Singer-songwriter Neal Morse
's latest U.S. tour is a leap of faith. Even though he’s worked as a solo artist officially since 2002 when he announced his departure from the progressive rock group Spock’s Beard, the bulk of his touring has often been focused overseas with only a smattering of select U.S. dates.
Which is why the current U.S. tour dates are a very welcome surprise for longtime Morse fans. The recently released The Similitude of a Dream
represents the second album under the banner of the Neal Morse Band. It was his longtime collaborator, bassist Randy George, who made a big push to get the band out on the road for a proper tour here in the States.
“Randy has been very instrumental in that happening. They wanted to do a bus tour and I’m like, ‘Oh boy, I don’t know,’” Morse says with a chuckle during a recent phone conversation. “I tend to just do fly dates and go shorter and just fly to the major markets. Just because it takes less time and I’m kind of at the point in my life where I like to be home a lot — but I’m glad to be playing some places that we’ve never played before. I think Spock’s Beard played in Cleveland once, years and years ago. But I don’t think I’ve played in Cleveland but the one time. We’re excited to get out into other places. You know, there’s a lot of cities that we’ve never played, so it’s great to get out and see new people and get this album particularly exposed to a new audience.”
Morse, George and legendary drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, The Winery Dogs) have made music together for a long time. But it was the experience of playing shows in support of Morse’s Momentum
album in 2012 that caused an important shift. Keyboardist Bill Hubauer and guitarist Eric Gillette came into the circle as members of the live band, and, as Portnoy recalls, there was a “great, great chemistry” that they were keen to explore with the five-piece band.
“We wondered, what would it be like to write with this chemistry? You know, everybody in the band is a great player and a great singer and has great ideas,” Portnoy says. “So with The Grand Experiment
, we kind of changed the chemistry altogether and turned it into a real band. Everybody’s contributing, four out of five of us are singing, so it’s not just Neal singing anymore. I think Bill and Eric have very predominant vocal parts on this album. That one little word, ‘band,’ really makes all of the difference in terms of what’s going on now and the chemistry within the band.”
The positive experience of making 2015's The Grand Experiment
carried over to the new album in a big way — by the time they had completed work on The Similitude of a Dream
, they found themselves with a double concept album with more than 100 minutes of new music. They’ll play the full album, which draws the inspiration for its story from the John Bunyan book Pilgrim’s Progress
, during their sold out show at the Beachland Ballroom this weekend. But as Morse shares, he and Portnoy didn’t see eye to eye initially when it came to the idea of doing a double album.
“I think it was a struggle for Mike for a lot of different reasons. He talks about it on the making-of documentary that comes with the special edition,” Morse says. “He talks about how one of his issues was that he didn’t want to do a double concept album, because Dream Theater had just put out one. He thought that it would for sure be compared. Also, I think he felt like the sketches that we had for the second disc weren’t really good enough and about that, he was definitely right. But once we gave up resisting it and we all got into it and put our shoulders to the wheel and explored the rest of the story and did the second disc, it’s almost like it wrote itself. It just all fell in our laps and it’s just amazing.”
This marks the 18th album that Portnoy and Morse have worked on together and the drummer calls the new record “the absolute creative pinnacle of our collaborations together,” admitting that he has a soft spot for double concept albums, citing Pink Floyd’s The Wall
and the Who's Tommy
as a couple of his favorites. And he points to a couple of different factors as to why his alliance with Morse continues to flourish.
“Well, even before Neal and I started working together, I was the world’s biggest Neal Morse fan. I was a big fan of his work with Spock’s Beard in the ‘90s and was immediately drawn to his songwriting and immediately held him in as high of a regard in my book as any of my other favorite songwriters like Roger Waters, Pete Townshend or Lennon and McCartney,” he says. “You know, I loved his music that much. It was a great blend of prog and pop and emotional ballads and prog epics. I just was drawn to him. So once he and I started working together when I formed Transatlantic in 1999, we just really clicked on a musical and personal level. I think we both have a lot of mutual respect for each other musically and on a personal level, you know, we’ve been through so much with each other. I was there for him when he left Spock’s Beard and he was there for me when I left Dream Theater. We work together with his solo music, we work together in Transatlantic, we work together in Flying Colors. So it’s just a deep connection, musically and personally.”
At the time of this interview, Portnoy called upon the fans to vote with their ticket purchases and show the promoters “that there’s a market for this kind of music,” adding that “the Neal Morse Band is very much a kind of underground thing for American fans beyond the prog scene. I’m hoping that this album and this tour get the exposure that this amazing band and album deserve.”
Early indications suggest that Portnoy, Morse and the band are getting that wish fulfilled— a number of the shows on the tour — including Saturday's show at the Beachland
— sold out weeks in advance. After years of waiting for Morse to come to town, it’s a hopeful sign that perhaps the chances for a return trip someday soon are good.