Did Portnoy just pull a Morse on Rosh Hashana?

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Mike Portnoy yesterday announced that he is leaving Dream Theater, the band he founded a quarter of a century ago. Dream Theater not only created a prodigious recorded legacy, but also brought Progressive Rock to a new level of respectability. Literally hundreds of bands from every corner of the globe owe their sound and their success to Dream Theater. The trail blazed by Portnoy and his exceptionally talented bandmates camouflaged the Prog by wrapping it in the attitude and aggression of Heavy Metal. With such heavy riffs and forceful vocals, the masses were perfectly willing to accept odd time signatures and extended compositions that required Roman numerals to mark the divisions.

And while each member of the band is truly a virtuoso (particularly Jordan Rudess on keys and John Petrucci on guitar), it was Portnoy’s drumming that brought the band’s success to another level. At the live show, audience members are treated to a drum kit the size of a school bus. But Portnoy does not stop with the standard double bass attack. He has a unique ability to bring the mathematical perfection of artists like Bill Bruford and Neil Peart to the visceral thunder of John Bonham and Keith Moon. As anyone who has seen him play can attest, the combination is nothing short of explosive.

Another of Portnoy’s influences is Phil Collins. Portnoy may not pursue the latter’s taste for soft rock and adult contemporary song-stylings, but in the 80’s there was no harder working man in music. While fronting Genesis to the height of their popularity, Collins also stormed the top of the charts with his solo career, played on and produced countless albums, and even toured with other artists as a sideman. All at the same time.

Over the past ten years, since Dream Theater has really established its foothold as a successful and self-sustaining musical enterprise, Portnoy has matched (and perhaps surpassed) Collins’ amazing run thirty years ago. Lately, this has culminated in a collaboration with Avenged Sevenfold which included recording a record and touring in support. Before that, Portnoy reunited with the pure progressive super group Transatlantic, to both record an album and do a tour. He has played on several albums by fellow Transatlantic artist Neal Morse. He has fronted instrumental projects and recorded instructional videos. He has probably recorded as much or more in his extracurricular activities as he has with Dream Theater.

Neal Morse is an extraordinarily gifted songwriter, singer and keyboard player. He founded a band with his brother called Spock’s Beard, which released its first album in 1995. Spock’s Beard was, and continues to be, a truly progressive Rock band. There was no mistaking this outfit with Genesis of the 70’s or Marillion of the 80’s. This may have been the same art form, but it had truly progressed. And one of the Beard’s contributions to that ongoing progression was a more aggressive guitar sound, almost veering into the realm of metal at times. Spock’s Beard worked hard, recording and touring without mercy. The result was a legion of fans and enough commercial success for the gig to be self-sustaining.

Morse is seven years older than Portnoy but the two have become great friends and natural musical collaborators. They share an ESP that elevates the music they make together. In 2002, Morse shocked the prog world by not just leaving Spock’s Beard but asserting that his relationship with the Lord and Jesus Christ was the reason. While this has made many a prog fan uncomfortable, Portnoy rushed to the defense of his friend and the two created and extraordinary work of music simply called “?” in 2005. There are a slew of guests, including the venerable Steve Hackett, but at the record’s heart and soul is the beautiful communication shared by these gifted artists.

And now Portnoy has left his band, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, no less. Is there a religious awakening coming down the pike for Portnoy? Will we next see him sporting payis and teffilin? I don’t think so. It is more likely that this is similar to Peter Gabriel’s departure from Genesis in 1975, when he stated he was searching for the unexpected. Portnoy is ready to get off the merry-go-round that Dream Theater has become. It seems a shame, because he, unlike Gabriel in Genesis, has always had so much leeway to do independent projects, but it is clear that is now not enough.

I don’t like Spock’s Beard as much now, even though they’ve done an amazing job of staying together, maximizing their output and staying relevant. I hope Dream Theater can follow suit. But just as Neal Morse’s solo output since his departure represents the best music he has ever created, so I hope that, whatever comes next for Portnoy will eclipse all of his past achievements.

Nearfest 2010 – just a lil taste

If you know me, you know that Gabriel-era Genesis is sort of where it all begins.  I’m not old enough to have seen the classic line-up, but when I finally discovered the genius of that quintet, well, that pretty much changed everything forever.  I’ve gone deep with Genesis, seeing the trio when possible, collecting every manner of album, bootleg and video, and going to see the amazing Musical Box tribute show countless times.

And my Prog Rock education and appreciation has just gone on and on.  I have recently opened my mind to extraordinary groups from Brazil, Sweden, Poland and other points across the globe.  I have gotten to know bands old and new, finding music that is uplifting, challenging and extraordinary.  So much of what I love about all the music I have discovered is that it relates back to that wondrous moment when Messrs. Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Hackett, and Rutherford brought forth the beauty of The Musical Box, Foxtrot, Selling England By The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.  It was no coincidence that those selections had such a profound impact on me.

So, among the first-generation proggers, I’ve been pretty lucky to see the reunions and comebacks of Yes, King Crimson, ELP and even Genesis.  But Hackett, long exiled from the group he helped make famous, does more to keep that original spirit of innovation and irreverence alive than all the rest.  When I found that his only area performance would be at Nearfest 2010, I pounced on the opportunity and grabbed very good seats.

I had long known of Nearfest, but never mustered the strength or inclination to spend the better part of an entire weekend in nearby Bethlehem, PA watching a lot of prog with which I was wholly unfamiliar.  Thanks to the miracle of social networking, I got more info and encouragement than ever to make Nearfest happen this year, but in the end, I only sprung for Friday night, electing to, once again, pass on the vast majority of music and fellowship that makes up the weekend.

I would have let the whole thing pass me by (again), had it not been for the encouragement of my spiritual music guide, my teacher, my long-lost big brother: Cousin Steve.  He played a rather large role in the whole Genesis thing taking shape for me, and though we’ve seen Hackett before, he was not about to let this opportunity pass.  Thanks to Steve (who had never been either), I got my first taste of Nearfest.  And now, a few days later, I am comfortable in the firm belief that it will not be my last.

Lehigh University is a beautiful setting and the Zoellner Arts Center is the Perfect theater.  We arrived in plenty of time to see Riverside (a phenomenal Polish band I have followed for a few years, but never seen live), but I locked my keys in the trunk just as we were heading over to the theater.  The Lehigh security department was understanding, kind and efficient in helping me put that brain cramp in the rearview mirror and Steve and I took our seats in the fifth row center after only missing a couple songs.

Riverside was tremendous.  They lean more toward the prog-metal end of the spectrum, with a dash of Porcupine Tree thrown in for good measure.  But after seeing Dream Theater last summer, I really appreciated Riverside’s more deliberate approach.  The emphasis was less on individual pyrotechnics and more on creating a dramatic musical experience.  I was thrilled.

We then got a nice long break to kibbitz with our fellow proggers.  Serge Morissette (artistic director of The Musical Box) was present and in good spirits until he saw my Transatlantic shirt.  He missed the gig in his home town of Montreal on account of being in Europe during the eruption of a certain Icelandic volcano.  He was delighted, however to chat us up about his groups latest doings (their version of The Lamb may be coming back!) and we even shared a few laughs about Mr. Hackett’s personal difficulties.  Serge said that Hackett’s (now) ex-wife would now be changing her name from Kim Poor to Kim Rich.

Serge’s good nature and attitude was emblematic of every soul we encountered on Friday night.  Everyone was happy and willing to share a story as we bonded over this music we share and love.  I finally understand why people have been telling me to just do it.

So after this lovely experience in this beautiful place, Steve and I walked back into the theater to see Hackett – the original, the real thing.  And, of course, he did not disappoint.  It was a full set, with such surprises as Carpet Crawlers, Slogans, and Ace of Wands thrown in to the crowd’s delight.

So I’ve had my taste of Nearfest.  I get it.  Next year, even if I have to go solo, I’ll be there.  And I’ll look forward to seeing all those beautiful folks who come from far and wide to enjoy the greatest music ever composed.

The Watch – impersonation or reincarnation?

Simone Rosetti

Cover bands.  Tribute bands.  ”Experiences.”  Do not get me started!  Have you never wanted to do something creative?  Something that was truly yours?  Do you see your job as, essentially, one of impersonation?  The only passion that really comes across to the audience is the passion for perfection.  At best, the performers disappear, or, as is often the case, wear costumes.  But part of it is still an exercise in impersonation.

But I am a good one to talk.  Let us not even, for the moment, mention the dozens of shows by a certain Genesis tribute band that I have witnessed.  As an audience member I delight in the opportunity to see something I never had the opportunity to witness the first time around.  And, taken on its merits, the performance is inspiring – sound, vision, composition. But here’s the sick part: I also have audio-only recordings of tribute bands!  Why not just listen to the original?  That’s the thing I’ve been listening to for twenty-five years!

But that’s just it.  After all this time, I’m looking for something different, another level of genius.  And when that raw material is in another’s hands, the possibility for “interpretation” or variation is dangerously prominent.

Well, The Watch is your cure for the common tribute band.  Part of what motivated Genesis (a BIG part) was the desire/need to write music.  That push to be creative, to do something new, was, no doubt, a big part of what moved the real Genesis on stage.  The Musical Box has never had that.  New music has always been explicitly excluded from their mandate.  The Watch, on the other hand,  has four studio albums of original material and a live album of that material.  They are established original artists.  They have also created two Genesis programs that perfectly imitate the dominating force of Foxtrot and Nursery Cryme.  Those records have had a profound, though often overlooked, influence on music throughout Europe, North America and South America.

Will The Watch have that kind of impact?  I don’t think so, but one never knows.  The point is that they are making the music that they want to make, and while it is overwhelmingly influenced by Gabriel-era Genesis, it is also their own.  Or is this what Genesis would have sounded like if that remarkable quintet had never disbanded?  That’s a fanboy question for the ages.

For now, I count myself very lucky to have come across this band from Milan.  Thirty-eight years ago, Genesis was looking for a break with a live show that they new was good, but it wasn’t getting through outside England.  Italy was a home for Genesis when they were on the road.  Now, it seems, Genesis has become a musical home for a few gifted musicians from Italy.

I have ordered The Watch’s two most recent titles from Amazon – Primitive and Planet Earth.  I also want to thank Sommutante for having an amazing music blog.  It’s in Portuguese, but it’s pretty easy to see he’s pretty hip.  And I don’t recommend Google Translate.  Just listen to the music.

Shining Bald Heads (5:55) – from Vacuum (2004):

04 Shining Bald Heads

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Here we go again with “tribute” band madness

After seeing Montreal’s The Musical Box perform three different recreations of classic Genesis concerts (at over two dozen separate events), I am still overwhelmed by the sheer weirdness of it all.  How can you spend so much time in a role without starting to lose the line between where the individual begins and the role ends?

There can be no doubt that the music is other-worldly.  Without any doubt, these are musicians of the highest calibre, but there is always something more there, something on which I can not put my finger.  The music is too good to be just the reading of someone else’s staff notation.  Let us forget about the costumes and wigs for just a minute and look only to the music.

I have, for example heard the incomparable Neal Morse play the opening chords of ‘Watcher of The Skies’ and noted that, despite the utter lack of improvisation contained in that musical passage, his version was not as dramatic.  And this is an artist (Morse) whose prog credentials are above and beyond any reproach.  He is a modern master.

But when you hear David Myers (who?) play the same passage, there is a calm immediacy that transfers all of the power and majesty of the original directly to the listener.  Is it that he is not Neal Morse?  Is it that Myers has all of the authentic and original equipment?  Is that David Myers is wearing a wig?

Of course, none of this matters when Sebastian, who, in his attempt to recall the prominent and unique role played by Michael Rutherford in this quintet, and wears no costume whatsoever, leans into the fuzz bass and the Moog Taurus pedals and I feel my internal organs being rearranged.  At that point, I don’t give a flying fuck who is playing the music.

But, as it was in 1998 when I first experienced the monster in The Musical Box, the experience remains bizarre.  Greg Bendian has taken over the drums and is absolutely giddy to be living out his boyhood fantasy of being Bill Bruford.  Bendian is highly accomplished and has firmly established credentials with his ‘Mahavishnu Project’ which, as one would surmise, re-creates the music of Mahavishnu Orchestra.  That is/was Bendian’s project – he had control (probably did more work) and gets a lot of the credit for tremendous success, notoriety and several albums.  Not only does TMB NOT have albums, but Bendian has to give up a few choice drum parts because, in the original performance, Bruford did not play those parts – Phil did.

So Bendian has to give up featured drum parts in ‘Cinema Show’ and ‘Robbery Assault & Battery’ where Phil wanted to be showcased.  But the ‘singer’ Phil can’t play drums as well as the real Phil.  Which means that, during the evening’s performance, the role of Phil Collins is played by two men – Denis Gagne on vocal and percussion and Marc LaFlamme on drum kit.  Marc does an amazing job and a large portion of the audience doesn’t even know he is the person playing.

So, after all this time, the performance of these talented musicians continues to fascinate, delight and confuse me.  But with players this talented and a score this well-executed, all you need is a program of some of the finest music ever composed.  Fortunately, Genesis has taken care of that for us.

(The camera phone doesn’t do great, but here’s what I got, picture-wise)

Are you fucking kidding me? And what in GOD’s name is “pure abundant authenticity”?!?

Daryl Stuermer and Martin Levac are Genesis Rewired.  On a day when we should be celebrating the birthday of the 20th Century’s greatest composer, I am nothing but embarrassed.  My love of Genesis does not stop with the departure of Peter Gabriel.  Nor does it end with the unceremonious dismissal of guitar visionary Steve Hackett in 1977.  Although the trio of Banks Collins and Rutherford is well known for its multiplatinum hitmaking tendencies, that same organization also creating powerful prog rock masterpieces such as Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End, Fading Lights and Down and Out.  These songs stand tall in the great pantheon of Genesis music.

But Daryl Stuermer?  On his own website, Stuermer, who was brought in as a touring yes-man with enough technical prowess to butcher Hackett’s poetry while not complaining, describes himself thusly:

In 1978 Daryl became the lead guitarist and touring member of the super-group Genesis.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is an out-and-out lie.  He was a touring guitarist who played some lead during said tours.  He was NEVER a lead guitarist for the band.  When Hackett left, all guitar duties for all music that band Genesis ever made from that moment forward was performed by the gentle Mike Rutherford.  There is no Genesis album (with the exclusion of live albums) that Daryl Stuermer ever played on.  None.  Zero.

And now, Daryl has partnered with an individual who has made his public life an imitation of Phil Collins professional career.  I’ve seen Martin Levac perform with the cover band The Musical Box, and he executed all of the percussive acrobatics of the Gabriel era with authority and panache.  He also ran his own Genesis cover band that focused on the post-Gabriel era.  From what I have heard of that band, the music is astonishingly good.

But now Martin has flushed his credibility down the toilet by partnering with Stuermer for a project that is described in terms that barely make any sense:

Together they create an unforgettable evening that reinvents the Genesis experience.

Destined to become this year’s most requested concert, this five-piece band with a sensational light show, presents the music of Genesis with pure abundant authenticity.

Can anyone tell me what any of that means?  And this mummer’s farce is only perpetuated by the fact that the website does not say of this is new and original music, Genesis music or Phil Collins music.

Fellas, listen.  Here’s a little tip for ya.  There is no such thing as “abundant authenticity.”  Something is either authentic or it is not.  At the moment, all indications are that Genesis Rewired is not.

Steve Hackett is getting crushed

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(I don’t know how I let this one slip by last month.  For those of you to whom this is old news – sorry)

Poor old Steve Hackett.  When he was in Genesis, he could never get enough of his ideas across to the other band members.  One day, he threatened to quit, they mixed him out of the record, and went on to become multi-gazillionaires.  Steve managed to maintain a lot of artistic integrity by keeping all his solo stuff in-house. in other words, no major labels were used to get his prodigious and extraordinary solo material to the streets.

And while said material is all pretty good (very good, in fact), old Steve has never gotten the kind of economic remuneration that has been showered on all four of his former bandmates Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Michael Rutherford and Phil Collins, although it should be noted that Collins has three ex-wives.

And now, as Hackett approaches his 60th birthday, he’s being sued for everything he has by his ex-wife.  According to the TimesOnline, Kim Poor is making a play for EVERYTHING – including Hackett’s share of his royalties from old Genesis music.  Ouch!

Apparently things are so bad that Hackett is working on his new album in the living room of his flat.  Double ouch!!

But even with all this adversity, his new record will still be coming out on October 5, and I’ll bet it will be ten times more amazing than anything we’ve heard from Tony Banks in the past ten years!

Does this LOOK like a jam band?

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Let’s not worry about ‘prog-rock’ for a minute.  I’ve no real beef with the label.  Labels can be helpful, they can even be necessary.  Certainly ‘jam band’ is a label.  But if you’ve decided to use a label (and I am talking about you), then it’s absolutely essential to realize the infinite variety that can exist within any grouping that may share a single characteristic.  There’s a lot of different kinds of prog out there.  There’s a lot of different kinds of jam bands too.

So, with all that out of the way, let’s get to the topic du jour – Genesis.  Here’s an easy one, an absolute, something you can hang your hat on, unchanging, objective reality.  Gabriel-era Genesis was not a jam band.

Many other popular bands from 1970 through 1975 conducted sonic explorations that happened right before the audience’s very eyes.  They threw caution to the wind and ventured into the world of improvisation where anything could happen.  And such behavior was not limited to the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, although those are two fine examples from the era.  Even real prog bands would strip themselves naked of any script or predictability and just see what happened – King Crimson is a perfect example.

As Miles Davis was bringing elements of rock into jazz, bands that improvised were really bringing elements of jazz into rock.  Zappa would use his entire ensemble (and sometimes an audience) as an instrument and conduct noise to tell the story or make the point.  In the earliest parts of this period, Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd experimented with music/noise to match their groundbreaking visual show.

One of the most important aspects of improvised music is the relationship (or lack thereof) between the players.  Ideally, great improvisation happens when the group all know one another so well that they can basically read each others’ minds.  The result is that classic moment of the whole becoming a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Its a cliche, but in this case, it is true.

On the other hand, jams can become much more interesting by the presence of a destabilizing influence.  The great example of this is Miles Davis in 1970.  He spent a lot of time and did a lot of touring with band that consisted of himself on trumpet, Gary Bartz on sax, Michael Henderson on bass, Keith Jarrett on keys, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Airto on percussion.  Although the band had a strong improvised element, the whole thing was beautifully thrown off one night when John McLaughlin joined on electric guitar.  Everyone was thrown out of their comfort zone and the thing got even better.

So, once again, Gabriel-era Genesis was not a jam band.  They composed together for five glorious years (all writing credits were always given to all five members) and their goal upon going in front of an audience was to recreate, as much as possible, the sound on the record.  But with all that talent, all that original thinking, all those fancy toys, and all that affinity from years of playing, recording and touring together, I have always wondered, what would it have sounded like if THIS band jammed?  What if they just started with some very basic ideas, musical germs, and noodled a bit and jammed and worked on making something from nothing?  What would that sound like?

And now I know what it would sound like and it is a beautiful noise.  And, in the very near future, I look forward to sharing it with you over at Blogerantz.