Album Review: Spock’s Beard- The X Tour Live

If you’re at all like me – let’s hope you’re not, but accept the possibility that (at least some of) you are – then you occasionally experience a particular and disquieting phenomenon. There’s probably a name for it — anticipatory disappointment is the best I can come up with on short notice – but the defining characteristics are pretty straightforward. Say you’re watching the final episode of a television series you really enjoy: maybe it’s one of those fantasy/detective procedurals that the networks have brought us, only to cancel them abruptly without resolving the intricate story line. (Here I’m thinking of Journeyman, Flash Forward, The Event and – most recently – Awake. Damn if I didn’t watch ’em all.) The thing is, your enjoyment of this piece of entertainment is severely compromised, because you know it’s over. And it’s over without having really finished.

That is part of the attitude I bring to the new 2CD+1DVD package from Spock’s Beard, The X Tour Live. The title is something of a misnomer: the audio and video are all sourced from a single live performance in Downey CA (the band’s hometown) on September 12, 2010. The band would depart for their European tour early the next morning. And to my knowledge, that gig would be the last time the Nick D’Virgilio-fronted group would gig in the USA. (Owing to the daunting financial realities of domestic touring, this progressive band rarely plays shows in their home country; they’re big overseas, though.)

You see, D’Virgilio (drums, guitar, keyboards, lead vocals) announced a mere sixty days after the Downey show that he was leaving the band. The official reason given was that he was to devote his time and energies to his work with Cirque du Soleil.

Not to belabor the familiar Genesis comparisons, but fans of the band know that Spock’s Beard was originally fronted by Neal Morse; Morse converted to Christianity and left the band for a solo career, and – like Phil Collins did in Peter Gabriel‘s stead – drummer D’Virgilio took over, leading the band in an arguably more accessible direction.

The comparisons end there, however: recent Spock’s Beard albums nicely balance the group’s pop sensibilities with thrilling displays of progressive musicianship, fascinating songwriting/arrangement, and a tight-as-a-tick overall musical approach. Their tenth album X may well be their finest work (though some fans will always prefer the earlier stuff).

The 2CD part of The X Tour Live presents the entire Downey show, cutting out only some in-between-song dead air (the sort of thing that is perfectly okay on a DVD but doesn’t play well on a CD). The entire first disc is given over to a slightly re-sequenced performance of the entire X album. And while the band hadn’t had much opportunity to rehearse, they play quite well. It’s exciting to witness just how nimble the five members (well, four members plus auxiliary member Jimmy Keegan on drums and support vocals) can be running through these demanding songs. There’s certainly a more direct, less ornate feel to the songs, presented as they are without overdubs. On some parts of some songs, everybody except Keegan is playing a keyboard. Ryo Okumoto‘s “Kamikaze” is just as powerful – if not more so – than its studio counterpart. And the longer, suite-like songs translate quite well to the stage.

For the second set, the band tackles its older material, including several songs from the Neal Morse days. These too are played with power and finesse, and both “The Doorway” and “June” are soaring highlights. The latter is very nearly a power ballad, but it’s a mightily good one. The drum duel in which D’Virgilio and Keegan kick off the second set is reasonably entertaining on CD, but it’s quite delightful on the DVD.

The DVD presents the entire show as well. A relatively low-budget affair, it’s neither HD nor widescreen. The show was professionally shot and edited, to be sure, but it’s equally clear that major dollars weren’t spent on the equipment used to capture the performance on video. That doesn’t really take away from the enjoyment, however: the band – all of whom seem to be having the time of their lives – put on an animated performance. Getting the chance to see D’Virgilio leap from his drum riser to the front edge of the stage, then play a guitar, then play a keyboard, then run back to the drum throne – it’s a lot of fun. And while Alan Morse often strikes what one might call a quiet, fatherly pose, he churns out no end of tasty guitar licks throughout the show. All the while, bassist Dave Meros shows why he’s one of Spock’s Beard’s secret musical weapons.

The bonus material is of the watch-it-once variety: some wobbly hand-held camera work from guest guitarist (and contributing composer) Stan Ausmus is worth a quick look, but that’s about it. And the bonus audio track “Their Names Escape Me” is a nice nod to those fans who helped fund the X album, but it will likely hold less appeal for everyone else.

So it was with some sadness – some of that anticipatory disappointment — that I watched and listened to The X Tour Live. Never again will we see Nick D’Virgilio fronting the band. That’s the bad news. The good news is manifold, however: first, we have this commemorative set, documenting an exciting concert run-through of the band at the peak of their powers, playing their best material. Second, we know that Jimmy Keegan – a nimble, precise and powerful drummer — is now a full member of Spock’s Beard. And third, we know that a new Spock’s Beard album with new lead vocalist Ted Leonard – is slated for release sometime in summer fall 2012. Some excerpts from the upcoming album are posted on the band’s site, and some feature Leonard’s vocals. He sounds like a good fit. Time will tell if the band can survive another jarring personnel change. But if past is prologue, odds are excellent that Spock’s Beard will pull it off.

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