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Live Review and Galley: Neal Morse Band • Arcada Theatre • St. Charles

| February 21, 2022

The Neal Morse Band

The Arcada Theatre, St. Charles, IL

February 19, 2022

Review by Jeff Elbel

Photos by Luciano J. Bilotti

The Neal Morse Band presented a master class in progressive rock on Saturday night, with a hint of laudable grace under pressure as the quintet returned to a faithful audience at the supportive Arcada Theatre. The fans and band alike were clearly thrilled and relieved to see each other, having missed the experience of communal music during the two-year dearth due to pandemic precaution. NMB’s prior visits to St. Charles had celebrated 2017’s The Similitude of a Dream and 2019’s The Great Adventure. Those ambitious concept albums drew from John Bunyan’s 17th century Christian fable The Pilgrim’s Progress. This evening’s show focused on material from 2021’s Innocence & Danger, a double album split into one disc of relatively accessible standalone songs and a second disc indulging in every prog-rocker’s delight.

Material from the Innocence disc including the stirring “Do It All Again” filled the concert’s first hour. The songs were as skillfully rendered as ever, but some of the more compact Innocence arrangements were more readily enjoyed by companions and curious listeners not fully immersed in prog-rock’s culture of bombast and extravagance. “My wife likes these songs, too,” Morse said, addressing an appreciative woman accompanying her husband in the crowd. In contrast to many complex compositions from NMB’s catalog, the hooky “Another Story to Tell” was reminiscent of Billy Joel’s “Moving Out.” Thematically, the song spoke of offering love to others but not accepting abuse. “Having an open heart doesn’t mean you let hurt in your door,” sang Morse.

The Neal Morse Band features five virtuoso players and four strong singers, and the song of rebirth “Bird on a Wire” benefitted from guitarist Eric Gillette’s strong tenor. Morse played synthesizer while trading intricate solos with Gillette. It was only the second song of the night, but enthusiastic fans gave the display of excellence a standing ovation. Morse treated the reaction as a show of thanks for the regathering of the tribe. “We made it through, didn’t we?” he exclaimed.

Morse explained that although the Innocence songs weren’t connected by a story, many of them shared the theme of people who have been through extreme difficulties but persevered to emerge into a good place. “Your Place in the Sun” was offered as a specific example. Tattooed Winery Dogs drummer and prog-rock icon Mike Portnoy led Beatlesque harmonies during the psych-pop charmer, enhanced by Gillette’s George Harrison-styled slide guitar solo.

“The Way It Had to Be” borrowed moods and textures from Pink Floyd before morphing into a cover of dreamy Dark Side of the Moon favorite “Breathe.” Bill Hubauer’s keyboards lent gravitas and rich melody to both songs. Morse dedicated a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to his mother, with Hubauer singing Art Garfunkel’s memorable high notes.

Portnoy and Hubauer left their positions on the backline to join Morse and Gillette at the front of the stage for close harmony and an acoustic performance of “Waterfall.” Morse dedicated the tender song and its picture of relief from sorrow “to everyone who has lost loved ones over the last couple of years.” Hubauer’s wistful and gentle clarinet solo was a memorable highlight of the evening.

Afterward, Portnoy addressed the crowd, warning them that they’d better take their earliest opportunity to visit the restroom before settling in for the band’s epic offerings. The following hour was consumed by just two songs, comprising the Danger half of the Innocence & Danger double album.

During “Not Afraid Pt. 2,” bassist Randy George played complicated leads and countermelodies that reflected the influence of musical titans like late Yes bassist Chris Squire. Gillette played dazzling solos on his seven-string guitar and sang a rousing melody.

“You like the epics? This is the epic to end all epics,” Morse announced before the band performed the 33 minutes of the redemptive tale “Beyond the Years.” The suite was a dazzling display of technical acumen touching upon all manner of musical styles including classical, flamenco, jazz-rock fusion a la Frank Zappa and Mahavishnu Orchestra, and a host of progressive rock favorites including Yes and King Crimson, Kansas, Gentle Giant, ELP, Genesis and more. The music gave way to a five-part a cappella counterpoint section before erupting into an ecstatic crescendo that was led by Gillette’s fiery lead guitar and underscored by Hubauer’s cathedral organ and Portnoy’s thundering percussion.

Morse was a gregarious presence throughout the evening. His beaming smile continued as he sang “Welcome to the World” and other songs from the Pilgrim’s Progress albums during a generous encore. Morse closed his eyes and turned his face heavenward, enraptured while playing synthesizer solos during “The Great Adventure.” He brimmed with enthusiasm when strapping on his weathered Fender Stratocaster and roaming the stage with smiles of communion for his bandmates. “This is the best band in the world!” he enthused at one point, radiating joy.

The audience joined the band in spirit and voice, becoming a glorious Gospel choir for The Similitude of a Dream track “Long Day” and The Great Adventure’s rafter-raising “A Love That Never Dies.”

The only shortcomings to be noted were in the vocal performances of Morse and keyboardist Hubauer, who were remained in excellent spirits and performed with gusto despite being clearly under the weather. Morse nursed his symptoms as unobtrusively as possible with a box of Kleenex gaffe-taped under his keyboard. During bouncy prog-pop standout “The Ways of a Fool,” Hubauer’s ailing throat forced him to step back from his whimsical lead vocal and trust the crowd to momentarily carry the weight for him.

While highly polished technically, the group was easy-going in the face of any rare setback. Hubauer’s solo “Far From Home” segment of the “Beyond the Years” suite set the mood for “The Far That’s Always Near,” but the keyboardist missed his piano patch change as Morse walked onstage from the wings. “You ruined my dramatic entrance, man,” Morse said with faux melodrama and a genuine laugh. Hubauer quickly recovered and began the next part. Although all five players are accomplished musicians with their own notable projects, the mood within the Neal Morse Band was clearly that of a band of brothers willing to hold each other up.

Morse in particular extended that love to the patrons in the room. Outspoken in his faith and full of irrepressible jubilation at the end of the show, Morse bounded up and down and shouted “praise the Lord!” He then extended praise to the room. “God bless you all,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful night, thanks to you.”


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Category: Featured, Live Reviews

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