07 May 2008

Review: The Musical Box

IMAC, Huntington, NY 2 May 2008 (late set)

OK, time to get geeky on y'all!

When music became MUSIC to me, I believe it was Genesis that did done the trick. It started with at-the-time present day Invisible Touch and moved backwards through time until it hit the wall at From Genesis to Revelation. My bar mitzvah money helped round out the collection and it was a revelation. I've been hooked ever since. So much so that I was able to get my eventual wife hooked nearly as good.

It didn't take much prodding when the calendar/babysitting fell into place to get the Big Squeeze to join me for The Musical Box just up the street in the village of Huntington. I've been wanting to check these guys out for a long time but have always put it off for one reason or another. Mostly due to timing and the fact that they charged an arm and a leg to see the "authorized" recreation of the Genesis experience. Never again will I make that mistake.

The show was billed as a "Selling England By the Pound" show, which I thought meant they would just be playing the album straight through. Turns out, I was completely wrong. What they did was recreate, down to the smallest detail, the show that Genesis toured on when they were promoting that album. I'm pretty sure the set was either the same every night or close to it, so it could have been any show from that tour in 1973. The whole concept is incredibly nerdy and inside if it wasn't for the pure earnestness of the "band" and their amazing ability to transport.

I'm not even sure I can characterize the event Friday night as a "concert." It was like being shrunk down Incredible Journey-style and planted in the cover art to "Genesis Live" or a photograph. Who's to say we weren't back 35 years during those two hours at the IMAC. I can't prove we were here in 2008. It certainly didn't feel like it. You see, The Musical Box is authorized which sounds like ridiculous ad copy come-on, but really means that they had unlimited access to the Genesis archives. They knew exactly how the lights and effects were done, what type and model of keyboards Tony Banks used, what pedals Mike Rutherford ran his bass through, what costumes Peter Gabriel wore for which songs, what psychedelic monologues he would babble between songs, which songs were played when and on and on. This was a historical recreation, the prog-rock equivalent of a Civil War re-enactment. The band and the audience were living players in a museum piece. To describe it is to tell a tale of something cold and lifeless, to participate in it was one of the most exciting concert experiences I've ever had.

Of course, it isn't for everyone, but if it's for you, I cannot recommend it enough. When we got home I looked at the cover to "Genesis Live" and remembered how often I'd wished I could have seen this band, Gabriel-era Genesis, play live, to experience what it was like, not just a concert of songs I loved but a full out show, a Broadway-style performance. Now when I looked at that cover, I saw not a band from three decades ago, but the band I saw that night-- it was an almost identical scene. "Gabriel" standing in full black unitard with a triangular glow-in-the-blacklight headpiece on. The rest of the band encircling him in white, reflecting the blacklight with stoic zeal. You can see a piece of Banks' rig and it was identical to what his Musical Box counterpart was playing. For all I know, the folding chair that Steve Hackett was sitting in was of the same brand and style as the guitarist was sitting in on Friday.

Most important was the music, no doubt. The playing was note-for-note, tone-for-tone total recall of the versions from the albums. That might be perceived as cheesy or nothing-brewing, but for these tunes, their flavor, their complexity, their energy, it was like an orchestra merely recreating a Beethoven symphony. I would close my eyes and feel like I was alive within the music I had listened to over and over and over for the past 20 years. It was absolutely thrilling. They opened with Watcher of the Skies and I got chills down all four limbs as if something supernatural was going on. The playing was as if they had reached into the vinyl LP and somehow pulled out the music into a 3-D living, breathing entity. I couldn't believe how they got every single detail right. It was wicked to watch and listen, to see where those noises were coming from, the way it all mixed up in the air and made magic. The way the lights and the backdrop and the antics of the Peter Gabriel enhanced the effect to a dizzying degree.

The number of levels that I was appreciating the show cannot be counted. At the base level, the band was just really good. You cannot just take anyone and make this music and make it sound as good as the way it sounded when it was laid down on tape. Everyone was phenomenal, I couldn't single anyone out. The keyboardist was more studied, but of course, he had the most complex pieces to play. The Mike Rutherford bassist/guitarist seemed to be the most "into it," feeling grooves where it would appear there was nothing groovy to feel. I've always felt Rutherford was an underappreciated bass player, if only for his folly of ditching it to become a mediocre guitar player and an even more mediocre bandleader... yes the same guy who brought you "Mike & The Mechanics" was once a sick-ass bassist. His style was replicated perfectly, a plunky, blaring low end that almost approximated a bass banjo if such a thing exists. The one guy who was a bit off was the drummer. Oh, everything he played was fine or even better than fine, but it wasn't exact to the recorded versions -- I imagine it's quite difficult to do that, if not entirely annoying -- but it did catch me off guard every once in a while. For that, I was thankful.

The playing was fantastic, and that just made me love these songs even more. They did most of the "big ones" off Selling England: Dancing With the Moonlight Knight, I Know What I Like, Firth of Fifth, Cinema Show, as well as The Musical Box, Watcher of the Skies and an unbelievably accurate Supper's Ready. Just to pull that off is a miracle. Wow! They encored with Return of the Giant Hogweed. Perfect. Every single one. So the mind is just racing, thinking about the music, the playing, the feat of recreation, the intense visuals, the word-for-word monologues from our Peter Gabriel, layers upon layers upon layers. Funny to listen to these ramblings and realize how sexual Gabriel and the music was.

The thing about the lights and the costumes was how well such effects held up. Of course, everything was lo-fi having been used 35 years ago, but the projections, strobes and the use of black lights was actually pretty sweet and as relevant as any computer-controlled effects you see today. Genesis was incredibly innovative on this front. One of my favorite touches was how "Peter Gabriel" had his face blanched white but around his eyes was a squirrel's mask that only appeared in black light. There was also a moment where he took the black light and held it up in front of him creating an eerie glow around the stage.

I don't feel like I'm doing the show justice, but in reality I don't think I can put into words how truly special it was. There were moments -- several in each song -- where the combination of all the elements overwhelmed me... it's weird to think about how listening to music can cause a physical reaction like chills down your spine or goosebumps up and down your arms, but that's what happened again and again. The outro to Firth of Fifth, the midsection of Cinema Show, the opening strumming of Watcher of the Skies... I've heard them all before, but never had I been so moved. By the end I felt like I had been on an out-of-body experience that even the Long Island late-set meatheads couldn't shake me from.

There are things in life that you accept you will never experience, almost by syllogism, things we can only read about, or learn about through recordings or photographs. Seeing an old Genesis shows was always on my list of "wouldn't that have been cool...." Now I feel like I've been there and lived it. Certainly, I still haven't, but I'm not sure how much better it would be to go back in time and see the real thing. It's a bizarre feeling that I still haven't quite wrapped my head around, but it is a good feeling. I would say you've got to go see these guys, but you probably already know whether this is for you or not. If you think it might be, it almost certainly is. I am looking forward to seeing them again... hopefully performing Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.


Bertrand said...

Thanks. Very well said. I couldn't have put it better.

I felt exactly the same when I first saw them 14 years ago ("Are we really in 1994?")... and I have seen them over and over (I lived in Montreal back then). Last time was just on 5/30/08 in Centre Bell in Montreal. Huge crowd. Goose bump still. Wow!

Here are two quotes from the July 08 edition of the Guitar Player magazine, article from Vincent Demas about TMB. "... of Watcher of the Skies. Sure, my left brain knows it's 2007 [...] but the gray matter on my right side seems more than willing to suspend disbelief, insisting it must be 1973..."

"But it's more than just putting on a show. We're trying to preserve something that has historical significance and musical and cultural values."

Take care.

Brian C said...

I saw the show in Quebec City in May '08 with my brother and son. The show was spectacular and I'm so "back" into Genesis and Gabriel again. It was electric from Watchers of the Skies through Supper's Ready. The Capitole Theatre in QC was a fantastic venue in an awesome city (cool bars, restaurants and locals) It was a geat experience to see my 21 yr old son get into it and connect with my younger bro (we didn't like the same music growing up.) in fact my son had seen the same show a year or so ago and told me about it. Can't wait to see if they'll be doing another show sometime soon. I definately recommend The Musical Box to anyone who appreciates old Genesis prog rock.