The last few months have seen plenty of activity in the Dream Theater camp. From founder Mike Portnoy's leaving the band, to the hiring of new drummer Mike Mangini, and the release of their new CD A Dramatic Turn of Events, the progressive metal titans have been keeping busy. What better way to culminate all of this than a North American tour, which the band are smack in the middle of along with fellow Roadrunner Records labelmates Trivium. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo ventured down to Morristown, New Jersey for the band's stop at the Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC), normally a venue specializing in jazz, pop, classical, and comedy acts, So, how would MPAC fare for a night of adventurous prog-metal? How would the band perform without Portnoy? Read on for all the anwers and complete show review!
Openers Trivium have been a regular on the extreme metal circuit for the past five years, but most in attendance tonight felt that this was an odd pairing, hence the bar and merchandise area being fairly packed with fans during Trivium's edgy thrash/metalcore fueled set, instead of inside the venue watching the band. No doubt Roadrunner set this pairing up, but poor Trivium had their hands full trying to win the crowd over, which was mostly made up of progressive rock & progressive metal fans both young and old, who were not all that interested. Still, the band put on an energetic set filled with plenty of tasty, punishing riffs, nimble solos, and pounding breakdowns. Looking back, there were easily a handful of bands that would have made for a better pairing with Dream Theater and their fans, but if Trivium grabbed a few new listeners it was a win-win for them.
8:45 hit and the house lights went down for the arrival of Dream Theater. The stage at MPAC is a nice size, and plenty big enough to fit Mike Mangini's 'steel cage' styled drum kit and all the props the band have brought along with them. Those familiar with the Palace Theater up in Albany, New York should know that this venue looks very similar, and has the same type of warm acoustics. This was evident from the first track the band played, "Bridges in the Sky", one of the many songs off the new CD the band would play. The band were firing on all cylinders, and every instrument could be heard perfectly, with James LaBrie's vocals front and center. "These Walls" and "Build Me Up, Break Me Down" followed, the latter also from A Dramatic Turn of Events, and you could easily see that most in attendance were very familiar with the new songs. What other concert besides a Dream Theater show can you see the band playing new material and the fans enjoying them as much as the old classics? Not many. All too often you see fans bored and restless when they don't hear material they are familar with, but not on this night. The band then lurched into the impressive "Endless Sacrifice" from Train of Thought, and this was easily one of the highlights of the evening. LaBrie is singing better than he has in years, and Mangini is quite simply a monster on the drums. His work alongside bassist John Myung was jaw dropping, and it must be noted that Myung's bass work throughout this evening, and especially the new songs, was outstanding. The 'beast' has returned!
After a blazing & acrobatic drum solo from Mangini (to huge chants of 'man-gi-ni, man-gi-ni'), the band dipped way back into their catalog with the instrumental "The Ytse Jam" (hadn't seen them perform this one in many years), and the lovely "Wait for Sleep" from the seminal Images and Words. LaBrie's vocals alongside Jordan Rudess' majestic keyboard melodies were simply magical. Other surprises included "Caught in a Web" from Awake, and "Through My Words/Fatal Tragedy" from Scenes From a Memory, all wrapped around more stellar tracks from the new CD such as "Outcry", "On the Backs of Angels", and the mesmerizing "Breaking All Illusions", which contained one of the most incredible John Petrucci guitar solos of the evening, as he channelled his inner David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame.On numerous occasions Petrucci, Myung, and Rudess with his portable keytar were at center stage trading amazingly complex unison lines, prompting roars of approval from the crowd. For their encore, the band dusted out their biggest ever hit "Pull Me Under", and sent the audience home extremely happy-two hours of progressive metal bliss and a night to be remembered.
I've made a point to see Dream Theater on every tour for the past 20 years, sometimes venturing to multiple venues in cities in and around the NY metroplitan area on each tour. The reason they have been a successful touring act is they subscribe to the Grateful Dead ideology, so you almost never get the same set on any given night, and I can easily say I've been surprised and satisfied with each and every show, and there have been a lot of them. Their rabid fanbase expects the unexpected, and they always get it. Many felt that Portnoy's absence might force the band into the 'predictable', but that was not the case here, and looking at setlists from other recent shows it appears that they are mixing it up a bit each night, though with the focus being on the songs from the new album. As for Mangini, he fits right in here, and it didn't appear that anyone missed Mr. Portnoy all that much. For the first time in a few years, I also noticed that the band seemed to be having more fun on stage than I've seen them in years, especially LaBrie, who was quite animated , interacting with not only the audience often but also the rest of the band, and he is singing in top form. As for the MPAC, it was a fine place to house this event, with the 1500-2000 proggers and metalheads well behaved but thoroughly enjoying themselves. They did have a very strict 'no photos' policy, which included cell phones, so I wasn't able to snap up more than a couple of sub-par photos before being told to 'put it away' by security.
In summary, Dream Theater are back, and better than ever.