I was lucky enough to be able to catch The Neil Morse Band last night at Rocketown. It’s a 3,000 seat venue in the heart of downtown Nashville. This would be my first chance to see this band live but I had the opportunity to interview Neil personally twice as we both are in the Nashville area. Here is a clip of him performing Momentum acoustically from the first interview back in 2013 (Click on the link to hear the audio.) I have seen Mike Portnoy a few different times, the first being back in 1992 I believe in Colorado Spring of the Images and Words tour when he was Dream Theater and most recently back in 2015 when he was performing at the Wildhorse with The Winery Dogs. Here is my review of that epic show. Mike is probably one of the Top 10 most influential in my life. He was the first drummer that made me see all the different musical layers that a brilliant drummer actually brings to the song beyond keeping the a beat and driving the bus. Which seems a bit strange since I grew up listening to Neil Peart, Bill Bruford, Billy Cobham, Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd etc…. But for some reason, Mike just really clicked with my ear and imagination.
But this…. This would be interesting. Their new CD “The Similitude of a Dream” is an epic double concept masterpiece (IMHO) which rises to the level of Dream Theater’s “Scenes from a Memory” featuring Portnoy ironically and it truly brought the Neil Morse Band to life for me in a new way. While lyrically, Neil uses his faith to spur his songs, he does so in a way that is counter to typical faith based music. He does it interestingly, with stories, with relate-able trials one goes through before finding themselves and with out all the tripe and cliches of typical CCM music. I should know, I was in one of those bands and worked that side of the industry for years.
For me, this show was one of the very few times I get to go see live music and see people who I consider to be true musicians who raise the bar each time they put out new music. Most of the time, I feel like I am seeing average musicians or even below and it can be quite disheartening especially if they can’t even be good performers or entertainers let alone musicians. However, I hadn’t seen this band live and knew very little about the other musicians in the band other than hearing them on the CD. In today’s world, we can make everyone sound brilliant on CD no matter their musical skill level, but the live show is the proof in the pudding. This is where we really see if they are as good as their CD sounds. Of course, I know that they wouldn’t be in the band if they weren’t brilliant musicians, my own client Jon Finn, a Berklee college professor tried out for this band a few years back. But I always hold a bit of skepticism until I see a band live. I have been burned too many times. I had watched Neil play for me on two occasions and I had seen Mr. Portnoy on several occasions in different settings.
I won’t go into set lists and songs as the show is the full “Similitude” CD plus a few encores because I want to relate the “experience” to you. To me, the most important part of any live show is the “experience.” Am I truly getting something I can’t get anywhere else or at least from very few bands. To that I can emphatically say yes. The thing that blows me away with this band up front is that their live show sounds EXACTLY like the CD. Even with Neil’s onstage energy, it is a literal duplicate of the CD. So not only am I getting a pitch perfect show in every way, I am getting the energy as well as realizing that this is one of those truly rare bands that put their energy into the recording of their CD such as that when it is played live, there is no difference. Do you see what I am saying here? Either medium of listening, either by CD or live, you are getting the “experience.” Only one has you right there to watch. Now that is an amazing quality to have as musicians.
Neil likes to incorporate a bit of theater in his show by switching into characters and outfits that follow along the story of the CD. Some of the musicians followed suit by “dressing” the part of what I would guess is a bit of a dystopian future. While the band performs, there is a screen up in the back helping to set the stage for the experience by allowing the imagery to help you see in your “mind’s eye” the story which Neil is trying to convey to the audience. The show is divided into 3 parts. The first set of the first half of the CD followed by a short intermission. Then the band returns to play the second half of the CD followed by the traditional encore of 3 songs. That is the basic framework of the show. The band is so busy playing straight through, that are only a few times that they get to stop and talk with the audience, which is normally a very important part of any show. Here however, it didn’t matter at all. The experience did all the work and provided everything we needed to hear and see.
Musicianship wise, I can’t even begin to tell you how amazed I was. On top of being absolutely spot on to the CD, the various different talents I saw was jaw dropping. The harmonies… wow…. The harmonies were amazing. Four voices in harmony sounding melodic, full and almost angelic at times. Harmonies are a lost art in the music industry these day. Always appreciate and never take for granted those that can sing harmonies. They are the most under appreciated skill and quite possibly one of the most important skills to making anything sound huge. The other thing I noticed that I loved was the lack of stage volume. This was very impressive to me as I have witness many bands who all use ear monitors who still have overbearingly loud stage volume. I was right in front of the guitar amp and could barely hear it. This allows the soundman to do his job with having to have massive instrument bleed into drum mics or vocal mics. Hence, a crystal clear sound coming out of the mains in which all parts can be heard and appreciated like they are supposed to be.
I want to talk a bit about a couple guys who probably don’t get much attention in this band. First let’s talk about Bill Hubauer. Never judge a musician by it’s cover. Living in Nashville, you learn to not assume anything based on the way anyone looks or dresses. If you look at me, you immediately assume I am a musician. If I had seen Bill anywhere else, I would have no clue that this man was a musician let alone that he can play keys, sax, mandolin and sing very, very well. I can play one instrument fairly proficiently even after attending school. This man is playing everything in sight and killing it. It’s a very humbling thing to see such talent in one individual. While Bill has spots to shine, I know there is so much more he can do. Unfortunately with a stage full of super musicians, time and space is limited. I truly look forward to discovering more about Bill and his music.
Next is Eric Gillette. Eric is the main guitar player in the band… but wait, what the… He sings like that too? Now I am just feeling demoralized at my abilities lol. Then I go to his website and find out that he also plays drums and keys….. I officially hang up my guitar. Not only did he play flawlessly the whole show, he singing is quite incredible. Eric is a very melodic player that has unique phrasing and the ability to mold, meld and utilize, theory, technique and harmony into rich, complex lines that tell a story versus sounding another GIT graduate shredding scales in an effort to sound brilliant. But most importantly, he only does so when necessary to take a part to its inevitable conclusion. This isn’t a shred fest by any means. Eric is a tasteful player who understands songwriting, composition and dynamics and employs all these things into memorable parts that help take the songs to new heights. I don’t know how old Eric is, I am guessing late 20’s but his playing is mature beyond his years and it honestly a honor to watch and listen to.
Of course Neil is also a multi-instrumentalist on stage. Not only covering most of the lead vocals, he plays guitar, acoustic guitar both 6 and 12 string and pulls out his strat for crunchy rhythms and tasty, jazz induced solos. Neil is the kind of player that blows my mind with his lines. He doesn’t play or sound like anyone else I have ever heard. His lines always make my ears perk up due to the melodic content coming from his fingers. I am constantly going, “how did he come up with that?” or “Why can’t I sound like that?” I honestly think I am most impressed with his song writing/lyric writing. I have had time to get used to the “shell shock” from seeing him play in person over the last couple years. Now I can see the brilliance in his lyrics and the appreciate the vision he has for his shows.
What can I say about Mike Portnoy? Nothing that hasn’t been iterated a million times over from the throngs of fans this man has influenced or inspired. Mike is truly one of the most awe-inspiring musicians I have ever witnessed. He does things with his drum kit that boggle the mind and make 98% percent of the drummers out there sound 2-dimensional. I don’t mean that in a bad way or as in insult. I mean that so as to say that, Mike’s ability to compose on his kit is almost without equal and his innate ability to create sonic landscapes the drumming is absolutely stunning and beyond compare. Today, we now have so many amazing drummers that come out of the woodwork to play things we could never have imagined before. There are some amazing drummers but there is that rarified air that is “John Bonham, Buddy Rich, Neil Peart and Mike Portnoy.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of bass player Randy George as there were a couple gentlemen always in front of me with their camera filming or just blocking the view and I was in the front row on the opposite side of the stage. However, his sound was unmistakable and as a bass player should be, a key component to the overall sound. Randy had a short solo in which we got see/here what most of us don’t get to witness as often, the high level of his talent. Randy drove the bus and that carries the songs where they are supposed to go. He does what all great bass players are supposed to do, he brings it home. He is the foundation that supports the structure so that it can rise high and mighty in its entirety. Not to mention his melodic contributions which I think are probably over looked. I know Randy also plays guitar and I am not sure what else, but he didn’t switch instruments during the live show.
The Neal Morse Band are quite possibly, the most underrated band out there today along with King’s X but for different reasons. Their live show is immaculate, breath taking and inspiring in both music and message. It is a sight and sound unlike any other and worth every penny you can spend to go see them. When every you get the chance to see this band or any other iteration of music that any of these gentlemen are involved in, you are doing yourself an injustice by not checking it out and allowing yourself to be immersed in what it truly means to be musical, brilliant and awash in a wave of sound, imagery that will not be replicated by anyone else again ever. True originality is a rare thing. These men have it, because they are so musically diverse in skills, they have a massive pallet of colors to always work from for true creativity and inspiring themes.
To steal a phrase from their the last CD “The Grand Experiment,” seeing The Neal Morse Band live is the “Grand experience.”
Final note: I don’t think any of these musicians are doing it for the fame. I don’t sense any ego, or need to be musically justified. I think at least in Neil’s case, he does it for the love of his faith and his music. This is true artistic authenticity at it’s finest.
The Neil Morse Band “So Far Gone” Official Video
The Neil Morse Band “The Man in the Iron Cage” Official Video
The Neil Morse Band “City of Destruction” Official Video
Buy “The Similitude of a Dream” CD Here:
Find out more about The Neil Morse Band and the musicians at these links:
The Neal Morse Band:
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