Tag Archives: Mike Portnoy

An Interview With Neal Morse

Randy George, Neal Morse, and Mike Portnoy

I think Neal Morse is one of the most exciting and important artists working in music today. Since his embrace of Christianity almost twenty years ago, he has stayed true to his faith while writing and performing some of the most thoughtful and original music in all of rock. However,  his upcoming release, with long-time collaborators Randy George (bass) and Mike Portnoy (drums), is a collection of covers. It is the third album in their wonderfully fun Cover to Cover series, and Inside Out music is rereleasing the first two volumes with it in remastered form.

The new volume, Cov3r to Cov3r, features songs originally performed by Yes, Jethro Tull, David Bowie, Ringo Starr, Gerry Rafferty, Badfinger, King Crimson, Squeeze, Tom Petty, and Lenny Kravitz. While some are obvious hits (their version of Rafferty’s Baker Street is killer) others are deeper cuts, like Crimson’s One More Red Nightmare.

I had the pleasure of chatting with him on the phone while he was out walking with his daughter, enjoying a beautiful summer day in Tennessee.

Thanks for sharing a little of your time with me to discuss yours, Mike’s, and Randy’s new covers album! I think we’re pretty close to the same age, and if I made a massive mixtape of my favorite songs from high school and college, it would include every song on all three volumes of Cover to Cover. How do you all decide which songs to record?

Thanks! Mike loves to do covers, and he is the driving force behind most of these songs. The first two volumes are mostly bonus tracks from earlier albums. We’d finish an album, and the record company would ask us to do some songs for bonus tracks. We all love covers, because they are a wonderful way to blow off some steam after playing long and complicated prog tunes. If we’re on the road, and I’m doing a soundcheck, I can start playing some Zeppelin, and Mike will come running out of the dressing room to join in!

My favorite moment on the new album is pairing up Squeeze’s Black Coffee in Bed with Tempted. Whose idea was that?

That was mine – I used to play Black Coffee in Bed back in the ‘80s, along with Petty’s Running Down a Dream.

When I first heard the opening track, Yes’ “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Required”, I was wondering, “Who the heck is that singing?” Then I saw in the promo notes that it’s Jon Davison!

Yeah, we got together with him through playing Cruise to the Edge. When we looked at recording that song, I asked myself, “Can I sing this?”, and I realized there’s no way! So we were really glad Jon agreed to sing it.

I think I actually like your version of Baker Street better than the original. I’ve watched the video for it several times and  I get chills when you play your guitar solo. Who is the mystery sax player?

Thanks, man! That’s Jim Hoke, a local Nashville musician. He also does a great job on One More Red Nightmare, which is one of my favorite King Crimson songs.

Listening to all three volumes, it sounds like the three of you just had a blast recording these songs. What was it like recording during a pandemic?

We actually finished our recording before the pandemic hit. Mike recorded the drums in November, I did my stuff in December, and we mixed it in December and January. My “pandemic album” is my upcoming album, Solo Gratia, which I’m really excited about.

Are there any plans for you, Mike, and Randy to do some shows in support of Cover to Cover?

Well, we are going to play a bunch of covers the first night at Morsefest this September. Because of the virus, we have to limit the number of people who can be there in person, but we are also streaming it live, and we have some cool online VIP events planned, like charades and other interactive games.

I have the original versions of the first 2 Cover to Covers, and I notice you’ve changed the track order on the reissues. Why?

They are? I didn’t know that. Ha ha! Mike must have done that. He is the man for figuring out what the best order of tracks should be for albums. It’s his gift, you know, and we figure, let him use it!

I think Randy George is an unsung hero of the bass.  I’ve always wondered, how did you two first connect?

Oh, that’s an interesting story. He actually called me up – we had a mutual friend, and he asked me if I was interested in playing on a solo album of his. I think I was too busy at the time, and I put it off.  Then I had just left Spock’s Beard, I think it was around 2002, and he said he was willing to work with me if I had any projects. He drove all the way from Seattle to Tennessee to audition for my Testimony album, and we’ve been together ever since.

After Cover to Cover Vol 1 -3 is released in July, what other projects are you getting ready to unleash on the world?

Well, MorseFest is coming up in September, there’s a new Transatlantic album coming out next year, and I’m working on the mixes for my Solo Gratia album.

What are you listening to these days?

Ah, let’s see… mostly the Solo Gratia mixes. I am also listening to the audiobook of Andy Stanley’s Irresistible. As far as music goes, I was listening to Pandora’s Neal Morse station, and a really cool Frost* song came up. I’m a big fan of them.

One last question – what role should Christian artists play in today’s culture?

Well, I think we should be pointing people toward the Lord. I want people to experience God through my music; I’m trying to express the glory of God’s heart.

Yeah, I’m glad you didn’t get stuck in the CCM ghetto; you’re taking your music to whomever will listen to it.

You know, the old saying is true – God will provide. He has given me some incredible music for Solo Gratia. I’m the performer, but God is the director. I’m like a piece of glass reflecting his love and glory.

Can I make a request for Volume 4 of Cover to Cover? Something by Jellyfish, and something from Joe Walsh!

Ha Ha! Yeah, I know there are a lot of people who are fans of them, so that might happen one day.

Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Neal.

Sure! Take care!

Cover to Cover Volumes 1 – 3 will be released July 24, 2020 on Inside Out Music, on CD, vinyl, and digital formats.

You can order tickets to Morsefest 2020 at nealmorse.com.

 

 

 

The Neal Morse Band – Live In Brno 2019

The Neal Morse Band has just released its document of last year’s Great Adventour, the tour in support of their The Great Adventure album. As usual, it is a generous package consisting of 2 CDs and 2 Blu-ray discs.

The Great Adventure is, in my opinion, the NMB’s best album so far, so I was eager to see the show they put on to showcase it. Live In Brno does not disappoint. They play the entire 2-CD album, and close with a spectacular Great Medley.

The show in Brno took place April 7, 2019, midway through their European tour, which followed a North American tour. There are signs of wear and tear on Neal’s voice, but he more than makes up for it with passion and emotion. It is interesting that as the NMB evolves, Neal has become somewhat less of a focal point in their live show, giving up many lead vocal spots to the incredibly talented Eric Gillette, as well as Bill Hubauer. That is fine with me, since Gillette has one of the finest voices in rock today. That said, this is definitely Neal’s production, as evidenced by his energetic moving about the stage, and his creative costume changes throughout the set. At various times he appears as a hooded mystery man, a ragged wanderer, a mad hatter, and other personae.

I’ve rarely seen a group of individuals lock together and perform as one coordinated unit the way Neal (keyboards, guitars, vocals), Randy George (bass), Bill Hubauer (keyboards, vocals), Eric Gillette (guitar, vocals), and the mighty Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals) do during this show. It really is amazing how tight and powerful they are on every single song.

And that is what makes The Great Adventure such an excellent album – the variety and high quality of every song. There is prog, metal, power pop, and balladry contained in this set, and the band successfully tackles these various styles with ease. The highlights are To The River, Hey Ho Let’s Go, Vanity Fair, The Great Despair, and A Love That Never Dies.

A Love That Never Dies is the final song, and as the audience joins with the band to sing the chorus it is a truly ecstatic moment. It’s no wonder Morse is visibly overcome with emotion.

The encore is a 25-minute medley of selections from every one of Neal’s albums beginning with Testimony and continuing through Similitude Of A Dream. What is clear is how consistently excellent Neal’s output has been since he began his solo career. He really hasn’t had a single clunker in his entire discography.

The Blu-ray video of the show is well-shot with lots of different perspectives of the stage. My only quibble is that the mix is a 2.0 stereo one. If an artist goes to the trouble of releasing something on Blu-ray, he should mix it to 5.1 channels.

The second Blu-ray has two almost hour-length videos documenting the North American and European tours with lots of behind-the-scenes footage. Interesting and fun, but not essential. It also includes the official music videos for I Got To Run, The Great Adventure, Welcome To The World, and The Great Despair.

Neal has released visual documents of practically every tour he has done, and The Great Adventour – Live In Brno 2019 is one of the best. Highly recommended for both the devoted fan and the curious.