NEAL MORSE BAND & THE FLOWER KINGS: The European Tour 2013 – Who Wants To Be A Dead Fish?

Prog Rock Royalty

The Grand Tour of the 17th and 18th centuries was billed as a ‘grand adventure’ – a traditional trip in the days when  upper class ‘men of means’ would take on a journey around the cities and capitals of Europe in search of art and culture. Whether the traditions of 300 years ago are still upheld by modern day backpackers and railcard carrying students are open to debate, but the rock tour undertaken by the Flower Kings and the Neal Morse Band in February and March of 2013 could be seen as a similar type of Grand Tour – taking their marvellous music and a prog rock extravaganza to the fans of Europe.

Both Morse and The Flower Kings released new albums in September and October of 2012. Morse’s Momentum had much less explicit  religious overtones than has been the case of late although his devotion and obvious commitment to his Christian beliefs and lifestyle still abounds.  A selection of shorter pieces was accompanied by one of his classic ‘epics’ in World Without End which would form the centrepiece of any new live performance.  The album had been briefly toured in the USA with the resultant  Momentum Live 3CD and 2DVD package being an immediate souvenir and chance for many fans who had not been able to catch the shows to relive the Momentum experience. The Flower King’s Banks Of Eden also broke new real boundaries and was unashamedly prog with its fair share of lengthy pieces – the opening track Numbers being a 25 minute exploration of all things prog with its vocal harmonies and  extended instrumental passages and themes.  Again, the album had been toured through Europe in the Autumn of 2012 so both bands had the experience of having road tested the new material before getting together for the new project.

MomentumThe fact that both albums were issued by InsideOut – a company which specialises in the prog  genre  – which was also celebrating 20 years of existence meant that for once, the stars had aligned and it was, I believe, Roine Stolt, the mastermind and main mover behind The Flower Kings, who proposed both bands should celebrate by taking on a joint tour. To add the icing to the cake, Morse’s old pal and former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy (now with maybe a little more time on his hands) made himself available for Neal’s touring band. Although a regular player on the Morse studio albums along with bass player Randy George making a formidable trio, the fact that Portnoy was playing on the tour was not only an added attraction for fans but also threw into the mix another rather special idea. Along with Marillion bassist Pete Trewavas, Morse, Portnoy and Stolt form Transatlantic – a part time yet very highly regarded band who originally came together with an unashamed love for making good old fashioned progressive rock. Their last album The Whirlwind (the third they’ve done together) was a 77 minute continuous piece of music played out through a dozen sections and often referred to as the “epic of all epics” by a band known for creating both ambitious and lengthy works. It is just a pity that Trewavas, as the fourth member of Transatlantic, was unavailable due to a clash with the the regular Marillion weekend taking place over in the Netherlands or he may well have popped along to do a guest spot with his pals. If he was desperate I suppose he could have done a guest appearance and then hot footed overnight to the Netherlands and been in time for the Marillion event, but as Marillion are his bread and butter it can’t have been expected. Pity.

So the scene was set for what promised to be an intrepid evening of, at the risk of overusing the word, epic proportions and a test of endurance for even the most seasoned of prog fans. Both bands were scheduled to play 90 minute sets and then as an encore, a 30 minute mini-Transatlantic reunion would see out the evening with a selection of Transatlantic music. A rather excited press release stated -  “This double bill promises the most energetic, most vibrant and melodic progressive rock evenings worldwide since the heydays of ELP, Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis!” A lot to live up to!

Not only did Portnoy’s involvement add a likely boost to ticket sales, a boost to the financial rewards for the tour was added when VIP meet and greet packages were offered for each venue at what by modern standards were quite a reasonable cost. A maximum 40 paying guests would be able to access the venues early and bag the best spots for watching the show along with the obligatory VIP laminate and exclusive T shirt plus a chance to meet up with Morse, Portnoy and Stolt.

In the days leading up to the tour’s opening date in Sweden, eager fans could tune into a short video clip online – Morse is aBanks of Eden notorious video and audio recorder of almost everything he does as members of his ‘Inner Circle’ fan club will appreciate – from the rehearsals. All three appeared revved up and ready to go with Morse promising a treat from his band of “killer dudes from all over the place.” With Portnoy having to gag him in case he spilled any clues over the Transatlantic medley they were working on for the encore piece.

So it was that having made sure my tickets were secure and with the promise of photo access from the splendid Chris Thompson at Radiant Records, my journey began on the 7th of March as I set out for the journey to London to catch the first of the final two dates which would take in London’s Electric Ballroom and a late addition to the tour schedule which would now finish in Wolverhampton the following day. Sitting in the Virgin trains lounge at Manchester’s Piccadilly station my attention was drawn to a bearded and swarthy skinned individual at a nearby table. Decked out in a beany hat and a bright orange T shirt similar in colour to the famous Transatlantic 2011 Whirld Tour shirts I had to take a second look ‘just in case’ it was Mike Portnoy. No way could or should it have been bearing in mind he was playing in the Netherlands last night and had a London gig that very evening but it did feel like a bit of an omen – hopefully a lucky one, for the concerts ahead.

As I sat awaiting my train and absent mindedly reading my free copy of The Guardian newspaper – the sports section of course – I was drawn to an article and a particular phrase which seemed very appropriate for the ‘PRR’ tour. Former Manchester United soccer player Roy Keane, now working as a pundit after some managerial experience, had become well known for his forthright and often outspoken views (particularly relating to an incident only a day or so before which had been controversial to say the least involving as it did a decision which went some way to costing his former club a continued run in the European Champions League). He had at some point referred to only ‘dead fish going with the flow’. It occurred to me that the analogy could well be applied to our beloved prog genre – going against the flow, against the grain and coming up with the unexpected.  It prompeds me to make a written note and drop in a reference to Keane’s comment maybe as a headline for this piece. In the same article the phrase “upsetting the cosiness of consensus” stood  out and again, seems to encompass all that progressive music is about.  There’s nothing exciting about being cosy, especially when you’re a dead fish, and buoyed by those somewhat abstract thoughts I head for the train.

It had been a couple of bright but chilly Spring weather in the UK which started to break as the journey South began  and the day  was a stereotypical Manchester  damp and dreary day with the pavements shiny from the drizzle which had started to fall. Arriving in London a couple of hours later, not much had changed as I crossed from a bustling Euston Station to my  cheap(-ish), clean and warm accommodation (phew – almost said ‘cosy’ there) which was handily placed for both travel and venue.

It was a 25 minute walk from the hotel down to Camden High Street where the Electric Ballroom is situated. It was maybe the excitement and not wanting to miss a moment that necessitated an early(-ish) start for the stroll down and a chance to take in some of the sights of a lively and colourful  part of the capital. Londoners and tourists packed the streets and having located the Electric Ballroom with no trouble, I got a chance to have a wander around the area before joining the queue at the front door. The famous market was packed with assorted items of clothing and stallholders have already started to pack away as custom seemed to be slow and darkness on its way in. Around the back of the venue a large tour bus and healthy sized trailer (for what must be the equipment) was parked up near to a load in area; essentially a back alley with a couple of large wooden gates, one of which lay slightly ajar. Discretion (and cowardice) proved to be the better part of valour and though they say fortune favours the brave, I decided not to try and sneak (or even peek) over and so made my way round to the front doors.

Already a small huddle of people were beginning to gather, presumably like myself for the meet and greet, unless they were so keen to make sure a prime spot for the show was secured that they were happy to spend a couple of hours queuing.  The Electric Ballroom stands inconspicuously in a narrow gap and almost hidden in a row of nondescript shops, flanked either side by tourist shops with a brightly lit neon sign announcing its presence. Hard to imagine what lies beyond the front doors for the prog fans who became shepherded behind a couple of iron barriers in an attempt to bring some order to the early queuers and to avoid any congestion to pedestrians whose tolerance for expansive prog rock and its dedicated fans might be tested.  A break out from the regular queue ensued when the realisation hit that the meet and greeters are forming a separate queue. Even those who have shelled out their few extra euros for early admission wanted to make sure that they were handily placed at the front when the doors open.

A little excitement to liven up proceedings was all that was required, but in the absence of any street entertainers or buskers performing truncated versions of prog rock classics, we get a walk past (kind of the equivalent of an aircraft fly past display) of a true prog rock legend. Totally unannounced, and totally unexpected, it was a case of being there at the right time and making sure you didn’t blink or you would have missed it. As we stood in the queue, I suddenly saw him – “That’s Steve Hackett!” I pointed out to no one in particular – being a solo traveller for this particular trip.  There was no mistaking it though; looking rather small in ‘real life’ and dressed in his regular black attire, hair a bit longer than usual and looking somewhat hassled. “I thought it was,” replied a fellow queuer, perhaps not as ready and willing to make the call as I was, but of course, we put two and two together, made four and kept out fingers crossed!

Roine Stolt

Now if I were a betting man, I would have been happy to shell out a fiver on some decent odds at this stage that Steve was on his way to the artist’s entrance of the Electric Ballroom. Consider the evidence: Way back in 2001 when Transatlantic (Morse and Portnoy, joined by Marillion’s Pete Trewavas and Roine Stolt from The Flower Kings) played the Astoria for their London debut, again I had to be there with my pal and partner in prog rock crime,  Andy Banks.  As we stood midway back in the auditorium taking in the show, who should pass before us but… Steve Hackett. Even though, in the famous words of the Blues Brothers, it was dark and he was wearing his sunglasses, it was definitely him. This was confirmed a few minutes later when he walked back past us in the opposite direction; we hypothesised he’d been to the toilet, it being a lengthy prog gig after all, but fortunately we  had resisted the temptation to discreetly follow him to the Astoria gents – there are limits after all. Not only that, in 2005, Steve added his distinctive guitar tones to the track 12 on Morse’s ? album (in my opinion, one of the best solos he’s done in many a year) and then joined Transatlantic onstage at the High Voltage Festival in 2010 playing The Return Of The Giant Hogweed – a track he covered again on his Genesis Revisited II album, with vocals by… Neal Morse. It was all coming together.

By six o’clock – the appointed time for the VIPs to gain entrance, the doors opened and we were beckoned forward. The usual bag checkings took place and ticket handovers all efficiently cross referenced against the list of names to make sure no interlopers gain unauthorised access. Chris Thompson was busy orchestrating the events as the sell out group of 40 lucky fans started to assemble down a small flight of stairs into a holding area while Chris checked the final few into the venue and made sure everyone had their souvenir VIP laminate. Once gathered he welcomed everyone and explained that the guys were ready in the hall. A glance over and in the darkness, Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy and Roine Stolt can be seen, sat waiting patiently at a table, rather like three disciples at the last supper, awaiting their audience. Everyone seemed quite calm, as Chris explained that the best arrangement would be to form a queue and how there was plenty of time to have a chat and a photo and get your souvenirs signed with the guys. He also explained that photos in the show are fine as long as no one is going to spend the whole evening with a monster camera and lens irritating people who might just want to see the show. Apparently, I learn later that Mike Portnoy has thrown a drumstick at a photographer who has outstayed his welcome in the photo pit. I wonder if it’s worth being appeared by a souvenir Portnoy drumstick by staying longer but realise the security staff will be well trained and have learned to respect the artists and not abuse the privilege. From there it’s onto the merch stand and we gave our names to check against another list to make sure that the exclusive VIP T shirt we get was the right size – so far so good and it seems to be a well organised event rather than the crowded scrum which some people have experienced in the past at similar events.

Mike Portnoy

Taking my turn in the very orderly queue, I waited patiently and tried to gather my bag of goodies. My camera I managed to pass over to Chris who was doing the honours for photo requests and then I sorted through my collection of CD sleeves, cases and photos. It was always going to be a headache trying to work out what to fetch as apart from anything else I was going to be stuck with it for a good few hours so I made my selections based on what would fit into the pocket of my camera rucksack which I’d have to carry with me for the evening and also what would be good for all three guys to sign along with possibly some individual stuff.  Having had the pleasure of meeting Peter Gabriel at a soundcheck back in 1983 and being stuck behind someone who was asking Peter to sign virtually every picture in Armando Gallo’s I Know What I Like Genesis biography, until Pete politely said “one more” I appreciated that bringing my Morse/Spock’s Beard/Dream Theater/Flower Kings/Transatlantic collection and plonking it down on the table might not endear me to my fellow fans. Settling for a couple of Transatlantic boxes and a couple of individual CDs, it finally came my turn to take my ‘meet and greet’ opportunity. Mike Portnoy was first, tapping out some rhythm on the table as he too waited patiently for the fans to make their way through. As I set out my covers for signing, it seemed a good time to let the guys know we’d seen Steve as we queued up. “Yeah,” replied Mr Portnoy, “he’s coming to see the show.” Now, as a fully paid up member of the ‘nothing ventured nothing gained’ and the ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ cliché clubs (while also not averse to being an occasional member of the  ‘putting my foot in it’ club) I asked if he was going to be getting up onstage to do a bit. “He’s coming to see the show,” emphasised Mr Portnoy again, with a wry smile. Now, knowing that Mike Portnoy can be a rather intimidating character, although quite a nice guy especially when you’ve shelled a wad of out your hard earned to come see him before the show, I didn’t want to risk a drumstick in the eyeball, so with discretion being the better part of valour, I took my cue, shook hands with Mr P (maybe me, but he did seem to have small hands – not that drummers of his ilk should have big hands – maybe a research paper there?)  and moved on to the ever wonderful Neal Morse. Neal was kind enough to sign a couple of photos myself and friend Andy had taken with him back on his ? album tour in 2006. We had some special T shirts made (emblazoned with “We will walk HIS way” – it being ambiguous about whose way we would be walking – Neal’s way or possibly the Lord’s way) and had presented one to Neal which he wore after the show. I did ask if he still had the shirt, which all three of us were wearing in the photos he signed and he politely said he did! It may have been a bit disappointing to tell a devoted fan that the shirt disintegrated in the first wash, but as I never washed mine since I wore it and Neal signed it, I wouldn’t know. As Roine signed my stuff whilst talking to another fan I made my way around for a photo with all three of the guys – with Pete being absent, the plan was to pass myself off as the ‘new’ member of Transatlantic. “Yeah, you can be Pete,” said Mike, making sure I got my euros worth and indulging me a little. Making sure that Chris had done a good job with the photo (he had actually – all four of us and the stage and lighting rig in the background) I packed my precious cargo away, donned my VIP shirt and made my way over to the merch stall to peruse the goodies.

Having already got my VIP T shirt, there was no real urgency to bag one of the regular tour shirts which were on offer. This tour saw again a demonstration of the ‘dead fish’ phenomenon.  Rather than the regulation black tour shirt (or possibly a variation with white) the shirts were a selection of shades from light cream to a bolder deep red, verging on ochre even (maybe as a nod to the ‘red ochre corridors’ which feature in the lyric to Genesis’ Carpet Crawlers song). As well, the Flower Kings had their own tour shirt in a very bright orange which seemed very popular once the doors opened and the crowd began to grow. In fact the range of tour shirts on display was quite impressive. Going to a gig  always presents  an opportunity to don your ‘colours’ especially if you have a vintage shirt from a long since passed tour to impress your fellow audience members. In fact Mike Portnoy had flagged up the famous orange Transatlantic shirt which a meet and greeter was wearing earlier and I cursed myself for not selecting a shirt of a little more vintage myself. The variety of shirts on display was quite staggering, ranging from the various tour shirts to some classic Morse, Flower Kings, Transatlantic and the odd Dream Theater and Flying Colours shirts.

As the meet and greet started to break up fans began to mill around and bag a spot for the evening’s marathon. I nipped across to the box office which was by now starting to admit the early arrivals, and grabbed my photo pass wristband for the evening. Making my way across to the barrier where the security had gathered, I found out that I’d be able to photograph the first 15 minutes of each set and the full encore, which was a bonus. It’s usually the standard ‘3 songs no flash’ arrangement so to be able to get in the photo pit for the full half hour encore was a great chance to grab some extra shots of the Transatlantic performance, whatever that might be.

(Interesting to note how arrangements on the same tour can vary from venue to venue. When I checked the photo arrangements for the following night at Wolverhampton, the helpful security told me ‘first three songs’. Now knowing that the whole Flower Kings performance was only three songs, I did ask him to check only to get the same response. Discretion again was the key and not wanting to abuse the privilege, I stuck to a regulation 15/20 minutes for each act for the final show.)

Having got my plans sorted for the evening, I wandered back round to the rear of the hall where the T shirt stall was in full swing. The merch stall was manned by Ruben – himself a minor celebrity as he has worked the merch most recently on the last Transatlantic tour and fans could follow his blog as the current tour passed through Europe. A lovely polite young man who endeared himself to fans as he offered up some free large tour posters which sported the tour image and log and a nice big space at the bottom for the venues to enter their details. Despite this, myself and a fellow fan cursed the opportunity for not grabbing one of these earlier and using the space to collect some signatures at the meet and greet.

It was to be an evening with not a second wasted with the amount of music which had to be played. The Flower Kings set the tone for the evening with a prompt start and opening their set with the 25 minute Numbers, taking all sorts of twists and turns through the extended instrumental passages and harmonies. Decked out in a variety of garb from bassist Jonas Reingold’s heavily embroidered jeans and hair scraped back into a harsh ponytail, to the retro velvet and striped jackets worn by frontmen guitarists/vocalists Roine Stolt and Hasse Froberg, who looked resplendently retro.  From the start it was the left handed Froberg who grabbed the attention and was the focal point with his more obvious rock star poses and grimaces  while Stolt was a picture of concentration as he  carefully picked out his guitar parts and lead lines.

Not a band to do things by halves, the similarly lengthy and slightly meandering The Truth Will Set You Free was added to the set alongside a run through new song Riding The Imperial  which left just enough time for a short 15 minute medley based around  Last Minute On Earth to finish their contribution to the evening.  An introduction to the band, which included new drummer, German Felix Lehrmann (and yes I have to mention that they really did say “don’t mention the war”!) and longer term keyboard player Tomas Bodin, who had spent the set tucked discreetly hidden behind his keyboard set up, and they were gone. The final night of the tour in Wolverhampton saw the set slightly shortened as the medley was cut to accommodate a further surprise later on in the evening’s proceedings.

Neal Morse

A rapid turnaround meant that it was only a short wait until the houselights dimmed a second time and the intro music began as the Morse band took the stage. Led by Portnoy’s trademark ‘conducting with the drumstick’ style, the band built up to Morse playing the cascade of synthesiser notes for the start of Momentum. Maybe the changeover had been too quick to check equipment, but the failure of Morse’s computer driven keyboard meant that his opening notes were improvised from keyboard player Bill Hubauer’s set up.  Not one to be phased at all by any sort of minor malfunction, Morse wasn’t going to let a minor oversight spoil the fun and it was a high energy opening and one which gave killer young guitarist Adson Sodre a chance to solo impressively.

In contrast to The Flower Kings, Morse chose a couple of shorter songs to open with, although Author of Confusion, far from being a short song definitely ticks the prog boxes with some heavy guitar and complex multilayered harmonies. The Morse set then really took off with a medley of music from his ? album. The 12 instrumental section gave hotshot multi instrumentalist Eric Gillette a chance to show his mettle with a terrific interpretation of the guitar solo which was taken by Steve Hackett on the original recording. The solo led  into the dramatic Entrance section which saw Morse alter from his goofing around to becoming totally engaged as he sang the opening verse and then promptly made his way side stage and into the audience. Even for those with no religious leanings at all it was an inspiring moment as he joined his people and sang of the Spirit taking his hand and giving strength to the weaker ones. No doubt there will be those who will see his act as a pretentious gesture but it was clearly a man who wanted to share his convictions and the strength he feels in the wonder of his beliefs and it’s hard not to be swept along in the heat of the moment (especially when anticipating the moment at the Wolverhampton show I positioned myself perfectly to be the first greeted and ‘blessed’ by Neal when he made his crowd entry). The ovation the ? medley which followed was the biggest of many ovations and shows the esteem in which the 2005 album is held even with its overtly religious content. As Morse took a breather, Mike Portnoy, never shy at coming forward, took his chance to take the microphone and announce his pleasure at being able to accompany his long standing friend and play his wonderful music.

Everything so far was just a warm up for the final piece in the Morse set, his self confessed epic World Without End which took the final half hour of the set though a whole range of styles and peaks from almost Metallica-like heavy riffing between the two guitarists and Portnoy doing his best John Bonham impression to a climax which saw Morse falling to his knees as he played the final keyboard crescendo with Portnoy also standing in triumph at his kit. It was at the end of this particular piece at the final show of the tour in Wolverhampton that Morse was clearly overcome with the emotion of the moment – the sentiment of the music and lyrics and the passionate response of the audience. As he played the final notes, again on his knees, he could clearly be seen mouthing what can only have been a prayer of thanks. As the band came together to take their bows he was obviously finding it hard to hold his emotions in check and it was the support of having his sparring partners Portnoy and bassist Randy George at hand which gave him the strength to see him though.

Prior to the Transatlantic encore, the Wolves fans, who had missed out on the Flower Kings performing an encore, got their reward when Morse and Stolt stepped out together onto a dimly lit stage. Morse’s piano and keyboard strings accompanied by Stolt’s finely picked guitar notes led into a wonderfully stunning duo performance of Transatlantic’s Bridge Across Forever.  No doubt that riding high on the emotion of the moment , Morse was ready to deliver what many fans believe is one of, if not his piece de resistance.

As promised, Morse and Stolt were then joined by Portnoy (with FK bassist Jonas Reingold standing in for Trewavas) then returned to perform a triumphant Transatlantic encore medley. With three albums of lengthy prog music to choose thirty minutes of material from, a medley was the only option. Opening with the beginning section of the first track from their first album All Of The Above, the four were gradually joined onstage by fellow musicians as they swept into a section which included The Whirlwind/A Man Can Feel/Rose Coloured Glasses from their most recent Whirlwind album.

Roine Stold and Steve Hackett

As the medley had swung into the closing section from the Stranger In Your Soul piece, and the stage packed with virtually all the Flower Kings and all of Morse’s band,  quite unexpectedly Morse announced “Would you please welcome Steve Hackett?!”. Eagle eyed early arrivals  may have recalled spotting the man often known as the ‘Former Genesis Guitarist’  (even though he left them over thirty years ago) earlier as he made his way along Camden High Street, obviously not being there for the shopping.  Still dressed in his street clothes with gold Gibson strapped on and being helped through the plethora of musicians who had gradually joined the Transatlantic set (we know how much Steve complains about his eyesight!) and across to the far side of the stage, he got himself plugged in and started to add some lead lines alongside Roine Stolt. The improvised exchange of solos lasted some 5 minutes or so as Steve became increasingly animated giving some serious action to the tremolo arm of his Les Paul as he traded solos with Stolt until the song reached it’s inevitable prog rock climax and the ensemble lined up to take the acclaim. Another few moments to treasure and certainly another chance of a lifetime for a lucky audience.

The audiences who saw this tour over the two weeks in Europe certainly had an evening to remember and for once have one up on their American counterparts who will have the consolation of what looks like, so far, being a single performance by the whole outfit in Los Angeles in May.

Text and photos by Mike Ainscoe

Nikola Savić is a prog enthusiast, blogger and author, in addition to being the founder of Prog Sphere, Progify, ProgLyrics and the ongoing Progstravaganza compilation series.

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