Progressive Nation tour @ Molson Amphitheatre, Toronto ON, August 14, 2009

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Review by Sean Palmerston, Photos by Adam Wills (unless otherwise noted)

This past Friday marked the Toronto stop of this year’s Progressive Nation tour, the now-annual summer festival curated by and starring Dream Theater as headliners – basically their chance to take out some of their favourite bands on tour with them across North America playing outdoor amphitheaters. This year’s tour had a bit of controversy, as two of the bands originally scheduled to appear were forced to drop off the bill when their label ran into financial problems, but as Friday’s show proved, their replacements did a great job in their place.

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Texas instrumental prog metal quartet Scale The Summit got things off to an absolutely great start, playing their first every Canadian show to very enthusiastic response. This is only the band’s second national tour (the first jaunt was a US swing with Protest The Hero) but you wouldn’t know it, as the young quartet did their material proud and assuredly won over a whole bunch of new fans as well. Concentrating on songs from their latest album, Carving Desert Canyons, which was released internationally by Prosthetic Records earlier this year, the twin guitar action of Chris Letchford and Travis LeVrier was very nicely done. Definitely a band to watch in the future.

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Next up was LA retro revisionists Big Elf, a band that I can’t decide if I really like or completely loathe. With a sound that’s somewhere between early King Crimson and Black Sabbath, the quartet uses all vintage equipment, including multiple Orange cabinet heads and a rotating Leslie cabinet speaker for their organ, and seemed to go into this show with something to prove. The band was painfully loud – easily the loudest band of the whole day, much louder than the headliners to be honest – but their schlocky imagery was even heavier than the music they were creating. I’m not into the whole androgynous look for front men of heavy bands, but vocalist/organist Damon Foxx was like a cross between a bearded Alice Cooper and Marc Bolan, wearing more make up than my wife would in a whole month. I know if I met him in an alley I’d run the other way quick. Their set was adequately played and their songs well written but the band seemed to be trying a little too hard to impress.

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The real meat and potatoes of the night was up next when the excellent Zappa Plays Zappa took the stage and gave all in attendance a lesson in musical proficiency in the most subdued manner possible. Slowly bounding out onto the stage, the Dweezil Zappa led outfit ran through an incredibly tight hour long set of material taken from the rich recorded catalogue of his late father Frank, one of the most interesting major label recording artists in the seventies rock scene. The band played a number of songs that got the crowd going, including a rousing audience-requested version of “Dental Floss” that had a young lady in the row in front of us dancing up and down the row to the delight of the band themselves, who spent most of the song watching her OTT dance moves. She was so captivating that she ended up on the video screens for more than half the song too. Other highlights of the set included “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” “Pound For A Brown” and a neat version of “Bobby Brown” that featured Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy on lead vocals (he claimed the song was his favourite song of all time when he was 12 – yeah right). Dweezil Zappa proved himself an excellent lead guitarist in his own right, but the real star of the set was keyboardist/ saxophonist/ flautist/ vocalist Scheila Gonzalez, who proved to be the band’s most valuable player. This woman can play the sax and flute like nobody’s business and really held the band together along with the solid drumming of timekeeper Joe Travers. I would not hesitate on going to see this band live again sometime really soon.

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As great as the Zappa set was, the real reason the audience was there was up next. Dream Theater released a new album earlier this year, entitled Black Clouds & Silver Linings, that contains some of their best new music in more than a dozen years. The band’s set this evening concentrated quite heavily on the new disc, with “A Nightmare To Remember” and “A Rite Of Passage” coming in order to kick off the show. While the time restraints of having a four band bill meant their 90 minutes wouldn’t give them the time necessary to play all their signature tunes, they did get some older nuggets into the abbreviated set. Falling Into Infinity’s “Hollow Years” followed next, which went directly into a very neat keyboard solo by Jordan Rudess. That dissipated into two of the three parts of the “A Mind Beside Itself” trilogy off Awake: “Erotomania” and “Voices”. These had the fans in ecstasy and the set-ending version of “Take The Time” just made the crowd go ape-shit, even though the best part of the night was still to come.

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While the crowd was busy being very demonstrative in their love for the band, Rudess snuck back on stage and started playing some very familiar phased keyboard drones while the rest of the band assumed position. My suspicions were confirmed shortly thereafter that the band was about to cover a Rush song when a slightly altered version of the Moving Pictures album cover was displayed on the screen (with Dream Theater replacing Rush across its top). The band then kicked into a spot on cover of that album’s “The Camera Eye” which was done with pin point precision. I don’t know if they have ever done this song in the past – this was admittedly my first time seeing the band live – but it was a fitting tribute to the Toronto based trio that obviously have had such a huge influence on the Dream Theater sound. The band then went out on an even higher note, ending the show with their best new song in more than a dozen years, “The Count Of Tuscany.” The song is the absolute stand out track from the new album, ending it with a bang, and it definitely did that here as well. Every member of the crowd was up on their feet in rapturous applause, obviously happy with what they had just witnessed.

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As previously mentioned, this was my first Dream Theater live experience and while I definitely did enjoy it personally, there were a few things I found a little strange about the band’s performance. The first was the fact that the most active members of the group on stage are the ones the farthest away from the audience. Drummer Mike Portnoy is obviously the heart and soul of the group – if not its de facto leader – and it was Mike and keyboardist Jordan Rudess that were the most active and interactive of the five. It’s easy to understand why both bassist John Myung and guitarist John Petrucci aren’t that active, as they have a lot of ground to cover on their respective stringed instruments, but the participation of vocalist James LaBrie is curious indeed. For the most part the Canadian born vocalist was only on stage to sing his parts. As soon as a vocal section was done, he would disappear behind the guitar stacks until he was needed again. I don’t know if this is common place or if he was feeling ill this night but I am going to assume it was the former because vocally he was spot on for the entire performance. Maybe he’s never been one to hang out on stage or perhaps being out on tour night after night takes its toll on him. Regardless of this, as previously mentioned it was a good show that delighted pretty much everyone in attendance.

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Dream Theater set list

A Nightmare To Remember
A Rite Of Passage
Hollow Years
Keyboard Solo
Erotomania
Voices
Forsaken
Take The Time
Encore:
The Camera Eye (Rush cover)
The Count Of Tuscany

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Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.