Flying Colors

Shepherds Bush Empire, London

21 Septemer 2012

I've never been in the Shepherd's Bush Empire before. It's a great venue, a Victorian theatre that still has the elaborate period decor inside but has had the stalls ripped out to allow standing audiences for a rock gig (or you can sit in the balconies, which my knees are telling maybe I should have done).

But no, I'm standing, I'm five feet away from the stage, and as usual I can't see a thing over the giant people at the front. I stood like this through the support act, Beardfish (interestingly, all four band members have beards; oddly, none of them appear to have fish). Beardfish play 45 minutes of over-elaborate prog roack, with a lot of obvious talent, but their songs don't really engage me. But they have a lot of fans here, judging by the number of people singing along.

A word about the audience: mostly, it's the same typical audience I see at every proper rock gig. Which means mostly male and mostly over 40. But there's something odd here: an unusually large number of young (low-20s) people, many of them actually (gasp) female. Why is Flying Colors attracting the young crowd? Have I missed something? Then as I started listening to conversations around me, I figured it out. Almost every person under 30 was speaking with a non-British accent. That's the secret: it's only young people in this country who have crap taste in music; in the rest of Europe they listen to the proper stuff. It gives me hope for the youth of the world (though I may need to emigrate).

Ok, ok, I'm waffling and you need to hear about Flying Colors. By the time they came on, I had moved back in the crowd. No point getting squashed when I couldn't see the stage anyway. From somewhere in the middle of the back, the sound quality was superb (except in the encore, which was strangely distorted). And I actually got a much better view because I could move about to find good sight lines.

The show kicked off with a bobbling bass line from a darkened stage. It's the opening to Blue Ocean, and when Steve Morse's guitar comes in he's got the most beautiful tone you've ever heard, and all I could think was how much I've missed that sound, and how much that sound has come to be "the Deep Purple sound" for me.

Straight into Shoulda Coulda Woulda with no chatter in between (there's plenty of chat and interaction as the set wears on), and I thought they might be playing the whole album in order. They do play the whole album, but they start to mix it up a bit. After Love is What I'm Waiting For, Portnoy announces "We've only got one album so we're only playing for about 60 minutes." (Boos.) "But we've only got one album! Hey, how about if we play it twice?" (Cheers.) "Ok, this next song is called LOVE IS WHAT I'M WAITING FOR." (Laughter.) They do start the song again, but it's obviously a joke. But... we laughed but... they could have played the whole album twice and we would have loved it. They could have played anything and we would have cheered purely for the appreciation of the astounding musicianship on display.

Instead, Portnoy tells us, they will play things from their previous bands (deafening cheers). Starting with... Casey McPherson.


It's a funny thing, for a "supergroup" to have an unknown singer. Particularly when you've already got two strong singers and frontmen in the band. Listening to the crowd before the gig, I heard several people saying they didn't know anything about Casey McPherson. One person even said, "I don't know why Neal didn't sing it all himself." Neal Morse does do a lot of the singing, and Portnoy sings lead on two songs (and even Steve Morse contributes backing vocals occasionally!) but Casey sings the majority of the lead vocals, and there are no complaints. His voice is strong and versatile and he easily holds his own among the four virtuosos he shares the stage with. He also plays guitar — electric and acoustic — throughout the show, and handles it very well, though it's often buried in the mix (and Steve takes all the solos, obviously). Casey's "own" song (which I think is Can't Find a Way) is a soulful, atmospheric ballad that sits perfectly well alongside the Flying Colors songs.

Mid-show, the band exits the stage, leaving Casey in a solo spotlight to sing (Cohen's) Helelujia. It's a stunning performance. We hang on every note and there is loud shushing when some pricks at the back try to talk through it. As his final (astonishing) note died away, there was a silence and all I could hear was a voice behind me say "fucking hell." And that summed it up really. And then the applause took the roof off. Casey "who?" McPherson made a lot of fans tonight.

On the merchandise stand before the gig, a solo Casey McPherson CD was on hopeful display, ignored while people rushed to buy overpriced t-shirts and Mike Portnoy drumming DVDs. After the gig, everyone was trying to buy it.

The only other person who got solo stage time was Dave LaRue, who played a bass solo so fast he MUST have been using tape loops to play half the notes. Or he's got 20 fingers. One or the other. I'm not sure which.

LaRue is high in the mix throughout the show and his bass tone is beautiful — it doesn't play the rhythms, it sings them.

I hardly think I need to describe the rest of the band to anyone reading this. Mike Portnoy, on a high platform rear right, drums like a monster, relentlessly precise and powerful, and entertainingly animated throughout, leaping to his feet to play standing up, and conducting the rest of the band with his sticks. He sings lead on two songs: Fool in My Heart (for which he demands that the audience helps him because "I'm only a drummer") and a Dream Theater song which I'm sorry I don't know the name of.

Neal Morse, on a similar platform rear left, leaps around even more than Portnoy, pogoing while playing his keyboards. He does a big chunk of the singing too. He comes out from behind his keyboards once, for one of the highlights of the show, when he, Portnoy with a tambourine, and McPherson with acoustic guitar, line up at the front of the stage and sing (Spock's Beard's) June with glorious three-part vocal harmonies.

To round out the "previous bands" songs, the beautiful guitar outro to the Storm (I love this song!) segues into a short, beautiful solo and then into a complex Dixie Dregs instrumental... I wish I could put a name to it (Odyssey, maybe?).

That brings me to Steve Morse.

Steve Morse is the reason I'm at this gig, as I'm sure you all know. I've written thousands of words over the last 18 years about how Steve Morse is the greatest guitar player in the world. I stand by every word. The man is a god among guitar players. He spends the whole night rolling in and out of some amazing solos and gets applause after every one. He's just that good. But it's not just his flawless technique that we applaud, it's his characteristic harmonic choices, always identifiable as the "Steve Morse sound" but always perfectly matching whatever song he's playing, whether it's the emotive blues of Better than Walking Away or the speed metal of All Falls Down.

And that's the thing about this band. "What do they play?" somebody asked me the other day. Well, that's hard to pin down. They can play the power ballads and the speed metal and the 15-minute prog rock complexity of Infinite Fire (played as the encore) and the acoustic beauty of June or even Halelujia.

Flying Colors. What do they play? 1:45 of perfect music, that's what.

Flying who?

Possibly the best supergroup there has ever been, that's who.

And the gig?

The best concert I've ever seen.

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