A review of MorseFest, 2015 (Friday night only)
Last Friday, September 4, as soon as I’d finished teaching my freshmen courses on Western Civilization, my wife, Dedra, and I got into the car and drove 8 hours south to Cross Plains, Tennessee, site of MorseFest 2015. We had originally hoped to attend the entire weekend, but family necessities prevented this. We were only going to be able to attend Friday night.
We made it by 7 (aided by a time change, gaining an hour), and found ourselves at a rather nice, contemporary Protestant church, just south of the Kentucky border. Even walking across the parking lot, my wife and I realized this would not be the normal prog crowd. Indeed, a huge variety of peoples was walking into the church—including lots of elderly women, immaculately dressed. We had seen the Neal Morse Band play live in Denver in February to the usual prog crowd of mostly middle aged men.
As we walked into the lobby in Tennesse, we found fellow progarchist, Tad Wert, waiting for us. He’s always a delight, and we thoroughly enjoyed our short time with him.
Ticketed, we took our seats toward the back of the church. The church itself, as mentioned above, was quite nice, and quite comfortable. By the time we sat, it was already mostly full with only the random open chair. The three of us caught up with one another, and I even had a moment to introduce myself to Morse’s manager, Chris Thompson, president of Radiant. I’ve corresponded and talked with Chris for over three years now, but we’d never met in actual person. Lots of folks wanted to meet him, so I just got a quick hello in.
Chris was, frankly, everything I’d expected. As warm and kind as he is proficient. THIS is the man you want by your side, through thick and thin. I already loved the guy, but actually meeting him and getting a rather spontaneous bear hug was one of many highlights of the weekend. I’m truly sorry I didn’t get to spend more time with him. He, of course, had a job to do, and he did it brilliantly. He’s actually fun to watch work, as they guy so expertly takes charge and as a meter for excellence that runs higher than one rarely sees. Thompson is the embodiment of joyful, purposeful intensity.
At 7:30, guitarist Phil Keaggy opened, playing for roughly 45 minutes. I knew of Keaggy by name only, but I found his playing quite good and captivating. He played roughly six songs, including two covers. One cover was of the Beatles and another of Bob Dylan. Keaggy was also quite funny and self-depreciating. Certainly, the audience appreciated his humor and talents. His guitar work, it must be noted, is rich and full bodied. My favorite of his pieces was one called “Salvation Army Band.”
After a fifteen minute break, the Neal Morse Band took the stage, opening with the first two tracks off of THE GRAND EXPERIMENT (Radiant, 2015), “The Call” and “The Grand Experiment.” I had no idea Morse would play these. The bill had advertised the full “?” album (Radiant, 2005), and I’d assumed this would be it. No, I was very wrong. The band’s third track was “Go the Way You Go” by Spock’s Beard. Eric Gillette, an extraordinary talent by any measure, even walked into the audience and played a blistering solo.
As this point, I should note the crowd again. Here, we were. In a contemporary and comfortable Protestant Church. The crowd adored Neal Morse and every member on the stage. This was family, not an audience. Elderly women and men—impeccably dressed—sat throughout the crowd, some in wheel chairs. Kids listened for a while and then slept on the floor. About 1/3 of the crowd raised their hands throughout the concert in what I assume is typical Pentecostal fashion, while another 1/3 head banged. It was incredible. Absolutely incredible. The energy in that room was astounding for the entirety of the concert. Absolutely incredible and astounding! Head-banging Pentecostals.
Our common denominator: we all consider Neal Morse one of the most gifted and charismatic artists on this earth. His talent and his life are, to put it simply, nothing short of infectious.
The next three tracks were “MacArthur Park,” “Whole Nother Trip,” and “New Jerusalem.” The first and third are from the b-side disk of THE GRAND EXPERIMENT, and the middle track was from Morse’s second solo album, way back in the late 1990s.
For me, the highlight of the entire concert was “New Jerusalem.” This is not only my favorite song on THE GRAND EXPERIMENT, it might very well be the finest thing Neal has ever written. I was sorely disappointed the band didn’t play it in Denver, though I’d expected as much. When it began in Cross Plains, I looked to my wife—in utter disbelief—and muttered, “no way.” In fact, it probably took me a full minute to accept the band was playing it.
After these six tracks, the band played the entirety of the 2005 “?” album.
A few thoughts, in no particular order.
- First, as many times as I’ve seen Morse and Portnoy play live, I’ve never seen them play this well. There was nothing but love between the two men, and they so ably led the rest of the band as well as the audience.
- Second, this setting was so intimate, that it was as though Morse had invited five hundred of his closest friends to his living room.
- Third, and equally astounding to the music, was the film and light show. Granted, good Protestant churches know how to do media well. This church was no exception. But, what made it so memorably good was the quality of the film made just for this concert (a one-off, it should be remembered). The visuals were top-notch, Hollywood A-list quality. The overall theme of the accompanying film was neo-psychedelia but carrying with it an intense Christian aura. Imagine Franco Zeffirelli directing Charleton Heston but with Matrix-like special effects and you can somewhat imagine how good the accompanying film and light show were. Kudos to whoever produced this. Chris, was it you?
- Fourth, staging. One of the most interesting things Morse did was add new people to the concert as the music continued. At first, it was just the five members of the Neal Morse Band. Then, slowly, extra guitarists, string players, horn players, a flautist, percussionists, and a choir joined. All of this built up in the first set to the climax with the playing of New Jerusalem. By the end of that song, I couldn’t even count how many people were playing on stage. Overwhelming and wonderfully so.
- Fifth, I loved every moment of “?” I’ve owned and listened to the album since the day it came out. I’m not sure I’d understood it or its immense beauty, however, until seeing it played live. I felt as though I was living for 58 minutes in the heart of a profound mystery with all existential questions being properly answered by love. As with the album, Pastor Steve Farmer (this was in his church) came out and gave a brief homily. It was appropriate and quite moving.
So, in sum: possibly the best prog experience of forty years of prog experiences. I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to attend the rest of the weekend. I won’t make this mistake again. If I could, I’d already order my tickets for the next decade of MorseFests.