History was made tonight: Shadow Gallery- LIVE AT LAST!

ORIGINALL POSTED SEPTEMBER 6, 2010

For anyone that follows me on Twitter or elsewhere you almost certainly know that I’m a huge fan of the progressive rock band Shadow Gallery (www.shadowgallery.com).  I have been for… jeez, about 15 years now, give or take!  I discovered them right around the time I got engaged to my wife, which means late ’94, maybe early ’95 (that I discovered them… we got engaged late ’94 for sure!)

In all that time, they’ve produced six studio albums (seven if you count the “greatest hits” album Prime Cuts) and have been a huge influence on my own musical ideas and an inspiration for my own writing.  They’ve always impressed me by not only being one of the most technically talented bands on the planet but at the same time one of the best songwriting bands around.  The two are not always one and the same unfortunately, but Shadow Gallery is one of the few that pulls it off, and they do so better than most.  In fact, for quite a few years now I’ve considered them my favorite band, although I’ve often argued with myself whether it’s them or Dream Theater… frankly, each time one of them releases an album my opinion tends to change 🙂  But, Shadow Gallery is responsible for my single favorite album of all time, Room V, so the coin toss goes to them more times than not 🙂

Over the course of those 15 years, the one thing that has never happened is seeing Shadow Gallery play live.  This isn’t because I’ve missed the chance, it’s because they’ve in fact never played a live show.

That is, until September 5th, 2010.  This very evening, history was made… and I was there!!

I was jazzed!  Here was my favorite band, playing their very first show, and it was within easy driving distance!  Barley Creek Brewery in Tannersville, PA is only about 1.5 hours’ drive.  Not a hassle in the least!  And, it’s in the beautiful Pocono mountains region of the state, which is a destination I like anyway.  It’s a generally pleasant drive into a great area, so I was totally stoked.

What’s better is that my 10-year old son Andrew was going to make the pilgrimage with me.  Now, I’ve taken him to a number of concerts already, even at such a young age.  He’s seen Dream Theater twice, Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Fates Warning, and Daughtry.  Shadow Gallery is special though because it was literally the first band I introduced him to, and he took a liking to them right away.  In fact, I have videos of him singing and playing along (on a toy guitar) to Comfort Me and The Andromeda Strain, two great Shadow Gallery songs, when he was maybe 5 or 6 years old, give or take.

Even better, Andrew is a fairly accomplished drummer already and continues to take lessons and improve, so the chance to see Joe Nevolo, one of the best drummers around in my opinion, live and in person made it even sweeter.

So, the stars most certainly aligned on this kinda chilly night in northeastern PA.  So, was it as great a spectacle as I had hoped?

In a word… almost entirely yes!

To be blunt, it was a fantastic show!  It was worth the money, worth the effort to get there and worth the wait, all 15 years of it!  Was it perfect in every respect?  No, and I’ll get to that.  Let’s start with the opening act though: Suspyre.

Suspyre in another progressive rock act hailing from New Jersey and to be very honest, I’d never heard of them before this week.  Well, that’s not exactly true: I’d heard of them because the singer, Clay Barton, did a guest spot on Shadow Gallery’s latest album Digital Ghosts.  To be more precise though,  I’d never heard Suspyre’s material before this week.  Leading up to the concert though I checked them out, and I have to say I liked what I heard.  Seeing them live was definitely a treat.  They are a very talented band, to say the least!  Fantastic musicianship across all members of the band and most definitely a worthy opening act.  They did a good job not only warming up the crowd for the main event but also in getting the crowd over to their side.  I noticed when they started that not too many people were huddled in front of the stage listening, and those of us that were didn’t seem too excited overall.  By the end of their set, however, there was a large crowd of people headbanging along and cheering when they finished (in a good way I mean!)  So they really got people interested in what they were doing, not only in preparing for Shadow Gallery.  Interestingly too, my son was asking if we can buy the CDs when we get home.  Little does he know I already bought most of their tracks off Amazon a night or two ago 🙂  So, kudos to Suspyre, you did an excellent job and you have two new fans as a result!

Now, on to the main event!

At 9 pm, Shadow Gallery took the stage… but not until after the crowd all sang along in unison to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody played over the PA!  Now, I’ve never been a big Queen fan honestly, and that song never thrilled me… but it was fun singing along with everyone!  More importantly though, it got everyone in the right frame of mind for what was to come because being a Shadow Gallery fan, especially for their first show, felt a lot like being part of an extended family.

Shadow Gallery came out and opened with the first track off Room V, Manhunt.  Right away I was psyched because I had mentally mapped out the set I would like them to do, the set I would do if I was them, and Manhunt was my opening pick too!  It couldn’t have been a better choice: it’s a technical masterpiece but it also has a great atmosphere about it.  It instantly got the crowd going, although I think they could have played Old McDonald at that point and got the same effect!

Now, I’m not going to go into each and every song they played, mainly because I probably won’t remember everything quite right.  What I will tell you though is that they played what I’d consider a nearly perfect set.  They mentioned early on that they had picked most of their heavier songs, the ones that rock I believe is what they said, and I think they succeeded very well in that regard.  They covered every album they have, not a single one when unrepresented.  As I recall the songs the played, including Crystalline Dream, The Andromeda Strain, Strong, Deeper Than Life, Questions At Hand and Goldust, each and every one fits the bill perfectly in terms of heaviness (I think Ghost Of A Chance might have been the “lightest” song).  Not only that but they are some of the most well-known Shadow Gallery songs out there.  I can say for sure that there wasn’t a single one I had any problem with them choosing, not a single one did I thought  “ehh, wouldn’t mind if they hadn’t picked that one”

Where there any missing that I wanted to hear?  Actually, there’s only one that I missed, but unfortunately for me, it was a big miss: Rain.  Rain is the penultimate song off the album Room V and it was the one song I REALLY wanted to hear.  Now, I kind of in my gut had a feeling I wouldn’t be hearing it, so I was sort of prepared.  Even still, I did miss Rain quite a bit.  But, that’s really my only complaint in terms of the set selection, and it’s rare that you go to any concert and here EVERY song you want to when its a band with a number of albums (I mean, Daughtry played every song off two albums when I saw them, but that’s only two albums’ worth… not to mention the fact that Shadow Gallery songs aren’t exactly short, we could easily have been there until 3 am!)  Dream Theater failed to play Forsaken for me too, so they aren’t perfect either 🙂

So, if an excellent set selection is the basis for a good show, they were off to a great start.  What about the rest?  How did they sound?  In short, excellent!

One thing I really appreciated is that they didn’t feel the need to improvise and rearrange their material.  I know many people disagree with this, but I for one hate it when I see a band live and they totally butcher their songs.  People fall in love with songs, most of the time at least, as they are recorded.  To perform them live in some other way is annoying at best.  I don’t mind some minor tweaks here and there, extending a section and such, a slightly different vocal melody, that’s cool.  It seemed like Shadow Gallery got that, and I thank them for it!  There were certainly some mixed up pieces here and there, but like I said, a little bit is fun, a lot is annoying to me.  They got the balance right in this regard.

The band was just as tight as you’d expect such great musicians to be.  There’s no question that the members of Shadow Gallery are some of the best musicians around when it comes to the “simple” art of actually playing their instruments.  But, since they’d never played live before there had to be some question as to whether they could actually do it outside of a studio.  I’m happy to say they most definitely can!  They can downright go!  I also appreciated the work the sound guys did.  The band was loud but not overly so, and there was very little time where the sound wasn’t clear.  Rarely can you make out the words so well at a live concert.  Great job guys!

In terms of individual performance, particularly worth mentioning… no, you know what?  You just can’t start a sentence like that when talking about this band!  You could say Gary Wehrkamp deserves special mention because he took a page from Getty Lee and then wrote another six chapters, constantly switching instruments with relative ease.  You could say Brendt Allman deserves special mention because he put on a display of guitar skill that is matched by few guitar players today (in fact, John Petrucci is the only one that comes to mind, and I’ll tell you, not by much!).  You could say Brian Ashland deserves special mention for fantastic lead vocals all night (even when his throat started to give him some problems) and then jumping to keyboard for parts and some serious shredding on guitar at other times.  You could say Joe Nevolo deserves special mention for one of the single best drum solos I’ve ever seen, and that includes the masterpieces I’ve seen by Mike Portnoy and Neil Peart.  You could say Carl Cadden-James deserves special mention for being more full of energy than any human being has a right to be and of showing off some amazing bass chops all night.  No, they each put on a showcase worthy of special mention!  If you’re a musician there’s no way you weren’t impressed as hell tonight.

So, a great setlist played the right way and done very tightly.  That sounds like it was perfect, right?  Well, no, perfect it wasn’t if I’m being honest.  As much as I loved the show, I do see room for improvement and I do have some criticisms.

Before I get to those though, let me say one thing: I’ve been in a number of bands in my life, one of them fairly successful for a little while.  I’ve played a number of live shows, and I can pretty clearly remember all of them, especially the first.  I know what it’s like to play to a crowd that size (actually, as I mentioned to my son, I believe one time we had a larger crowd).  I know that nervous energy the guys must have felt.  I know how absolutely fun it is, to the point where the word “fun” is nowhere near adequate to describe it.  If you’ve never been on stage like that before it’s a feeling you almost certainly have no frame of reference to understand.  I also know that no matter how much you prepare, no matter how much you practice, things never go *quite* right.  I suspect that’s true of any band regardless of how long they’ve been performing live.

The point is that most of the criticisms I’m about to say I can pretty much dismiss as nothing but typical first-time jitters, or the inherent difficulties in performing live.  There was nothing I saw that was egregious and beyond forgiveness.  I think they guys need to do a bit of polishing, but that’ll happen naturally the more they perform.  Because I’m such a big fan of theirs I want to see them giving top-notch performances every time they take the stage going forward, so maybe if they happen to see this they can take some of it and make improvements from it where they see value in my opinions.

That all being said, what went “wrong”?

  • Well, it looked to me like Gary at one point (I forget during which song) forgot to switch keyboard patches, or maybe missed a cue, I’m not sure.  It was pretty obvious though.  To his credit, he recovered quickly and even gave the crowd a little “yeah, I know, I blew it” look, which is about the best thing you can do in that situation.  Hang a lamp on it I believe is what they say when a fiction writer makes a nod to the audience when an obvious plot contrivance comes up.  This is similar.  No sweat Gary, nobody is holding this against you 🙂
  • At one point, Brendt’s guitar had a technical problem and he had to switch, which I believe caused Carl and Joe to do a little improvising to cover (I’m  not sure if it was that or if they just extended a section, but whatever, they covered for Brendt while he switched axes, which was good).  What can you do?  Equipment fails on stage, that’s part of live performance.  I think there may have been some mic issues along the way too, but if so they were a bit less obvious.
  • During Joe’s monstrous and phenomenal drum solo he dropped a stick at one point.  He did a good job making light of it though, which I think got the audience even MORE into it!  So, while dropping a stick is something going wrong technically, in a way I think it worked in his favor.

Yep, that’s about it!  Some pretty minor stuff, and nothing out of the ordinary.  Oh, but…

One thing that’s maybe a little bigger though… Brian didn’t seem to know the words to some of the songs!  Now, hey, I wouldn’t hold a mistake or two against a singer.  Remembering EVERY word EXACTLY right over an entire set list is tough and a few flubs here and there aren’t a big deal.  And it’s also the case that he may have just been playing with some minor changes here and there, and I can live with that.  But there was more than a few times where I was singing along, knowing the words very well, and Brian appeared to be mumbling through.  It was some of the older material, so it’s somewhat understandable, Brian having not been around for the writing of that material.  Still, unless I’m somehow mistaken about what I think I was seeing and hearing, this is an area Brian needs to work on a bit.  It’s not TOO big a deal the first show or two, but a few shows from now I wouldn’t say the same thing.

Now, I have one last general criticism…  if you didn’t know this was their first show I think you could have easily guessed it.  There’s a certain polish to a band that’s done a lot of performances together.  Knowing each others’ ticks and preferences, knowing how to interact with each others’ stage presence, being excited up there without it overwhelming you and acting almost giddy, knowing how to get the crowd involved in various playful ways that don’t seem too contrived, smoother transitions between songs and segments of the set… these are things you learn over time, nothing else does it.  Like I said, I remember my bands’ first show and it was similar, at least for me (my guitarist and drummer had been on stage before so they were already a little more accomplished, but myself, the bass player and singer were first-timers and we certainly weren’t as polished).  For example, at times I almost expected Carl to pull a Tom Cruise and jump up on the nearest couch yelling “WE’RE PLAYING LIVE!!  WE’RE PLAYING LIVE!!”  Now, maybe Carl is like that all the time, in which case, ok, fine.  But I suspect not.  I think a few shows into this tour he’ll have that “I’m excited, and I’m going to BE exciting, but I know how to not go too far with it” feel to him and it’ll be perfect.

Again, this was their first live show EVER, so expecting complete fit and finish and total polish would have been unfair.  In fact, if you take everything together I don’t think there’s any question they did a better job than a lot of others bands have their first time out, and they’re only going to get better.  I’m hoping they do another U.S. tour in a few months somewhere close because I think seeing them after they have a few shows under their belts is going to be an even better experience.

One other miscellaneous note: the lighting all night was a bit on the dark side.  I don’t know to what degree the band has any influence over this though so it’s maybe not fair to label it a criticism at all.  But, from an audience standpoint, there were a lot of instances where I wished I could see things a bit better.  All the video I shot was dark for sure, and while stage lighting isn’t meant to make my video-taking ability better, being able to clearly see the band *most* of the time is important.  It wasn’t drastically bad, but there was room for improvement I’d say.

So, just very minor quibbles really so far (aside from the not knowing the words thing), and nothing that isn’t easily explained by being a first-time live act.  But, I have one criticism left, and it’s a little bigger, and it’s frankly the only one that I’d say actually bothered me.

There was no mention of Mike Baker.

If you don’t know, Mike Baker was the original singer for Shadow Gallery who sadly passed away in 2008.  If you by chance read by ExtJS book you know it was dedicated to him.  I never had the chance to meet Mike, but through his music, I felt like I knew him.  He was a fantastic talent who brought so much more to Shadow Gallery’s music than was even in the words in the first place.

Now, let me be clear: Brian Ashland has stepped in to replace Mike, an unenviable task for any musician, but one he’s done an awesome job at.  Brian has a lot of the same qualities Mike did and I think the guys made a perfect choice with him.  I also think they went about it right.  I know the loss of Mike hit them hard, as it did many of us fans.  They grieved, waited a respectful amount of time, and then moved on.  I remember some fans saying they should just close up shop after Mike died, but I never subscribed to that opinion.  The show must go on as they say, and the guys clearly had a ton left to offer the world, and Brian has I think been an integral part of making that happen.  Yes, its a shame that we didn’t get to see Shadow Gallery with Mike Baker fronting, but that’s the way life goes sometimes.  Brian is here now and it’s worked out great despite being spawned by a terrible circumstance.

All night I was waiting for some sort of mention of Mike though.  I felt like it was the right thing to do, especially given this being their first-ever show.  It didn’t have to be a big thing… they could have just picked one song that Mike especially liked and said “This one’s dedicated to the memory of Mike Baker.  We miss you, buddy.”  It didn’t have to be a long, drawn-out affair… but Mike was a big part of what made Shadow Gallery so great over so many years, he’s certainly a big part of why I am such a big fan today.  To not say *something* at *some* point just felt like something really big was missing.

Now, there’s not a doubt in my mind that the guys were thinking of him tonight.  I’m sure he was in all their hearts.  I also know this to be true of many, probably most, of the people there watching.  I just wish we all had gotten the chance to share that together.  I suspect that would have been the biggest ovation of the night and probably a big emotional release for many too.  If there was one disappointment from this show it was this.

But, let’s end this on an up note, shall we?!?  It’s really easy to do! 🙂

On September 5th, 2010, at Barley Creek Brewery in Tannersville, PA, one of the greatest bands of all time, Shadow Gallery, played their first live show ever.  I had the honor and privilege of being there.  It was an awesome show from start to finish, not far from perfect in my estimation.  This will be filed in my brain as one of my more cherished memories in life so far.  I think after a few shows, after the band has had the opportunity to polish the stage act a bit, they’ll wind up being one of those bands that you really should see live at least once in your life.  It’s already exactly that if you’re already a fan of course!  It was a great night overall and I just want to say thank you to Shadow Gallery for doing it!

And hey, Mike Portnoy, now that Shadow Gallery is a “real touring band”, when will you get them to open for you?  Then again, that might not be a good idea… that much musical awesomeness in one place has GOT to somehow be dangerous for any human being to experience 🙂

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