Wow, what a beautifully crafted and comprehensively compiled package we have here; one that reasserts the irreplaceable importance of physical media, and one that should shame those of you who are content with their music collections being fundamentally constituted by nothing more than a series of binary digits. Fair enough, the latter is more about convenience, accessibility, and portability, but for peeps out there who relish buying something to own, hold and cherish beyond a bunch of bit code (or should it be Morse code for this release?!), this is something to get excited about. A visual/audio document of Neal Morse's inaugural MorseFest from last year in his hometown church, we have 2 DVDs and 4 CDs housed in a multi-panel digipak adorned with show photos, including a 16 page booklet that contains both liner notes penned by Morse, credits, and a further series of performance and posed pics. Content-wise, there are live performances of Morse's first two prog rock works after parting company with Spock's Beard in 2002 (2003's 'Testimony' and 2004's 'One'); encores consisting of Transatlantic and Spock's Beard tracks; plus 'The Morsefest Experience' documentary, created by bassist Randy George.
I think it's worth briefly discussing just why "featuring Mike Portnoy" appears prominently on the cover, particularly when other illustrious musicians are involved here, and haven't been honoured in such a manner. A longtime collaborator with Morse across a multitude of bands/projects, Portnoy's presence is almost a given, which makes his name on the cover, at least for those in the know, a superfluous one. And beyond Morse's established fanbase, I fail to see who this package would be aimed at, so the bulk of those purchasing this set will undoubtedly be aware of Portnoy's involvement already. Apart from hammering home the ex-Dream Theater drummer's seeming ubiquity within the prog fraternity (and beyond) since spreading his sticksman wings in 2010, I'm guessing the inclusion of a "featuring Mike Portnoy" titular tagline has been conceived as an additional selling point, aimed at trying to widen the appeal of this release to fans of Portnoy; perhaps for those who've yet to dip their toes into the musical prowess of Morse himself. In fact, I'm surprised there's not been a Portnoy Fest before now! Give it time; an inevitability, I would say.
Of the actual discs, let's discuss the DVDs first. The audiophiles amongst you might be a little disappointed to know there are no other options beyond a mere Dolby Digital 2.0 track. I say "option", but this isn't selectable or indicated from the disc's main menu; rather it's as bare bones as a menu can be. For DVD one, we're presented with a background photo of Morse, the 'Morsefest 2014' logo etc, and a 'Play Testimony Live' selection. In one sense, that's all there needs to be as the genuine "wow" factor resides within the show itself. Captured on numerous cameras, both static and roving, and edited into a montage that succeeds in capturing all the action with a pleasingly varied fluidity, it never succumbs to any kind of frantic MTV-style quick cuts. The director/editor, Chad Hoerner, is fully aware of the intended audience here - this isn't music for an MTV generation with ADHD to whatever degree of deficit. Quite the contrary, the 'Testimony' compositions are cleverly crafted and articulated parcels of prog prowess from a masterful songwriter. And the visuals respect such, with long shots, mid-range shots, sporadic split screens, and close-ups that focus on the passionate affection each musician has for their performance. Theoretically, this could've been a hot mess in the wrong hands as the stage is something of a busy one, with string/brass sections and backing choir standing around Morse himself, Portnoy, bassist George, keys man Bill Hubauer, guitarist Eric Gillette, and further percussionists, Eric Darken and Rick Altizer. Most of the time, the beautifully lit stage is a captivating spectacle, although an occasional (over)use of red lighting saturates everything in sight, with some ever so slightly annoying colour bleed. Overall, though, the 16:9 presentation of the show is a rather magnificent one. And, although there is just the one audio track with a straightforward stereo mix, it's a great one - resonant, balanced and dynamic.
It's much the same story for the second DVD, for the performance of 'One' in its entirety - great visuals and audio once again. And the musicians play their collective arses off on what was the second night of MorseFest. The music, presented in a live context with so many talented personnel involved, is quite wondrous (as Portnoy himself asserts in "a talking spot" he's given during the 'Testimony' performance). It'd be easy to take for granted just what Morse and co. have achieved here, but that'd be ridiculously fallacious. The 'One'/'Testimony' album performances, with all the overt and more subtle complexities of the music, together with the changing moods inherent within, not to mention having to remember, bar for bar, over five hours of music, and how all of this is so flawlessly executed and conveyed with as much passion and sincerity as it is, should most certainly not be taken for granted. And the big bonus on the second disc, of course, is 'The Morsefest Experience' documentary, which has been created by bassist Randy George. Just short of an hour and a quarter, it provides a candid insight into MorseFest from idea to realisation and everything in-between, including Morse solitarily learning parts on the Saturday before the event, on his keyboard in the confines of a small music room; partial band practices, time-lapse footage of the stage being prepared in the church; full band rehearsals on the stage; VIP meet and greet scenes and stories (including a rather touching one); Q & A + onstage games snippets from Morsefest; on-camera and voice-over narratives and exposition; and a lot of acoustic performances. All in all, a great bonus.
As for the four CDs, everything sounds as marvellous as the DVDs, and retain the feeling of a live show, with just enough crowd noise sporadically introduced in the mix, and the acoustics of the church authentically preserved in sonic form. For me, the real joy of this release are the two DVDs, although the audio discs are also a more than welcome addition in the package. I guess, free from any visual distraction, the intricacies and nuances within the music are made more emphatic, as this becomes the central focus of your concentration.
To finish up here, it's worth mentioning that as a strict atheist and someone who believes anyone should be able to posit their faith, to varying degrees of profundity, in more secular-based beliefs, without any religious-biased affiliations whatsoever, I find minimal philosophical weight in Morse's lyrical and thematic sways. That said, I also pride myself upon the fact that I live my life in the most non-prejudiced of ways, and am fully accepting of the fact that others can, and do, find spiritual enlightenment within theological discourse. Morse has chosen his path, and "finding God" has been one that's enabled him to flourish on both personal and vocational levels... well, in actuality, those two are intertwined, as his creativity and post-Spock's Beard output has been inherently and intimately imbued with his theologically inspired spiritual journey, which is indubitably a personal one. And, lyrical and thematic matter aside, one fact is undeniable - Morse makes incredible music and 'Morsefest! 2014' is a fine example of this.
MORSEFEST! 2014 - TESTIMONY AND ONE LIVE FEATURING MIKE PORTNOY
Review by Mark Holmes
21st August 2015
DVD 1: Morsefest 2014 Night 1 - 'Testimony' live plus encores
DVD 2: Morsefest 2014 Night 2 - 'One' live plus encores; 'The Morsefest Experience' documentary
CDs 1 & 2: 'Testimony' live plus encores (75:09 & 78:20)
CDs 3 & 4 - 'One' live plus encores (78:59 & 78:27)
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
"The music, presented in a live context with so many talented personnel involved, is quite wondrous... It'd be easy to take for granted just what Morse and co. have achieved here, but that'd be ridiculously fallacious."