Concert Review: Transatlantic – A Rare Performance by Four Musical Masters

For those of you unfamiliar with Transatlantic, it’s a progressive rock supergroup consisting of Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard), Roine Stolt (Flower Kings), Pete Trewavas (Marillion), and Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater). Many of their fans feel that they are the best act in progressive music today. Their music blends the idiosyncratic styles of each bandmember into Beatles-flavored psychedelic rock. The band released their first album, SMPTe in 2000, followed by Bridge across Forever in 2001. After a nine-year break, they released their third album, The Whirlwind , in 2009. Now, Transatlantic has embarked on its first tour in almost 10 years. Accompanied by Daniel Gildenlow (Pain of Salvation) on backup vocals, keyboards, guitar, and percussion, the band is doing 17 concerts in Europe and five in North America.

Contrapuntist and I had the pleasure of attending their concert at the Park West in Chicago on April 20, 2010. The intimate 700 seat theater allowed us an up-close view of the interaction between the bandmembers and their masterful technical skills. We sat about 10 rows back from Portnoy. He normally faces the audience when he performs in Dream Theater concerts. But for this show, he sat on stage left facing sideways. This allowed us to observe how he uses his entire body in his drumming, which we had never been able to see in previous Dream Theater concerts.

After the lights came down, the audience welcomed the band onto the stage with a raucous standing ovation. Contrapuntist and I were both struck by how the musicians from different bands merged together to create a unified musical style. Their diversity is immediately obvious because of their distinct clothing styles. Morse wore a Johnny Cash-style black suit and open-collared shirt. Stolt sported a flowery shirt and reddish brown leather pants. Trewavas wore a wildly patterned open collared shirt over a differently patterned T-shirt. Portnoy had an orange Transatlantic T-shirt and camouflage shorts. Gildenlow wore a green plaid short-sleeved shirt and jeans. You’d never see such non-matching clothing in mainstream acts, which value style over substance.

The first part of the show consisted of the 77-minute epic progressive rock suite, The Whirlwind, which was much more powerful than on the album. We were drawn in by the intricate instrumental lines and the joyful interaction between the performers. The live performance also brought out Trewavas’s powerful tone and driving bass lines. We were sitting on bench seats towards the back of the house, and I felt every note vibrating through the seat and back cushions. I particularly enjoyed the bass line in “Lay Down Your Life”, along with Portnoy’s vigorous drum fills. We were highly entertained when the overhead disco ball came on towards the middle of the piece.

But the highlight of The Whirlwind was the fourteen minute climactic build of “Is It Really Happening?” The house lights came down, drawing the audience in. The piece began with a slow, throbbing bass note over which Trewavas repeatedly sang, “Is it really happening?” The band slowly added layers of instruments and melodies. The tempo, volume, and mood gradually intensified until reaching an eargasm which brought the audience to their feet by the end of the song.  The final song, “Dancing with Eternal Glory/Whirlwind Reprise” brought the first set to a glorious end.

The second set began with “All of the Above”. Next came a birthday celebration for Portnoy. He held up some signs made by audience members including one which said, “Happy Birthday to a long-haired, blue-bearded Jew”. Morse improved a brief tune to those words. One of the stage crew brought out a cake, to which Portnoy said something like, “I can’t eat that right now. We still have four hours left to play.” The band also played a rendition of “Birthday” by the Beatles.

An improvisation on the tune “Scarborough Fair” (usually best known from the Simon and Garfunkel rendition) led into “We All Need Some Light Now” with Stolt on lead vocals and some acoustic guitar improvisation by Morse. Next came “Duel with the Devil”. The encores included “Bridge across Forever” and “Stranger in Your Soul”. During this song, the guys had fun fooling around with each other’s instruments. Morse grabbed some sticks and joined Portnoy on the drum kit. Gildenlow came up behind Trewavas, and each of them played the bass with one hand and the keyboards with the other.

For me, the takeaway from this concert was that each musician is an incredible creative force in his own right.  It was inspirational to watch these four musical giants (five, if you count Gildenlow) join together for a once in a lifetime performance.

Here’s hoping that it won’t be another ten years before the group goes back on tour.

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