By Adam Waldman
There are some shows where your expectations are sky high before you even enter the venue. Knowing the talent in The Neal Morse Band, and The Similtude Of A Dream (the band’s masterpiece concept double album), the expectations for this show were as high as they were for any other show that I’ve attended in recent memory. Before the first song was over, and long before Morse ever addressed the crowd directly, I knew that this was going to be a night where the high bar that was set would be cleared with room to spare.
One of the things about live music shows that I’ve always enjoyed is the chance to experience the studio recordings of songs in a different way. With rare exception, that usually means accepting the imperfections that inevitably crop up during a concert. I’ve attended shows where the songs sounded so much like the record that they ended up feeling sterile, but that was not the case here.
It is said that there’s no such thing as perfection. I’m sure that Morse and his band of virtuosos (Eric Gillette – guitars and vocals, Bill Hubauer – keyboards and vocals, Randy George – bass, and of course, the inimitable Mike Portnoy on drums and vocals) probably could point out a flaw or two, but for those of us in attendance, this show was perfect.
You couldn’t design a better venue than the Highline Ballroom in NYC for a musical theater show like this. Yes, others may call this a concert, but to do so wouldn’t do it justice. This was a theatrical experience, a rock opera that didn’t need any fancy stage set-up, costumes or intricate lighting.
The screen behind the band provided all of the complementary footage necessary, but it was Morse’s charismatic, captivating persona that carried the story and left you so fixated on him that you had to force yourself to look away to make sure to soak in all of the musical brilliance on one stage. Aside from the screen behind the band, the only other obvious theatrical accoutrement was Morse’s two hooded shirts (one black, one white). When he needed to draw attention to himself for the purposes of the story, he did so with a small flashlight under his chin, the same way that people telling ghost stories around a campfire would do.
Sometimes less is more. Morse didn’t need anything else to mesmerize the crowd and work them with the mastery of an orchestra conductor. The Highline Ballroom features different levels of dining room style seating, with only a moderate amount of standing room. The venue was filled to capacity (approx. 700 people), which may seem small, but the energy created by a room full of diehard fans was palpable. At times, it felt an off-Broadway play where the audience is part of the show. I feel lucky to have been a part of this intimate cast of characters.
Throughout the night, a few thoughts kept racing through my mind. The first was “how in the world is Neal Morse not a household name, and by extension, the rest of his incredible band (excluding Portnoy who is known by the masses)?” My second thought was “how is this tour not being held in significantly larger venues?” Though the intimacy of the venue definitely enhanced the experience, this performance was arena-worthy.
Sonically, the show couldn’t have been better. It was loud, but so clean that it didn’t leave me with ringing ears even though I was positioned right below one of the speakers. The final thought that kept running through my mind during the performance was “what am I doing here?” Allow me to explain…
Although I feel blessed to have been in the audience, and am thrilled to share my experience with the world, this show sells itself. Morse’s fans are as dedicated as they come, and this ticket was as hard to come by on the secondary market as any other show that I can recall. I have to imagine that this will be the same around the world (though I could be wrong). If you get the opportunity to catch The Neal Morse Band anywhere within a 4-5 hour radius, I would suggest making the trip. The show is simply that good.
What makes The Neal Morse Band different than any other show that I’ve ever seen is the immeasurable talent on the stage feeding off of each other with the precision of Blue Angels fighter pilots. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the parts in this case are all at the top of their game.
It feels like there should be a stronger word than “dynamic” to describe this performance. Throughout the night, I was in awe of the band’s ability to seamlessly transition between power and graceful beauty. One moment they were raining down like an apocalyptic thunderstorm, the next like a sweet sun shower. One moment they were barreling down on you like a freight train, the next they made you feel like you were adrift on a sailboat in a lake of serenity. All the while, they made perfection look simple. The musical and vocal chemistry between all of the members was equally impressive.
With this kind of virtuosity on display, and a story to be told, you might expect the band to be all business, but they’re not. There was a playful, even joyous, element to the performance (especially from Morse who smiled often throughout the evening as he engaged the crowd). When it was time to get serious, Morse took on the characters like a seasoned actor. The melding of the two worlds was most notable as Morse playfully portrayed the sloth character (to the crowd’s delight).
For over two and a half hours, The Neal Morse Band delivered a musical theater experience that is second to none. The entire band left everything that they had on the stage, and left Morse emotionally spent as his eyes welled up with tears as the story came to a conclusion. As I looked around the audience, I noticed that other grown men had tears in their eyes as well. It was as if we had all gone through a religious experience together. In some ways, it was just as powerful.
If you’re reading this review, you are most likely already a fan of The Neal Morse Band, but you don’t have to be to appreciate the magnitude of this performance. I was with someone who didn’t know any of the music, but was left with the same appreciation as longtime fans, so much so that she purchased the double album and commemorative shirt before leaving the venue.
Understandably, the merchandise table was left with limited supplies by the night’s end. Who wouldn’t want a memento from a show this good? Even as a reviewer, I felt the need to take home a piece of the show, so I purchased the tour poster to frame and hang in my office.
It’s only February, but unless something unexpectedly mind-blowing happens during the course of the year, The Neal Morse Band will go down as the top live performance of 2017.