It’s amazing to me how many times the “live experience” of a band has completely changed my mind about the band, their body of work, or even both. This year when Dream Theater released their opus, The Astonishing, after a couple of listens, I was quick to write it off. It just didn’t make a connection. Yeah, I get it. It’s a conceptual piece that is pretty much 2112 for a whole new generation and again, it just didn’t do anything for me. Well, that was all about to change with one single performance of The Astonishing here in Atlanta at the nearly sold out Atlanta Symphony Hall.
After talking to a friend who had taken in one of this tour’s performance, he convinced me to go and take it in and see it for myself. It also didn’t hurt that I got an email from keyboardist Jordan Rudess telling me that he was looking forward to catching up with me. How could I turn this down? All of the sudden, I got nervous. What if I hate this? What if it bores me? What if I have to write a truly honest review of this show? It’s who I am so I decided that, like with all shows, I would go into it with the most open of mind.
The energy in Symphony Hall was absolutely electrifying boasting one of the most diverse audiences I have ever seen at a show. I saw death metal shirts, I saw nu-metal shirts, I saw the obligatory obscure prog band shirts, and I saw folks that were my mom’s age at the show dressed like they were literally going to the symphony. This alone set the tone and had me feeling like this very well could be a special show.
The house lights came down to a roar from the crowd as “Descent of the NOMACS” filled the room. Then, Dream Theater took the stage opening things with “Dystopian Overture” and all of the sudden, I felt something. The hairs on my arm stood at attention and a smile took over my face. One of the things I was very quickly reminded of is that something that doesn’t come across in Dream Theater’s albums is how visually dynamic they are. The animated movements of Jordan Rudess as he takes on full wizard role over the keys, the power stances and fist thrusts of guitarist John Petrucci, the visual art of drummer Mike Mangini, and the commanding, passionate physical presence of vocalist James LaBrie. When you combine all of these things with the visual presentation of The Astonishing, it all just clicks into place and suddenly, I got it.
Clocking in at well over 2 hours, The Astonishing was delivered with class, elegance, and passion that truly had me in awe. The performance was visually stunning with a full storyboard of characters filling the split screens behind the band to assist in the telling of the story but most of all, Dream Theater themselves performed these songs with such a high level of integrity and love that I couldn’t help but be drawn into it. At times, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of what Pink Floyd may have looked and sounded like had they come out in this era. I was also blown away but the level of emotion from the playing. For a band who generally gets pegged for being robotic or just “playing all the notes”, Dream Theater’s performance of The Astonishing had them breaking away from that stereotype as Petrucci at times channeled his inner David Gilmour to pull leads from the sky that sent chills up my spine. As for Mangini, watching him play drums filled me with happiness. He plays with so much finesse and even a bit of swing that adds so much emotion and feel to the songs. Watching him play is like watching art being made right before your eyes.
The 2nd act of the Astonishing is where things started to build to a climatic rise and as James LaBrie commanded, “Atlanta, get out of your seats!” the place erupted as they launched into what was, in my opinion, the showstopper, “Our New World.” The energy from the LaBrie and the audience during this song physically moved me and even had me feeling a bit teary. It was such a powerful uprising in the story and again, it was like I got it. The connection was made and I was feeling every note, every lyric, and understanding the magic behind these songs. After closing out with “The Astonishing”, the band returned to the stage for an encore of “As I Am”, a mind melting rendition of “The Spirit Carries On”, and an absolutely mesmerizing “Pull Me Under.”
The band took their final bows to a full house standing ovation and as the room cleared, I felt as if I was coming down from a progressive rock cloud. You couldn’t kick the smile off my face. One of the things I loved so much about this performance was that Dream Theater pulled it off and made a believer out of me. Despite what some of the fans or general public felt about them choosing to perform this album in its entirety, Dream Theater did what they wanted to do. For years, Dream Theater was a band that constantly gave their fans what they wanted to so it was nice to finally see the band invest in something that they, themselves, truly loved and believed in and that right there made me love them even more. This performance was absolutely amazing, moving, mesmerizing, and yes, even astonishing. Yeah, I went there. Sue me.