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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Concert Review: You Can Go Home (But You Can't Go Back)

Dream Theater bring Images and Words to the Beacon.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Dream Theater: (l.-r. John Myung, Jordan Rudels, James LaBrie, Mike Mangini, John Petrucci)
in concert Friday night at the Beacon Theater. Photo by the author.
Progressive metal mavens Dream Theater are on tour again, celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of their 1992 album Images and Words. On Thursday night, the Long Island quintet brought their Images and Words and Beyond Tour to their old turf: the hallowed stage of the Beacon Theater. This was the first DT show at that venue since 2011. However, this is not the same band that staked its claim with that record so many years ago.

Guitarist John Petrucci and bassist John Myung remain fleet instrumentalists, playing long intertwining lines with an ease that bespeaks their conservatory education. Kevin Moore and Mike Portnoy are gone: Mr. Moore left in the 1990s and Mr. Portnoy departed under a black cloud in 2011. Their replacements are keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess and drummer Mike Mangini, who has the first Mike's chops but not his personality. However, the biggest flaw is in front. James LaBrie's tenor is no longer smooth: it is worn y time, injury and repeated heavy use. Though he summoned reserves for some big moments, it is a pale reflection of his younger self.

That's less of a problem when singing newer material, which is adjusted for the vocal cord injury the singer suffered in 1994. However, this tour, built around a complete performance of Images and Words was a disaster waiting to happen, forcing the Canadian native to push himself back into that old stratospheric territory where the notes are high, the air is thin, and the audience, many of whom have seen this band many times before, are less inclined to be forgiving.

The concert had no opening act. The first set focused on later material from the band's catalogue. Playing in front a windowpane backdrop, the band sounded relaxed and confident as they slammed into "The Dark Eternal Night" from the Systematic Chaos album. The Godzilla stomp of the verses yielded to complicated arpeggios and rising melodic lines tossed from instrument to instrument in  a difficult juggling act. Deep cuts followed: "The Bigger Picture" (from the 2013 self-titled album) "Hell's Kitchen" (from Falling Into Infinity, graced with a fragment of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds") and "To Live Forever", a b-side from the Awake era.

Train of Thought remains the heaviest Dream theater record. Its leadoff track "As I Am" is a kind of manifesto of independence, and it might be the best pure heavy metal song this band ever wrote. As if to acknowledge that, a glance between guitarist John Petrucci and bassist John Myung suddenly switched songs in the middle; playing the opening riff, first verse and first chorus from Metallica's "Enter Sandman." This galvanized the audience, and jumped the energy level for the rest of the show. Without a pause, the band switched back to the more angular "As I Am" riff and finished the song in a triumphant and thunderous manner. The first half ended with "Breaking All Illusions,"  a blowout track from A Dramatic Turn of Events. (Released in 2011, Turn was the first record with Mike Mangini on drums.)

Mr. LaBrie's vocal problems were exposed in the second set. "Pull Me Under" had the singer struggling with either a throat ailment or a faulty cordless microphone. He pressed hard, producing a soft whisper in the first verse of "Another Day" which turned into a steely yelp at the crescendo. After struggling through Take the Time, he took a long break as the players soloed, retreating from the stage. "Surrounded" was an improvement: the song is difficult but written in such a way that each note rises in pitch: like singing your way up a ladder to the high dive at the end. He took the last part very slowly, caressing the vocal line with help from Mr. Rudess' piano.

"Metropolis Part 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper" was next. This is one of the band's signature tracks, and for once it was performed in its entirety. (The torturous second verse with its multiple high notes is usually omitted in a live performance.) After these big notes, the players slipped into the instrumental middle part only to take a break again, this time for a lengthy Mike Mangini drum solo. "Under a Glass Moon" followed with Mr. LaBrie stabbing at the high notes and sometimes missing. "Wait for Sleep" (with a Jordan Rudess piano solo) and "Learning to Live" rounded out the album, the last been the strongest performance of the set. As an encore the band offered the massive title track to A Change of Seasons but most fans took out their phones to look up what song it was.

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