Sonic Perspectives

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THE NEAL MORSE BAND on Tour: By Land and By Sea

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A Great Adventure can take place in any setting, as the Neal Morse Band is quickly discovering. They essentially began their current tour by performing on Cruise to the Edge’s 5-day progressive rock cruise…not a bad way to begin the 7-week tour that remained after they disembarked in Tampa. Their brand new double-album The Great Adventure was released only a week before the first live show, but already it has been earning accolades to rival previous double-album The Similitude of a Dream. In this article, we’ll be looking at the different dynamics encountered while performing on Cruise to the Edge (CTTE) vs. at their show in Orlando immediately afterwards.

The new double-album The Great Adventure picks up where its predecessor The Similitude of a Dream left off, and likewise the new tour is made out of the same cloth as that which came before it. For all fans of Similitude, this is good news…they already know to expect an evening of the entire new release played in full, including an intermission and followed by an encore. For the band this is good news, too: Morse himself has stated on multiple occasions that the Similitude material was so special that it basically carried itself live on stage, exuding a magic and ease that he had not experienced before. Thus, hopes have been high that The Great Adventure will deliver with the same grace and impact

The shows on CTTE encountered an interesting twist: the band would not be able to play their usual 2+ hour concert in one run, but rather had to split it up into two different shows of about 90 minutes each. Furthermore, the first show would be on dry land as they headlined the official “pre-cruise concert party” the night before the ship left, while the second show would be a couple of days into the Cruise while out to sea on the outdoor Pool Stage. This led to a creative decision needing to be made: if you play one album at the first show but still have another half-hour allocated in your set, do you play the “encore material” for the entire show after just the first album of The Great Adventure has been played? That’s kind of awkward. Instead, the band wisely chose to OPEN the entire concert by playing the “encore material” first, followed by the first album of The Great Adventure. Thus, ironically we begin our review with the encore first.

If you’re still hoping for no spoilers before seeing the tour yourself, you can stop reading now (though why would you have read this far, anyway?). As many have already heard, the encore is a 22 minute medley of material from every previous Neal Morse album, played in chronological order. This brilliant idea came from Mike Portnoy who tasked Bill Hubauer to come up with an initial potential sequence which was then fine-tuned by the band. Starting poignantly with Neal on acoustic guitar for “The Land of Beginning Again” and ending with the climax of Similitude for the “Long Day Reprise”, the Morse-medley is bookended by strong emotions. In between, the band focuses on many of the harder-edge rocking songs to keep the momentum going through the entire piece. The payoff for the audience is huge: they get to experience the joy of walking down memory lane via this retrospective, while neatly tying together many of the steps that have brought the band to where they ultimately stand after completing two triumphant double albums. Accompanied by dazzling video images of previous album covers, there’s a celebratory nature of nostalgia evoked by this encore that unites the audience and band even more effectively than any encore has previously achieved.

So you may be wondering, how does an encore like this work if it actually starts the concert? Brilliantly. From the moment Neal walks on the stage by himself with his double-necked acoustic guitar singing, “I wish there was a way to start again…”, the order of everything falls into place and all seems right in the world. What’s more, the closing of the encore obviously leads perfectly right into the start of the “Overture” of The Great Adventure, making it seem that the encore medley perhaps truly belongs at the start of the show rather than at the end. Whether or not the Cruise to the Edge audience will be the only ones to experience the show in this order remains to be seen, but it is reassuring to know that the evening works seamlessly either way.

Onto The Great Adventure itself! Having only played one warmup show in Nashville the night before, it is remarkable to take in just how cohesive the show already feels and how tight the band is. The overall tenor of the show is very similar to Similitude (shall we say “similaritude”?) with the stage layout, videos and band delivery all offering a perfect continuation from the previous tour. Morse delves further into his characters with costume changes such as in portraying the abandoned son on “Welcome to the World”. The steam-punk vibe is still present in this setting, and Christian Rios’ video production on the backing screen has several powerful moments that add a further richness to the performance on stage. Even though the band is only performing one album tonight, a full-course meal is fully on display: the intensity of “Dark Melody”, the adrenaline of “I Got to Run”, the celebration of “The Great Adventure”, the loathing of “Venture in Black”, the care-free attitude of “Hey Ho” and the emotion of “Beyond the Borders”. Each band member clearly makes their mark, from Gillette’s fret-board wizardry to Hubauer’s high vocals and searing organ to George’s and Portnoy’s solid rhythmic foundation with plenty of flourishes and ornamentation. This is a united 5-piece, but Morse himself is undeniably front and center as the main character, reveling in the many emotions that the material affords him. The audience is on their feet, as this is one of the few shows on the tour where chairs are not an option, and they match the band’s level of enthusiasm and joy.

Album Two gets its airing two days later on board the Brilliance of the Seas during a late afternoon show outdoors on the Pool Stage. Given the unique setting, this set will also be quite different from most other performances later on the band’s tour. Some of the immediacy of an indoor show is lost, but the large stage gives Neal ample room to run around and connect with the crowd, singing into his wireless head mic. Although chairs are present this time, nearly all of the crowd near the stage remains standing throughout the show, lending it a true festival atmosphere. The band comes out and launches into “Overture 2”, Gillette and Hubauer trading solo’s and wasting no time in engaging the crowd. The shredding goes up a notch during “Fighting with Destiny” before Morse gets to have some pompous fun with “Vanity Fair”, decked out in an outrageous outfit that probably is a little harder to wear in this afternoon heat. Everyone gets in on the vocal delivery, with even Randy George having his cameo vocal moment in “Vanity Fair”. When Portnoy takes the lead vocals in songs like “Welcome to the World 2”, Hubauer supports with higher backing vocals for a winning arrangement. “The Great Despair” is clearly a highlight of the show, with Morse’s slide guitar and Gillette’s vocals delivering a punch before Gillette takes it home with a killer guitar solo. This intensity continues throughout “Freedom Calling” with multiple solo’s including prime spots for Portnoy’s relentless drumming. By the time we reach the emotional climax of “A Love that Never Dies”, something really hits Morse deeply. Never one to shy away from crying on stage, he seems more moved and sheds more tears during this piece than usual (and more so than at the Orlando show a few nights later) and that atmosphere stays with him throughout the encore. Yes, after Gillette beautifully brings “A Love that Never Dies” to an emotional close with his vocals and guitar playing, the band returns by playing The Great Medley again, this time in its proper spot at the end of the show, closing with the equally emotional “Long Day Reprise”. By the end of that double-whopper of finale’s, it’s not just Morse who is left bleary-eyed…most of the crowd are wiping tears from underneath their sunglasses, hugging each other and looking completely spent from the emotional delivery they have just witnessed

In contrast, Orlando’s The Abbey venue is not a large concert hall by any stretch. Rather, a small stage which just barely fits the band stands in front of a narrow room of folding chairs. Before long the place is completely packed with fans and Rich Mouser at the mixing board is transforming the small venue into a premier sound room. The  Neal Morse Band has never played in Orlando before, but people have come from all parts of Florida to see this show, along with several who just disembarked from the Cruise in Tampa earlier that morning. It’s not surprising that witnessing the entire double-album played in one evening does much more justice to the concept and the overall concert experience than the staggered shows on the Cruise did. And unlike a diverse festival crowd, everyone in attendance tonight is here precisely for one reason: to celebrate the music of the quintet and specifically their latest release. Even though that album is less than two weeks old, a good number of fans have apparently already digested it sufficiently to be able to sing along on the choruses, air drum with Portnoy at the right moments, and give their rapturous applause on cue. Still, it’s one thing to enjoy a studio album, and another to see how it translates live. The band has done a superlative job at recreating this music in a live setting without backing tracks. Most apparent are the vocals. When the 4-part harmonies resolve from a suspended chord at the end of “I Got to Run”, there is an audible gasp from the collective audience. Likewise, when Hubauer takes the lead vocals in “To the River”, the crowd erupts in applause, similar to their response for Gillette in other sections. There is no doubt in any one’s mind that this is a collective band, each member being beloved in their own right. George seems to have amp’d up his playful facial expressions and engagement with the audience while his fingers deftly cover bass runs and lock in the rhythm. Portnoy is always on fire, whether in his intricate drumming, his singing lead on several songs, urging on the crowd at key moments, or just taking in the grandeur of the event like a proud parent. As mentioned before, the mix from Mouser is superlative, it would be surprising if this venue ever sounded so good with a band of this size. With only a brief intermission, the band take us on their journey which is still over much too soon. It feels like the crowd is ready for another album’s-worth of material, and so the encore Medley serves as a worthy vehicle to channel that energy, each snippet eliciting a burst of joy from the crowd and a wide smile from Morse. As Gillette brings the Medley to a triumphant close, the room has been united as one, everyone savoring the shared experience of the evening together.

The Neal Morse Band have a long road in front of them. While 7 weeks may not seem as extensive as many full-time touring bands, this tour is one of the largest ones this band has done yet, which bodes well for their rising popularity. There’s a slight break in between North America and Europe for the band to catch their breath, but surely those tour dates can’t come soon enough for their European fans. What will follow afterwards remains to be seen, though the annual festival Morsefest has announced dates for August 30th & 31st in Nashville…details to come next month. There’s little doubt that this is a Great time to be a fan of this band, and we’re happily along for the Adventure!

Photos courtesy of Mike Savoia. Check out Mike’s work at his Instagram and Facebook page.

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