The Promise of Adventure — An Evening with the Neal Morse Band

I was an enormous fan of the Neal Morse Band’s 2016 album The Similitude of a Dream, and have been studiously following Morse’s career for several years. His collaborations with Dream Theater alum Mike Portnoy have never disappointed, whether it’s the contemplative prog wanderings of Transatlantic, the poppier, more accessible tunes of Flying Colors, or Neal’s religious, epic, and at times deeply personal solo albums, the Morse/Portnoy pairing is a fountain of amazing music. Their most recent collaboration is in the Neal Morse Band, alongside bassist Randy George, keyboardist Bill Hubauer, and guitarist Eric Gillette, and their three albums under this banner have been some of the absolute best music released in the past decade. This band has a certain synchronicity that’s missing from most of today’s prog, with everyone getting ample time in the spotlight. This Saturday marked my third year in a row seeing Neal Morse (2017’s The Road Called Home tour and last year’s tour in support of Life and Times being the others), and once again I’m left with little to complain about.

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Like their 2017 tour, the band played through the entirety of their latest album, The Great Adventure, which is a sequel to 2016’s The Similitude of a Dream. The Great Adventure continues the story of Similitude, once again loosely based on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. This time around we follow the story of Joseph, Christian’s eldest son, whose story follows many similar story beats to his father’s. Characters from the book and from the previous album show up in different capacities, as do some of the more pervasive musical themes from Similitude, but The Great Adventure is by no means a rehashing of the same musical material. The Great Adventure is every bit as diverse and brilliant as its predecessor, and the band’s performance of the work was masterful and nearly flawless.

The show opened with Morse in the same outfit he wore at the end of the previous tour, which makes sense as the album opens as the previous one closed. It was a great touch and showed just how much love and care these guys put into making their performances entertaining and cohesive. The sweeping overture was played perfectly, as expected, and the performance of Welcome to the World was electric. The crowd was singing along almost instantly, and you could tell it was a group of fans who already knew the relatively new album front to back. The performances of the next several songs were similarly emotionally charged, with Dark Melody including some amazing vocal work from Morse and Hubauer, the latter of whose vocal work is distinctive and piercing. Hubauer’s position at the back of the stage sometimes made it difficult to see him, but you could always tell when he was singing.

Gillette’s guitar and voice work got a chance to shine in I Got to Run, a more straightforward rocker that let him show off his impressive chops at both, and To the River served as a light breather with more nods to the previous album and some impressive acoustic guitar work from Morse. They took their first pause before the title track to joke around a bit with the audience about how it sounds a bit like a country track, with Gillette providing a hilarious vocal example and Portnoy insisting that they sing it that way for the second chorus given that it was to be the last night on the US leg of the tour. They obliged, and it was every bit as funny as it sounds. The rest of the song was pretty awesome, too.

Venture in Black featured Portnoy on vocals for the first part of the song, which remains impressive, and a great call-and-response vocal part between Hubauer and the rest of the band in the back half. The first half of the show was closed with Hey Ho Let’s Go and To the River, both of which once again featured tremendous voice work from Gillette as well as an angelic keyboard solo from Morse.

After an intermission they came right back with the second overture, which has some great organ work from Morse and Hubauer on keyboards and a great, floor-tom driven beat from Portnoy. Fighting with Destiny is another track that’s just pulsing with energy, mostly thanks to the fantastic rhythms of Portnoy and George driving at a very fast pace. Vanity Fair, probably my favorite track on the album, didn’t disappoint either, with Morse wearing an over-the-top costume and the whole band just belting the chorus and dancing about. You could tell they really had a blast with this tune, especially with George stepping up to the mic with an affected, pompous British accent.

Portnoy once again took vocal duty on Welcome to the World 2, not only singing and drumming but also gesticulating and pantomiming with his drumsticks to accentuate the lines he was singing. The Element of Fear opened with a dramatic, growling solo from Gillette’s seventh string, and was another impressive instrumental showing from the whole band that seemed to give everyone a chance to shine. Indeed, Morse constantly moved around the stage for most of the show, trying to draw attention to the various band members when they played particularly impressive parts. You can tell he really enjoys playing with these guys.

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Child of Wonder and The Great Despair were the two best vocal showcases from Morse and Gillette, respectively, and Freedom Calling is an absolute tour de instrumental force, complete with a monster of a drum solo from Portnoy halfway through. Finally we came to A Love that Never Dies, which operates on much the same frequency as Broken Sky/Long Day (Repirse) from Similitude, reprising the musical themes of the album and giving Eric Gillette a chance to flex his vocal chords with a gorgeous closing melody.

But of course, they weren’t done there. The show closed with a career retrospective medley for Morse, starting with The Land of Beginning Again from Testimony, and fluidly playing through parts of some of his best work, namely Temple of the Living God from ?, The Conflict from Sola Scriptura, and parts from One, Lifeline, and Testimony 2, ending with a fist-pumping rendition of Momentum that seamlessly led into The Call from their first album as the Neal Morse Band, which I’m inclined to say is the greatest song released in the past decade. No one was in their seats by the time they segued into Broken Sky/Long Day from Similitude, bringing down the house with Bill Hubauer’s sweeping keyboard and Gillette’s soaring vocals. In a stroke of musical genius, Morse ended the show with the last few lines of Similitude, which are also the first lines of The Great Adventure, smiling to himself as he played the last few piano bars.

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Simply put, the Neal Morse Band put on a damn good show. They’re entertainers, first and foremost, and the lights, pyrotechnics, and graphics backing them up always accentuated the best musical moments without distracting from the sheer amount of talent and musicianship on display from all five members of the band. Morse has written an impressive catalog and assembled an absolute powerhouse of a band, and it’s truly a joy to watch them play. I look forward to what’s next for the Neal Morse Band, and you can be sure I’ll be getting a ticket the next time he’s in town.

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