I only ‘discovered’ Neal Morse a little over a year ago, when I saw him with Transatlantic (the first band I saw upon arriving in the UK, as it happens) and he completely blew me away. I would have thought that anyone who saw him on that tour would have taken any opportunity they could to see him again, but it seems not, as disappointing ticket sales led to the cancellation of two other UK shows, and the London gig moved to a smaller venue than initially planned.
Perhaps it is the overtly Christian nature of his lyrics or his forthcoming appearance at the High Voltage festival that put people off seeing him a mere six weeks earlier. Whatever the reason, he and his cracking seven-piece band delivered the goods to a smallish (though, as a result of the venue change, cramped!) but enthusiastic crowd of progheads and anybody else missed out in a big way, as he is one of the leading proponents of Christian Prog (What do you mean? Of course there’s more than one!).
With Transatlantic the first 80 minutes of the show was their new album, The Whirlwind which I’d had for a couple of weeks and been able to listen to about 3 times before the gig, while the rest of the set was brand new to me. I expected this show to follow a similar pattern, as Morse’s new solo album Testimony Two has been out for less than a month, and it was well-known that it would be played in its entirety (Well, the first disc anyway…), and I was right. Except it was the other way around.
Beginning with a pair of ‘short’ songs (including Beware of Darkness, originally recorded in this version by Morse’s old band, Spock’s Beard, and sufficiently different from George Harrison’s original for me to completely fail to recognise it!), we then moved on into ‘epic’ territory, which is Morse’s forte. These included the 26-minute Seeds of Gold from the second disc of Testimony Two and as such the only number I recognised during the first set (the bulk of the audience greeted every offering with recognition and delight, so it was clearly a devoted crowd in attendance) and demonstrated the abilities of the entire band. Special mention must go to…well, them all, really – as a collective they clearly have a joy in playing together, and their musicianship is beyond question – however, I’m going to single out electric violinist Ben Whatshisname (Hey, it’s always tough to pick out an unfamiliar name when it’s announced onstage…due to choice of instrument and hairstyle I’m tempted to say Steinhardt, but it wasn’t that…), whose playing added textures rarely heard in a rock situation, and were, quite simply, wonderful. The first set ended, fittingly, with the closing section of Testimony (or Testimony One, as it’s now called…) and Neal announced they’d be back after a short break with Testimony Two.
The original Testimony album was Morse’s first solo album following his departure from both Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic, and detailed his full conversion to devout Christianity. While I’m not familiar enough with that first album to say for certain, lyrically the follow-up seems to be more of a prequel or perhaps a further colouring in of an existing picture, than a direct sequel/continuation of the story. Apparently Morse ‘left out’ a key part of that story on that first album, namely that his conversion came as a result of his daughter Jayda’s miraculous ‘self healing’ – born with a hole in her heart, her condition vanished to doctors astonishment prior to planned surgery. The rest of the story makes it clear that the conversion wasn’t sudden. In any case you don’t have to have religious beliefs to appreciate the story or the music, as it’s about as far from evangelical bible-bashing as it’s possible to get. Instead it is a deeply personal exploration of a man in deep conflict with himself, his lifestyle and his beliefs, but it is also a tale with multiple happy endings. It’s abundantly clear that Morse made the right decision for him, and that’s enough for this agnostic.
In a live situation, even more so than on the album, the result is both emotional roller-coaster and musical tour de force. The Jayda section provided perhaps the most cathartic experience of any gig I’ve been to. As detailed before I’m prone to the odd blub here and there, but this had me in full flood, and that was even before Morse joined in, to the point that at it’s conclusion he had to take a few minutes to get himself together in order to continue. Anybody who failed to be moved by the performance, or its effect on the man himself, could only be described as soulless, but I don’t think such an accusation could be levelled at anybody present, be they in the audience or onstage.
Soon though, he was back to his usual self, revelling in the joy of the music, juggling guitar and keyboard duties in addition to his singing, and even leaving the stage to perform in the audience at one point.
Having plumbed the depths of his emotions and delivered an outstanding performance in the process, he’d have been forgiven for ending his (already near 3-hour) set right there, but we were treated to an encore featuring Transatlantic’s Bridge Across Forever performed solo, before he was rejoined by the band for one final number, and then band and crew alike crowded the stage for a joyous celebration of the end of the tour. As I mentioned at the start Neal Morse will be back (and I’ll be seeing him again) at High Voltage in July - indeed it’s about the best reason I can see for going on the Saturday at all this year –see you there! (9/10)
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Bonus review: Don McGlashan at the Bush Hall
I added a last-minute, unexpected bonus gig to the ‘Summer of Gigs’ as a friend (No private joke this time, it really was *just* a friend!) recently relocated from New Zealand, just in time for us to catch one of our country’s premiere singer-songwriters/
bandleaders/general overachievers in action. Despite his success with bands including Blam Blam Blam and The Mutton Birds, and as a solo artist, between us we could only name two of his songs off the top off our heads (Dominion Road and Anchor Me). I expected to recognise a lot more when I heard them – but didn’t.
Never mind. Armed only with his voice, acoustic guitar, loop pedals and, erm…tuba (of course!) McGlashan delivered an entertaining evening, with NZ-specific references a-plenty in the lyrics, which created a nice, nostalgic vibe amongst the audience, I’m sure almost entirely made up of fellow ex-pats. Nice.
While unfamiliar with much of his material he proved that the esteem granted to him in New Zealand is well-earned, and he is every bit as deserving of wider attention as the brilliant (but overrated) Neil Finn. (8/10)