The Neal Morse Band & Beardfish @ Islington Assembly Hall, London
Three words - Can of worms. Two if you like – Pandora’s box. If he’d never mentioned it, maybe no-one would have known. The unfolding crisis of Mike Portnoys’s illness, the details of which slowly flooded the internet during the evening and days following along with the responses moving into the three and four thousand mark (and by now well beyond that figure) kind of detracted from the fact that there was a gig going on - actually a rather fantastic gig. Without going into details which could easily be found a few clicks away, Mr P’s condition and predicament received all manner of remarks ranging from the “hope you’re feeling well” to the downright abusive and essentially threatened to detract from the gig itself – the only UK date on a short European trip by high priest of prog, Neal Morse and his band accompanied by Swedish proggers Beardfish in what actually turned out to be well worth a trip down to that London.
Certainly the aftermath seems to be focussing totally on the fallout from Portnoy’s comments; something which should be put right asap with a look at the reason why we were all there – the music. It had all started promisingly. Having a spot of late afternoon grub in the Worker’s Café directly across the road from the venue, (highly recommended by the way), we spotted Neal having a chat/interview and possibly an all day breakfast with another couple. Sat beneath the TV screen showing Sky Sports, it must have been a good twenty minutes before we’d even noticed him! Of course, not wanting to interrupt, the moment came when he started to shift, so making a move and the chance to shake hands, say hello and ask if he was planning to play the gloriously over the top version of MacArthur Park from the album’s bonus disc (the answer was a polite but emphatic no) was in way going to pass by.
Unaware of the drama backstage and beyond, the fans in the lengthening queue outside patiently endured the delays resulting in late doors and Beardfish starting their set over half an hour late. In the well filled venue (comfortably full would be the most apt term; you know the feeling you get when you’ve had a good dinner but aren't stuffed to Mr Creosote proportions) the fans may have just been glad of finally having some music.
The Beardfish clan, supplemented by new live recruit (ie, recruited for the live shows, no surprise that they use actual living musicians) in the form of keyboard player Martin Bjorg were expertly marshalled by band protagonist Rikard Sjoblom. With the added luxury of having Bjorg on board, Sjoblom himself flitted between keyboards and guitar and in taking up vocal and introduction duties, it’s clear he’s the one holding the baby. Alongside him, sock footed bassist Robert Hansen hopped, darted and pranced around like a vaguely possessed warlock – a visually entertaining counterpoint to the complexities of the music.
Splitting their set between half new material and half selected from their back catalogue, they stand as a true representation of progressive cause – all quirky rhythms and melodies and as +4626- Comfortzone, their current album, attests to, not afraid to go out of their comfort zone and take a few musical risks. With plenty of fans in the crowd they basically held the fort – their claim of “we don’t really do setlists” being quite handy as they just played while waiting for the all clear that the main act was all clear and ready to go.
Morse’s The Grand Experiment album released earlier this year has proved to be quite a sensation with the reviewers and the public in general. Even part of the Manchester Rocks review is quoted on the man’s promotional blurb for the album – If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. With his regular sidemen now being recognised as his band, the full complement of musicians and instruments left Morse free to switch between his own front centre keyboard and acoustic and electric guitar. Despite any indication that it may have been otherwise, this was clearly Morse’s show. The mid-set opportunity for him to take centre stage spotlit with only his acoustic and run through Transatlantic’s Shine, complete with audience participation, just emphasised why for many, he is ‘the man’. Followed by an almost full band accompaniment on the new album’s Waterfall, four of them lined up at the lip of the stage, acoustic guitars ringing out and harmonies spot on, it provided a moment of sheer subtlety in comparison to the earlier full on, bombastic blast of the charge through Spocks Beard’s Harms Way.
It was fitting that , a healthy selection of the new album formed the core of the set. Closing out with the half hour extravaganza which is Alive Again with guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboard player Bill Hubauer also making significant vocal contributions, it was also a showcase for some high jinks. Even Mr P was able to rouse himself to play ‘swap the instrument’ as all five musicians hot footed around the stage taking turns and even Randy George getting down (literally – on his knees) to tap out a bass pedal solo. Not something you see every day.
Maybe Neal had even said a short prayer for his drummer buddy – he was surely offering up some thanks as he sunk to his knees following the “we will walk his way” climax to The Creation, taking a hanky to blow his nose suffering from a cold rather than dabbing the emotion from his face.
As a composer and arranger, there can’t be many in the progressive field who can touch Morse. Steven Wilson may be the pin up boy and general darling of the critics, but the passion of Neal Morse and his ability to write and perform simple yet overpoweringly emotive material combined with an unerring knack of churning out prog epics almost in his sleep separates him from the boys.
We could be fussy and throw a wobbler in not getting an encore, particularly it being a showcase London gig, but watching the band standing in line and soaking up the prolonged applause, there was the realisation that the curfew had hit as the advent of the house lights told the throng it was time to go. Being good Christians and not football hooligans, everyone filed out respectfully, no seats were ripped up and thrown from the balcony and all was well with the world.
There’s something to be said for the healing power of music – even after two hours of prime Neal Morse, for his audience and his band too it will have surely a case of being re-energised and uplifted by the music – who wouldn’t be? Perhaps our famous British health service should take a leaf out of the prog rock book of remedies and recognise the power of music - the perfect tonic to revitalise the body and the soul.
Words & Photos: Mike Ainscoe