TAC correspondent Mike D’Virgilio recounts an unexpected and exhilarating progressive rock reunion.
If you like progressive rock music you would have been in heaven at the Three Rivers Progressive Rock Festival. Woodstock this wasn’t, but in the small world of “prog” this was as good as it gets. From Spock’s Beard to Neal Morse, to The Flower Kings, fans got their fill of great contemporary progressive rock music.
A little history might be in order for those not familiar with this slice of popular music. Back in the late 1960s primordial soup era of rock music, bands who were not happy playing formulaic, three chord, blues-based music and three-minute songs started to experiment with odd time signatures, elaborate song structures, and music that was not particularly radio friendly. Some of these bands, such as Genesis (back before they simplified in the 1980s and Phil Collins became a superstar), Gentle Giant, King Crimson, and Yes, had good followings and are still well-known today.
But as the ’70s wore on into the ’80s, progressive rock became museum music, a sign of past times when experimentation reigned and corporate behemoths didn’t control every aspect of music production and marketing. When grunge exploded on the scene in the early ’90s, a small band of musicians decided that minimalism wasn’t the way to go, and thought that they might be able recapture the glory years of more sophisticated and artistic rock music. Thus what you might call neo-prog was born.
One of those bands there at the new beginning was Spock’s Beard, with lead singer and songwriter Neal Morse. Their first album, The Light, released in 1995, had four songs. Can’t get much more prog than that. After six albums, Morse left the band to concentrate on more overtly Christian music, and drummer Nick D’Virgilio took over lead singing duties, a la Phil Collins and Genesis when Peter Gabriel left the band. The two went their separate ways for the last six years until one Saturday evening this past August in far western Pennsylvania at the Three Rivers Progressive Rock Festival.
After a full day of music, the prog fans were eagerly anticipating the final two acts. The Beard performed first, with an energetic set of some old Morse-era tunes and some newer, post-Morse numbers.
The highlight of the evening came with an encore rendition of “The Light” that included Morse out front singing, and playing keyboard and guitar, with D’Virgilio back on the drums like the old days. The crowd, buzzing with excitement, didn’t sit down for the fifteen-plus-minute song. The band members were clearly effected, too. Backstage after the song, emotions and tears welled up for old times gone by, captured in the moment of reunion.
I enjoyed one participant’s response to the event I found at the band’s website:
I’ve gotta say it was a moving experience to see the incarnation of the band that made me believe prog had been reborn. Spock’s Beard with Neal represents all that I love about music; great musicianship, exciting live performances, and a contagious love and immersion in music that has the power to lift your soul to a higher place. I saw more than a handful of grown men wiping tears back (myself included) when Neal got on stage with his old band mates. Neal himself was visibly moved as he went from member to member with big hugs all around. For 15 minutes all was right with the world and we were back in that reality where Spock had a beard.
Finally after much set-up and late into the evening, it was Morse’s turn to perform with his own band. Morse is something of an anomaly, not only in the world of prog but in all of pop and rock music: an outspoken Christian whose music is openly Christian who has a primarily non-Christian fan base. Before going on stage he called together his bandmates and any others who cared to join for a short but raucous pre-set prayer session. Then it was off to a performance of epic mania. Epics, for the uninitiated are long, multipart songs that tell a story—and Morse does epics.
Being a Christian myself I can relate to much of Morse’s message, but I was suffering cognitive dissonance over such in-your-face Christian lyrics in such a secular setting. The audience didn’t seem to mind at all, however. They just love the music, and they let Neal be Neal.
That’s a refreshing attitude in a culture so greatly rent by clashes between traditional-minded religious folk and militant secularists. Morse’s approach is certainly not indicative of how all Christians approach their art, but it is clear that high quality, substantive art doesn’t have to suffer from inclusion of a Christian message.
For those not among the lucky few who were able to attend the show, there’s a video with poor sound and picture but quite fun available at the SB forum.
[Editorial note: Singer Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard is the author’s brother.]