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Live Review and Gallery: Transatlantic at Arcada Theatre • St. Charles

| April 23, 2022


Arcada Theatre, St. Charles, IL

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Review by Jeff Elbel. Photos by Ed Spinelli.

Thursday was a big night for Chicagoland fans of progressive rock. Transatlantic returned to the genre’s haven at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, where the prog supergroup also performed on its last major tour in 2014. The principals in the band have remained prolific in the intervening years. Former Spock’s Beard frontman and former Dream Theatre drummer Mike Portnoy visited the Arcada as recently as February, performing with the Neal Morse Band in support of 2021’s Innocence & Danger album. Bassist Pete Trewavas from UK-based veterans Marillion performed at the venue in support of 2018’s excellent release F.E.A.R., and the band is preparing to support its latest effort An Hour Before it’s Dark. Guitarist Roine Stolt of The Flower Kings has been the lone local absentee since 2014, which is a pardonable offense given the commute from Sweden. The Flower Kings’ By Royal Decree was just released in March.

Tonight, however, was dedicated to the quartet’s infrequent but potent collaboration. The band thrilled prog devotees by performing three full hours of material and including all but one song (“Swing High, Swing Low”) from the band’s fifth album, 2021’s epic The Absolute Universe.

Given the band members’ focus on their other projects, the interplay on the Transatlantic material seemed fresh and brotherly, and high-spirited. The band was augmented by multi-instrumentalist Ted Leonard, who was introduced by Portnoy as the band’s “fifth Beatle.” Leonard clearly had the trust and respect of his better-known bandmates while performing key components of the band’s complex arrangements. Transatlantic presented a dazzling display of technical prowess but made even the most challenging passages seem like joyful work.

The spectacle on stage was heightened by a colorful light show and rear-screen projections of elements from the band’s albums, borrowing imagery from science fiction, steampunk, cosmic psychedelia, and fantasy. The band’s sound included grand, classical music-influenced epics, shimmery folk, exotic would music textures, Gospel, taut funk, and Zappa-styled freak-outs. Often enough, as during “The Darkness in the Light,” these disparate sounds shared space within the span of a single song. Portnoy drove the dynamic shifts from pin-drop intimacy to the bombastic cacophony.

The band blended vocals for rich harmony during songs like “Reaching for the Sky” and “Looking for the Light.” Lead vocal lines were passed around the stage throughout the evening. Stolt sang “Higher than the Morning” and played fluid blues-fusion solos on his red Telecaster.

Taking a break from his bank of synthesizers, Morse led the prayerful “Take Now My Soul” with his lush acoustic 12-string guitar. “Just get me through to tomorrow,” sang Morse in supplication, joined by Trewavas and Portnoy. Hard-charging rocker “Bully” transitioned into the bouncing McCartney-esque psychedelic pop of the euphoric “Rainbow Sky.”

After 50 uninterrupted minutes of music, the band took its first pause for a breather. Portnoy addressed the crowd, describing the origins of The Absolute Universe and the lengthy wait to bring it to the stage. “It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “Better late than never, right? We are so grateful to finally be playing this album live. We started it back in 2019 B.C., before COVID.”

The band resumed with the effervescent “The Sun Comes Up Today,” beginning with a Beach Boys-styled a capella introduction in five-part vocal harmony. Stolt led the spooky and chaotic “Owl Howl.” Morse took flight with a delirious analog synthesizer solo before joining Stolt for tricky unison riffs. Trewavas then sang the intimate “Solitude,” joined by Morse, who sang an emotive bridge section about redemptive love. Leonard carried the vocal melody for the song’s coda.

Morse’s organ solo during “Belong” shimmered and rumbled throughout the theater, sharing space with Stolt’s nimble lead and Trewavas’ Chris Squire-inspired bass line. “Looking for the Light” provided another opportunity for Trewavas to impress, as he locked in with Portnoy for rhythmic passages with tricky starts and stops. Morse drew the crowd to clap along with Portnoy’s intricate rhythm during the uplifting and anthemic “Can You Feel It.” The influence of Yes material like “Tempus Fugit” was in further evidence during “The Greatest Story Never Ends.” The Absolute Universe set concluded with the prog ballad “Love Made a Way.” The devout Morse’s lyric and performance were infused with gratitude and Gospel fervor, singing with eyes closed and face raised heavenward. Stolt joined with a soulful David Gilmour-styled melodic guitar solo.

Following a 20-minute intermission, a generous second set featured material from the band’s first three releases SMPT:e, Bridge Across Forever and The Whirlwind. The first lengthy medley included the opulent “Overture,” frenetic “Evermore,” moving ballad “Rose Colored Glasses,” and soaring “Dancing with Eternal Glory.” “Is It Really Happening?” was quiet and brooding, reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Is There Anybody Out There?” from The Wall.

After another impressively lengthy stretch of uninterrupted music, Morse paused to thank the crowd for coming. “True music lovers!” he exclaimed. “Thank God for you. I had a vision years ago that you existed, but I wasn’t entirely sure. And now I know that I was right.” During Morse’s remarks, a member of the audience shouted that Wednesday had been Portnoy’s birthday. Portnoy declared that he was over it. “That was so yesterday,” he said. Nonetheless, an attempt was made from one corner of the room to lead a chorus of “Happy Birthday.” It failed to launch, and Portnoy pulled no punches. “You guys are horrible,” he said, igniting a wave of laughter.

Morse turned serious for a moment, saying “I’m going to send this song out to the people of Ukraine.” The band then played an emotional version of “We All Need Some Light,” begun as Morse traded Spanish guitar licks on his 12-string acoustic guitar with Stolt’s blues-and-jazz infused Telecaster lines. The song sparked the biggest crowd singalong of the evening. “Turn on your light, and wash the darkness away,” sang Morse. Portnoy had fans wave their cell phone lights, creating a starlit spectacle.

“Duel with the Devil” and “All of the Above” segment “Full Moon Rising” again showcased Portnoy’s drumming, as if the full show hadn’t already provided ample evidence of his dexterity and skill. And really, the same could be said of any of the players during the concert. The Transatlantic aesthetic reveled in glorious musical excess and left fans slack-jawed and grinning at every turn.

Portnoy notched a savage takedown as the show entered its final minutes when Morse invited the crowd to help sing the show-closing “Sleeping Wide Awake” movement of “Stranger in Your Soul.” Portnoy had reservations about the idea. “I heard them sing ‘Happy Birthday,’” said the drummer. “I think you should sing it without them.”

“Man, that was harsh,” responded Morse with a laugh.

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