Gig Review: The Neal Morse Band + Beardfish at Islington Assembly Rooms, 7th March 2015

Saturday night’s concert is one that has been met with a lot of controversy already. Mike Portnoy fell ill during the day, was taken to hospital, posted a controversial Facebook update, and played the gig without having medical attention. It’s taken me until now (a couple of days later) to appreciate the whole story; when I was there I just wanted the gig to go ahead, nothing else. I can see how it might be taken that Portnoy’s message was rude and diva-like, but whatever you think, the man is dedicated and a trooper. He played that show note perfect with as much enthusiasm as I’ve ever seen him, even though he looked in pain the whole way through and was even wearing thermals. So Mike Portnoy, you have my approval for that gig.

Anyway, onto the actual review.

The beautiful London weather, while obviously not a good omen for things to come, was an absolute blessing to be queuing in. I like to get there early to chat to people and get to the front and in the past I’ve been miserably dripping in the rain, but not last Saturday. It put everyone in a good mood, even when we were told about the delay. The gig was 45 minutes late, but there didn’t seem to be any restlessness among the crowd, and Beardfish were met with a resounding roar. They began with three tracks from their latest album +4626-COMFORTZONE (yeah, I dunno) which I think blew me and most of the crowd away. Their on stage presence is so fun, especially the bassist – a Viking-type guy who seems to glide around the stage on his socks – and the singer, effortlessly switching instruments and dynamics.

They played a couple of older tracks and finished with the amazing ‘Ludwig and Sverker’. The song deals with the singer’s stillborn children – I don’t know how he manages to sing it without breaking down – and is potentially their best. It was a blinding performance and left a lot for the Neal Morse Band to live up to.

Still nervous about Portnoy, which was only exacerbated by the shaking heads and glum looks of the road crew, I really wasn’t sure how the gig was going to go. But as the lights went down, the band took to the stage, and the first few bars of ‘The Call’ rang out through the hall, I knew we were in for a special time. Like I said, Mike looked visibly pained but listening to his performance you wouldn’t have believed there was anything wrong. ‘The Call’ is a vocally demanding song from most members of the band, but it was executed perfectly, and the entire thing was possibly the best opener to a concert I’ve seen.

They followed it with the quirky ‘Leviathan’, complete with a sneeze from Portnoy, and ‘The Grand Experiment’, the first single from the new album of the same name. The album has definitely grown on me – I think it could be one of his best, bar ‘Agenda’ which they didn’t play – and the songs translated really well live. The audience seemed to be well versed in all the lyrics and had a great time. Some people behind me were dancing for the entire show.

After an amazing performance of Spock’s Beard deep cut ‘Harm’s Way’, Bill Hubauer – amazing multi-instrumentalist – was put briefly in the spotlight for an impressive keyboard solo in which he teased the next (and possibly best) song: ‘The Creation’. This is easily one of my favourite Neal Morse songs and it’s always been a dream to see it live. Let me tell you, it did not disappoint. It’s a 20 minute tour-de-force of progressive genius, twisting and turning, with a massive epic ending. It’s pretty much perfect and everyone played impeccably. I was stood in front of Eric Gillette who was really impressive to watch throughout the show.

Things took a turn for the mellower as Neal was left alone on the stage to play a song solo, which according to Mike he just learned in the car to the hospital. He’s been playing a different song each night of the tour, and we were treated to ‘Shine’ from Transatlantic’s latest Kaleidoscope. It was a special moment and the whole crowd helped out on vocals. The others then joined him for a lovely performance of ‘Waterfall’. Bill Hubauer really shines on this track with his clarinet solo and rich vocals.

The last song of the night (they were running too late to play the usual encore) was the obligatory epic from the latest album: Alive Again. While ‘The Creation’ may be a slightly better song, this was the performance to end all performances of the night. Complete with a middle instrument swap section where Eric played a shredding drum solo and Randy George showed off his guitar and keyboard prowess, in which even Mike pulled himself from behind the kit to take over bass duties. It was a great moment and it was clear that these guys are really doing it because they love playing. The ‘Man Inside’ section with Bill on lead vocals segueing into the final epic crescendo was the highlight of the night for me and an amazing end to an amazing gig.

Neal himself was on absolutely top form throughout, both vocally and stage presence wise. He’s a compelling frontman and, backed with this band, definitely one of the best artists out there.

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