A Dream Theater show keeps the focus on the instrumental pyrotechnics going on onstage and eschews actual pyrotechnics.
When I arrived at the Verizon Wireless Theater, Trivium was in the process of wrapping up their opening set. I’ve never been a big fan of Trivium, but I don’t mind them, either. The last time I saw Trivium at this venue, I thought they seemed uncomfortable with the size of both the stage and the room. This time out, close to three years later, they seemed much more confident. Their brand of anything-goes metal, which mixes harsh growls with melodic singing and guitar solos with thunderous riffing, got an extremely strong reaction from the audience. The band seemed pleased with the crowd reaction, and claimed it was the best show they’d had on the tour.
And then it was time for the headliners. Dream Theater has been doing this for a long time now, and even with a new drummer on board their live show hasn’t changed much. The show opened with an animated video that played on the elevated screens at the back of the stage. Each band member was depicted as a sort of superhero (bassist John Myung as a ninja, keyboardist Jordan Rudess as a wizard, drummer Mike Mangini as, well, a genie, and so on) that was called to action by the Dream Theater logo projected in the sky. The group all made their way to the official Dream Theater plane, which then landed and let the band pile out to go play the concert. The video was fun and a little silly and a nice way to start the show.
Anyway, the show proper opened with the distinctive throat-singing introduction to “Bridges in the Sky”. On their new album, A Dramatic Turn of Events, I was struck by how this intro has nothing to do with the rest of the song. But as a concert opener it served as a perfect primer, because the crowd knew the band was about to launch into one of their hard-rocking, ten-minute plus compositions. “Bridges” was followed by “These Walls”, an also-ran track from ‘05’s Octavarium that I had nearly forgotten. After that the band played “Build Me Up, Break Me Down”, a chunky, almost nu-metal-tinged song from the new album that also worked better in the live setting. Next up was “Endless Sacrifice”, a hard-hitting standout from the Train of Thought album.
With such a long history and little mainstream promotion to speak of, Dream Theater’s audience is pretty well established at this point. That is to say, I’d wager that most of their crowd has seen them play multiple times in the past. We pretty much know what we’re going to see. John Petrucci’s guitar heroics and his variety of intense facial expressions did not disappoint. James Labrie can be counted on for a solid vocal performance, and also to quietly disappear from the stage during the long instrumental passages. Myung is stoic and expressionless on the bass, even as his fingers move at lightning speed to keep up with Petrucci. Rudess always looks like he’s having a good time at his keyboards, and he added a new wrinkle this time out. He’s been able to rotate his keyboard 360 degrees for years, but now the rig can be tilted at an angle, the better to show off his intricate finger work. Mangini’s drum kit is just as big as former drummer Mike Portnoy’s (although the setup is different), but he isn’t as demonstrative in concert as Portnoy used to be.
Mangini got the chance to show off his skills with an extended drum solo. I’m not a big fan of big, showy solos that go on forever, but Mangini did a decent job. Obviously the guy can play his ass off, but his solo mostly concentrated on a variety of different beats and he didn’t spend a lot of time just pounding away on every piece of his kit. Even better, the solo ended with the rest of the band returning to the stage to play “The Ytse Jam”, an excellent instrumental that dates all the way back to the ‘80s. The band also reached back to the mid-‘90s for a brief acoustic interlude, playing the pretty “The Silent Man.” They followed this up with “Beneath the Surface”, a standout ballad from A Dramatic Turn of Events. It’s been quite a while since Dream Theater took time out in their live show to focus on some of their quieter material, so it was nice to get that break roughly halfway through the show.
The back half of the set featured a pair of middling songs in new single “On the Backs of Angels” and ‘07’s “Forsaken”, but the show finished up strongly. The soft/heavy pairing of “Through My Words” and “Fatal Tragedy” was just as effective live as it was on their high-water mark album, Scenes From a Memory. The set closed with “Breaking All Illusions”, the new album’s best song and a great finisher. For the encore the band played a classic, “Under a Glass Moon”.
I’ve seen Dream Theater several times over the years, and this show ranks somewhere up in the middle of my personal list. In concert the band’s musicianship is impressive; their ability to replicate their incredibly complex compositions is a feat. A Dream Theater show keeps the focus on the instrumental pyrotechnics going on onstage and eschews actual pyrotechnics. But once you’ve seen a band live a few times, the concert experience relies mostly on the crowd energy and the setlist. The audience at this show was enthusiastic but not overly demonstrative. The set, meanwhile, came well-stocked with musical highlights, but there were enough middling stretches to keep this from being a truly great show.