The Musical Box - Hard Rock Live - May 2
The Musical Box
Hard Rock Live
May 2, 2012
I have seen the future of classic rock, and it is the tribute band.
More so than most popular music genres, a key component to so-called classic rock is live performance on analog instruments. As bands that began in the sixties suffer the loss or aging of its members, the best of its music demands to live on somehow.
Nowadays, new generations of fans are not just buying reissued records but picking up instruments and recreating the original music live. Genesis has something like 80 tribute bands listed on its website. But none stand out more than The Musical Box. Based in Montreal, Canada, the group was one of the first early Genesis tribute acts and is the only tribute band officially endorsed by the band's original members.
The motivation of the members of The Musical Box comes from a real place, and it showed last night at the Hard Rock Live, as they recreated Genesis' 1974 concept album the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway live, in its entirety. This was not a show for the fans of the Phil Collins-fronted hits like "Invisible Touch" and "That's All." Hardcore Genesis fans know the story of the Puerto Rican street punk Rael, spelled out in surreal lyrics written and sung by the band's first frontman, Peter Gabriel. The words evoke a mythical journey of self-actualization filled with violence, sex, and existential musings. The album was the most subtle of Genesis' career, full of dynamic moodiness with detours into atmospheric ambience and contained no hit singles.
The opening title track offered a flood of evidence that The Musical Box was not messing around. Though keyboardist Michel Cloutier seemed to strain to tap out the rapid piano part of the opening piece, and there were a couple of occasions that the complexity of the dense songs seemed to threaten to slip out of the grasp of the players, it held together. These precarious moments of intense energy riding complex rhythmic constructs only went to show just how difficult this music is to play, and how talented these young men are in their roles.
The band did nothing to cheat the original music. They had several pieces of vintage, cumbersome gear on stage to reproduce the sound of the original band. Guitarist François Gagnon had an Echoplex on top of his stack and Cloutier even played a real mellotron. Both are pieces of equipment with tape inside that are amazingly delicate and moody to play in live settings. Also, anyone familiar with Collins' drum set would recognize its unique arrangement on stage with its multiple cymbals and percussive gear like a large vibraphone. Drummer Marc Laflamme also did all the back up vocals, just as Collins did in live settings. Last, but not least, singer Denis Gagné not only hit all the notes in Gabriel's dynamic range, but also captured the nuances in his voice and nailed his poses and gestures.
Beyond a slide show featuring a shifting triptych vintage scenes of the streets of New York and Salvador Dalí paintings among the images, the stage show was no frills. There weren't even any moving light sources, only filters over stage lights that bathed the band in an orange and red glow. This was reminiscent of the few images and videos that exist of the original band performing the Lamb in the mid-seventies. Watching that glow reflect off bassist Sébastien Lamothe's signature double-necked instrument was enough to throw you back more than 30 years into the past.
But the greatest thing about The Musical Box performing the Lamb live were the moments that the musicians made themselves seem invisible as they re-created this legendary work, and art transcended the artifice on stage. The performance proved a revelation, illuminating things in the narrative I had never even noticed since I first heard the album 25 years ago.
During "Counting Out Time," Rael sings of using a sex advice book to pleasure a woman. It's a light-hearted moment of almost comic relief. But it also provides a brilliant set-up to the dramatic presentation of "the Lamia," which comes later in the program. Rael has an "experience" in some netherworld with creatures that are half-snake and half-woman. Sex is now elevated to "a magic that a name would stain." Themes of sensuality and death within the song bring to mind Freud's death-drive. Rael sings enclosed in a cone of fabric decorated with a flowing collage of images, including scales and parts of faces that never seem to completely emerge. It evoked mysterious and abstract feelings in the viewer/listener that indeed counts on the delicate balance between the artistry of the music and its stage presentation. "The Lamia" is simple with mostly tinkling piano with a few detours into luscious organ and groaning guitars and a rock steady rhythm. I gained a new appreciation of this subtle track during its presentation by The Musical Box.
Unfortunately, barely anyone showed up for this historic moment in rock re-enactment. Maybe it was not promoted enough (some posters and flyers at local record shops could have helped). The crowd was rather paltry for the largest live venue within the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. It mostly featured baby boomers and some VIPs with all access who have the power to come and go to whatever show they want at the gambling complex, chomp on hot dogs and chit-chat.
During the album's final number, "It," one old dude got right up to the front of the stage and gave the singer two aggressive thumbs down and walked away to the exit as he held his hand up in a one-finger salute behind him. I would love to have known his motivation. Maybe this was not the revival of Genesis hits he expected? Maybe he thought they did not do justice to the original music? Maybe it was a meta moment of performance art, and he was there to complete the illusion of Genesis coming to America in 1974 to play an hour-and-a-half of music no one had ever heard due to the delayed release of the album stateside? Maybe these younger musicians, barely old enough to remember Gabriel in Genesis forced him to confront his own mortality?
Meanwhile, I can only see more expertly put-together tribute bands rising from the ashes of classic rock legends on the horizon in order to keep the music alive. This music will never die, even though you will.
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