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Review: The Neal Morse Band’s “Progress” at work in Chicago

By Tim Noonan, Rock At Night Contributor-Chicago

Venue: House of Blues, Chicago-August 18, 2017

Neal Morse has been one of the leading forces of progressive rock over the last 20 years, and he’s taken some giant steps in recent years to cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats. His accomplishments include a handful popular concept albums depicting his own spiritual journeys, involvement in multiple progressive “super groups” including “Transatlantic” and “Flying Colors” as well as “Morsefest” an annual gathering of fans from around the world in Nashville to celebrate his music with multiple night performances of his work done as full productions. Morse’s legend in the making showmanship was on display this past Friday night as his own “Neal Morse Band” made its second visit to the Chicagoland area of 2017 on “The Road Called Home Tour”. Growing in popularity, the band made the jump from the 800 seat Aracada Theater in suburban St Charles they played back in January, to the 1800 seat House of Blues in the heart of downtown Chicago. Accompanying members of the group were progressive drumming’s ambassador of the last 25 years Mike Portnoy, long time Morse bassist Randy George, as well as multi-instrumentalist Bill Hubauer and up and coming guitar virtuoso Eric Gillette.

The centerpiece of Friday’s performance was the band’s 2nd album “Similitude of A Dream”. Released in late 2016, “Similitude” is a musical adaption of the John Bunyan literary piece “A Pilgrim’s Progress” the story of a man seeking religious redemption and deliverance from his own sins. The show began shortly after 8pm with Morse entering a pitch-black stage with a cloak over his head, holding a flashlight below his chin singing the albums opening track “Long Day” acapella while his bandmates followed behind him taking their places for the night. From there, it was full speed ahead as the band launched into “Overture” with a fierce energy behind them. The always entertaining Portnoy fed off the enthusiastic crowd with his signature stick flips, fist pumps and other gestures that have made him so much fun to watch over the years.

“The Dream” followed, and its slower tempo gave the crowd just enough time to catch its collective breathe before the pounding “City of Destruction” began and fans saw what makes Neal Morse such an entertaining figure. Alternating between guitars, keyboards and his signature headset mic Neal commanded the crowd’s attention and got it. Fan’s sang along and were locked in on his every word and gesture, performing with enough energy to reach the last row of a 100,000-seat football stadium.  “We Have Got to Go” and “Makes No Sense” followed into “Draw the Line” which saw Mike Portnoy take lead over vocal duties. Which lead into what I found to be the best surprise of the night Bill Hubauer.

Dressed in a red vest, plaid shirt, khaki pants and beige cap, Hubauer looked more like someone   playing the organ at a Sunday morning service rather than keys in a progressive rock band, but looks are deceiving. Not only does he have incredible keyboard chops, but some very strong vocal capabilities. “Back to the City” displayed the strength of his voice, while the Beatles meets Queen inspired “Ways of a Fool” showcased a softer, warmer tone. “So Far Gone” followed with guitarist Eric Gillette taking his first turn as lead vocalist for the night, leading into the grandiose “Breath of Angels” to close out the first set.

After a short intermission, the band returned to the stage picking right up where they left off with the up tempo “Slave to your mind” and the catchy “Shortcut to Salvation.” Bill Hubauer’ s talents were again on display as he took the lead solo on a saxophone. It was also after this song that Morse addressed the audience for the first time of the night, telling fans a quick story about playing the room as an opening act, many years ago, being booted from an upper balcony box and later finding out on a pay phone his wife was pregnant with their daughter. “The Man in the Iron Cage” and “The Road Called Home” continued the show leading into “Sloth” where Morse again donned a cloak and flashlight for visual effects. Stepping out from his massive drum kit to grab a tambourine and bass drum, Portnoy joined his bandmates at the front of the stage for the bluegrass inspired “Freedom Song” which saw Bill Hubauer take a solo this time on Mandolin. “I’m Running” gave Randy George a chance to show off his skills as a bassist having spent most of the night in the background and kicked the band back into high gear as a build up for what would be the big finish.

“The Mask” featured Morse wearing a Phantom of the Opera style mask singing softly with a building crescendo into “Confrontation” and then it was time for the evenings signature moment “The Battle” a blistering instrumental featuring constant time and tempo changes as well as starts and stops with impeccable accuracy and tightness that showed just how dangerous this band is when it comes to their collective and individual musicianship.

Every Neal Morse album ends with a triumphant and epic finish and this album is no different. With “Broken Sky/Long Day Reprise” Morse started the slow build singing under the keyboards but the spotlight slowly shifted to guitarist Eric Gillette, coming out of his guitar solo Gillette assumed vocal duties for the final chorus with a voice that is on par with any of the operatic singers in the progressive genre. His day is coming soon and fans in attendance can say “We saw him when…”

After the initial bows the band returned for “The Call” the opening song from their 1st album “The Grand Experiment” as the night’s lone encore. I was hoping to get one or two more songs, but it was not to be. As fans left the room, it was obvious Mike Portnoy oversaw the outro music as the soundtrack from “Twin Peaks” played over the P.A. The same music he used as an outro for that other band he played with on their first tour back in 1993.

 A movie screen showing religious imagery throughout the night may have been the only negative takeaway from the show. With a band that played with such musicianship and power, I found myself fixated on the musicians on the stage, rarely glancing at the screen behind them, and I have a feeling much of the audience did the same.

 The Neal Morse band proved the future is very bright for prog rock. While Morse, George and Portnoy will continue to push the limits, the NMB has given Eric Gillette’s stock a huge boost as both a guitar player and vocalist. Working alongside master showmen Morse and Portnoy will only continue to give him that extra dose of “It” when it comes to developing a flash and stage presence to match his musical talents. Bill Hubauer’ s live performance exceeds what he’s done on records and has me very excited to see what his future holds. The Neal Morse Band is the real deal, see them when you the chance.

 

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