Progressive rock luminaries Dream Theater founded the Progressive Nation tour this year in an effort to bring together some of the genre’s most exciting acts. Swedish progressive metal band Opeth was given second billing on the tour, with the newer bands 3 and Between The Buried And Me opening the shows. Progressive rock bands are famous for defying trends and focusing on musicianship, but at the Fillmore in Miami Beach on May 30th, the headlining acts of Progressive Nation proved that they could defy technical difficulties as well, with their professionalism and performances.
3 formed in the 90’s, but have been taking off and turning heads in the progressive community in the last few years. The band began the evening with an energetic performance and a gripping stage presence. I was pleasantly surprised with the clarity of the mix in Miami, as I had also attended the concert in D.C. on May 26th, where the mix for the opening bands had been muddy and heavy on bass – making it difficult to hear the guitars and vocals.
Front man Joey Eppard delivered distinct and inflective upper-register vocals, and played his acoustic and even his electric guitar with his fingers, resulting in some extraordinary solos. 3’s drummer Chris Gartmann and percussionist Joe Stote shared a great duet late in the set, showcasing some incredible coordination and drawing a terrific response from the audience. As the band members quickly packed up their gear, 3 left the growing crowd hungry for more.
After a few short minutes, the youngest band on the bill, Between The Buried And Me, came out and kept the energy level high with their heavy brand of prog. Just as with 3, the sound for this band was also cleaner than it had been at the D.C. show, and the music came across much better as a result. Their songs were full of quick transitions and time changes, which they executed with apparent ease.
Keyboard player and vocalist Tommy Rogers mostly screamed through the songs, easing confidently into melodies during the calmer moments of the music. His keyboard parts kept him back with the band much of the time, but whenever he wasn’t playing he came to the front of the stage and involved the audience more actively. Lead guitarist Paul Waggoner was fluid and tasteful, delivering impressive sweep arpeggios and tasteful melodic lines with equal precision. The marriage of progressive song structures and contemporary metal that Between The Buried And Me brought to the table provided some of the heaviest moments of the show, and served to wind up expectations even further for the headliners of the night.
By the time the banner sporting Opeth’s stylized ‘O’ was lowered onto the stage, fans were hungry for the band’s dynamic brand of progressive metal. Moments later, Opeth delivered – opening their set with the crowd-pleasing ‘Demon Of The Fall.’ Fredrik Åkesson, the newcomer who recently replaced Peter Lindgren on second guitar, proved himself to be an asset to Opeth’s live act with his aggressive playing and vicious head banging.
This was fortunate, since singer and guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt had strained his neck the day before by attempting a sideways head thrashing (In Lenny Kravitz style, as he explained to the audience), and was unable to move his head much in any direction. He did, however, provide witty banter between songs, grabbing the audience’s attention with his deep voice and humble humor.
Near the end of their second song, Opeth’s performance was interrupted by the sudden descent of a giant curtain that cut Åkerfeldt, Åkesson, and bassist Mendez off from drummer Axenrot and keyboardist Per Wiberg. Impressively, Opeth finished the song without disruption, and anyone listening would have been unaware of the onstage intrusion until after the song had ended, when Åkerfeldt engaged the audience with his clever remarks about the situation.
Just before he began to lead the band in the next song, curtain be damned, they were pulled off the stage while the staff sorted out the technical difficulties. Roughly 20 minutes later, the band returned to the stage and quickly regained their momentum.
Martin Axenrot, who has been touring with Opeth since Martin Lopez departed in 2005, finally had a chance to perform music he recorded with the band when they brought out the punishing new track ‘Heir Apparent’ from their new album, Watershed. While Axenrot and Åkesson both sounded tight and played well throughout the show, they shone especially on ‘Heir Apparent,’ where Åkesson had a chance to perform his own wild guitar solo. After 60 minutes of music, fans were sorry to see Opeth go, but excited for the last performers of the night: Dream Theater.
Dream Theater burst onto the stage in front of a crowd that were already on their feet in anticipation. At the end of the intro video featuring highlights from the various periods of their career, Dream Theater kicked into the opening riff of the thrashing ‘Constant Motion’ – stirring the fans on the Fillmore floor into a frenzy. Unfortunately, this energy was disrupted when guitarist John Petrucci lost his sound in the middle of his solo. While he walked over to his amp to sort out the difficulty, drummer Mike Portnoy seized the attention of the room with a spirited drum spot, and cued keyboardist Jordan Rudess to take over with his solo. The band then smoothly transitioned back into the song once Petrucci regained his sound, and continued the show with fresh determination.
Critics in the past have complained that Dream Theater were a stiff and clinical band to watch live, although fans of the band have never been deterred by Dream Theater’s focused and precise performances. Portnoy has always been the exception as an energetic performer who seems to feed off the energy of the crowd, and this attitude appears to be rubbing off on his band mates. Petrucci in particular has begun to move around much more on stage, making eye contact with his band as well as with his devoted fans, especially during his many solos.
Vocalist James LaBrie has always connected well with audiences, but even he seemed to be particularly enthusiastic at the Fillmore that night, displaying a great amount of energy throughout the entire set. Considering the tour was nearing the end, it’s understandable that he was strained while performing some of the more physically demanding upper-register lines, but to his credit he found ways to adapt his parts when necessary to complement the songs. Rudess played brilliantly all night, especially lighting up the epic ‘Blind Faith’ with a polyphonic piano spot, a rocking organ solo, and a screaming synth lead – which he also put to use during a jaw-dropping unison line with Petrucci. The unison line was perfect to the recorded version, but Rudess’ solos showcased some refreshing improvisation that served to liven up an already exciting song choice.
Petrucci’s pick got ahead of his fretting hand during some of the fastest solo runs, but his attack was so aggressive that it was easy to ignore any slurred notes. It was also easy to forgive any imperfections of the night when he took his extended solo in ‘Surrounded’ – phrasing passionately over the changes to Marillion’s ‘Sugar Mice’ and throwing in quotes from Pink Floyd’s ‘Mother.’ His tone for that solo was warm and smooth, with just the right amount of delay. Across the stage from Petrucci, bassist John Myung’s lines shone through mightily, and his focused presence brought a stability that matched his musical role.
Some fans always like to grumble about Mike Portnoy’s strong personality, but his inspired live performance and entertaining stage antics made him a key ingredient of Dream Theater’s show. He was a thrill to watch throughout the evening – crushing his mammoth drum set during the ‘In The Name Of God’ portion of the final medley, and appearing on screen as a video game hero in a hilarious animated short synched to the punishing metal of ‘The Dark Eternal Night’ that featured Portnoy running around in a modified version of Super Mario Bros and saving the rest of the band. Between the 90-minute sets that Dream Theater played both nights I saw them, only two songs were repeated. Dream Theater are a band that love their fans, and the work they put into delivering diverse sets night after night is only one of the ways that they continue to prove it.
Progressive Nation 2008 has lived up to its name and given fans across America the opportunity to see a mixture of both emerging and established progressive talent on a single stage. Each band gave excellent performances, and brought a distinct brand of prog to the concerts. Opeth and Dream Theater both proved that they were up to the task of conquering the unexpected with professionalism and a sense of humor. If the tour returns next year, I highly recommend that you make it out to a show. Or two.