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ConcertsNEARfest 2004: Planet X

Posted on Wednesday, July 21 2004 @ 23:09:10 CDT by Grant Kikkert
Concert Reviews "Shit! He'd better not play a drum solo... Only Neil Peart or Bonham gets away with that!" And then, from the very same NEARfest attendee, approximately 20 seconds after Donati's completed drum solo: ".... Well, um, that has got to be the best fucking drum solo I've ever heard in my life!"

Following a weekend of impressive NEARfest performances there was ample anticipation over the Planet X set. Anticipation from the left: die-hard Planet X fans who wondered what the show would be like, sans guitarist Tony McAlpine. Anticipation from the right: non-Planet X fans who wondered whether these 'sick instrumentalists' would live up to the hype. And anticipation from dead center: myself. A fan who wondered whether their aggressive blend of metal and fusion would be accepted by NEARfest concert goers. After the strong applause following their opener, "Moonbabies", all anticipation gently faded. Lasting opinions may vary, but most who caught the set would probably agree: despite playing a relatively uneven show, the band kept the attention of the nearly-packed house.
Playing original material off of all three of their albums the show can be broken down to the performances of each player...
First, the good: The rip roaring pairing of drummer Virgil Donati and new bassist Russ Philpot, who assembled a wall of rhythm under Derek Sherinian's blistering synth leads. Some scoffed at Donati's hyped intro "as one of the world's best" but there is no denying that the man can play. Watching him sweat through a 4 minute drum solo was worth it to see those in attendance grant him a standing ovation. The man did things with drumsticks I never thought were possible. Newcomer Russ Philpot was the glue that held everything together. Playing a fretless 6 sting bass he effortlessly reproduced bass lines by Tom Kennedy, Billy Sheehan and Dave LaRue. Not an easy feat. He projected nothing but total confidence on stage and looked as though he was enjoying every minute.
The same could not be said for Bandleader/keyboardist Derek Sherinian and new guitarist TJ Helmerich. Sound problems seemed to have plagued Derek from the very start and by the end of the performance he made no effort to hide his frustration. What started as darting glances, and small hand gestures to raise the stage volume in his monitors (particularly with his Nord synth), eventually escalated to red-faced scowls and a brisk walk off stage during Virgil D's drum soloing. His dissatisfaction was so painfully obvious that it was hard to tell if his monotone delivery in between songs was a case of stage jitters or someone drowning in deep frustration. Some in the crowd dismissed this as rock star posturing, but those who are musicians can quickly attest, playing keyboards without a proper monitor mix is akin to flying blind.
And who wants to fly blind when you have Tony MacAlpine's guitar parts to cover? Certainly not guitarist TJ Helmerich, who tried admirably but seemed to struggle through some of the Planet X set. On some occasions he was playing behind Virgil Donati's ever-steady beat, and others he seemed to drop out all together to regain his footing. In all fairness he has some pretty hefty shoes to fill trying to recreate Tony's parts. When left to his own devices, (a couple of tapping solo bits) TJ started to shine, and showed glimpses of brilliance. However, standing on the left part of the stage with his cap just above his eyes he had a hard time concealing that he was "the new guy" and was working overtime to connect with the band and the audience.
Despite these distractions, the band still blazed through a majority of the set with intricate precision. Regardless whether you like instrumental music, playing at this level needs to be seen and not heard. Just as interesting as watching the band play was watching the crowd's reaction during the show. To me, Planet X seemed clearly an outsider in the always progressive-leaning lineup. In shows past, heavier bands would normally suffer an exodus of some kind from the older prog-elite. As the set neared toward the end, many people around me were rocking their heads to the groove. An occasional yelp from the audience "Yeah!..." or "Rip it up!" would break through the myriad of notes and polyrhythms coming from onstage. Overall the healthy attendance, and enthusiastic applause after the encore indicated to me that most people at NEARfest 2004 were willing to put musical preferences aside just to witness some incredible musicianship.
Interlude in Milan
Dog Boots
Apocalypse 1470 BC
Drum Solo
Sea of Antiquity
Encore: Ignotus per Ignotium

Grant Kikkert

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