Dream Theater Live at Irving Plaza, 11/22/97, by Roger Scott

November 1997

What’s so amazing in this short-attention-span, spoon-fed, give-it-to-me-now world is that a tiny niche-busting band like Long Island’s Dream Theater not only has a rabid fan-following, but are so enthusiastically received by mainstream audiences. That is, it’s surprising until you hear them. Playing their hard-driving hybrid of Heavy Metal and Progressive Rock, tinged with flourishes of Flamenco guitar, and classically influenced keyboard arrangements, Dream Theater had the sold-out crowd head banging in wild abandon for the duration of their two-and-a-half-hour set.

Though the show was comprised predominantly of material from their latest album, Falling into Infinity, the audience cheered at the beginning of each song as if they were long-time favorites. Opening with “Lines in the Sand,” keyboardist Derek Sherinian slowly built the rising energy up to a frenzied peak with an intro reminiscent of classic ELP, as bassist John Myung and guitarist John Petrucci gradually worked their way in, filling out the piece with delicate, melodic flourishes not often associated with “pop rock.”

Only the arrival of the charismatic drummer Mike Portnoy broke the fragile syncopation, with his gonzo antics and pounding double-bass assault. By the time lead vocalist James LaBrie stepped out on stage moments later, Dream Theater had already won over the crowd, and worked their way through the somewhat lengthy opening song with workman-like diligence. “Lines,” while devastating in complexity and sheer orchestration, lacked a certain accessible edge; it seemed a poor choice for a concert opener -- it would be Dream Theater’s only poor choice all night.

With a brief, and cheerful hello from LaBrie, Dream Theater quickly launched into their latest single, “Burning My Soul,” a song much more suited for radio-crossover than most of the band’s material. John Petrucci’s phenomenal Metallica-esque biting guitar riffs soon had the fans’ fists thrusting in syncopation. Though there was a discernible lack of additional tracks in a similar vein, the show thundered ahead, highlighted by Dream Theater’s vast musical repertoire, and their ability to combine diverse musical elements into songs with a refreshing quality seldom heard in today’s rather stagnant music scene.

Dream Theater continued with an impressive array of tunes. “Voices” alternated between sprawling Rush-like musical impresario and crunchy guitar driven thrash. They then toned the set down a notch with “Take Away My Pain,” a song dedicated to guitarist John Petrucci’s father who recently died, and the quasi-inspirational, “Hollow Years.” While “Hollow” comes across a bit sappy on the disc; live, LaBrie interjected a delicate sense of urgency to the poignant track. The song is so polished and well composed, it owes more to later-period Sting than to a more predictable influence like Queensryche.

Twice during the performance, LaBrie stepped off stage, allowing the band to display their ridiculously adroit musicianship. The group played medleys which were seemlessly comprised of numerous short pieces, including “Crack,” “Acos II and IV,” and featured thundering percussion and a dizzying array of finger-flailing guitar solos. It was probably the closest to head-banging classical music you will ever get.
J. Petrucci, M. Portnoy, J. LaBrie, D. Sherinian, J. Myung

Despite the musical intensity throughout the show, Dream Theater was very economic with the traditional “stage antics,” until abruptly launching into their 1994 hit, “Pull Me Under.” Shortly after the song’s opening notes, the band became as animated as the crowd. LaBrie not only accepted a black WWII helmet from the audience, but thrust the mic way out above the hordes, encouraging the crowd to shout along with the anthem chorus, while Petrucci and Myung met mid-stage for some dueling guitars. The piece, along with their tongue-in-cheek second encore in which they all switched instruments, and jokingly ripped through one of their early songs, “Nightmare Cinema” were by far the most energetic and best parts of the show. Announcing that this is only the second time they’ve done this, they hammed it up with gleeful abandon, mugging for the audience with gaudy showmanship.

Drummer Portnoy, finally freed from his stool, leapt around the stage with the bass like Flea with crabs; he’s by far the most charismatic and lively of the bunch, even going as far as to drag his infant daughter onstage to introduce her to the crowd. What was so impressive, besides some much-needed levity and physical folly, is that while not playing their “chosen instruments,” Dream Theater was still far better than most of their peers.

Dream Theater isn’t a band to see live because they put on a great stage show: Dream Theater is a band to see because they put on a great show period, one that’s meant to be heard, as opposed to being seen. And on that level, they succeed, far beyond expectations.

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