90The Neal Morse Band is capable of performing music plucked from any part of Morse's considerable repertoire with all of the gravitas, skill, and energy needed for epic prog!


The concept for the new album might well have been a grand experiment, but The Neal Morse Band knew exactly what they were doing at New York City's Highline Ballroom on one third nealbwFebruary 24, 2015. With Morse as the central figure, on keys, guitars, and vocals, it just wouldn't have felt right without long-time co-conspirators Randy George (bass, vocals) holding down stage right and Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals) looming above the band in his central spot. Relative new-comers, but at this point solid members of this band that already has at least two projects under its belt, Bill Hubauer (keys, sax, clarinet, vocals) and Eric Gillette (guitar, vocals) fill out the rest of the stage line-up – a versatile, power-packed five man unit capable of performing music plucked from any part of Morse's considerable repertoire with all of the gravitas, skill, and energy needed for epic prog!

 The Highline Ballroom is located in the neighborhood quarterPortnoyfamous for its Chelsea Market and is set up with tables filling the main floor, side areas and even the balcony, but the progressive rock fans that filled the venue to capacity were hungrier for a full serving of Morse than for anything on the menu. Fans braved the frigid quarterGeorgetemperatures, standing on the line that stretched outside andquarterHubauer down the block – some, lucky enough to actually find street parking, played squatter for three hours or more, waiting for the notorious New York City parking regulations to 'make them legal' at the stroke of six o'clock. Once inside, the waiting crowd ordered food and drink, exchanged stories ("were you here for Transatlantic?" "How many times did you see Neal play?" "I saw the Testimony tour," "You can see me in the front row quarter Ericon the live video....") and listened to an excellent selection of cover songs and bonus-disc material that was being played over the sound-system.

The nearly two and a-half hour concert kicked off with stunning a capella vocal harmonies that introduce the explosive epic, "The Call." Intricate, tandem keyboard and guitar runs and typically spectacular soloing from each band member set the stage for the rest of the night, which included songs from the band's new studio album,The Grand Experiment, selections from some of Neal's other projects (like the fan-favorite, "Leviathan," complete with sneeze!), "Harm's Way / Go The Way You Go," from his Spock's Beard days, and even a surprising – but letter-perfect – cover of Paul McCartney's, "Jet," sandwiched between "Oh Lord My God" and "Reunion!" The combining of the admittedly 'light' song from Sir Paul's catalog with a couple of the more overtly-spiritual songs from Neal's served to accentuate the fact that these guys know that having fun and knowing God aren't mutually exclusive pursuits....

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The Neal Morse Band can play. And sing. And create excitement. This is music that requires a lot of rehearsal and precision playing and, while there's room for improvisation within the solos, there's not a lot of room for deviation from the master plan. Your expectation is that the band will perform this difficult music well, and it doeshalf exactly that. What makes The Neal Morse Band exciting (beside the technical excellence of the musicians) is the passion – not just from the players onstage but the passion that's generated in the audience. As technical as the music is, there's a message inherent in the songs that transfers from the heart – or the spirit, if you will – of this band. Of course this is most notable from Morse – the prime mover of the whole affair and a man that wears his passion quite visibly. He plays with a joy and yes, a bravado that half trio copyevery adolescent boy who's ever played air-guitar understands. Morse is clearly excited about creating the music with these people, and at various times he's obviously moved by what's happening in the atmosphere. If you're observant and sensitive enough you might even notice a time or two where he seems to be in touch with his God...

Bass player and all-around great musician Randy George layed down the bottom-end solidly through the whole show, and from time-to-time unleashed blistering flourishes and melodic bursts from his instrument. Gillette, this time stepping squarely into the lead guitar role, dazzled with emotional, yet technically brilliant fretwork – a fine balance not mastered by many. Make room for Eric Gillette's name on your list of guitar heroes. Hubauer is like 'the man behind the curtain' from Oz – a master of keyboard, sax, clarinette, hollowed-out carrot, violin, and whatever else might be lying around waiting to make musical noise. Farther back onstage, out of the thirdNealspotlight for most of the performance, Bill is accountable for the many textures and special sounds that the music calls for, and his stand-out moments – his soulful, musically articulate solo spots – are highlights. Portnoy's work continues to refine itself in the context of this band, which calls upon not just metal and/or prog chops, but a very accessible pop style as well. Portnoy supplies rock-solid playing with fills and explosive moments that make your head spin – not to mention some very jazzy hi-hat work – I mean, he's Mike Portnoy, after all.....

There were, of course, special moments like Morse's acoustic rendering of "Chatauqua," and the refreshing, gentle performance of "Waterfall," from the new album. Then, as if these guys aren't masters enough of their own instruments, there was the bombastic, extended performance of "Alive Again," featuring a virtual musical chairs session of musicians switching instruments mid-stream: Morse on drums, Gillette on drums, Portnoy on guitar, George on guitar and keys, Morse on bass, Hubauer on guitar... did I mention that this was all going on in the uninterrupted context of a song? In the middle of all of this Randy George gets down on his knees, playing the great riff from The Beatles' "Hey Bulldog" on bass pedals!

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Closing the show with "Reunion" (a perfect segue from "Jet"), the audience was on its feet, singing along, celebrating, and generally having a great time – and once again, I'm marveling at how this music brings together saint and sinner, believer and agnostic, and yes – even New Yorkers, all singing together, "As we once were in the garden, through His son he gave the pardon. Now we can come back as priests and kings..."
That's pretty cool, if you ask me...

- words and images: Bert Saraco

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