As anyone who has ever read anything here or met me in real life can attest, I’m a giant Rush fan, both literally and figuratively. As such, an admiration for prog metal gods Dream Theater seems only to be a natural progression (NPI). Their latest album, this year’s The Astonishing is their second concept album, and their first double concept album, and on top of both of those, it’s essentially a two-hour love letter to 2112. So I love it. And seeing them perform it live is even more awesome.
Despite the relatively small audience size on November 15th’s show, the five guys still managed to get a hell of a lot of energy from their viewers, many of whom stood for a majority of the performance. There’s not one particular band member who stands out as more exceptional than the rest, so I’ll have to go person-by-person here to hit the high points. Vocalist James LaBrie was perhaps the most impressive in terms of sheer stamina, and this performance in particular was very demanding in terms of vocals. The Astonishing is, after all, a story, and required LaBrie to take on the role of several different characters, a task which he handled ably. He was aided in this endeavor by the presence of several giant screens behind the stage and on both sides, which served as a compliment to the story by displaying the characters and settings in a way that was surprisingly not that corny, and actually pretty helpful. These screens also helped to punctuate the various events in the story during the “NOMAC music” segments, displaying the spherical droids as they went about their business between important events in the story.
Guitarist John Petrucci showed perhaps the most technical mastery of his craft, as he is well known among prog enthusiasts and guitarists alike as a genius guitarist. This performance once again showed him at the peak of his ability, and also gave him a couple opportunities to switch to an acoustic guitar for the lighter songs. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess is the melodic master here, and seemed to be having the most fun. Both he and bassist John Myung showed a sort of professorial approach to this performance, and remain the only members of a rock band I’ve ever seen use sheet music on stage.
The Astonishing itself is a much different beast for Dream Theater, being far less heavy and more orchestral than any of their other works (perhaps excluding Six Degrees), and giving Rudess in particular a lot to do in between songs and story transitions. The show was advertised as a complete run-through of The Astonishing, which it basically was, with a few omissions for time (most baffling of these was Road to Revolution). They managed a near perfect run through this giant musical beast (other than an amusing lyrical flub by LaBrie on Losing Faythe), and still had another surprise in them before it was all over.
To much of the audience’s … astonishment (sorry), they came back out for a superb encore of three of their biggest hits, and the crowd went completely crazy. Not a single person was in their seats for the final three tunes, and audience contribution was at a high (discounting a kid a few rows in front of me who somehow knew every lyric to every song in the still relatively new album the dominated the show). They started with 2002’s As I Am, giving the newest band member, drummer Mike Mangini, an opportunity to show that he is more than capable to rattle off some of Mike Portnoy’s most famous parts (though I’d love to see The Dance of Eternity). After that, they hearkened back to their first concept album with an anthemic performance of 1999’s The Spirit Carries On before bringing it all home with their signature song, Pull Me Under, complete with it’s Beatles-esque cut-off ending.
Not a single member of the audience left disappointed that day, and even an outside observer could tell there was a vast appreciation for these five guys and all they’ve done over the past 30 years. Perhaps my only qualm would be with the relatively small amount of attention Mike Mangini got. Mangini is an incredibly talented drummer, unarguably one of the very best, and it simply seemed like this album didn’t give him a whole lot to do, and consequently not much to do at this show. That said, he handled his job spectacularly, albeit with little showiness, which left Rudess and LaBrie up to the task of rallying the crowd, which they did with ease. Overall, The Astonishing Live showed that Dream Theater still has something to say, and that anyone who left when Portnoy did is simply missing out on some great prog.