Neal Morse in Toronto, April 2018

An Evening with Neal Morse @ The Great Hall – 21 April 2018

This weekend is one of unadulterated progressive rock for Toronto. On Friday, supergroup Sons of Apollo levelled the Opera House. Tonight sees Toronto host esteemed prog rocker Neal Morse. Tomorrow, a sold-out Danforth will marvel at prog royalty Steven Wilson. In the centre of this epic weekend, Morse is performing his final date of this North American tour at the grandiose Great Hall, replete with clean marbled walls and shiny chandeliers.

This affair is an intimate one with chairs arranged in a semi-circle facing Morse’s set up – an acoustic guitar and a keyboard. According to the compère, Morse said he would rather play on the floor in front of the audience than on the isolating stage. Tonight’s show is an acoustic performance with no support act, meaning Morse can dive straight into the action. Despite his popularity with the likes of contemporary prog successes Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Flying Colours and his own Neal Morse Band, only just over half of the 100 or so chairs are occupied. This only makes the evening more special.

Despite the sparse attendance, Morse is greeted by a voluminous ovation on arrival. He starts the show on his acoustic guitar with “Songs of Freedom” off this year’s new album Life and Times. This upbeat ditty sets the tone for the rest of the evening. A hybrid of Transatlantic’s “Shine” and “The Dreamer and the Healer”, both from their latest Kaleidoscope album, is heartily cheered on by the audience. Hearing this beloved supergroup’s music stripped down to acoustic guitar is fascinating and this version stands up on its own legs. Like his Christian beliefs that he puts at the front of his solo work, Morse’s music is largely positive and redemptive and the optimism that emanates from him is enough to turn even the most cynical hater into a childlike dreamer.

While it’s arguable that most of the attendees here are most keen to hear Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic material, Morse’s solo efforts appear to wholly captivate the crowd. Their simplicity means following the narrative within each song, which is straight-forward and reveals Morse’s good humour. It helps that plenty of these new tracks seem have an entertaining story behind them. Before deploying “Selfie in the Square” he retells reading a review where the writer said that his daughter proclaimed the singer of the song he was playing to be too old to sing about selfies. Indeed he breaks up this song with humour by inserting snippets of songs with the word “yellow” (said in his approximation of a Liverpudlian accent thanks to the Beatles) in them and invites the audience to throw suggestions. Snapshots of ‘I am the Walrus’, ‘Mellow Yellow’, ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ before he says “What song was I doing again?” and returns to “Selfie in the Square”.

Transatlantic’s ballad “Bridge Across Forever” seems like an no-brainer choice for the set list and Morse provides an emotive performance behind his keyboard. Spock’s Beard’s “Thoughts” and “Thoughts 2” are supremely executed with Morse recording and looping vocals à la ‘70s prog legends Gentle Giant. Spock’s Beard “The Doorway” is one of the highlights of the evening, performed splendidly with its simpler instrumentation. “There’s Nothing God Can’t Change” from the Neal Morse Band makes an appearance and he tells a touching story about how his daughter was born with a hole in her heart and she miraculously recovered, baffling the doctors. His new album has “Manchester”, a song written about Manchester, England, which Morse claims is situated by the sea in its lyrics but – as an English friend informed him – it’s actually landlocked. The tone turns more serious for the sombre “He Died At Home”, also from Life and Times, an illustrates the prog rocker’s versatility.

After “There’s Nothing God Can’t Change”, Morse leaves the stage… or rather floor… but the audience remains behind for an encore. It’s not long before their wish is granted and he returns with a medley of “All I Can Do” (Neal Morse Band), “So Far Gone” (Neal Morse) and “Stranger in Your Soul” (Transatlantic). The closing song is the upbeat and country-tinged “Sing It High”, an energetic and catchy way to wrap up the evening and has the crowd singing along to the chorus. This intimate show was something all the proggers in attendance can say they adored judging by the festive atmosphere throughout. Two hours melted by and as if the performance wasn’t filling enough, Morse sticks around to sign merch and take photos. What a lovely man.

Photos by Peter Han.