Neal Morse Live at The Cutting Room in NYC

I knew that it would be a special evening in when a small miracle happened on East 32nd street in the heart of New York City.

I found a parking spot.

I actually found a spot right in front of the venue where Neal Morse was scheduled to perform a solo concert in a couple of hours. Sure, I’d have to sit nervously for about 40 minutes, glancing down the block and in the rear-view mirror until I became ‘legal’ at 6:30, but this is New York - and when you see a place to park you don’t give it up. Literally steps away from the entrance of the concert hall, I watched as people began entering and exiting - one of them being Steven (Little Steven) Van Zandt, who got into the car parked behind mine and pulled away before I could approach him and give him some great witticism like, “hey - tell Bruce I said Hello!”                      ... ‘guess he’s used to making fast get-aways.

The Cutting Room is a medium-to-smallish venue with a lot of warmth and a cabaret ambiance. Walking past the bar area and side-rooms, the concert section is set with tables in front of a stage surrounded by an ornately-carved, colorfully-lit proscenium arch. The sound is well balanced and the food servers do a good job of not getting in the way. One learns quickly, though, not to sit more than half-way back, where party sounds tend to drift through the walls and doors - not conducive to the intimate mood of an acoustic solo concert like the one that Neal is performing on this solo tour.

The stage is bare except for a couple of acoustic guitars, a board of effects-pedals on the floor, a mic stand (actually two - as Neal would be joined at one point by a guest) and an electric keyboard. The houselights dim and a disembodied voice introduces Neal Morse...

The house is packed and the show is a mutual love-fest between artist and audience. Unmistakably, the people are there because they love Neal and his work - most notably, the progressive rock of Spock’s Beard, Neal’s post-conversion solo projects, and the current musical journeys of The Neal Morse Band. Tonight’s music is different - it’s Morse as singer/songwriter, acoustic guitar in hand, singing songs born of life seen from the perspective of a man in his fifth decade. These songs are reflections on life in a less cosmic, more personal scope - songs about life, children, joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, all up close and personal, without a double-bass drum set-up in sight. The respect and affection exuding from the audience is reflected right back from the stage, as Morse delivers a very personal set of material from his newly-released solo album, Life & Times, a few familiar favorites (“We All Need Some Light,” with plenty of audience sing-along, and the unexpected “Agenda”) and at least one cover (ELP’s “From the Beginning,” performed with Randy McStein).

“Songs of Freedom” is Neal’s most literal autobiographical song and the perfect choice to start the concert. Using ‘looping’ techniques (the process of creating riffs, percussion, chords, etc. in a live setting, replaying those segments on-the-spot, and adding live elements) Neal built impressive musical textures. Accompanying himself in real-time, using the body of his guitar for percussion and adding impressive keyboard flourishes, the consummate professional admitted to some frustration at “one level of undo,” and confessed, “maybe I should have practiced!” No one in the audience had any misgivings, though, as song after song effectively displayed Morse’s considerable talents as a singer and multi-instrumentalist.

The musical menu for the night offered equal parts sentiment and humor as Neal presented the lighthearted “Livin’ Lively” and “Manchester,” which prominently features the words, “Manchester by the sea.” The problem, says Morse, is that a friend from the UK told him that Manchester is nowhere near any sea, prompting the artist to add a revision or two to the lyric. “Selfie in the Square” is a tour-diary memory of missing his wife on the road and taking a selfie to send home (Neal noticed the unusual number of women in the audience and declared this a ‘female-friendly’ performance). On the more intensely emotional side of things, were “Daddy’s Daughter,” a song done by audience request, and one that caused Morse to reach for the box of tissues that was onstage, and the devastating “He Died at Home,” a true story of the after-effects of war on a mother’s son.

Bronx native and guitar prodigy Randy McStine joined Neal for a handful of songs, including a masterful cover of ELP’s “From the Beginning” and the stunning testimonial composition, “Jailbreak,” which featured some fiery gui-tar work from both players and spiritually transparent lyrics: “God, oh thank God I was spinnin' down out of control

“Life behind bars Locked inside the dark cell of my soul                                                                  

But God he came and shattered the jailhouse doors                                                                                    

He broke the bars like matchsticks in his hand                                                                                                  

Just when I had all that I could take He made a jailbreak...”

One thing is for sure - Neal Morse is a communicator, and he makes strong connections to his audience. His singing, songwriting, and stunning musicianship are without question - that he seems to also have an inexhaustible amount of stage-energy makes for the perfect storm. Even after Neal left the stage and the houselights came up, and the announcement was made that there would be merch sold in the lobby and that Neal would show up there after a break of about 20 minutes ...Neal popped out to say that , if it was okay with management he’d like to do another song. That’s the kind of love he has for performing, and it seems as if his well is far from running dry.

- Bert Saraco

For pictures from this, and many other concerts, please visit the author’s photo page at: