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It never ceases to amaze me how the power of live performance can transform one’s interpretation of a musical artist and their work. This was true for my first time seeing Neal Morse (of Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, and more). On the small stage at Club Passim in the heart of Harvard Square, Morse kept the audience engaged for much of his performance with his running commentary on his songs (and proselytizing, as the case was later on in the show).
What would’ve been another night of looped acoustic music, to my ignorant ears, was made more meaningful with Morse’s incessant, but never irritating, monologuing. To be truthful, Morse’s concert was more an excuse to see Paul Bielatowicz perform again. The merry, rubber-faced guitarist, to whom I was introduced due to his being in Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, played an all-too-brief set to open the show. I’ve crowed many a time about Bielatowicz’s guitar prowess (and his expressions while doing so) but it bears repeating: the guy is just too much fun to watch. I’ve had the pleasure seeing him six times in two years (four times with Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy and now twice solo) and it’s consistently enjoyable.
His solo career shtick has been to bring life to 19th-century compositions with a 21st century flair, e.g. when I saw him at the Regent back in November 2017 and he did his own take on the synchronized “Dark Side of the Rainbow” mashup with the classic silent film A Trip to the Moon and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” This time, Paul (I’m just gonna call him that; his surname takes too long to write and, well, we know each other now!) built on that theme to sync up three compositions with three silent films directed by the legendary Georges Méliès. Upon finishing the whirlwind first one, set to The Dancing Midget, he joked, “Always good to start off a nice easy one!”
He continued on to provide the soundtrack to the classic silent short film The Eclipse or The Courtship of the Sun and Moon with Claude Debussy’s “Au Clair de Lune,” and once again unite Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon and “Moonlight Sonata.” As Paul put it, “I thought a prog audience would like that- we love a good concept. ‘A Trip to the Moonlight Sonata.'” As his set time was shorter than his performance at the Regent, he sped up the sonata, which mirrored the on-screen fight between a human and “Selenite.” If I had one complaint, it was that the screen was on the wall, stage right so I had to constantly decide what to look at- the film or Paul’s face, because both are equally entertaining.
Neal Morse took the stage not long after and began his “Songs of Freedom,” essentially detailing his foray into music and his influences. The riffs of “Pinball Wizard” by the Who and Yes’ “Heart of the Sunrise” each mixed into the song and the bands get name-checked too, along with many others. It was a sweet, lighthearted start to his set, and continued as he mentioned the next song, “Agenda,” was inspired his kids’ listening to Awolnation’s “Sail.” “Sail,” according to Morse, has “really great production- unlike this song.” He then mentioned that he and fellow bandmate Mike Portnoy (late of Dream Theater) had a running commentary in Transatlantic until Pete Trewavas yelled at them to stop. However, those of us in the crowd couldn’t get enough.
It especially helped me, a newbie, get further into the music than I would have otherwise. He continued on with “Livin’ Lightly,” and “Bridge Across Forever” which is apparently a Transatlantic tune. At this point in the evening I was gathering this was going to skew more towards pop and rock than prog. That was fine; I enjoy most genres of music.
Morse is a veritable one-man band, too; he busted out a melodica for “Good Love is On the Way,” tootling the hook of the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” before he started the song. Perhaps the best part of the evening was “Selfie in the Square.” The song, written because he missed his wife while touring abroad, became an interactive experience for the audience and musician alike. First remarking on a 50something writing a song about a selfie- “‘Isn’t he too old to talk about selfies?’ It’s true!”- he started the song, sang the hook of the chorus, and then stopped to mention how he’s always compelled to sing the word “yellow” a la Chris Martin of Coldplay. Wouldn’t you know it, he actually began Coldplay’s Yellow, then encouraged the crowd to shout out more “yellow” songs. We got to “Yellow Submarine,” an atrocious singalong to “Mellow Yellow,” “I Am the Walrus,” and “Big Yellow Taxi” before the song was through. (Unfortunately, Morse didn’t know Frank Zappa’s classic “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”)
After noodling on his song “Jailbreak,” remarking that “I could do this all day!” Morse brought Paul up onstage to perform a segment of “The Door,” a song from his concept album based on the life of Martin Luther. This was possibly the only instance where I’ve seen Paul playing subdued for any length of time. The synths on the song also reminded me of Genesis’ iconic “Watcher of the Skies” Mellotron introduction, too.
As the set wound down, Morse got into the more Christian aspects of his music career and the topics got a bit heavy. It felt like a divisive split between the set and I must say I enjoyed the first half a lot more than the second, but more power to Morse if he feels the presence of the Lord guiding him. Everyone has a driving force in their life and if Morse’s is God, he seems to be doing a great job in using it for humanist purposes. When Morse finished “Selfie in the Square,” he remarked, slightly sheepishly, “One day I will play the song normally. It’s just gotten weirder and weirder.” Well, don’t change a thing, Neal Morse.
From this journalist’s standpoint, your music took on more nuance and depth because of your soliloquies and verbal and musical flights of fancy. Put simply, we like it weirder.
Neal Morse Setlist:
Songs of Freedom
Agenda (The Neal Morse Band song)
Bridge Across Forever (Transatlantic song)
Good Love Is on the Way (not on stage setlist)
Selfie in the Square
The Door (VI. Upon the Door) (with Paul Bielatowicz on guitar)
Manchester by the Sea
He Died at Home
(Unknown) (It’s all right with me)
There Is Nothin’ That God Can’t Change
So Far Gone (The Neal Morse Band song)
It’s All I Can Do
Broken Sky (The Neal Morse Band song)
Stranger in Your Soul (Transatlantic song)
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