By Adam Waldman
The Space in Westbury, NY is nearly three hours away from the place that I call home these days. Traveling this far to see a show only makes sense when the squeeze is worth the juice (so to speak). Then again, great adventures in life exist in a realm far beyond one’s comfort zone. Having experienced The Neal Morse Band a few years back on The Similitude of a Dream tour, I knew that I was in for a great adventure before stepping foot inside this incredible venue with a history that dates back to 1927. An erstwhile movie theater, this landmark venue now blends the nostalgic charm of yesteryear with the finest modern amenities.
The enormous screen at the back of the stage illuminated the darkened room with dramatic images before the band took the stage. A tone-setting moment that is rare these days, but has always been a staple for acts like Rush and Pink Floyd. The Space is a theater, but the atmosphere created by the band made it feel like a throwback to the arena days. That’s just one of the many aspects of The Neal Morse Band that makes them stand out as unique in the current rock and roll landscape.
This was the first time that Morse and Mike Portnoy had played together on Long Island, which is surprising given their lengthy history and the fact that Portnoy grew up in the area. You would think that a hometown show would lead to a sellout, but it didn’t. While crowded, there were still seats to be had. Mind-boggling was the thought that came to mind as the virtuoso journey began, and not just because of the precision and power of the music filling the room to the rafters.
We live in a world where manufactured, assembly line music fills the largest venues, and handcrafted works of art like The Neal Morse Band don’t reach the masses. As the show progressed, I started to get why.
The Neal Morse Band is not for everyone. It takes a level of sophistication to appreciate an experience like this. There are barriers to entry that don’t exist with most artists. Typical concert goers, especially in a short attention span society, gravitate towards the familiarity of their respective comfort zones as they wait for bands to play the hits. They want to sing along and feel like they are a part of the show. Most of all, they tend to spend an inordinate amount of time desperately trying to capture every moment on their smartphones rather than living in the moment. At best, they tolerate the unfamiliar. At worst, they use new material as an opportunity to go to the bar or the bathroom. That is NOT what the Neal Morse crowd is all about.
A picture here and there, and the occasional glow of a smartphone, but for the most part, The Great Adventure was a journey back in time to the days when concert goers immersed themselves in the experience. Never have I been so proud to be a part of an audience that just “gets it.” An audience with such sophistication that they enjoyed the performance of a newly released concept double album with the same fervor as a greatest hits show from a classic artist. That alone would be worth the price of admission, but there is so much more of this musical journey to behold.
The fans already know, but for those being introduced to The Neal Morse Band, there may be a temptation to think that this is about one man and a supporting cast. That would be a mistake. Morse is a genius storyteller, charismatic actor, and unbelievably talented musician. But this story, this journey, this great adventure would not exist without the cast of characters that comprise the band.
Morse is the ringleader who feels so deeply that he gets moved to genuine tears. When he sings, you feel like you can reach into his soul. Each of the other players fill their roles to perfection. Eric Gillette, arguably the most badass Millennial on the planet, brings beauty with his vocals and jaw-dropping moments with his inspired guitar playing. There are a lot of great guitarists, but the cream of the crop have a signature tone. Gillette is among that elite group. He may not be a household name, but that should come in time. Bill Hubauer not only puts on a masterful keyboard clinic, but also provides a soulful vocal presence that perfectly complements Morse and Gillette. It almost feels ridiculous to mention what Portnoy brings to the table. For my money, he is the preeminent drummer of this generation, and is up there with the all-time greats. He and Randy George power the locomotive that is The Neal Morse Band with dynamic precision and unrelenting energy.
There is no other band that I’ve ever experienced in a live setting that can seamlessly transition from a dark, ominous sound that feels like it was born in the fiery pits of hell, into tender, emotional moments, and four-part vocal harmonies that sound like they were sent from the heavens on the wings of an angel. And that’s all in one song. This isn’t about heavy songs and ballads. The Neal Morse Band is a sound. The stage is their canvas. The songs are the colors of the pallet that come together to create a masterpiece.
When I look back at “the great adventures of my life,” seeing The Neal Morse Band in concert will most certainly be included. It’s almost unfair to call it a concert. It truly is musical theater. Morse has a Broadway-esque theatricality to him, but not in the superficial, skim-the-surface type of way. He lets you feel parts of him that most keep tucked away in the dark corners of their mind.
As the two hour Great Adventure came to a close, and the final chapter of the story was told, Morse was moved to tears. Being in the audience, I felt the emotion throughout the evening, especially at that moment. I wondered how they could possibly recreate this magic on tour. It must be physically and emotionally exhausting.
The lights dimmed…the crowd was satisfied, probably as emotionally spent as I was. No clamoring for “the hits.” No complaints that they didn’t get to hear their favorite songs, or about only hearing the new stuff. This sophisticated crowd got it.
The giant screen once again illuminated the room. Snippets of songs could be heard as the rewind button was hit, and a time machine was launched. After leaving it all on the field (so to speak), the band reemerged as if this was an infomercial saying, “but wait…there’s more.” I almost felt guilty seeing them come back after their emotional departure…almost.
This wasn’t an encore, but rather a retrospective on the band’s entire catalog to date. Including a brief intermission, this show ran for around 2.5 hours. Most established artists play much shorter shows and charge far more than The Neal Morse Band. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that for the price of a movie ticket, large popcorn, and large soda, you can go see one of the most memorable live performances of your life.
If you need to sing along and watch a show through the narrow lens of your phone, then The Neal Morse Band is probably not for you. If, however, you have an appreciation for greatness and have the capacity to truly live in the moment, then take this “Great Adventure” with one of the most underrated bands on the planet.