I have been listening to Spock’s Beard since the late ’90s/early ’00s. I was even a relatively active participant on the Spock’s Beard message board, back when that was a much bigger thing. So I remember the hype that surrounded Snow, along with the high praise and acclaim from progressive rock circles. I remember listening to it for the first time and being blown away and inspired and amused. In short, Snow is a concept album about a young Albino man who was born with a gift from God to heal peoples’ emotional wounds. Along the way, he forms an entourage of believers that consists of a NYC bouncer, a prostitute, a drugged out businessman, and a person experiencing homelessness. He then becomes famous, lets the fame get to his head, falls obsessively in love with a girl who treats him like trash, and then falls into a deadly depression, before he is forgiven by his friends, and most importantly, his Creator. As you can tell, it’s a pretty religious album, a sort of Sampson story about power and corruption, and would serve as a springboard for Neal Morse’s later ministry.
Of course, I remember the feeling that many fans felt when I read that Spock’s Beard, at the pinnacle of their success, would lose their brilliant and charismatic front man, Neal Morse. There was virtually no touring for Snow, so the thought of seeing it performed live just became one of those dream concerts that seemed highly unlikely as Morse pursued more overtly religious music. Following Morse’s departure, Spock’s Beard carried on with the extremely capable and gifted Nick D’Virgilio on lead vocals for almost a decade, and their music was fantastic, although a slight departure from Spock’s sound of the 90’s. Nick left a few years ago to take a job with Cirque de Soliel, and the band is currently fronted by Ted Leonard (ex-Enchant), whose vocals fit perfectly with the current line up.
So, almost 14 years after its release, I read the announcement that Neal Morse was going to reunite with Spock’s Beard to do a performance of Snow for his annual Morsefest concert weekend, in a city that was about 3 hours from where I live. I had no choice but to go. So I bought tickets immediately and planned out my trip. To add to the awesomeness, I found out that the most excellent Rylee McDonald (vocalist/lead guitarist/principal songwriter/all around great guy from Advent Horizon) and his wife were planning a road trip out to Tennessee to see the concert. It just kept getting better.
I showed up at New Life Christian Church in Cross Plains, Tennessee to a massively packed parking lot and long lines. It was pretty amazing to see the lines and think that they were all here to see an amazing, but comparatively obscure band from my past. I had a pretty lively prog-based discussion with some new friends in the line, and actually, I was lucky enough to chat with Jared Everett, who is one of Proglodytes’ reviewers now as a result of our banter. I finally made it in after a while and sat with Rylee, his wife, and Jared Hill (a talented young songwriter from the New York area) next to the audio booth. There was a palpable air of enthusiasm in the room, as fans from all over the world (literally) waited excitedly for the show to start. We all knew that we would see Snow, but we also had the sense that there would be some surprises throughout the night.
The band entered the stage and the first song began. I was immediately shot back to 2002, when I would listen to this album with headphones on as a teenager. I almost felt unreal to see Neal, Nick, and Ted all on stage with the rest of the band. After a flawless intro, they entered into the extremely technical ‘Overture’, which featured not only dual drumming from Nick and Jimmy, but triple guitars from Ted, Neal, and Alan, as well as a trumpet and sax player. Spock’s Beard decided to go all out for this show, and they didn’t disappoint in the least.
I could go in depth to each of the songs, but it was a long concert with a lot of music, so for our readers sake, I will highlight some of the most impactful moments of the night.
Act 1 Highlights
The first surprise was Nick D’Virgilio playing the rough bouncer in ‘Welcome to NYC’. Nick popped out, fully costumed, and killed it. This happened again later, on the terrific bruiser, ‘Devil’s Got My Throat’, which was sung by current Spock’s Beard frontman Ted Leonard. His high tenor was well suited for the intense and off-the-hinges character of the song, a drugged out former businessman who lost everything in the stock market. I loved that I was seeing a band that had 3 skilled and experienced frontmen playing both lead and auxiliary roles throughout the play. Nick D’Virgilio and Jimmy Keegan traded drumming duties throughout the night, and the switches were seemless. Jimmy handled the old parts with fidelity and ease, and when they both played, it was crushing. Dave Meros’s solid bass work took backseat to the stage theatrics, but he played a noticeably solid performance throughout, contributing occasional vocal support as well. Alan Morse rocked his complex parts as usual, although there were a few parts where he had little goofs, most noticeably in ‘Love Beyond Words’. Neal was prepping for the lovely piano solo and Alan started into ‘The 39th Street Blues (I’m Sick)’, but was quickly and subtly rebuked by his brother. It came across as more fun (“whoops!”) than anything.
One of the most touching performances of the first act was ‘Solitary Soul’, which is from the point of view of the person experiencing homelessness in the drama of the album. Neal, Nick, and Ted sat at the front of the stage on stools and sang the 3 part harmonies with such melancholy and tenderness that I was admittedly teary eyed. Certain songs that weren’t as powerful on the album were much more powerful live, and the prime example of this was ‘Open Wide the Flood Gates’, which featured beautiful water-themed visuals and strong musical backing, along with Neal’s expressive singing. The set closed with the lovely ‘Wind At My Back’, which, in the context of a church, really fit, as it is very much a praise music song.
Act 2 Highlights
Act 2 had some pretty spectacular moments as well. Nick D’Virgilio’s beautiful rendition of ‘Carrie’ brought many audience members to tears, and was followed by a visibly touched Neal saying something to the effect of ‘I feel it too’. There were some really fun moments throughout Act 2. Jimmy Keegan, drummer extraordinaire, handled vocals for Freak Boy Pt. 2. He did a near-perfect vocal rendition of the original song, and also writhed around the stage like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and even climbed over a few audience members in the pews at one point. One particular track always seemed a little strange on the album version- in the drama, the group of misfits, led by Snow, goes out for a night on the town and goes to see Spock’s Beard in a meta-sort of moment, only to be completely wowed by an exuberant Ryo Okomoto on keyboards. Seeing Ryo perform this piece live was an absolute joy, and it was definitely the setting that the original song demanded. People screamed ‘RYO!’ throughout the piece, and he even strapped on a keytar and ran at full speed throughout the audience. He ran back to the stage and finished off his song with a musical allusion to Jeff Beck, before the album finished up.
The set closed with the last song on the album, ‘Wind At My Back (Reprise)’. In one of the most vulnerable displays of the night, Neal sang the words with such authenticity and religious conviction that he was visibly choked up. In that moment (by the way, I was choked up, too, for my own reasons), I felt a profound respect that Neal believed so strongly in his faith that he decided to leave when he did to do what he does now. Spock’s Beard continues to thrive as a band. Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep is one of my favorite records to come out in this decade. In short, while my teenage self grieved the loss of Neal, the powerful performance by Spock’s Beard that night confirmed to me that the changes were the “right thing”. Spock’s Beard rocked with Nick, and they continue to rock with Ted, and Neal is authentically fulfilling what he feels called to do. All is well in the cosmos.
For the encore, hey played a gorgeous rendition of June, and the harmonies were stellar. The night closed with a new Spock’s Beard epic song, featuring guest parts from Neal, Nick, and Ted, called ‘Falling For Forever.’ The song was about 20 minutes long in total, and featured an impromptu drum battle between the equally exquisite Jimmy Keegan and Nick D’Virgilio, which both wowed and amused the audience. To make it clear, after 2 hours or so of music, Spock’s Beard returned for a 30+ minute encore. At that point, everyone was well fed musically and left without any doubt of the special nature of the performance.
As a reviewer, how do you write about the concert of a lifetime? My friends at the concert and I were so blown away that we decided to head somewhere to eat and process. As they were from out west, I thought I’d treat them to a true Southern experience and take them to a Waffle House, where we discussed life and meaning and tried to pretend like we weren’t abusing our bodies as we ate disgustingly delicious hash browns. We sort of reveled in the evening and still to this day are, for the most part, amazed that we were able to witness such a special evening. Even with the European concert pending, being able to witness such an event in the setting that we did was especially amazing. I am grateful that Neal and the gang decided to put together such a magical night. Oh, and: