Most bands don’t play their second-ever gig at one of the best concert venues in New York city, but then again, most bands don’t have a pedigree to match that of Flying Colors. This supergroup, consisting of famed musicians Mike Portnoy (drums, ex-Dream Theater), Steve Morse (guitar, Deep Purple), Neal Morse (no relation—keyboards, ex-Spock’s Beard), Dave LaRue (bass, ex-Dixie Dregs) and Casey McPherson (vocals, Alpha Rev), had an instant hit with its 2012 debut CD, an out-of-the-gate classic that added alternative rock punch and Beatlesque melodicism to its members’ progressive-rock backgrounds. Thing is, the band was a studio creation—a “let’s get together and make an album” kind of thing, not an organic, road-tested combination.
The group gelled nicely in the studio, but the question hung over the Sept. 6, 2012, concert—would they cut it onstage as well, and with only one previous show (earlier that week in Los Angeles) under their belts, would they have their act together? As evidenced by their triumphant New York debut, the answers are a clear yes and yes.
The night kicked off in fine fashion with New York-based band Jolly, who were hand-picked by Portnoy to open the show. Turned out to be a good call; Jolly’s dark-hued, alt-rock-tinged brand of modern prog-rock went over very well with a crowd that, while clearly there for the most part to see the headliners, was very open and receptive to the original young band’s set.
Jolly (an ironic name to be sure) came on strong with a sturdy selection of songs from their excellent second CD The Audio Guide to Happiness Volume 1. The band—singer/guitarist Anadale, keyboardist Joe Reilly, drummer Louis Abramson and bassist Anthony Rondinone—expertly mixed sound effects, unique sound stylings and their memorable compositions with energy and tightness, impressing the audience members, many of whom probably hadn’t heard of the band before that night.
In a bold move, Anadale called for the crowd to sing along with a passage of one of the band’s songs—and darned if he didn’t get them to do it! That’s pretty daring, asking folks to sing a song they’ve probably never heard before that night. That the crowd enthusiastically complied is a testament to how successful Jolly was in hitting a home run at a gig that was clearly a major moment in their career.
After the Jolly set was done and the lights came back on, the theater continued to fill in anticipation of the Flying Colors set. The Best Buy Theater—formerly the Nokia Theater until the big-box retailer took over sponsorship in 2010—is a mostly standing-room facility, with bleachers in the back and tables situated in an upper level to the sides of the stage. The main audience area is the large floor in front of the stage, and while this area was about half-full when Jolly kicked off the night around 8:30 p.m., it was pretty packed when Flying Colors hit the stage around 10. (I suppose some attendees timed their arrival to miss the opening act—their loss.)
Not surprisingly for a relatively new band making one of its first performances, the Flying Colors show was not without its technical glitches. The first one occurred as the band started its first song—album opener “Blue Ocean”—and Neal Morse’s keyboards made no sound. This piece starts off with a busy bassline by LaRue, and while I expected him to stop playing as multiple crew members sorted out what was wrong with Neal’s rig, LaRue is such a trouper that he kept at it, with Portnoy locked in, for what seemed like many minutes until the keyboards came back.
And then, for the second time on this planet, the sound of Flying Colors came alive. As expected, these virtuosos delivered on the promise of their debut CD and their impressive legacies. Portnoy remains one of rock’s premier drummers—athletic, inventive and always spot-on—as well as one of its most engaging personalities. Portnoy served as emcee for the event, welcoming the crowd at the show’s start and doing most of the talk-ups between numbers. He didn’t do much in the way of soloing—this band is about songs, after all, not showing off their virtuosity—but the drum-heads in the crowd seemed thrilled to see him back.
Frontman Casey McPherson seemed a bit shy, but came off as likeable and certainly delivered in the vocal department. While Neal Morse is usually the lead singer in most of his groups these days (including Transatlantic, the prog-heavy supergroup that also features Portnoy), he deliberately avoided taking on that role in this situation. Portnoy picked relative youngster McPherson, best known for singing with Alpha Rev, and his lead vocals were one of the outstanding features of the Flying Colors CD. He delivered on that promise at the NYC show, giving Flying Colors’ well-constructed tunes a husky, alt-rock fullness, often reminiscent of Coldplay singer Chris Martin. As I wrote above, he came off as shy, possibly experiencing a bit of stage fright? He often sang with his eyes closed or looked down at his guitar. He didn’t move much, except for his guitar-less, more energetic fronting of “All Falls Down.” But the guy can sing—respect. And I’ll bet he’ll loosen up as the band gets more gigs under their belt (they set off for dates in Europe after the New York show).
Neal Morse may not be the lead singer in Flying Colors, but he’s a hell of keyboardist for the band, and is a very engaging and endearing performer. Watching onstage with this group, it was clear he was enjoying every second of the show. The man simply loves to play, loves being before an audience, and is very happy to be in Flying Colors. While he didn’t sing too many leads (a sing-along acoustic version of his Spock’s Beard classic “June” being the main exception), his vocal harmonies were a key part of the band’s sound, as was his exceptional keyboard playing.
Steve Morse is, no question, a masterful guitarist. Constantly at the top of “Best Guitarist” polls in musician’s magazines, he’s renowned for his instantly recognizable guitar lines—speedy little blazes up the neck punctuated with big, long-held notes and precisely articulated power chords. I saw him years ago when he was the lead guitarist in Kansas, and he was spectacular—never a missed note, consistently as fast and precise as he is on record.
But Steve Morse seemed to be having an off night on 9/6/12. He missed a few notes in the show opener “Blue Ocean”, and he missed some—and hit some clunkers—in the songs that followed. Did I think Steve Morse, one of the most acclaimed rock guitarists ever, has lost it? No way. My feeling was that he was under-rehearsed with a new band playing material they’ve only played onstage once before. I am certain his focus and precision will sharpen over the course of more shows with this band. His playing was never a detriment to the effectiveness of the performance, but it was a slight disappointment to me, because I know Steve Morse is capable of being Steve Morse. (And by the way, he looked a lot like Marvel character The Mighty Thor. Just sayin’.)
Finally, a few words about bassist Dave LaRue. Best known as Steve Morse’s longtime cohort, both in Dixie Dregs and The Steve Morse Band, LaRue was Flying Colors’ surprise secret weapon. Wow, what a bassist. I knew the guy was good, but even the band’s CD didn’t display his ample skills as well as this show did. Perhaps the fact that I was standing not far from LaRue’s impressively loud bass amp had something to do with how much attention I paid to his playing. But in contrast to Steve Morse’s less-than-perfect track record that night, LaRue never hit a bum note, never missed a cue, never played at less than the best of his abilities. Anchoring every tune with plenty of pump and funk, he was the force that really enabled Flying Colors to shine as a live band. And he was the only member to take an extended solo, and it was a good one.
Overall, despite some opening-night flams, Flying Colors delivered the goods with style and power. Playing all 11 songs from their debut (with the proggy 12-minute epic “Infinite Fire” as their closing encore), it was great to see the crowd singing along with the catchy choruses, a testament to how compelling and memorable their collaborative songwriting is. I’d definitely go see Flying Colors again given the opportunity, and look forward to seeing how they evolve and develop in albums and shows to come. It was encouraging to hear Portnoy indicate this was not a one-time deal when he send at the show’s end, “We’ll do this again.”Buy Flying Colors (Limited Edition Digipak) CD on Amazon
Buy Jolly’s The Audio Guide to Happiness (Pt. 1) CD on Amazon