No Words. That is how I need to describe Morsefest 2015. Of course, that would not leave you with the total picture of what occurred. Morsefest is the event put together by Neal Morse and his label, Radiant Records, in his hometown of Cross Plains, TN. If I have to sum it up in one word, it would be extraordinary. It was an extraordinary weekend of Prog music, an extraordinary show for Prog fans, and an extraordinary experience that brought together and uplifted the Prog community as a whole.
Not having attended Morsefest 2014, I had only heard what, by most measures, seemed like an elaborately put together event. This time the weekend was to be built around 2 big concerts featuring entire performances of Neal Morse albums, “?” (Question Mark) on Friday night and “Sola Scriptura” on Saturday night. Considering that I am a Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy fan, it only seemed appropriate to check it out first hand. I was not disappointed. In fact, it far surpassed my expectations, and I would go so far as saying that it rivaled the Prog Nation Cruise as getting top scores for every aspect of the event.
The whole weekend took place at the New Life Fellowship Church. Now, to some fans who might have been put off by Neal’s acknowledgment of his faith in his music since leaving Spock’s years ago, the venue might seem odd. I, myself, had been a fan of Spock’s Beard since 1999 when I first heard “June.” Like many, I was devastated when Neal left Spock’s Beard and was not entirely comfortable with his first post-Spock’s album “Testimony”, not being inclined to mix my love of music with religion. Over time, however, through his music with Transatlantic, I warmed up to his solo work and became a fan again, realizing music not only unites people from all walks of life together, but also transcends the normal boundaries that we all latch onto. With music, there are no divisions. My enjoyment of this music had nothing to do with the religious aspects of it. The music is just incredible, and I enjoyed immensely spending Labor Day weekend sitting in a church listening to this unbelievably great music.
The auditorium where the shows were held was a nice size, holding about 700-800 people. The amount of gear on stage would rival any concert arena and the sound system was top notch, and made good use of the really great acoustics in that space. There was a full light show equipped with video screens, visual effects, and surprise guests and songs to boot. This was a real, actual rock show, of epic proportions, and probably one of the best I have ever had the fortune to witness.
Phil Keaggy was the opening act both nights. He put on an incredible acoustic show, was highly entertaining and engaging, and a wizard on the guitar. He made creative use of a looper to create the effect of ten musicians on stage with him, a nice addition to the incredible line-up that was already in store for us.
The main Friday show began with the Neal Morse band performing the “The Call” and “The Grand Experiment” from the album of the same name. To hear these songs was a real treat. The 5 piece band sounded tight and powerful and nailed their harmonies with ease. They ran through a few obscure tracks, including the Spock’s Beard classic “Go the Way You Go”, “ A Whole Nother Trip” from an older Neal solo album, and a few B-sides from The Grand Experiment album, one being a cover of the disco classic “Macarthur Park” done in full Prog fashion. A full choir and horn section joined the band on stage and performed the song “New Jerusalem” before the band left the stage. The sound, with over 10 musicians on stage, was jaw-dropping and made quite an impression on the audience. These extra musicians helped elevate the music throughout both shows.
The band then returned to perform the entire “?” album. Tracks like “In the Fire” and “12” featured some of the best playing I have seen in person. Eric Gillette is a guitar whiz and a name that will be well known in the Prog world in due time. Multi-instrumentalist, Bill Hubauer, continues to surprise with his skill set, while bassist Randy George is the glue pulling it all together. Of course, Mike Portnoy, is always beyond adjectives. The star of the show is Neal, who commands the stage like the seasoned pro he is, captivating the audience with every note and showcasing his immense talent. The night ended without an encore but with an almost 3 hour performance. We knew there was more to come Saturday night, and were trying to figure out how they would possibly top Friday night’s show.
With the Saturday night performance, the band switched it up. They opened with the whole “Sola Scriptura” album. It is a 4 track piece with the first 2 songs lasting approximately 30 minutes. The album is based on the story of Martin Luther’s challenge of the corrupted church leaders of his time and contains some dark subject matter, which is representative in the music–some of Neal’s heaviest and most complex. For many fans brought to Neal’s work through Mike Portnoy, this is their favorite album as it is his album that most closely resembles anything Dream Theater ever released.
The guitar solo at the end of the first song,“The Door”, is performed by Paul Gilbert on the album, so there was some question as to whether Gillette could pull it off. That speculation was futile. He nailed it note for note and with as much feel and emotion as the album version. The band tore through the rest of the album, pulling through some technical glitches with ease (like Neal’s keyboard shutting down in the middle of “The Conclusion”). Without any concern, Neal played his keyboard part on guitar until the keyboard was brought back up and the band played on.
Once “Sola Scriptura” was done, the band performed the acoustic “Waterfall” from The Grand Experiment. Then the real fun began. Everyone knew Nick D’Virgilio was in the building and was going to play with the band but no one knew what or when. Then, the opening notes of “At the End of the Day” came on and there was the answer, and a roar from the audience. Nick took his seat behind the drums and the roof nearly lifted off the building. This was an historic moment. The band ran through the 16-minute song with perfection as if things had never changed. Neal and Nick fell right back into sync with each other like old times. Nick then came out from behind the drums and joined Neal in singing the SNOW classic “Wind at my Back.” It makes for a great campfire style crowd sing-along. The applause was deafening. We had all witnessed something truly special.
The band left the stage, and we thought for sure they were done, but then they returned to perform a medley of songs from Transatlantic’s The Whirlwind. We were all thinking, “Wow, Are you kidding?!” For another 20 minutes, the crowd was treated to the ultimate Prog extravaganza. Once they were done, the band and the crowd were exhausted. The shows were incredible and made Prog seem as important and relevant as anything in the last 20 years.
But wait, there was more! In addition to the phenomenal performances, let me tell you about the VIP experience. The VIP package, if you can spend roughly the same amount as a floor seat at a U2 concert ($325), gets you more than you could imagine. It was made available for either Friday or Saturday, so the fans picked which day they wanted to attend. This, of course, included a ticket to both the Friday night and Saturday night shows.
We chose the Saturday VIP. We entered the building at around 2pm and were immediately handed a bag that included a Morsefest t-shirt, a signed band poster (in a canister to avoid creasing by the time you get home) and a nicely printed laminate with a USB flash drive hidden in the strap that was preloaded with 30 high-res pictures of the band at rehearsals. We were then allowed to shop at the merch table which had loads of goodies from Neal’s 20 year career along with work of his band members. VIP members were also allowed to select seats in the first few rows for the show.
The 50 or so VIP meet and greeters were divided into teams for a game of Prog Jeopardy, complete with actual buzzers. The winners then competed in another round of the game against the Neal Morse band, who came out to rousing applause. Yes, fans got to play games with Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy. Following this laugh-a-minute game, a signing session occurred. Fans were not rushed, and the guys signed as much as you could carry into the building. Once the signing was done, the band took a photo on stage with each person there. They talked with each person as if they were a close friend, and made it a very welcoming afternoon. We were treated to dinner before the show, and then brought to our seats before the rest of the crowd. And just in case that wasn’t enough, there was also an acoustic set performed Saturday morning only for members of Neal’s fan club, the Inner Circle, and a prayer service and open jam session on Sunday to close things out. I venture to say that no other band offers such a VIP experience. To get that kind of time with a band like KISS, it might cost you more than your house.
So bravo to Neal Morse and his crew at Radiant Records. Chris and Heather Thompson, who run his label, put together a weekend for the ages and should be applauded. It brought together like-minded music fans from all over the world, from places as far as Norway and Brazil. Friends were made and added on Facebook. Seldom do you get a chance to know your favorite artist beyond what comes out of your speakers. Neal and Mike have long recognized that this audience gives back with fierce loyalty, and they have created a true community, which has made Prog music important again. You could ask yourself, “How much more Prog could this weekend be?” The answer was on the back of a shirt I saw a fan wearing, “None…none more Prog!”
Day 1 Setlist:
The Grand Experiment
Go The Way You Go
A Whole Nother Trip
Day 2 Setlist:
Heaven in my Heart
At the End of the Day w/Nick D’Virgillio on drums
Wind At My Back
Encore: Whirlwind Medley