Flying Colors

Islington Assembly Hall, London

13 October 2014

I seem to recall that last time I saw Flying Colors, I was also queuing in the rain.

It's been a long weekend spent with friends in London, long and tiring and occasionally stressfull (though very enjoyable). I have a headache, I'm tired, I've spent the last three nights in hotels and I never sleep well in hotels, my legs are killing me from walking round museums, and I've been queuing in the pouring rain outside Islington Assembly Hall for over half an hour. And they're touring a new album that I don't think is as good as their first. I'm seriously thinking it was a mistake to tack the Flying Colors concert on to the end of my already planned weekend.

Inside the hall (actually a beautiful 1930s theatre with the seats removed for rock gigs) there is much more standing as the band take the stage late, and as I'm a small person in a large crowd I can barely see the stage and only know the band is on because everybody cheers. They start with Open Up Your Eyes, and I can see Mike Portnoy standing up behind his drum kit and encouraging us to clap. Which is insane because nobody can clap in time to Open Up Your Eyes unless their name is Mike Portnoy.

For anyone reading this who doesn't know, Open Up Your Eyes is a 12-minute song from the new album that begins with a five-minute instrumental passage that changes key, tempo, and/or time signature every few bars. So I'm jumping up and down and clapping, occasionally (coincidentally) in time with the music, and at the same time I realise that the last time I concentrated so hard in a live gig was when listening to a modern, atonal, orchestral symphony. This is probably the most complex rock music I've ever listened to in concert.

Then something miraculous happens. Through some movement of the crowd, I get a sudden sight line to Steve Morse just as he goes into the first guitar solo of the evening. And it's the most beautiful sound I can imagine. And five minutes ago I was wondering why I was here!

The stage set up is the same as the last tour. Steve Morse front left on guitar, Casey Mcpherson front centre on vocals and extra guitar bits, Dave Larue front right on bass, Neal Morse rear left on keyboards and vocals, Mike Portnoy rear right on drums, vocals, and cucumber (don't ask). Nice but unspectacular stage lighting, no gimmicks, just five guys playing extraordinary music.

Portnoy does almost all the talking, and he's a typically brash American but he carries it off because he sounds so genuine about it and so happily enthusiastic. When he's not talking he's drumming, and when he's drumming he's also conducting the band, conducting the audience, he's constantly spinning drumsticks, throwing them in all directions, and somehow always catching them again. He has too much energy for a drum stool to contain and plays on his feet most of the time. He also seems to have a thing about cucumbers. (Don't ask.) Looking at them, they don't look like a band, they look like five random guys from five different bands and even five different decades (both true, of course). And really that's their strength, the fact they come from so many different places and bring so many different aspects to the music.

From the complex insanity of Open Up Your Eyes, they go into the relative simple sanity of Bombs Away, again from the new album, then Shoulda Woulda Coulda from the first album, which Portnoy turns into a drum solo at the climax. Everyone gets solo spots throughout the show, but all at appropriate places in the songs. I'm not going to do a full set list in order. They do Kayla from the first album to a huge cheer of recognition, A Place in Your World (one of my favourites from the new album, and if there was any sanity in the world it would be a massive hit single) and a beautiful semi-acoustic Fury of my Love also from the new one, and the more they play the more I'm convinced I was wrong about the new album, because everything on it is standing up just as strongly as the older material they play. They play One Love Forever as a trio, Neal, Mike and Casey at the front of the stage singing the vocal harmonies while Casey plays acoustic guitar.

Later, they leave Casey alone on the stage with just an acoustic guitar to play a song from his own band, Alpha Rev. It's an extraordinary performance, not a rock performance but a raw, emotional vocal that shows just how different Casey is to the other guys and exactly what he brings to the band. And the crowd that was bouncing along and cheering just a minute ago is now still and listening in perfect silence. Then the song segues seamlessly into Peaceful Harbor, the best song on the new album, with Casey's wordless opening vocal sending shivers down my spine. Neal Morse comes back on with deep, resonant keyboard harmonies, Dave Larue wanders back on to add a bass line, Portnoy joins in, and finally Steve rips the song open with a stunningly beautiful guitar solo, and the whole thing builds in intensity to a stunning instrumental climax. It's an incredible tour de force, and I think it can't be topped until they follow it immediately with my favourite song from the first album, The Storm, with the whole crowd singing along.

If they ended here I would have gone home happy, it's a perfect one-two finisher. But they're not done yet, they still have the 12 minutes of Cosmic Symphony, another showcase of everybody's instrumental talents as the unusual structure allows them to take solos one after the other, guitar, bass, guitar again, keyboards, drums, more guitar, then the hushed closing vocal passage when Casey goes all Neil Diamond on it over Steve's subtle harmonies and Neal's jazz piano. Beautiful. Then the gig finishes with an almost anti-climactic Mask Machine. I say "almost" because it's not an anti-climax at all, it's a perfect rocking number to end the evening on a high point.

Because they had been late starting, they leave the stage at 11.05, and big notices on the hall door had said there was an 11pm curfew, so I actually wonder if there will be an encore at all.

But there is, of course, and ridiculously it sound like... yes, it is, it's Infinite Fire, the absolute best song from the first album, and it's another 12-minute song (even without taking Steve's extended solos into account). Curfew? What curfew?

It's an absolute perfect end to an absolute perfect gig. They finally leave the stage at 11.20 after playing almost two hours of music. I think I might have missed the last tube back to my hotel, but I don't care because it's only a three-mile walk and it's only rain, and what the hell if I can't move my legs in a straight line or feel my feet because how can that matter when I've just come out of the best concert I've ever seen?

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