Dateline, September First and Second, 2017, Cross Plains, Tennessee: In a church just off Interstate 65, about 30 miles north of downtown Nashville, the now annual convening of progressive rock fans that come from literally all over the world gather for Morsefest 2017. This once-a-year event offers fans of Neal Morse and his band an up-close and personal experience to witness albums performed in their entirety, along with rare epics and special guests. It’s an unlikely place for a two-day music festival–that is, unless you consider the subject matter of much of Neal Morse’ music.
Night one is begun with Morse’ former Spock’s Beard band mate, Nick D’Virgilio and his musical collaberator, Stan Ausmus. The two play an intimate set of acoustic numbers from the Spock’s Beard category and some covers, to help the room settle in for an evening of prog classics. Neal Morse and his band, Mike Portnoy, drums; Eric Gillette, guitar; Bill Hubauer, keyboards and various other instruments; and Randy George, bass, begin their set with four epics, which combined have a play time of well over an hour. After a short intermission, they return to the stage and play Morse’ Testimony 2 album in its entirety. This record is a very personal and soul-bearing work, which describes Morse’ personal journey to Christianity and the solidifying of his faith in God. The highlight of Testimony 2 is a song entitled Jayda. Jayda, Morse’ daughter, was born with a hole in her heart. This song very emotionally depicts the anguish which the family endured and his wife’s faith to bring about a healing to his precious little girl. At the conclusion of the song, Jayda, who is one of the dancers who grace the stage at certain points in the performance, rushes on to the stage and she and her dad share a very loving embrace. Morse remarks afterward, something to the effect of, “I can’t believe I was able to get through that song.”
Night two of this installment of Morsefest has a distinctively different buzz about it. There is an anticipation in the air, and in the line to enter the building. Overhearing people talk about where they are from; Miami, Texas, Wisconsin, you get the sense that Morse’ fans are not only fervent and loyal, but willing to travel great distances to see him and his band perform. A few States, yes, that’s devotion, but how about South Africa and China? Yes there were individuals who made the trek from both of those countries to attend this event. What can inspire such devotion and buzz you might ask? The fact that there were 100 more tickets purchased for the second night would lead one to believe that most of the attendees wanted to see the Neal Morse Band perform their masterpiece work, The Similitude of a Dream for the 50th and final time, at least for the foreseeable future. This epic work is based on the 1678 book The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come. Not only is this album and its modern-day adaptation a great story, but the musical composition is on par with The Who’s Tommy.
Inside New Life Fellowship’s sanctuary, the evening is kicked off by D’Virgilio again, this time with a group of musicians called UniKuE. Notice the U, K and E in the band name are capitalized. The seven member ensemble, D’Virgilio, drums and vocals; Don Carr, Dave Martin, Carolyn Martin, Kat Bowser and Ausmus, plays five classic rock and progressive tunes on varying size and tones of ukuleles, yes, ukuleles. Now as unusual as that may sound, their set is not only unique, pardon the pun, but these people are talented musicians. Their finale of Yes’ Roundabout is arranged and performed magnificently.
The house lights dim, the recorded intro to the show is complete, and the hooded, lantern bearing Morse has sung the opening lines to Long Day, the band rips into Overture. The atmosphere is electric, this will be a special performance. One can sense it. The band, accompanied by a chorus, string and horn section, makes its way through the first half of the album and takes a brief intermission. The group continues with the second half of the album, building up to the five song conclusion of the story, I’m Running, The Mask, Confrontation, The Battle and the finale of Long Day/Broken Sky (Reprise). It appears that the members of the band feel the Road Called Home coming to an end and they dial it up. Even the normally reserved George is seen to be jumping up and down on stage. The audience is hanging on every note. When Gillette performs his solo in the middle of the finale, the room is electric. This final performance of Similtude is in the books and is a memory that all attendees will be able to hold for themselves.
The crowd breaks into a chant of “Ole…Ole…Ole….Neal Morse,” after the band departs the stage. Morse and company return for a three song encore, Author of Confusion, Agenda and The Call, concluding a two evening celebration of Morse’ music. The crowd will not only have the memory of Morsefest 2017 in their minds, also, the event was filmed for release at a time yet to be determined. If you were unable to attend, stay tuned for information on the release of this year’s convention.
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