Neal Morse band featuring Mike Portnoy [gig review]

IIT-Bombay’s Mood Indigo had their work cut out for them after declaring Simple Plan as the headline act for last year, disappointing many (including this) fans of the progressive genre. So when they did announce in September that Mike Portnoy would be playing here in India with Neal Morse, needless to say I couldnt believe what I read. 20th December was marked in bold across my calendar. All is forgiven for last year. The fest brought Porcupine Tree, Katatonia, Karnivool and now is now featuring arguably the biggest name in progressive music since Pink Floyd (am I pushing it here? Oh screw you, I get to).

DISCLAIMER: Its a long post. It will take you an extra minute than usual and nothing more, but I felt I had to highlight the issues I had with the organizers since they nearly had a detrimental impact on the manner in which I enjoy the gig. Carry on..

Cutting to the chase. Reached the festival gates at 3pm and went straight to the open air amphitheater. Having attended Mood Indigo before, I was more than familiar with the long queues and the ‘holier than thou’ attitude is dissed around by those involved with the fest at IIT-B, so this time I came prepared. Alas, everyone else came equally prepared too. The line to get into the amphitheater began at 4pm, despite the fact that the opening act being scheduled to begin at 6pm.

Doesnt matter right? I’m here early, I get dibs for the seats I want. No issues.

Except I was still stuck outside the venue in a labyrinth of a maze, trying to get in. Others shared my disdain. No one to guide people into the venue. All you see is one massive line in a place where there is provision for 4 queues to move simultaneously. Its surprising to think that an event which advertises itself shamelessly as ‘Asia’s Largest Cultural College Fest’ (a claim which I cant verify independently in any way) would at least have a fair idea about the number people who’d turn up. Because this massive queue (which we thought would lead us to nowhere)  was in place to frisk people for marijuana and alcohol.

Two teams (yes, just two) were in place to pat down, frisk and possibly confiscate items from a line that already had more than 5000 people. You could do the math and figure out that despite landing there early and waiting in line, severely dehydrated and tired (since the organizers were kind enough to not allow ANY food stall near the queue), I was stuck outside when the event began. Me with many others, grimacing at the fact that we are being treated like cattle. And the volunteers doing absolutely nothing to make us feel otherwise.

Anyway, there’s that. I missed out on the entire opening act, mainly the battle of the bands featuring the F16s (which Sumanth was kind enough to review beforehand for us; they won the event ultimately AND have a keyboard player, so I’m sold). Zero ended up cancelling their opening slot, much to my dismay. It is the only Indian band I havent seen yet despite being a fan of, and I never happen to be in town when they perform. (if Warren is reading this, I hope you guys have a secret set in Mumbai soon, about time!) I guess they will remain on my bucketlist for a while.

Baiju Dharmajan Syndicate filled in for Zero instead. Having seen Motherjane perform, I knew what to expect:

  • Quintessential carnatic run on 7/4.
  • Sweep.
  • Shred.
  • Carnatic run on a different key.
  • Repeat above steps till end of set.

It was fun regardless, seeing one of the country’s finest guitarists doing what he does best, even though it got a tad repetitive after a while. The mix was messed up, since I couldnt hear the bass throughout their act. However, even that can be overlooked. Its a college fest, perfect sound is too much to ask, right? The least you’d expect is to have a seamless gig with no hiccups. Apparently it is too much to ask since midway through the set, everyone on the stage lose their sound, leading me to believe that the organizers probably cut Baiju off to make time for Portnoy’s set. It wasnt the case. It was a genuine technical snag in a college fest at campus full of engineers (hat tip to Deepak for the joke). Kudos to Baiju for being really professional about it and distributing his CDs among the crowd while the organizers tried to fix this cockup. But it had me worried; there should be no problems with the headlining act. The set ended with what must be the quickest rendition of Fields of Sound I’ve ever heard. Easily 10% faster than the original, the entire band ran through the Motherjane classic with no errors, which was surprisingly brilliant.

Small confession before the headlining act: I only became a fan of Neal Morse after checking out Transatlantic at the start of the year, followed by his solo albums. Looking past his Christian lyrical influences, the man is a prog-rock stalwart. I heard Momentum earlier this year and while I may not be too blown away, Neal couldn’t have picked a better album to come to Mumbai with. Adding Mike Portnoy to the lineup was the cherry on the cake, considering I’ve already shown myself to people as a massive Dream Theater fanboy (new album review is here! Spoiler alert, I dont like it).

Mike Portnoy standing up on the kit, doing his trademark tom-roll followed by the standing-up foot stomp trying to cheer the crowd on. Time stood still at that moment. Here was a guy I listened to a million times over the years on my headphones, air-drumming to all the parts; to watch him do that in front of me a couple of meters away, in the flesh, was a dream come true.

End of sappiness. The gig went on smoothly. The set included lots of tracks from Momentum including the classic Thoughts Part 5, which seemed a bit wasted on the crowd considering it is a progressive masterpiece (although to be honest, I lost my shit once I heard the unison solo + double bass from the opening track, Momentum, so I wasn’t too bothered by the crowd). Transatlantic’s We All Need Some Light Now and Spock’s Beard’s Wind at My Back were the encores. It was beautiful to watch. Neal Morse getting the crowd pumped up, Portnoy’s typical drum rolls followed by an 8 bar solo, Eric Gillette being the pick of the night for me with a guitar tone that matched no other along with the chops and licks to pull it off. The mixing for this set was exquisite, with me being able to hear every note of every player no matter which end of the amphitheater I went to. However, this isnt even the highlight of the night.

The set is over, the band leaves the stage. IITian volunteer gets up and starts speaking to thank the sponsors and those involved. A wild Portnoy appears, grabs the mic from him and says “look if you’ve got time to talk we’ve got time to play”. Rest of the band jumps on to the stage. Crowd goes mad as the final encore is played, IITian left ashen-faced. Easily the perfect way to end a perfect evening, despite the horrible experience I had at the start. My feet hurt from all the standing, the crowd was unruly, but it was well worth the effort.

5/5 for the Portnoy Neal Morse gig. Having said that, I wouldn’t attend another event at IIT-Bombay ever again. Unless of course, Dream Theater/Devin Townsend/[insert wishlist band here] do show up.

EDIT: Things got pretty unruly after the gig at IIT-Bombay. Made this second post to highlight the incident. While the volunteers did apologize to us, it doesnt mean it did not happen.

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