Followers of the Neal Morse Band will know exactly what is in store when a new live album drops, but if, like me, you are not fully acquainted, An Evening of Innocence & Danger: Live in Hamburg is an excellent choice if you want to experience the band in its element. It’s a recording of the concert on 13th June 2022, a playback of the 2021 Innocence and Danger album (with minor tweaks), which happens to fit a live setting perfectly and comes already sequenced for maximum effect. The bonus in this release is an extended encore featuring a medley from the preceding two albums.
“NMB’s Innocence and Danger tour was an amazing experience all the way around and the Hamburg gig was a real stand out!”, says Neal, “The band was firing on all cylinders and the audience was so close to us and roaring from the very first note.”
Mike Portnoy continues, “It was our first post-Pandemic tour so everybody (including the audience) was just happy to be at shows again experiencing live music together. We particularly felt the love and emotions this evening in Hamburg which has always been an amazing audience for NMB.”
The outcome is an ambitious, sprawling three CD release that over the course of two-and-a-half hours surely has something for everyone. One of the reasons I haven’t spent too much time with Neal Morse in the past is his tendency to over-extend on track or album length (usually both), whether that is with NMB or with Transatlantic. My tastes are more in tune with Flying Colors slightly more concise approach and so my initial thoughts are that I am gratified that the playlist for CD 1, at least, looks manageable. It also whets my appetite to see a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water is included.
The band admit that Innocence and Danger, eventually released as a double CD, was filled out with additional material (as opposed to being edited down!) after the initial song-writing, and this explains how this track was conceived and developed, having initially been ‘inspired’ by Yes’s successful live-staple cover of America. In the setting of a studio album it certainly looks like ‘filler’, but here, as part of a live set, it is an intriguing and potentially crowd-pleasing addition.
Song-writing duties were shared amongst the band and this shows in the mix of the CD 1 tracks. Do It All Again is a standard, some may say formulaic, rocking opener that provides the band with opportunities to warm up and deliver the first of many climactic endings. Bird on a Wire is a much more interesting song, delivered with gusto and power, and Neal Morse, in particular, gives a stellar performance here. It doesn’t let up for a moment and will surely become a fixture in the setlist on future tours.
Your Place in the Sun provides a change in tempo and a chance to catch breath. Piano, guitar and drums provide a foot-tapping groove and the simple lyrics present a pleasing opportunity for the crowd to sing along. It’s followed by a similar pop-styled song in Another Story to Tell, complete with jaunty ’80s style keyboard solo and retro backing vocals. I enjoy this mixing of styles, especially as it challenges my preconceptions of the band.
Another Story to Tell is one of the tracks re-worked from previous sessions to pad out the studio albums two CD format. It’s a slow-burning, Pink Floyd-influenced track full of heavy drum beats and melodic guitar soloing, but for me the highlight is once again Neal Morse’s vocal performance in the first half of the song. His delivery is consistently superb across the many styles showcased on this album.
The two acoustic tracks from the studio album are left off the live set and we jump straight to Bridge Over Troubled Water. I have to say that I don’t think it works but I don’t knock the band for giving it a go, and I’m sure the crowd had a blast singing along. CD 1 is closed out with the gentle Genesis-y Waterfall from the 2015 debut The Grand Experiment, which seems a surprisingly downbeat way to finish off the first half of the set. It’s been an enjoyable listen so far without quite catching fire. The heights reached early on haven’t been maintained sufficiently and the excitement level has been allowed to dip. I’m now hoping, against my instincts, that the ‘epics’ section to follow will surpass expectations and re-ignite the passion.
The second disc follows the track listing of the second half of the studio album, opening with the 20-minute Not Afraid, Pt.2. It’s more in the vein of the prog-metal-lite style that I was expecting from the band, with keyboards and guitar taking solo turns and Mike Portnoy’s machine gun drums pounding away in the background. It has taken a bit of patience but I have been drawn into this track. There is decent story-telling in the lyrics and the fast-evolving musical sections hang together despite some dramatic tempo changes. The main theme is never far away and this lends some structure whilst the band members inject their own personality on the feel of the music as the song develops.
Beyond the Years feels like it will be a challenge for me but, once again, repeated listening enables me to begin to appreciate that maybe 34-minutes isn’t too long after all. There are thought-provoking lyrics to explore and of course there is plenty of virtuoso playing to admire. What’s most interesting to me is the interplay between band and singer in the vocal passages. There is a real sense that Neal Morse is leading and the band is following, or responding, whereas in the musical passages the band finally has the freedom to improvise and ‘progress’ the song, and it all happens at pace. It feels organic and I hear different elements each time I listen. Halfway through there is a timely interlude before the band launch into a magnificent sequence of melodic soloing. That really should be the end of it, but as this is the closing track of the main setlist the band introductions begin and the soloing goes up a notch before the track itself is re-ignited to be closed out in true mega-climax style. What carries me on through the journey is the exemplary story-telling from the whole of the band. It all sounds very frenetic and complicated on first listen, but the structure is sound, the song-writing is high quality and the musicianship is absolutely top notch.
The encore is another thirty minutes that spills over into CD 3, a medley of songs (Long Day, City of Destruction, So Far Gone, The Ways of a Fool, Welcome to the World, The Great Adventure, A Love That Never Dies, Broken Sky and back to Long Day) from the two preceding The Pilgrim’s Progress concept albums. Its exceptionally well put together and brilliantly executed and, dare I say it, the time flies by.
All I can say to any readers that are still with me at this point is that, yes, I had my doubts. I went into this with some trepidation, but The Neal Morse Band won me round. After a few false starts, eventually the quality and class shone through. It’s pure musical escapism, mixing power with pomposity and panache. I thought I might just be able to get on with CD 1 but ended up loving my time with CDs 2 and 3 as well. After the band has been hiding in plain sight for years the back catalogue suddenly stretches out ahead of me.
01. Do It All Again (10:23)
02. Bird On A Wire (8:08)
03. Your Place in the Sun (4:18)
04. Another Story to Tell (4:50)
05. The Way It Had to Be (9:18)
06. Bridge Over Troubled Water (8:43)
07. Waterfall (7:50)
Time – 53:30
01. Not Afraid, Pt.2 (21:45)
02. Beyond The Years (34:08)
Time – 55:53
01. The Great Similitude Medley 29:58
Time – 29:58
Total Time – 137:21
Neal Morse — Keyboards, Guitars, Vocals
Mike Portnoy — Drums & Percussion, Vocals
Randy George — Fretted & Fretless Bass
Bill Hubauer — Piano, Organ, Synthesisers, Vocals
Eric Gillette — Guitars, Vocals
Record Label: InsideOut Music/Sony Music
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 14th July 2023