July 1, 2023

Neal Morse doesn’t seem to be bounded by physical laws. Having made his name as the founder and main man of ‘90s proggers Spock’s Beard, he branched off to do his own thing as the millennium drew to a close, and has now generated a massive amount of material, from solo prog epics to introspective pop; playing solo in pubs to being a sought-after guest star on some of the most advanced prog projects out there. He has recorded a number of albums of full-on faith and worship songs in addition to his secular catalogue, as well as crossover projects in which the lives of the great Christian teachers, Martin Luther, the apostle Paul and even Christ himself, are given the full concept album treatment. When he decides to be in a band, the members are always in the top echelons of the industry, and while each project might be seen as an interesting experiment for a single album or maybe two, they generally end up subverting expectations by churning out album after album. The result is that there are now enough top-quality Neal Morse recordings for several ordinary lifetimes, and still he thunders on.

The indefatigable Neal Morse – photo by Robert Grablewski

His own Neal Morse band, featuring longtime collaborator and ex-Dream Theater sticks man Mike Portnoy, whizzy guitar shredder Eric Gillette, bass virtuoso Randy George and fellow keyboard-playing vocalist Bill Hubauer, has now released four studio albums, the latest being 2021’s Innocence & Danger, recorded in the throes of the Covid lockdown. The promotional tour was the first thing they did when the lockdown was lifted, filming a documentary in the process, and when they hit their favourite concert venue at the Markthalle in Hamburg, Germany, the concert was recorded for this new live set, titled An Evening Of Innocence & Danger: Live in Hamburg. Those of us who remember the overblown audacity of bands like Santana and Wings bringing out live triple LP albums in the seventies, may be a bit shocked to find this is a live triple CD, running to something like 2½ hours overall. Most of the original album, which was itself a double studio CD, is covered, along with some songs from earlier NMB records.

Innocence & Danger, unlike their previous couple of albums, was not a concept work as such, and therefore the order of play is not wildly important, although the way the original studio work was divided, CD1 contained eight pieces ranging from three to nine minutes, with CD2 containing just two pieces of epic length. The live version follows roughly the same pattern, although Not Afraid Pt. 1, along with its acoustic guitar solo intro Emergence, are not reproduced here – instead, a cover of Waterfall from their first album is included. The set is as impressive as you might expect, given the personnel, starting with a rising swell of strings and timpanis, with the band gradually coming on board well over a minute later, to play Do It All Again. Bird On A Wire diverts into up-tempo pop-rock territory, with a definite flavour of Asia about it; likewise, the chugging Another Story To Tell emulates Supertramp to some extent. This runs straight into the nine-minute The Way It Had To Be via some heavenly choral effects, a weird key change and some ambient volume-knob guitar work. This number is given the full Pink Floyd treatment, very atmospheric, with the band rising and falling in perfect unison.

This is followed by an audacious cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, which was a surprise on the studio album, but has reportedly become a popular live staple. It’s given the prog treatment of course, with stereo-panning Hammond organ, and a harsh and spiky guitar sound building into an uplifting synth section before the old familiar lyrics drift in after two and a half minutes – if that sounds intriguing, give it a listen at the foot of this page.

The irrepressible Mike Portnoy – photo by Robert Grablewski

The second disk starts with the 20-minute Not Afraid Pt. 2, which inhabits the gentle but majestic territory of latter-day Marillion, with ominous orchestral chords and string machines dropping into an easy rhythm in 7-8 time. Halfway through though, it breaks into another Supertramp-styled prog epic with Wakeman-like keyboard solo breaks and a tremendous guitar solo. This extended format is clearly where the band belongs, and they follow this with the even longer Beyond The Years, with a Focus-heavy medieval section at six minutes, followed by some seriously impressive two-handed guitar shredding. It’s the rockiest part of the concert so far, before breaking down suddenly after 15 minutes and restarting as a ballad. More Pink Floyd is evident in the vocal phrasing, and Randy George provides an unbelievable bass solo during the band intros, with a big, soaring guitar solo from Gillette at the end.

It has all been impressive so far, but for me, it really comes alive on the third CD, which only contains one number, the half-hour Great Similitude Medley. I say one number, but this is effectively a medley of material from their two Pilgrim’s Progress-based concept albums The Great Adventure and The Similitude Of A Dream. I won’t attempt to break it down into its original component songs; suffice to say that every influence is thrown at it, from the paranoid rock of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, to Freddie Mercury’s piano work and even some inventive stage production with echoes rising in pitch before breaking into head-banging rock at just after 12 minutes. Towards the end, the Great Adventure Of My Life section raises the spirits, with soaring melody, and a joyous audience chant-along before the climactic ending. It goes against the grain to offer anything in the way of criticism to such a great band, and it has been a virtuoso concert to be sure, but this final piece is actually the immersive, escapist epic I had been expecting all along, and the highlight of the set by far. To these ears, it kind of puts the rest in the shade to some extent, and it’s this third disk that will see the most action, in my player at least. Still, that’s why they supply three CDs-worth of music I suppose, and fans of Morse, Portnoy et al will know they are never going to be short-changed.

An Evening Of Innocence & Danger: Live In Hamburg by The Neal Morse Band will be available as a limited 3CD Digipak and as a digital download from 14 July 2023 via Inside Out Music