed on two levels: the Morsefest experience does include many added bells and whistles, both literally and figuratively: there is a six piece horn section, string section, timpani and choir who flesh out the sonic experience and bring the material to new heights. But equally important is the setting, the vibe and the audience themselves who are there for their love of all things Morse. Neal does indeed get to preach to the choir at these shows, but the impact would be overwhelming to just about anyone who walked through the doors. The results are the finest concerts of the band’s career, being meticulously recorded for all of those unable to attend. With Rich Mouser at the controls of the mixing board, impactful video images created by Christian Rios, and a spot-on lighting show, the band are going to sound and look fantastic. The very fact that many audience members already know the music – and even the live show – inside and out makes for an even more thrilling delivery as it’s performed for its final time. And so it goes for The Great Adventure. From the opening lines of “To be the completed man…” to the rapturous instrumental “Overture” to the live cello in “The Dream Isn’t Over” to the anthemic “Welcome to the World” with the crowd belting out the chorus to the sinister “Dark Melody” with Eric Gillette’s none-more-guitar-hero solo performed on one knee on the cat walk to the explosive “I Got to Run”, to the enigmatic “To the River”, the performance is one of the band’s most powerful. By the time Morse exclaims “Hello Morsefest!” at the end of “To the River”, we feel that surely we’ve just witnessed one of the best concerts of our lives. The fact that we’re not even done the first album yet is nearly unfathomable.
Nevertheless, the band indeed continues to play on. Don’t try to lay no boogie woogie on these kings of rock and roll. The title track has never sounded more exalted, replete with scorching keyboard solos and a cherished cameo from…a whistle brought from the UK. Portnoy’s delightfully loathsome delivery of “Venture in Black” is punctuated by the string section adding a deeper dimension, as does the video images projected on the screen behind. Hubauer shines frequently on vocals, none more so than on “Beyond the Borders” which brings the first set to an emotional close. The audience takes a few minutes to catch their breath before the second half begins with a second Overture and a new series of clever songs. Some of the highlights include the playful “Vanity Fair” complete with costumes and Randy George’s unique vocal interjection, the epic “The Great Despair” featuring killer solos from Morse and Gillette alike, Portnoy’s percussive onslaught during “Freedom Calling” and the triumphant denouement “A Love That Never Dies” that leaves tears in most of the audience’s eyes along with cries of delight for an encore. It is indeed the most fitting closure of this chapter in the band’s life imaginable. But wait…there’s more! How can there be more? There’s so much more. A pre-recorded video plays on the screen of Neal Morse music video snippets, going back in time with dramatic speed until the screen goes black. In what is likely their finest achievement of an encore, the band then returns with a 25 minute medley that serves up an excerpt from every Neal Morse album starting with Morse coming on stage strumming an acoustic guitar to sing “The Land of Beginning Again” from Testimony. It’s perhaps an even more emotional rendering than when he played it at the very first Morsefest in 2014. The band joins him as they offer highlights from each album, the crowd swooning as every new excerpt is revealed, until they finally reach the closing song from Similitude: “Long Day Reprise”. It’s one of the most emotional pieces of his career and with Gillette’s guitar and voice leading the way, we experience it together, one more time. The audience appears fully satiated after the band’s final bow, indeed it is hard to imagine how the performance could have gone any better than this. What began as an experiment in 2014 has developed into one of the most impactful experiences imaginable for fans of this music.
It should be noted that there are other features to the weekend in addition the evening shows. For members of Neal’s “Inner Circle” club he offers an hour-long midday concert which changes format each year. This time the theme is “A Year In The Life of Neal Morse” which debuts 6 or 7 songs never heard before, largely in the style of his Life + Times acoustic release and played here with a small band accompanying him which includes Bill & Randy. It’s been a big year for the Morse family with both kids getting married (!), the passing of Neal’s mother-in-law and other life events serving as the inspirations for these new songs. They open with Spock’s “All On a Sunday” and close with the upbeat “Love Has Called My Name”. There also are VIP meet and greets with all band members that happen throughout the afternoons, and some late night partying and karaoke singing for those who wish to partake. All in all, it’s a glorious weekend which the Morse-faithful will undoubtedly continue to look forward to each year. And when Neal elatedly welcomes the crowd in 2020 and inevitably declares that it’s the best year ever…he probably will be right.