Friday, August 28, 2009

Concert Review: Progressive Nation at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, 8/21/09

On Friday night, August 21 I was taken through a musical journey featuring arguably two of the nation’s best ensembles of musicians: Dream Theater and Zappa plays Zappa.

Countless times throughout the night I caught myself staring in awe at solos, rhythms, harmonies, dissonance, and energy that echoed against the walls of the Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis.

My main reason for attending was to see my favorite band Dream Theater, for the first time, as part of the Progressive Nation 2009 North American Tour.

Their lead guitarist, John Petrucci, has long been a hero of mine as the velocity of his playing and melodic chord progressions rival those of other renowned shredders. Throw in John Myung, arguably the world’s best-kept secret on bass, Jordan Rudess on keyboards, and the unforgettable Mike Portnoy (whose multi-piece set is even more impressive from my nose-bleed balcony seats than in person) and I can honestly say I was part of one of the greatest concerts ever.

I don’t mean to discredit Woodstock or Lollapalooza, though, because those are different breeds of concerts. As far as single day shows go the August 21, 2009 Progressive Nation Tour performance at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis was truly a masterpiece.

Scale the Summit
One phrase sums up my recollection of this opening act's performance: synchronized head banging (notice 2:04 in to the clip).

This quartet, with a current average age of 22, recorded their first album in 2006 in guitarist Chris Letchford’s home in Houston, TX after they met while at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, CA.

They are a very talented group of young musicians, as evidenced by the invitation to play on tour with Dream Theater, and have a world of opportunity in front of them. Look for them to hit mainstream success within the next 3-5 years.

One interesting tidbit about these guys – guitarist Chris Letchford plays an 8-string guitar.

Frontman Damon Fox (Lead Vocals, Keyboards) is quite possibly Alice in Wonderland’s real life incarnate of the Mad Hatter.

Seriously – Fox wears a top hat that covers just a small portion of his long locks and appears to sport make-up as well. To top it off, Bigelf’s website references the Mad Hatter AND they have an eponymously tagged song in their repertoire.

With an onstage setup that features dueling keyboards, played simultaneously by Fox, and a host of other vintage instruments, this eclectically psychedelic group has the ability to harness the sounds and harmonies of Black Sabbath, The Mars Volta, and touches of Pink Floyd all wrapped into one extravagant, cohesive ensemble.

Quite the earful (in a good way) from these guys - their showmanship filled the Orpheum with energy abound. There were several moments throughout their performance I thought I was falling down the rabbit hole to soon be greeted by a giant Cheshire cat.

Check out a video of them in live action at a small club in Kansas City, MO.

These LA rockers formed nearly 20 years ago but never quite hit the big time. That may all change with the recent exposure on the Progressive Nation Tour. Bigelf rocks.

Zappa plays Zappa
On to part of the main event. Some concertgoers have stated (on various fan sites, blogs, etc.) that Zappa plays Zappa is the main draw to the tour.

In case you don’t know much about them, Zappa plays Zappa is a tribute band playing the music of legendary composer, electric guitarist, and record producer Frank Zappa. After he passed away in 1993 several years elapsed before his son Dweezil Zappa (lead guitarist) joined forces with former artists who played with Frank throughout their careers.

In 2006, Zappa plays Zappa embarked on a world tour (Europe, Canada, USA) entitled Zappa plays Zappa – Tour de Frank. From the onset, their tours have featured acclaimed guest artists such as Terry Bozzio (check out his enormous drum set), Napoleon Murphy Brock, and the legendary Steve Vai.

Throughout their 3+ years together they have played tours across the globe. In February 2009, they won Best Rock Instrumental Performance at the51st Grammy Awards for their performance of “Peaches en Regalia.”

All night long I kept thinking to myself that most of the music I was listening to was originally played 30-40 years ago – incredible. At the same time, I was thinking how timelessly classic Zappa’s music is.

I had never paid much attention to Frank Zappa but after ZPZ’s performance last Friday I do not see how I can leave that music out of my collection.

Below is a compilation of footage from their August 18, 2009 performance in Calgary on the Progressive Nation Tour.

If you’re a fan of classic rock and haven’t yet heard of these guys (or Frank Zappa for that matter) do yourself a favor and play some catch up. They received a well earned standing ovation following their performance and clearly reveled at the opportunity to play before such a responsive and appreciative crowd.

It is no easy task to create music that transcends and defies the decade it was written in, but Zappa’s music does just that.

Dream Theater
And now for the main course. By the time Dream Theater came on the concert was already more than two and a half hours long.

While the crowd was not annoyed with the appetizers it was obvious that fans were eager to see the headlining band.

The lights on stage were dimmed very low as Dream Theater started playing the intro to the first song off of Black Clouds & Silver Linings (the album being promoted on tour) called 'A Nightmare to Remember'.

A Nightmare to Remember is an epic opener both for an album and a setlist. The intro slowly opens with a crack of thunder followed by raindrops and more thunder rumblings in the background. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess then inserts a dark yet melodic piano riff before the sound of a chorus organ mirrored by an enormous power chord shred from John Petrucci.

Layer upon layer is added - from Portnoy's drums to guitar fills to keyboard fills - until singer James Labrie enters with a stuttering "Nightmare to Remember" line.

I honestly felt like I was living in a dream throughout the progression of the song and slowly awoke from it as it was transitioned into the second song of the set and, accordingly, second song off of the new album: 'A Rite of Passage'.

A Rite of Passage

I'm not sure what prompted the background comments made in the video from 2:36 to 3:06 (though they fit well with the song). Kudos to the whomever took this video as well as the others posted below because the quality is outstanding.

Back to the concert...the solo section from 4:23 to 6:33 in the video above is one of my favorite parts of the studio album. Hearing and seeing it performed live was unbelievable (as was the entire concert, come to think of it).

Jordan Rudess followed that song with a solo of his own. From there, they mixed in songs from several of their prior albums. 'Prophets of War' (Systematic Chaos) and 'The Dance of Eternity' (Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory) were next up on the docket and continued the outrageously fast pace to the concert.

By this time they decided it was time to cool things off for a little bit so they played a rather sedated song off of Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory called 'One Last Time'.

Immediately proceeding the "breather" song they cranked the dial ever so slightly with one of my favorite songs off of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence called 'Solitary Shell'. With the mix of acoustic guitar, sweet harmonies, and piano solos I could see this song being enjoyed by even non-Dream Theater fans. It is a truly a beautiful piece. Check out this cool live version from a concert in Budapest earlier this year.

One last song was played before their encore and it was off of the Train of Thought album. 'In the Name of God' is the last song off of the album and would be fine closer to any concert.

One thing I haven't mentioned yet is that drummer Mike Portnoy maps out each setlist so that no two setlists are the same. Very cool. No show will ever be the same... all the more reason to continue seeing them live in concert!

The video below shows a portion of the song as Petrucci and Rudess trade solos back and forth.

In the Name of God

As ridiculous as it sounds I would have been happy hearing just the opening song. Listening to the refined product on the album and the live performance was completely synchronous, yet obviously more impressive live due to an inability to edit out and cut out mistakes.

Though I'm sure this probably is an incorrect statement I detected zero mistakes during their performance (and I've listened to each of these songs probably 30+ times).

Wait a second. What happened to the encore I alluded to earlier? The best is always saved for last and that is certainly true with this song's selection.

The Count of Tuscany is without a doubt my favorite Dream Theater song and it happens to be the final track off of Black Clouds & Silver Linings. According to numerous sources online the lyrics, which were written by John Petrucci, recount a true experience he had while he was in Italy.

While all the heavy and hard hitting, fast-paced action of the song occur at the beginning my favorite part is from 3:30 to the end of the second video clip below. I don't think I've ever heard a more beautiful ending to a song.

Count of Tuscany pt. 1

Count of Tuscany pt. 2

So there you have it! It was easily the best concert I've ever been to and it is likely to hold that title for the foreseeable future...until the next time I see them live.

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