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Transatlantic @ The Blender Theater at Gramercy 4/23

The Blender Theater @ Gramercy. Tiny and understaffed.

Transatlantic is basically the Holy Grail for modern progressive rock fans. It contains members from four (five when touring) of the major progressive rock outfits, and their melodic, 70’s style prog fills a void that has been conspicuously empty during the reemergence of progressive rock over the last 20 years. Thus, I should have been far less shocked when I arrived at the Gramercy Theater on 23rd street here in Manhattan half an hour before doors opened and found a line wrapping halfway around the block. Grumbling to myself I took a place in line and quietly fumed over the fact that Transatlantic had been booked in such a tiny venue. The marquee stated that the show was sold out, which was hardly surprising considering the momentum behind the tour. The band had not performed in ten years, and their rabid fan base had become hysterical the moment the new album and tour were announced. Despite the fact that the tour was hitting Europe as well as North America, die hard (and apparently rich) fans were flying around the globe to see the super-group perform in multiple venues. This fanatical behavior was also fueled by the fact that there remains little chance that the group will collaborate again once the tour is over. However none of these factors apparently made it into the ears of the tour organizers, who, instead of putting the band in something slightly larger like the Nokia Theater, happily took the sellout in the smaller Gramercy Theater. It’s prog-oppression I tell you!

As I chatted up a friendly prog-fellow in line, I realized I could hear the sound check happening on the other side of the wall of the venue. While I couldn’t make out anything specific, I figured this would be a decent way of gauging of when the doors might open (advertised at 7:00pm). Unfortunately sound was still coming through the wall at 7:20, and the line didn’t start moving until 7:30. “Whatever,” I thought to myself, “now there will be no problems with the audio, right?” (answer: Hahaha, fuck you). As the line slowly started creeping up, I noticed that people were being led in SINGLE-FUCKING-FILE through security. Literally every single person was being patted down by the same poor security person. Maybe the Gramercy Theater has been hit so hard by the recession that they’ve had to eliminate all but one professional groper, or maybe they were hazing a rookie, whatever. The result was that the show didn’t start until after 8:30. Brutal.

While I wasn’t able to grab a spot on the rail as I had hoped, I found myself three or four rows back of stage right, easily towering over the people in front of me (thank you once again, lanky-ass legs). I was struck by how tiny the stage was, and felt some concern over how much room Pete Trewavas and Roine Stolt would have to play while sandwiched in between Neal Morse’s keyboard rig and Mike Portnoy’s 8-piece drum kit. After waiting for everyone to enter the theater in SINGLE-FUCKING-FILE, the band finally appeared, ushered in by the ambient noise that opens their most recent album “The Whirlwind” (which I reviewed back when it came out here).

This was the first time I’d seen 4/5 of the band live (like any good prog fan, I’ve seen Mike Portnoy perform in some capacity more times than I can count). Each member who I hadn’t seen perform before had some pretty funny and/or interesting stage-quirks that made the performance that much more enjoyable. For instance, Pete Trewavas seemed to be doing a spot-on impression of your stereotypical drunk uncle. His 5’oclock shadow would have made him look like a weather-beaten sailor if it wasn’t the wrinkled polka-dot dress shirt. If he didn’t fit into the sonic landscape so perfectly you’d think that he wasn’t even hearing the music, what with the way he bounced around on stage. As unstable as he can seem, his bass lines added the perfect bottom layer to each song. Fat, fluid, and groovy, Trewavas kept the band solid while adding so much more than just the notes he played. He plays a much more prominent role on the new album, and it’s fun to see him get his time in the spot light on a lot of those tracks. It’s a role he doesn’t get to explore in his main project, Marilion, and while he doesn’t look exactly comfortable 100% of the time, he definitely looks like he enjoys the opportunity.

Roine Stolt continued to make me question his sexuality with his half-open, flower-adorned, gossamer silk shirts, and jeans so tight a hipster would cry (and Roine, if you’re gay that’s totally fine! I just can’t deal with the ambiguity, it get my brain stuck in an infinite loop of questions!) Wardrobe aside, he was possibly the tightest member of the band on stage. He knew which of his parts the fans wanted to hear exactly as they appear on the album, and where they’d allow him some improv room. His solos soared and drove in all the right places, and he was technical without being overpowering. He was stoic, but he also clearly enjoyed performing with the group. One of the funniest moments of the show came when Neal couldn’t get the right effect on one of his keyboards, and mid-chord Roine leans over and hits whatever button Neil was searching for, and the two exchanged a very knowing, sheepish look. Those of us who noticed this in the crowd laughed for a good thirty seconds.

Neil himself is someone who I wish I had seen perform earlier in his career. Because of his choice to focus on faith-based music, I know this might be the only time I ever see him play, and it’s a shame because he’s extremely creative and far more talented than I will ever be at anything. On this night, his voice was dripping with emotion and power at both ends of his broad range, and I got the impression he would be able to entertain me with any instrument he picked up (that night he ONLY managed to play keyboards, 12-string guitar, drums, and sing). It’s also clear to me that Neil is extremely passionate about the music the band plays. There were parts of a lot of songs through out the night where he was visibly moved by what was being produced on stage, and he looked like he might cry during the curtain call. I’m sure it was a very hard decision for him to walk away from the group, and I know all of the fans appreciate his decision to give the band one more go.

People have argued about the spiritual message in a lot of the band’s most recent work (as well as some of their earlier recordings) and watching Neil at various points during the night, I don’t think anyone could deny that there were parts he was specifically communicating his faith. It’s hard to describe here, but when the up-and-coming DVD from the London show is released maybe it will be easier to discuss. Many of the fans were drawn in and responded to this kind of performance, which I can respect, but it did take me and a lot of the other fans out of the moment a few times, especially near the end of the first set. I’m still extremely thankful that I got to see Neil perform live in this setting regardless of any faith-based awkwardness, and I don’t think anyone should avoid seeing the band because they’re uncomfortable with Neil’s current messages, ESPECIALLY if you never saw him with Spock’s Beard.

Mike Portnoy, the captain of the ship, may have put on the most extraordinary performance I’ve ever seen him give. He’s was extremely relaxed on stage, moving fluidly as he changed sticks and time signatures, swung his mic back and forth from its suspended perch, (just get a headset Mike!) and dealt with what were unfortunately a number of audio issues through out the show. The number of changes he has memorized is truly mind boggling, and yet he pulled it off as if he was playing happy birthday. The physical stamina he posses is also highly underrated. Playing epic after epic has to leave his hands, arms, and legs worn out, and yet he maintains an aura of energy that feeds the other members of the band on stage. He definitely is the hardest working man in progressive rock, and he more than probably any other person deserves thanks for putting the band back together for (at least) one more run.

Daniel Gildenlow joins the band while they tour to fill out the sound the band created in the studio, and he’s really an amazing addition. I almost wish the band would go back and re-record a lot of the material with Daniel because he enhances the sound of the group so much (yet another reason to buy the DVD they’ll be making of their London performance). His vocal range is spectacular and seeing him play guitar and keys, at the same time, is both comical and impressive. He also has the rugged good-looks to make all the prog chikas go wild (if prog had groupies, he’d have a harem).

The band opened with the title track off their latest album, The Whirlwind. Seeing this 80+ minute epic performed live reformed a lot of my opinions of the band’s most recent work (again, see my initial review here). I found myself extremely engaged in a lot of the sections I previously found tedious and forgettable, while the sections I considered highlights beforehand became something even more remarkable. There were a lot of technical difficulties during this first set, which I initially found comical but by the 3rd or 4th blunder they really started taking away from the show. The band handled these issues as best they could, including a particularly awesome bass solo from Trewavas at one point (which resulted in Portnoy making the fair point “Why are we calling for a bass solo, he’s been soloing for 10 minutes while we fix this shit”). These difficulties aside, the first set redefined the band’s latest album for me in a positive way. While the overtly religious messages at the end of the piece still felt like an awkward way to close the song, I came away from the first set with a deeper overall appreciation for the work the band has done ten years after their last collaboration.

The second set consisted of the band’s older work. The performance here was truly special and something I won’t forget for a long time. I could gush for pages about the music itself, but the experience shared with the audience was the significant event happening here. The audience let the band know quiet clearly that they had been dying to hear this music performed for almost a decade, and I got the impression the band was just as happy to be performing it, as if they felt like it had been missing in their lives too.

During the first set I felt bad at first for singing at the top of my lungs, but I realized during the second set that EVERYONE was singing at the top of their lungs. Now for those of you who typically enjoy genres of music that actually have a popular following maybe this isn’t anything to write home (or a blog) about, but for prog nerds such gatherings are rare. Much like when I saw my first Zappa Plays Zappa concert and realized I was surrounded by fellow Zappa-freaks, it was a bit euphoric to be amongst other fans of the music that meant so much to me.

The American tour is now over, but if anyone in Europe is reading this and still debating if they want to see this show, stop debating. You’re stupid for even asking the question. Buy your ticket now if you still can and get the fuck in the crowd. Transatlantic is one of the pinnacles of the prog experience, one that may never be around again, and you will have missed something extraordinary if you don’t make the effort. Below you will find the set list as well as the best pictures I could take with my roommate’s camera from the few rows back that I couldn’t fight through.

You can also download a bootleg of the show on dime here.

Set 1:

The Whirlwind

Set 2:

All Of The Above
We All Need Some Light
Duel With The Devil

Encore:

Bride Across Forever

Stranger In Your Soul

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