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An Evening with Transatlantic

(Published in an edited form in the August 2010 issue of Rolling Stone India, later in its original form in the liner notes of ‘An Evening with Transatlantic: Whilrd Tour 2010’)

The line “I have flown halfway around the world just to see your band” is usually met with shock, awe and, if you’re lucky, a backstage pass. Transatlantic’s drummer Mike Portnoy’s reaction to that statement, however, seemed unnaturally subdued. I was clearly not the first person to have said that to him last week. Even though I had technically travelled the greatest distance, I was not the only person to come to America from many thousands of miles away to witness one of the defining moments of modern progressive (prog) rock – Transatlantic’s reunion tour.

I am currently in an aircraft somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean (doing my best to avoid the obvious pun) having had a few days to recover some semblance of coherence after witnessing two miraculous performances. The whole experience lasted for over forty hours, although the concerts accounted for roughly seven. I am still recovering.

There is nothing quite like watching a concert from the front row. I was certainly not willing to take any chances after having flown from Bangalore to New York specifically for this show. I got to the venue before noon on Friday. Sitting unassumingly between a frozen yoghurt shop (frozen yoghurterie?) and a pizzeria on Manhattan’s East 23rd street was a marquee displaying four words that gave me chills. It simply said ‘Tonight: Transatlantic. Sold Out.’ Prog rock aficionados have waited for almost a decade to see those words on a theatre marquee. For the non-aficionados, here’s why.

Formed in 1999 when American prog royalty in the form of Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy and Spock’s Beard vocalist-keyboardist-guitarist Neal Morse teamed up with European prog royalty, Flower Kings guitarist Roine Stolt and Marillion’s bass guitarist Pete Trewavas, Transatlantic released their first album, SMPT:e to widespread critical acclaim. A line up comprising such dynamic and prolific songwriters and performers could easily have fallen apart, but somehow Transatlantic turned into a ‘Gestalt’ band, one whose whole was somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

Following a brief American tour, the band returned with its follow up album, the now classic Bridge Across Forever. That album, which boasted two twenty five minute epics, including the “epic to end all epics” as Neal Morse put it, Stranger in Your Soul, cemented the band’s place in rock history. The tour that followed called upon the additional talents of fellow prog rock deity Daniel Gildenlow, vocalist, guitarist and mastermind of Sweden’s Pain of Salvation. It was simply the greatest concentration of prog rock credentials on a single stage since the days of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

And then one day it ended. Neal Morse left both of his bands to pursue a career in Christian music. The live album, Live In Europe (2002), Transatlantic’s swansong would, in years to come, simultaneously entertain and taunt those of us who did not get a chance to see them live. Mike Portnoy rightly said that the band could not possibly continue without Neal Morse, and over the next seven years, Dream Theater, The Flower Kings, Marillion and Neal Morse continued to produce albums of the highest quality, and Transatlantic’s two albums kept each other company in the ‘If Only…’ section of music stores around the world.

Then, in April 2009, a press release with the heading “Transtlantic flies again” found its way to internet forums and websites everywhere. Rumours had started a few weeks earlier when Trewavas was spotted boarding a flight to Nashville, Tennessee. As far as the average prog-geek is concerned, there probably is not much more in Nashville, Tennessee other than Neal Morse, his studio and perhaps some cattle. All signs pointed to the much prayed-for reunion. After the confirmation, the information that continued to pour out was tantalising, to say the least. They had written a single 77-minute long song? There would be a tour? Daniel Gildenlow was part of the tour again?

In the summer of 2009, I spent over seven soggy hours in the Munich rain waiting to see Dream Theater, supported by Neal Morse. Although I was unaware of it at the time, I was probably no more than a hundred yards from the makeshift backstage studio in which Portnoy and Morse were recording vocal overdubs for The Whirlwind, Transatlantic’s comeback album.

Released in October, The Whirlwind was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews and high praise. It is hard to be objective with a band one loves this much, but even correcting for the bias, the quality of the album is staggering. Two months later, the band announced dates for its first truly transatlantic tour, with the American leg in April and the European leg in May. I had a trip to plan.

Four painfully long months later, I was in front of the aforementioned marquee, around noon on a Friday. Taking refuge from the sun in its shade was a group of obnoxious teenagers who, thankfully, were not there to see the show. They left a while later, and while enjoying the peace and suddenly smoke-free air, I ran into Collin Leijenaar, drummer of Neal Morse’s solo touring band and current Transatlantic tour manager who, until told about the couple who came from Australia for the show, was wildly impressed at how far I had travelled.

The front of a queue at a prog rock show is always a place to meet interesting people; the combination of the insanity and commitment of waiting for so long just to guarantee a front row spot is the starting point. Spending the entire day with someone like that, and then sharing the cathartic experience of the show effectively condenses a few years’ worth of friendship into a dozen or so hours. As a result of which, the fourteen hours I spent in queues on Friday in New York and Saturday in Philadelphia were filled with plenty of prog gossip, inane chatter, bad cheeseburgers, fake racism, malfunctioning stationery and taunting (“So you’re not going to be here for Rush’s special concerts in July?”).

When Iron Maiden first performed in Bangalore in 2007, I got to the venue at 7 am, only to find that I was nowhere near the front some ten hours later when the gates opened because they had opened the gates on the other side of the line. That experience should have prepared me for what happened when the door opened here at the Blender Theater, New York. Instead of being led into the auditorium, we were herded into a lounge downstairs because the band had not yet finished their sound-check. I did not realize that a queue had formed near the exit of the lounge until five minutes later, by which time there were over a dozen people in front of me, including people who had just strolled in a few minutes earlier! Enraged and on the verge of a tantrum, I complained loudly. In a remarkable gesture of grace and camaraderie, Dan, who was part of the group I had spent the previous six hours with, ensured I got to the front row at his expense.

When the show finally started (half an hour late), the band sounded wonderful until they were hit by incessant technical problems with the microphones, which they battled through until Portnoy grabbed his (working) mic and said “We’ve waited almost ten years for this. Let’s get it right!” or words to that effect, and started off a quick jam while the microphones were replaced.

What followed was a masterclass, one which needed at least two viewings to digest. Fortunately for me, that was exactly what I was going to get. Even though the three and a half hour long set was the same both nights, each show had its own personality. The New York show was more emotional. I spotted Neal Morse wiping away tears twice during the show. During their rendition of Dancing with Eternal Glory, there was not a dry eye in the theatre. The New York show was also defined by the virtuosity of guitarist Roine Stolt, whose note selection and improvisation was sublime (especially during Duel with the Devil), and Neal Morse, who played the whole show with an injured finger but did not miss a note. Mike Portnoy stole the show in Philadelphia. By his own admission, there are some days on which he is better than others, and it is hard to imagine him having a better show than this one. Not one to be outdone, Gildenlow demonstrated he has instrumental chops to match his songwriting skill, playing many of the technical sections on the guitar or strumming chords on his guitar on downbeats while hitting a tambourine on the upbeats before scrambling to complete a vocal harmony.

To keep a standing audience rapt for over three hours is a feat. To be able to do that by playing only six songs is prog rock cliché at its finest. As Portnoy quipped at the same point in the set each night, “We’ve been playing for two hours and we’ve only played two songs!” There was no time for a cover song here or a Beatles medley there as there had been on previous tours. In order to incorporate the new album as well as a few classics, the show had to be over three hours long, and it had to include the four epics, The Whirlwind, Duel with the Devil, Stranger in your Soul and All of the Above and the ballads Bridge Across Forever and We All Need Some Light and nothing else. Owing to a misprint on some of the tickets, which stated that the show was due to start at 9 pm instead of 8 pm, the show in Philadelphia started an hour later than usual and ended after 12:30 am. Not to be subdued by a physically exhausted if musically satiated audience, Portnoy chose to stage dive during the break in Stranger when Neal Morse took over on the drums, just as he had the previous night. The reaction was similar both times. Rather than be concerned about supporting Portnoy (who is not a featherweight by any stretch of the imagination) and keeping him afloat, as it were, most of the audience immediately reached for their cameras, which led, presumably, to some wonderful photographs of Mike Portnoy almost falling to the ground, but not quite. Neither audience was particularly used to having people crowd surf. This was a habit that Portnoy had picked up towards the end of the last Transatlantic tour in 2001 and clearly one he still enjoys.

The many hours spent standing in queues and at the shows with no real thought of food or water took their toll on me on my way back to New York from Philadelphia after the show. The two hour bus ride at 2 am was punctuated with excruciating cramps which kept me awake all the way back. By the time I could finally lie down, it was after 5 am. But if I had been told there was another show that evening, I would not have hesitated for a second to go. I think that was a sentiment shared by most people who were a part of this. It was a sensory overload, but the kind you just cannot get enough of. The band’s future remains uncertain. Hopefully the stars will align once more. Until then, as I fly back to reality, I can rest comfortably in the knowledge that I was part of prog rock history.

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