The Neal Morse Band – Alive Again and On Tour

Alive Again

Last Night in Nashville, TN, The Neal Morse Band kicked off their tour in support of their new album, The Grand Experiment. Performing in the intimate confines of Rocketown to a very enthusiastic audience, Neal and his cohorts tore through an energetic set that lasted more than 2 hours and included some surprises in the set list.

They got things started with the a cappella opening to “The Call”, with every band member nailing his vocal part perfectly. Eric Gillette, a veteran from the Momentum tour, is on lead guitar, while Bill Hubauer (another Momentum vet) plays keyboards, clarinet, and sax. Of course, no Morse band would be complete without longtime collaborators Randy George on bass and Mike Portnoy on drums. I brought a friend with me to the show, and he was blown away by Mike’s performance, saying, “I haven’t seen anyone play drums like that since Keith Moon!” Eric was incredible throughout the show, singing occasional lead vocals and playing some absolutely shredding guitar. Bill’s instrumental and vocal versatility give the band almost two musicians in one person, and Randy George holds it all together with his fluid bass runs. As Neal proclaimed at one point, “Randy with the bass pedal solo – how prog is that!”

The band played every song from The Grand Experiment except (surprisingly) “Agenda”. Highlights included Neal playing a beautiful instrumental on acoustic guitar that led into “Waterfall”, as well as the Kings-X-sounding title track. They also played “Into the Fire” from ?, “The Creation” from One, and they got a roar of approval when the intro to “In Harm’s Way” (from Neal’s Spock’s Beard days!) boomed out.

This being the first gig of the tour, there were some inevitable glitches, but Neal took them in stride – even stopping “The Grand Experiment” to restart a tricky vocal section. The audience loved it, and once they were back on track, they never looked back.

There are few performers who can connect with their audience the way Neal does – conducting them during singalongs, raising his arms in appreciation, and even jumping off the stage to sing and play among them. He and the entire band gave all they had, every minute. As my friend exclaimed to me in the middle of a song, “It sure is nice to see a band just having a great time playing together!”

Neal asked if we could handle “one more epic” (of course we could), and then launched into “Alive Again”. Neal has written many, many epics, and this one is near the top. It rocks, it soars, it ebbs, and just when you think it’s over, it comes roaring back for an incredible finale.

As far as the encores, I won’t be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that there are some really fun surprises, both in terms of performance and song selection!

It’s been said (I have no idea if it’s true) that Keith Richards was once asked what it was like to be the world’s greatest rock and roll band. He replied that on any given night, there was a band playing in a club, somewhere, and for that night they were the world’s greatest rock and roll band. Last night, Rocketown hosted the world’s greatest.

You can get details of the rest of the Alive Again Tour at Radiant Records. Don’t miss this one.

Update: I mentioned above that “Alive Again” is one of Neal’s best epics. Actually, all of the songs on The Grand Experiment are a group effort, and Neal, Mike, Randy, Eric, and Bill all deserve credit for them.

 

Mass x Velocity = Band on Fire

Live MomentumHot on the heels of his Live Momentum Tour, Neal Morse has released a 5-disc set (3 CDs, 2 DVDs) that is a worthy alternative for those of us who didn’t get a chance to see this band live. You always get your money’s worth when Neal is involved, and this release is no exception. The DVDs (available in Blu-ray, as well) and CDs document the entire 3-hour set, and what a performance it is!

Recorded and filmed in HD on October 11, 2012, at the Highline Ballroom in New York City, Neal and the band turn in an incredibly tight, high-energy set for an enthusiastic audience. Neal’s long-time collaborators Mike Portnoy (drums) and Randy George (bass) are joined by Bill Hubauer (keyboards, violin, sax, vocals), Eric Gillette (guitar, keyboards, vocals), and Adson Sodré (guitar & vocals).

I’ve been a fan of Neal Morse since his days in Spock’s Beard – keeping up with Transatlantic and his solo efforts. He is an amazingly prolific songwriter, but of late his work seemed to be suffering from a “sameness”. Then came last year’s Flying Colors and Momentum albums, where it was clear something lit a roaring fire to his creativity. Momentum is his finest solo work since the Question Mark album.

In the liner notes to this release, Neal mentions that he found Hubauer, Gillette, and Sodré through YouTube auditions, so I before I popped in the first DVD, I was a little apprehensive regarding their ability to keep up with Morse, Portnoy, and George. My fears were completely unfounded, as Adson lays down a jaw-dropping guitar solo in the opening song, “Momentum” (you can see the performance of the song in the promo video below). Eric Gillette shines on guitar, vocals, and keyboards throughout the entire show, and Hubauer adds wonderful depth with his keyboard pyrotechnics and fine violin and sax work.

Basically, what Neal put together is a three-keyboard/three-guitar front lineup that is incredibly versatile. Add in their ability to execute complicated vocal harmonies on songs like “Thoughts Part 5”, and this is one of the best live outfits I’ve ever seen. Mike Portnoy is the hardest working drummer in showbiz, and he is obviously having a blast propelling this group through epic after epic. The avuncular Randy George is the anchor on stage, nimbly laying down rock-solid yet melodic basslines, while eschewing the spotlight.

Neal himself is, of course, the center of attention as he moves back and forth between keyboards and guitar, conducting the band (and the audience) from one emotional peak to another. It’s clear he’s delighted with the tight rapport between himself and the band. They are able to shift from a delicate flamenco-style acoustic interlude to crushing hard rock in the blink of an eye and make it look easy.

The set includes four major epics. “Testimony Suite” clocks in at 21 minutes, and it  includes highlights from Morse’s 2003 album, Testimony. Neal is upfront and open about his Christian faith, and it is a genuinely emotional moment for him as he sings this account of his conversion. “The Conflict (From Sola Scriptura)” is 27 minutes long. Initially, I was put off by Sola Scriptura, but this performance illuminated aspects of it that I hadn’t heard before. It’s a beautiful piece.  “Question Mark Suite”, at 21 minutes, is an outstanding distillation of Neal’s exploration of the symbolism behind the Exodus and the Hebrew Tabernacle. After a change of pace with the relatively brief “Fly High” (I would have preferred something like “Absolute Beginner” here; “Fly High” isn’t that strong a song, IMO), Neal and the band wrap up the show with the 33 minute magnum opus “World Without End” from Momentum. It’s an incredible performance that outdoes the original, and leaves the audience yelling for more.

The band fulfills that request with a three-song encore: “Crazy Horses” (yes, the Osmonds oldie!) sung by Mike Portnoy while Neal takes over the drums; “Sing It High” (which features every member taking a solo turn), and finally, “King Jesus”. As the exhausted musicians leave the stage, you can clearly hear a member of the audience call out, “Neal! Neal! Thank You!”

The second DVD disc includes an hour-plus tour documentary. Beginning with rehearsals in Tennessee, we follow the band from their first show in Nashville on October 2, 2012 (which, to my eternal regret, I had to miss) to their last in Chicago on October 12. In the space of ten days, they perform shows in Nashville, Jacksonville, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, New York City, and Chicago, all the while practicing and continually refining their parts. It’s a marathon run at a sprinter’s pace. There is video footage of every performance, and much of it is quite good. One definitely gets an appreciation for how much hard work and how many hours it takes to make a live performance look easy. As Mike Portnoy says, “This band kicks ass! I mean, the second gig – it’s tight; a really tight second gig.” Neal himself describes them as “A band on fire”. I can’t disagree.

You can order this CD/DVD set direct from Radiant Records.

Here’s the promo video for “Momentum”: