Saturday, 22 February 2014

Dream Theater: Along for the Ride Tour

‘An Evening With Dream Theater’
Along for the Ride Tour

Date: Friday 14th February 2014

Location: London Wembley Arena

Support: n/a

When I first saw the announcement of a new Dream Theater tour, I was instantly excited. Their new album wasn't out yet, and although their more recent work hadn't lived up to classics such as 'Scenes from a Memory', I imagined them to be a great live act. As time moved on and the date drew nearer, the band's twelfth, self titled album was released, and it ended up being their best since Train of Thought, I became even more excited.
But then I started to have doubts. A few stories found their way back to me, isolated events of the band having bad sound quality on stage, being seemingly not that interested in performing, not playing any of their well known songs. Now, I knew these were probably very rare events, considering their ongoing popularity as a live act, but it still made me slightly apprehensive as the day drew closer.
I was incredibly pleased to discover that, at the event I attended, such accusations were entirely wrong. The band stuck to a given setlist, I could hear everything perfectly, and the band (or at least frontman James LaBrie) seemed genuinely excited to be there. Furthermore, they played up their best qualities - theatricality, intensity and massive technical skill - and played down their tendency to jam unnecessarily and their cheesiness.
The setlist, instead of being taken from a broad range of albums, was almos entirely taken from four works in their catalogue, three of which were chosen for good reasons. The most obvious of these is Dream Theater, the recent release, which five songs were played from. From here, highlights were set opener and first single The Enemy Inside, which, as predicted, proved to be an excellent live track that plays up the band's metal tendencies but also proves that, when they want to, they can write a good hook (something they forgot for a couple of years) - as well as a condensed version of Illumination Theory. I don't think it's coincidence that they began their set focusing more on the metal aspect of their music, and ended it focusing on the prog aspect, in order to appeal to both of their main sets of fans. Although I'd have liked to hear the full version of this song, it wouldn’t have been plausible to bring a string orchestra in for just that one song, so I’ll take what I can get.
'Enigma Machine' featured a drum solo from Mike Mangini, notable since he's by far the newest band member. Mike Portnoy's shoes are difficult ones to fill, being one of the best modern drummers and all (although I may give the prize to Danny Carey) and indeed, the solo wasn't one of the greatest I've ever heard, but it was kept short and was enjoyable enough.
Also from the same album, before the concert started, we got to hear 'False Awakening Suite' played over a short video, notable for incorporating every DT album cover within it, which was a fun game to play. That aside, the band were incredibly prompt onstage and spent almost every second of their time playing, giving us well over two hours of music. Even during the interval, those who didn't leave the room were treated to videos of outtakes and band interviews from the most recent album.
Although James LaBrie was mostly excellent as a host and frontman, he had his moment of trying too hard - his efforts to get the crowd standing and singing along during early songs went mostly unrewarded. This disrupted some of the show slightly, where the pauses during songs stopped me from enjoying them as much as I might otherwise, but once he gave up on this and began focusing on his own singing, I couldn't fault him - he has a fascinating voice. It's not that he puts huge amounts of emotion in his own words; it seems more that he's using his singing as a way of putting emotion into the audience.
The band were also celebrating anniversaries this year - it's been 20 years since Awake, so we got a selection of five songs from there. I'm a massive fan of 'Scarred' with its stunning piano opening, and although it's short, 'Space-Dye Vest' has always been a lot of fun in its likeness to early Porcupine Tree. It’s not one of their albums that I listen to most often, and I’d forgotten quite how much quality material it had.
Lastly - and they really did keep us waiting until the end for this - it's been fifteen years since Scenes from a Memory, and the encore comprised a full four songs from this. We were given the beginning with the bombastic 'Overture 1928' and its polar opposite in mood, 'Strange Deja Vu', before skipping to 'The Dance of Eternity' which was energetic but has never been an album string point, and ending with 'Finally Free', the obvious closer that everyone in the audience sang along to without being asked.
These three albums aside, the song choices weren’t necessarily bad, but I could have thought of songs I’d have much preferred. The exclusion of ‘Metropolis Part 1’ was a complete shock – I’ve never heard of a tour before where it wasn’t played. I’d also have liked ‘A Change of Seasons’, which I don’t hear a lot because it’s from an EP but which is one of their best longer tracks, and missing out the entirety of ‘6 Degrees of Inner Turbulence’ seems like a huge omission.
Something else I liked was the song titles appearing on the screen at the beginning of songs – from my seat the screen was slightly obscured so I wasn’t able to appreciate their videos as much as I’d have liked, though they looked to be good, and I knew all the songs anyway – but it was a nice touch for people who might be less well acquainted with the band.

All in all, I understand that a band with a huge catalogue can never please the entire fanbase, and I appreciate them making the effort to play for as much of their time on stage as was physically possible. I also appreciate the fact that the band didn't try to give their tour a clever name. They've had some successes with these puns in the past (I appreciated 'A Dramatic Tour of Events') but also come up with some quite laughable ones (Where Dream and Tour Unite?) and were probably safer just sticking with the title of a recent song. They lived up to their potential of being an amazing, intense live band and I’d without a doubt go again.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Who: Live At Leeds

Live At Leeds

Best song: My Generation

Worst song: A Quick One While He’s Away (introduction too long, and while it’s a career landmark it didn’t need to be played live)

Overall grade: 5 / 6 / low 6 (original LP / 1995 reissue / 2001 deluxe)

It’s impossible to write about Live At Leeds without acknowledging its status of being generally considered “the best live album of all time”, a reputation I was well aware of before I even heard it for the first time. And after I had actually heard it, my first reaction was ‘Wow, that’s a bit short, isn’t it?’ And with regards to the original LP (I’ll discuss other versions too, though) that’s certainly stuck with me. Live albums are great for two reasons: they show a side of a band that’s not present on their studio recordings, and they recreate the experience of going to a concert. The original Live At Leeds scores excellently on the first point: this is The Who as you’ve never seen them before, fuelled purely by adrenaline, climbing higher and higher and attempting to embody the very definition of rock’n’roll. But as far as the second point goes, concerts are generally longer than 36 minutes, and so this version kind of seems like a teaser trailer for something much bigger. Although unlike a movie’s teaser trailer, it doesn’t even include the best bits.
Also unlike a movie’s teaser trailer, the definitive version wasn’t released until a full 25 years later. And the extended edition/director’s cut wasn’t released for another six years after that. Consequently, there are three different versions of Live At Leeds (there’s actually more, but they include Live At Hull and I’m not even going to go there) – so which one of these, if any, deserves this honour of being the world’s greatest live album?
Point one: ‘My Generation’.  This song appears on every version and is also the best song on every version – in the 1970 LP it takes up over a third of the record, so that’s a point in its favour. It’d be easy to love the original studio version of this song and hate this one, or vice versa, but I see the appeal in both: the original was a triumph of proto-punk that succeeded in its brevity, while here the band stretch out a little more and engage in a customary-for-the-time jam session that’s cool because it’s not at all random, it includes excerpts from a bunch of other songs.
Point two: covers. The Who used to play a lot of cover songs live, and three are included on the original version, with a fourth on the extended. They’re mostly R’n’B songs from the 50s and early 60s that the band have sped up and given a harder edge to, and in actual fact, my favourite is ‘Fortune Teller’, and I can’t understand why it was left off the original. It may have been covered by a huge number of bands, but this is by far and away my favourite version. One point to the reissue.
Point four: ‘Tommy’. 2001’s deluxe edition is the only one to include a live performance of almost the entire rock opera, shortened only slightly, and although I’m hardly the biggest fan of the original, but performed on stage it comes into its own, giving life to the most aimless songs. Townshend, who at times in his career has tried to be too calculating and mathematical in his songwriting, is thinking less here about the story of a pinball-obsessed deaf, dumb and blind boy and more about his own exciting and ferocious guitar work. One point to the 2001 expanded edition for creating something great out of something very patchy (although the live version lacks diversity compared to the studio.)
Point four: all other songs. ‘Substitute’ and ‘Magic Bus’ are the only two to appear on all versions – both non-album singles, they’re both very obvious choices which are obviously awesome but don’t leave room for any more underappreciated choices. One of my favourite moments from the 1995 reissue is the opener, Entwhistle’s B-side ‘Heaven And Hell’, featuring a great bassline that really gets the crowd excited for the coming set. ‘Tattoo’, from Sell Out, is another hidden gem in this version, sandwiched between two covers, and shows Keith Moon’s drums basically taking on a life of their own. This extended version allows for a greater variety of songs, and I like the varied lengths and styles they cover, so one point for the reissue.
Point five: timing. The concert was recorded in 1970, after the Who’s first four albums, but before the great trio that were still to come. All songs on all versions come from this concert, meaning they don’t capture the spread of a whole career. No additional points for any version.
Of the three options here, I think it’s safe to say that the LP version is the weakest; its only selling point being that it’s available on vinyl, which to my knowledge the later ones are not. I think the 1995 edition is plenty long enough to satisfy most fans and give the full concert experience, and it’s also more structured than the 2001 version, where some songs are re-ordered so that Tommy can have its own disc. Whether they like Tommy particularly or not, every fan of the band should hear the live version to compare and contrast, but in my mind the single greatest version of Live At Leeds is the 1995 reissue, with the 2001 version playing more like two entirely separate concerts rather than the single entity that a great live album should be.

As to whether it’s the greatest live album of all time, it’s certainly a contender for its raw power (you honestly get the feeling that the band physically couldn’t have stopped playing, even in the face of an explosion or something) and encapsulation of the concertgoing experience, but it fails to capture some other sides of the band, released as it was at a time when their intelligence played less of a part in songwriting. That said, the first two elements were probably lost as the band progressed further. In short, it captures the band at their live peak but not at their musical peak, and so it’s a great album, but I can think of a few better examples from where bands’ peaks in both areas overlapped.