Flying Colors - this band is perfectly named. Looking up what the phrase means, I see that it is cliche that refers to excellence and ease, and that's just right. Live In Europe is their new DVD/C/Blue Ray extravaganza, and it's a couple of hours of pure, unadulterated joy. I wondered how the band would sound on the road, given that their debut album was recorded in less than two weeks, and every member of the band has full time jobs elsewhere, with the exception of Mike Portnoy, who seems to have about a half dozen. My worrying was for naught, they pull this set off with grace, precision, and a subtle power that almost masks their brilliance.
This live set was recorded in Tilberg, Holland on the debut tour, and the sold out audience sounds like they knew just what they were in for - Blue Ocean opens the set and the dye is set, as the band replicates the sophisticated pop rocker with complete confidence, from Dave Larue's perculating bass intro to the soft gang vocals that come across with pristine clarity. At seven and a half minutes the song is not a second too long, and it breezes by and leaves me feeling like I could lose a lot of time to this package - so much that I think I'm going to have to seek out the three album vinyl version.
Shoulda Coulda Woulda ups the pace, and it's Neal Morse's organ that gives this its 'Vanilla Fudge in the new millenium' vibe. Casey McPherson comfortably slips from falsetto to baritone and back, and his voice blends wonderfully with Neal and Portnoy who hit the harmonies with great precision. Steve Morse sounds more at home in this band than I've heard him sound in years - he's an encyclopedia of guitar licks, chops, and tones and his unfailing sense of not just what to play, but how to play it is always spot on. Portnoy displays a small bit of his stick wizardry on the tail end, and then steps in to announce Casey McPherson's European debut.
Neal Morse's piano sets the stage for Love Is What I'm Waiting For, and the band puts on a grand display of their pure pop power - everyone wants to call this a prog band, but I'm hearing elaborate pop more than anything, and nothing could please me more. This tune evokes memories of the seventies when it was just understood that the whole band would sing, and they could all play their asses off. The other Morse pulls off a guitar solo that is half melody and half chops display, and with a tone that is, dare I say, perfect. This is like a high horsepower version of 10cc.
Portnoy plays master of ceremonies as he informs the audience that since the band has but one album, they must reach into their other projects to fill out the set, and it's a tune from Endochine, a band the singer fronted in the early years of this century, entitled Can't Find A Way. The band wraps itself around the arrangement, and while it's obviously not as sophisticated as a piece devised by the firm's senior partners, it's lifted by the empathetic backing given by what is the best backing band McPherson will most likely ever front. It turns out that he was the perfect guy to front this outfit - his stature is revered by those in the know, but his relative newcomer status in the world of classic and prof rock serves well to keep the public from having too many preconceptions - he's a lesser known entity, but no less talented, not for a minute. The guy sings like a bird, and writes like a very old soul.
You've maybe seen the YouTube clip of The Storm that the label put out as a tester, and it's not just a great song, it's also a great representation of what one can expect from Flying Colors. It's filled with hooks from every instrumentalist, and if you listen close, you'll hear Portnoy's deft cymbal and tom work and realize why the half of the world that doesn't have their heads up their asses think he's one of the finest drummers on the planet. Another barn burner of a solo from Steve Morse - he sounds like he's playing to no one's expectation here, and it's a huge breath of fresh air. He has it all, and it's all on display on this set.
Speaking of Steve Morse, the next tune is an old classic from his early days with the legendary Dixie Dregs - Odyssey is just that, and the band is up for it. It almost sounds like they're showing that they can honor this piece of musical history, and they do, they do. This shifts gears repeatedly and goes from smooth jazz to hard rock to a fistful of fusion in the turn of a trick with no problem.
Forever In A Daze is one of the harder rocking numbers from the band's studio debut, and bassist Dave Larue must be heard to be believed - he pops, pulls, and thumps with great tone, nice note selection and endless groove - very bassist who takes his playing seriously should be listening close to this and seeing how they're really doing with their instrument. When he breaks into his solo, it's a great journey - a head shaker, in that it's not just masterful, it's fun.
McPherson takes over for a meditation on his version of Cohen's Hallelujah, and it's majestic. It takes nerves of steal to have such a group of heavy hitters take a breather while you bare your soul, and he nails it.
Better Than Walking Away starts with some mournful notes from Morse's guitar, and then is taken over by Neal's electric piano and McPherson's soul stylings - this is pop/gospel beauty. As the tune develops, listen closely to the marvelous display of comping and filling in the spaces by the band - they know exactly when to make themselves known and when to back off - it's one thing to know every note in the world, but it's a completely different exercise to be an empathetic accompanist. This is like a master's level course on what to play when a guy is singing.
Big pop returns with Kayla, one of the best adult pop songs that I've heard in ages and ages - worth the price of admission. Yeah, I might say that a lot, but then again, I'm most generally not wrong. Portnoy is perfect, knowing when to push and when to lay back - the guy is a marvel in which to listen. Steve Morse fills in with some great chord inversions that fit the vocals like a tailored suit, and Neal Morse may be the perfect match in voice for which McPherson to harmonize with - listen to the two harmonize just after the first guitar solo, and you'll be well astounded. This is Simon & Garfunkel good.
Portnoy takes the mic for a lead vocal on Fool For My Heart, and while he demurs, he also pulls it off - it's another number off the band's debut, and if I'm not wrong, he proclaims his undying love for his keyboard player in the second verse! McPherson carries a bit of the load on the bridge before Steve takes yet another nice, overdriven solo. He's so lyrical in his playing with this band, every solo has as much melody and passion as the songs themselves.
Dave Larue takes a solo for a Spur of the Moment that leads into a cover of Dream Theater's Repentance, another Portnoy vocal turn. This is more psychedelic than I remembered, and Morse's keyboards shine, making this, along with Larue's heavily effected bass, appropriately Floyd-like. Can it be long before the world sees a Portnoy solo project? Of course, it may be unnecessary, as he seems to already do exactly as he pleases, musically. I'm guessing that Portnoy loses little sleep over his departure from DT these days.
Neal Morse gives a nod to his old outfit, Spock's Beard with a reading of June. Morse is a musical treasure, one of America's greatest, and he's always on point and never off the mark. This track has more than a bit in common with the best work of Graham Nash in CSN. A very pretty respite with some gorgeous group vocals.
All Fall Down is the metallic riff rocker of the set and by far the heaviest tune off the band's self titled debut. Steve Morse tears this apart with fleet fast fingered dalliances up and down the neck, and Portnoy is with him every step of the way. If Steve had been in a band with this much firepower in the nineties, he'd have been riding in jets instead of piloting them. About two and a half minutes into this tune, Larue and Morse take things into the stratosphere with a bit of nuclear powered soloing. Magnificent.
The soundtrack number, Everything Changes is next and it is a cinematic wonder. Majestic as anything, this is one of Flying Colors best moments, and it's even better live than in the studio. Neal Morse's recorder patches are gorgeous under McPherson's singing, and it gets little better than this. It's a great song, being played and sang by a group of musicians who are at the very top of the hill, and all I can say is that I can't see where they take it from here.
The train leaves the station with Infinite Fire the same place they left off with their debut, and that feels just right. If by now they haven't made their case the case was thrown, a frame up, for whether you're a fan of pop music, prog rock, hard rock, or even heavier, there is plenty here for any music lover to sink their teeth into. Flying Colors is one of the most powerful musical machines on the planet as of today, and if I were you, I'd already be ordering this one up in whatever configuration works for you. Music this great deserves to be supported by dollar signs, so get out your wallets and help keep great rock alive, OK?