Friday 21st February 2020
Hammersmith Apollo, London
Dream Theater were a relatively late discovery for me.
Somebody passed me a ‘100 Greatest Guitar Solos of all Time’ list (and I say ‘list’ advisedly… this was waaaay before ‘playlists’), and tucked away at number 98 was ‘Under a Glass Moon’ (which I very soon found was from 1992’s ‘Images and Words’). The list itself was questionable (only one Alex Lifeson entry… at no 94, ffs), but it was well worth putting up with both the content and the order for this one introduction.
After devouring ‘Images and Words’ on the strength of ‘UaGM’ and being hungry for more, working back from the current album at that time (‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’) led me to 1999’s ‘Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes from a Memory’. And from that point, DT shot up in my estimation, playing time and back-catalog expenditure.
I found out that the band comprised of founders John Petrucci (guitar), John Myung (bass), and Mike Portnoy (drums), along with James LaBrie (vocals) and Jordan Rudess (keyboards). I quickly confirmed what my untrained ears had already told me: that each of these guys is an absolute master of their craft, and are as well thought of by their peers as they are their fans. Portnoy of course left the band in 2010 in a very well documented departure before being replaced by Mike Mangini - another virtuoso drummer who at the time held a Professorship at the Berklee College of Music, where Petrucci, Myung and Portnoy first formed the band - initially called Majesty - whilst enrolled there as students some 25 years earlier.
Half of tonight’s two-set ‘evening with’ show celebrates the 20th anniversary of ‘Scenes’… for my money, one of the quintessential concept albums you could be fortunate enough to be familiar with: one (continuing) story from beginning to end presented as two ‘Acts’; track names prefixed with ‘scene’ references. The plot, in a nutshell, is similar to the Kenneth Branagh film ‘Dead Again’, but it’s a bit more than that. Musically, it’s (still) a complete tour de force. This was the band’s fifth album, and came after the relatively poorly received and oft-maligned ‘Falling Into Infinity’. Kinda like Rush with ‘2112’ following ‘Caress of Steel’, this was where DT told the record company execs to bugger off and count their beans while they wrote, recorded, and produced the album they wanted.
Scenes was also the first DT recording to feature keyboard maestro Jordan Rudess. DT had originally tried to recruit Rudess on the departure of original keyboardist Kevin Moore in 1994, but he decided instead on the Dixie Dregs, as the lesser time requirements for that tenure appeared more fitting to both his family life and solo work. The DT slot went to Derek Sherinian, who played on ‘Falling into Infinity’ and (prior to that) the excellent ‘A Change of Seasons’. However, Portnoy and Petrucci (along with Tony Levin) did manage to collaborate with Rudess during this period in Liquid Tension Experiment, producing two albums (and more output subsequently), which proved an undeniable chemistry to all three of them. This culminated in Rudess replacing Sherinian in 1999. After half a dozen pretty decent solo albums, Sherininan would of course resurface with Black Country Communion and, in the ironic and vaguely incestuous way of these things, with Portnoy in Sons of Apollo.
But I digress…
As well as being a 20thanniversary celebration of ‘Scenes’, this is also the promo tour for the current album, ‘Distance Over Time’ from which most of the remainder of tonight’s show is compiled with both tonight and tomorrow night’s shows being filmed for possible DVD release.
As with ‘The Colonel’ for 2017’s ‘Images and Words’ 25thAnniversary shows in 2017, another ‘Two Steps From Hell’ piece - ‘Atlas’ - is used to announce the band’s entrance. Spotlight on Petrucci as he spurns the track’s delicate intro and ploughs straight into the crunching riff of ‘Untethered Angel‘, the first of 5 tracks from ‘Distance Over time’. Straight from the off, we’re hit with the power and musicianship you’d expect. The synced keyboard/guitar solos and guitar/keyboard/bass runs are enthrallingly complex and flawless.
Tone duly set, next up is ‘A Nightmare to Remember’ (from 2009’s ‘Black Clouds and Silver Linings’). This is pretty much a suite in its own right, weighing in at over 16 minutes and showing both the heavy and quieter, more melodic side of DT. The tale of the car crash it recounts is apparently based on an actual childhood experience of Petrucci’s. I’ve seen this played a couple of times, and compared to Portnoy (as per the recording) and Mikael Akerfeldt (who guested when Opeth supported DT), James actually singing the ‘Day after day…’ section (like the vocalist he is) sounded a bit odd… I’m not a fan of the growly vocal, but I guess you get used to something just being there…
A quick welcoming chat from James (who has definitely got a lot more engaging at this sort of thing over the past few years) preceded a couple more from ‘Distance Over Time’ - ‘Paralyzed’ and ‘Barstool Warrior’ before ‘In the Presence of Enemies, Part I’ (from 2007’s ‘Systematic Chaos’). Together with ‘Part 2’ (from the same album), at over 25 minutes this would have been the longest piece DT have recorded if played back to back... as it is, the two parts are presented as the first and last tracks on their parent album and we are treated to just the comparative snippet that is the 9 mins of ‘Part 1’ tonight.
The first set closes with ‘Pale Blue Dot’, the closing track of ‘Distance Over Time’.
After what felt like an all-too-brief interval which was largely spent in the absolute carnage of bladder-stretching queues for the gents, there was barely enough time to indulge in the irony of buying another beer and taking our seats for the second set.
Tonight (indeed; this tour), in order to fully mark the milestone, we get ‘Scenes’ in totality. I’ve said before I am a great fan of complete album performances, and DT are no strangers to it themselves, with ‘Images and Words’ having had an ‘in full’ 25thanniversary outing in 2017, along with ‘The Astonishing’ on its promo tour in 2016. And that’s before you consider their ‘cover albums’ series (‘Master of Puppets’, ‘The Number of the Beast’, ‘Made in Japan’, and ‘Dark Side of the Moon’), which were all live performances – ‘DSotM’ being recorded in the very venue we’re back at this evening - oddly, my 6throw seat tonight is pretty much where I sat that evening in October 2005.
As I’ve alluded to, this album means a lot to me, and whilst the ‘Lives Scenes from New York’ rendition is great (and often watched), there’s nothing like seeing one of your favourite bands, live, knock one of your favourite albums completely out of the park. And I was clearly not alone… I’d say a good portion of the sell-out 3,500 (or thereabouts) crowd felt exactly the same way. Some of the audience singing, particularly on ‘Through My Words’ and ‘One Last Time’ was wonderful.
And that’s before we got to ‘The Spirit Carries On’. As well as more great singing, this also saw a sea of phones lit up and waved on high… made me nostalgic for when this used to be lighters, which you’d steadfastly hold aloft like an endurance test until your hand needed a burn dressing. Mind you, I’ve had no need to carry my trusty old Zippo for 10 years or so… one of those things that’s disappeared over the years, along with a waistline and a previously invincible tolerance to spicy food, and I have to say that the modern equivalent is just as visually effective and is admittedly less of an Elf ‘n’ Safety risk.
There was a lovely touch in ‘Through Her Eyes’ where, on the accompanying big screen, main character Nicholas wanders through a graveyard. Amongst the gravestones, there were some familiar names: Emerson…Squire…Zappa...Bowie…Cornell…Burton… and of course, Peart. Simple & touching… it’s reassuring to know that even our heroes have heroes.
After ‘Finally Free’ (with some very off-piste patterns in the closing section from Mike Mangini - God knows how the rest of the band managed to keep time), the band left the stage temporarily before returning to encore with ‘At Wit’s End’ from ‘Distance Over Time’.
Difficult to pick any highlights from what was, in essence, one bloody big highlight, but ‘Overture 1928’ and ‘The Dance of Eternity‘ might just edge themselves forwards for me personally… but the whole rendition was characteristically flawless.
The spirit certainly carries on.
Atlas (Two Steps From Hell)
A Nightmare to Remember
In the Presence of Enemies, Part I
Pale Blue Dot
Act 2: Metropolis, Part 2: Scenes From a Memory
Act I: Scene One: Regression
Act I: Scene Two: I. Overture 1928
Act I: Scene Two: II. Strange Déjà Vu
Act I: Scene Three: I. Through My Words
Act I: Scene Three: II. Fatal Tragedy
Act I: Scene Four: Beyond This Life
Act I: Scene Five: Through Her Eyes
Act II: Scene Six: Home
Act II: Scene Seven: I. The Dance of Eternity
Act II: Scene Seven: II. One Last Time
Act II: Scene Eight: The Spirit Carries On
Act II: Scene Nine: Finally Free
At Wit's End