The Reverent Prog of Neal Morse: MorseFest 2014

A review of Neal Morse, MorseFest 2014.  Four CDs/Two DVDs.  Radiant Records, 2015.  

Birzer Rating: 11 out of 10 (yes, you read this correctly!)

And if Neal can find God, then what’s in it for me?

Could I take that same road?

Would the truth set me free?

–Andy Tillison, Mr. Prog, 2015.

MorseFest 2014
MorseFest 2014

I am the proud owner of not one but two Neal Morse, MORSEFEST! 2014 six-disc sets.  It’s prog, after all.  Why not go overboard?  Radiant has kindly sent progarchy all releases in, during, and through our three-year old life as a website.  But, Radiant is just such an amazing label, that I refuse not to support them.  For every CD they send me, I buy one from them.  It only seems just.

Before I even begin this review, I have to state two things which I’ve already noted several times on progarchy.  First, Morse has always been a part of my adult life.  I bought THE LIGHT by Spock’s Beard in Bloomington, Indiana, way back in 1994.  I know that the official release date is early 1995, but I’m fairly positive I remember purchasing it the fall semester of 1994.  I am, however, quite certain that I was the first person in Bloomington to buy it.  I could never exaggerate the importance of that album to me.  I had no idea about the neo-prog scene that had begun in 1985 or so, and I had considered lots of what was called New Wave in the 1980s to be the rightful inheritor of 1970s prog.  Music by XTC, Talk Talk, and Tears for Fears struck me as the proper successors.

The first album that made me aware of third-wave prog. Spock's Beard, THE LIGHT.
The first album that made me aware of third-wave prog. Spock’s Beard, THE LIGHT.

Then, after years of waiting patiently, THE LIGHT arrived and just blew me away.  I couldn’t believe anyone was making that type of prog anymore.  I lingered over the music and the lyrics, and I spent nights listening to THE LIGHT with the headphones on.  The members of Spock’s Beard became immediate heroes to me and, especially, Neal Morse.  That “meeting” led to me finding out about Marillion, Roine Stolt, and, ultimately, Transatlantic, Ayreon, The Tangent, and The Flower Kings.

Second, my rather large family loves Morse as much as I do.  I remember how worried I was when I’d heard about Neal Morse becoming a born-again Christian and leaving Spock’s Beard.  I was in shock, fearing that what is now called Third-Wave Prog was dead.  How could prog continue without Morse—who was, to my mind, “Mr. Prog.”

I now happily give that title to the man I quote above, Andy Tillison, but I’ll explain why in a bit.

Testimony (Radiant, 2003). Morse's first post-Spock's Beard solo album.
Testimony (Radiant, 2003). Morse’s first post-Spock’s Beard solo album.

Back to the point.

When TESTIMONY came out, I not only breathed a sigh of immense relief that Morse had continued to carry the prog banner, but I also was floored that he did it so beautifully.  If Spock’s Beard had embraced the dramatic, Morse’s first post SB released embraced well. . . everything.  This wasn’t just dramatic, this was story telling at its highest.  Morse had ascended from playwright to a full-blown bard!  An American prog folk bard at that.

For at least two years, I think (with only slight exaggeration), TESTIMONY was in constant rotation throughout the Birzer home.  As a family, we’ve never been big on TV, but we’ve always loved music.  The story of Neal’s conversion and the recovery of his daughter Jayda became as real and as much a part of my family history as did, say, the stories of Narnia and Middle-earth I was reading to my children.

My kids and I knew all the lyrics (still do), and we ALWAYS danced to Part III of the album.  For some reason, my kids became convinced that all of Part III was the “Batman theme.”  I’m still not sure how this came about, but it was pretty much set in stone.  Neal Morse was Bruce Wayne by day and Batman by night!  Hilarious.

Morse's autobiography.
Morse’s autobiography.

I must also state that though I’ve followed Morse’s career for twenty years now—and rather closely—I’ve never met him, I’ve never corresponded with him, and I’ve never talked with him.  What I know, I know only through his art, his autobiography, and the interviews he’s given.  Still, I can’t separate him or his art from my own adulthood and, more importantly, from my family life.  Probably more than any other musician or act with the exception of Rush, Morse’s music has provided the soundtrack for the Birzer family.

So, long story short, when I heard that Morse would be performing all of TESTIMONY and ONE live for MorseFest 2014, I was not only extremely excited, but I was also equally curious as to how he would make this different from his other releases.  I’m a member of Morse’s Inner Circle, and I own everything he’s ever released commercially and many things he’s released only privately.  I have every package—no matter how grand or small—Radiant has produced, and I’ve never regretted a purchase.

Not surprisingly, Radiant reflects the integrity of its owner and the label never does anything half way.  Perfection radiates from all it does.  As a perfectionist myself, I’m rather taken with fellow perfectionists.  Add in the now-president of Radiant Records, the ever grand, gracious, and wonderful Chris Thompson, and you really do have something incredibly quite special in north-central Tennessee.

So, the question remained, how would Morse take these albums—especially TESTIMONY—which he has already played so often and make it alive again for an audience that knew the story intimately?  After all, no child or family member of any progger is as well known as Jayda.  Her story has become, in many ways, the story of third-wave prog.

Radiant Records. Founded by Neal Morse. Chris Thompson is now president.
Radiant Records. Founded by Neal Morse. Chris Thompson is now president.

Well, let me just be blunt—the story I’ve known and sung to and danced to for 12 years—is just as powerful now as it was in 2003.  I’m not sure how to explain it, but when watching Morse tell the story again on the first night of MorseFest 2014, I was deeply moved. . . yet again.  In part, it’s simply a powerful story—Morse apart from his wife while touring in Europe and getting the news that Jayda’s hole in her heart disappeared after immense prayer.  In equally large part, it’s a powerful story for us because it’s still an utterly powerful story for Morse.  His quite visible emotion as he tells the story again is as vivid as it was twelve years ago.

And, this raises an additional point.  As charismatic as Morse is (and, he IS!), he is equally humble.  It’s a powerful combination for his fans.  Such a wholesome quality is all-too rare in this world of instant gratification and cynical self-promotion.  Whenever something works well for Morse, however, he immediately thanks God and his family and friends.

It’s a truly inspiring witness to goodness and beauty.

I must admit, I get very frustrated when fellow rockers and proggers dismiss Morse as “too religious.”  While I don’t share every aspect of Morse’s faith, I can’t help but be attracted to it.  If Jesus is even half as cool as Morse sees Him, I’m in.  Additionally, how many times have I listened to New Agey lyrics or left-wing politics and accepted them as simply part of the art?  More times than I can count.

As a person who is privileged to teach the history of western civilization every autumn to 18-year old freshmen, I can state with absolute certainty that all of the greatest women and men of western civilization up until that demon Machiavelli used their art as a way to express their religious faith.  This was as true for the pagan Socrates as it was for Michaelangelo.  Historically, it’s been rather difficult to attain the heights that great art demands without a supernatural inspiration.

That said, it should be remembered and noted that Morse performed and recorded MorseFest in his home church, New Life Fellowship.  And, it shows.  Morse is reverent as well as excited.  He’s also—and it took me a few listens and watches to realize this—quite relaxed.  I’ve seen him perform many times live as well on DVD.  If I had a complaint about Morse, it would be that when I’ve seen him live, he’s tended to rush things.  Not much–just a bit.  If this is a real criticism, take it as the weakest criticism ever offered.

MorseFest, New Life Fellowship Church, Cross Plains, Tennessee. MorseFest 2015.
MorseFest, New Life Fellowship Church, Cross Plains, Tennessee. MorseFest 2015.

Now, having watched MorseFest 2014 and having attended MorseFest 2015 (Friday night only, unfortunately), I can state with certainty that Morse doesn’t feel rushed in the least.  In fact, if anything, he was and is so relaxed that he allowed himself to express his own beliefs and convictions as fully as possible throughout the night.

As I mentioned in my review of MorseFest 2015, it was as though Morse had invited his five hundred closest friends into his living room.

And, this leads me to the band.  What more can I state?  The five now full-time members of the Morse band play their hearts out.  George’s lovable unmovable motion, Gillette’s fluid precision, and Hubauer’s intensity all contribute so much to everything Morse does.

But, it’s Portnoy who steals the show (after Morse, of course).  Portnoy.  Portnoy.  What to write?

Photo borrowed from Music Radar. The incredible and unstoppable Mike Portnoy.
Photo borrowed from Music Radar. The incredible and unstoppable Mike Portnoy.

Granted, I’ve been a massive fan of Mike Portnoy since 1992.  And—on a personal note—let me state I’m only about 3 months younger than Portnoy.  We come from the same generation and have the same influences.  Again, as with Morse, I’ve never met, corresponded, or spoken with Portnoy, but I consider him a hero, a Peart-ian figure challenging the static of the present world and doing his own thing, quite successfully at every level.  When Portnoy started playing with Morse in Transatlatnic and on his solo albums, I came to respect the drummer even more.  The two really do complete each other as artists and as friends.  That friendship comes through very beautifully on MorseFest 2014.  It would be difficult to find a more moving moment on the whole set than Portnoy’s profession of his friendship with Morse.  This isn’t spectacle, though a lesser personality would make it so.  This is pure truth and honest revelation.  What’s interesting is that in deferring to Morse, Portnoy becomes all the greater.

The sound, the production, and the packaging of the CDs and DVDs is, of course, perfect.  After all, it’s Radiant.

Whether you own a few Morse releases or almost all of them, MorseFest 2014 is a must own for any lover of prog, rock, or western civilization!  Get it now.  Get it often.  Get it frequently.

Let me finish with this.  Over the past decade, I’ve argue that Neal Morse is “Mr. Prog.”  I realize that title has been given to an Englishman who happened, like Portnoy and myself, to have been born in 1967.  As much as I respect that musician, I strongly disagree with the assessment that he is “Mr. Prog.”  Mr. Grumpy and Reluctant Prog, perhaps, but not Mr. Prog.  Yet, after having met Andy Tillison, I can’t quite give the title to Neal without a slight reservation.  Therefore, I take what Andy wrote on his most recent album quite literally.  And, having affirmed and confirmed my suspicions and inklings while attending MorseFest 2015 regarding this new title, I offer Morse this title: “Reverend Prog.”

The Neal Morse Band, 2015.
The Neal Morse Band, 2015.

3 thoughts on “The Reverent Prog of Neal Morse: MorseFest 2014

  1. I’ve never been much of a “fan” of Dream-Theatre,however………..I’ve ALWAYS respected Mr.Portnoy as a Drummer!!! He’s very unique in his playing,which I find very interesting!!! Anyway,glad he’s part of the Neal-Morse band!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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