HERE, NOW, REAL, RAEL
THE MUSICAL BOX
THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY
First Time (Selling England I, 5 April 2002)
Eventually I heard about the Musical Box. I was familiar with the concept of a tribute band, but frankly I had some doubts about the effectiveness. Did they really care enough about the band they were covering, or were they just trying to get people to watch them play by imitating a more popular group? Would they be capable of the technical proficiency of a Tony Banks or a Steve Hackett? And how personally creative can a group of people be if they are willing to subsume themselves under the music and ideas of another band? What I really wanted was a time machine so that I could go back to the early seventies and find out how Genesis really looked and sounded (at the time, I had no video of the band). However, I had heard very good things about the Musical Box, to the effect that seeing them was the next best thing to actually going back in time and seeing the real thing. And of course by early 2002, with the "new" official site up and running, my web site created, and my bootleg collection beginning to develop, I was desperate enough to try it.
The problem now was geography. The Musical Box are a French-Canadian band, so naturally their main turf was Canada. Though they tantalizingly swooped down low enough to touch the northern edges of New York, this was still not close enough for me in the middle of New Jersey (unless I wanted to book a hotel in upstate New York for the night--but I was still not quite desperate enough for that). However, in perhaps March of 2002 the miracle occurred--Musical Box was doing a small show at the Theater of Living Arts in Philadelphia before heading off to Europe for their first tour of the UK (during which, according to a program I later received, Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett helped the band play an encore of "Firth of Fifth" at the Albert Hall). The buzz about the band was growing and they were spreading their touring base. So my brother, some of his Genesis fan friends from work (I was amazed he was able to find Genesis fans at work!), my soon-to-be-wife, and I crammed ourselves into the heated, standing-room-only space of the TLA to watch the magic happen.
It was not the transcendent experience my brother and I were hoping for. I imagine a good deal of this disappointment was due to the atmosphere of the club: having to stand through the whole show for one, which was something neither of us were really used to. It was also quite hot and stifling, and we were at the side of the club where waitresses were constantly passing us with loaded trays of beer. Also about halfway through the show a particularly stoned onlooker collapsed almost on top of us. The rest of the show was dotted with distractions as various people checked to see if the guy was all right and whether he would like some water, etc. I barely remember the way the music sounded.
Second Time (Selling England II, 12 April 2003)
The Electric Factory is actually very similar in scope to the TLA, but it's nicer. They have Electric Factory logo spotlights which circle the place while you wait for the group to come on. Best of all, they had folding chair seating set up in the middle of the floor. Of course, my wife and I (she really was my wife at this point, and I'd made her wear a T-shirt with the Trespass album cover on it for the occasion, even though she couldn't tell you even now what songs are on that album) did not get there early enough and still had to stand up along the right side of the building. But it didn't make any difference, because this time the magic was there. Previously when I'd seen the band, my bootleg collection had been very small and I had been unfamiliar with the Selling England show set list. By this time, however, I knew pretty much which songs were coming next, or at least could tell from the stories that were told which one was coming up--I even had the audacity to shout "Musical Box!" at the lead singer as he was stringing out the very end of the croquet story so that some technical problem could be overcome. And I had the ridiculous idea that shouting "Harold the Barrel!" at the band might actually cause them to play that rarest of songs as an encore (which the original Genesis had actually done--once or twice).
I believe by the Electric Factory performance of '03 that the lineup of the band had changed. I know that eventually the Musical Box were to acquire a drummer who not only played and sang like Phil Collins, but looked like him, too. Their keyboardist may have changed as well. It's this looking like the band that was the really freaky part--it seemed an extension of their real devotion to Genesis and faithfully recreating Genesis. Because by April 2003 I had seen some fairly full video of the real Genesis doing a Selling England show, I was able to see just how exactly everything was being reproduced--right down to the strawberry pattern on the sleeves of Steve Hackett's jacket. The light show, the slides in the background, Pete's many costumes, the stories, the equipment (TMB had to hunt down vintage Mellotrons) and most of all the music--exactly, exactly as it had sounded back then. I also spoke to a big fan of the Musical Box around this time who had also seen the TLA performance and assured me that it was one of the worst ones they had given. He also showed me a simple idea: TMB had been around doing the Selling England show for several years, many more years than Genesis had ever done it. Hence, it was only natural that the Musical Box would be better at playing the material than the original band ever was! (I don't know if I actually agree with this concept, but it's worth thinking about, at least from the standpoint of comparing the number of technical bugs and regular screw-ups due to not being well-rehearsed--the Musical Box, I think you can pretty safely say, have had a chance to rehearse the music much more diligently than Genesis ever did; and current technological advances probably help to assure that we won't have to hear the Phil clone come up with any drum solos while the keyboard is being repaired--I can say that I never had to hear a Musical Box drum solo due to equipment failure.)
Suffice to say, seeing them for the second time was electrifying and invigorating and inspiring. Phil's counterpart sang an excellent rendition of "More Fool Me," something I don't think they had attempted at our previous concert. As the Peter clone (sadly I don't know the band's actual names, and they don't bother telling you their names in their programs or while on stage--the illusion must be complete that they are actually Genesis, so I'll play along) came out on stage in the old man costume at the end of "The Musical Box," effectively raising the ghost of the dead boy Henry, I felt he was also raising the ghost of the Peter Gabriel of 1974; that this was not a "cover band" on stage, but the band, come back to life. Peter could play the flute just like in the seventies, and sang the songs the same way, and wiggled his flower-shaped head around the same way, and mowed the hell out of his imaginary lawn the same way, with the twitching stalk of grass clutched maniacally between his teeth.
Interestingly, my wife recalled that at this show we were standing on the side of the building underneath the second floor "balcony" seating, and that during the show we were actually dripped upon, probably with a small amount of beer. It's a measure of how much I enjoyed the show that I barely remember this happening--unlike my first Selling England show, where about all I remember is that stoned guy collapsing on us.
Third Time (Foxtrot, 5 March 2004)
However, this fan I spoke to described TMB's Foxtrot set as a kind of "ideal" set from the tour: with "Can-Utility" and "Supper's Ready," as well as "Fountain of Salmacis" and other classics from the period. It made more sense to see this show than just another repeat of the Selling England--I could convince my wife more readily to accompany me to something "new" than to something I'd seen before--so I looked into it. (Of course, what I really, really wanted to see was their reproduction of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which I had heard about, but they never seemed to do it. I guessed that the Selling England show was just more popular and visually striking, and that they might not ever do the Lamb again. By this time the Lamb had long been my favorite Genesis album, and I had been collecting video bootlegs long enough to realize that there was very very little footage of the original Lamb tour to be had--making it even more tantalizing.)
As it turns out, the Foxtrot show is something TMB only does when the venue they are playing is too small to fit the slide show curtains for the Selling England show. The venue that I found on their tour list which was closest to us and also featured the somewhat rare Foxtrot show instead of the Selling England show was, ironically enough, called the "Music Box." It was a beautiful, new, and fairly intimate theater with very comfortable seats, situated in the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Even though it was in the same state, Atlantic City was very far south from our current house in North Brunswick--in fact, to make the trip we had to rush straight there from work on a Friday night and then spend the night at my parents' beach house in Ocean City (hard work, I know, but it was fairly exhausting). We were still almost too late, but it was really quite perfect, because we didn't have to wait for the band to come on stage (something that had been rather annoying about my previous Musical Box experiences--they made us wait quite a while after the show time, and also made us clap a long time before doing any encore); just as we sat down in our seats, the chords of "Watcher of the Skies" blasted the room. Here was the set: Watcher of the Skies/Can-Utility and the Coastliners/Get 'em Out by Friday/The Musical Box/Supper's Ready/The Return of the Giant Hogweed/The Knife/The Fountain of Salmacis.
If you've seen the band on the cover of the Genesis Live album, then you know what the stage looked like for this show. Peter's counterpart wore all of the Selling England costumes for songs like "Watcher," "Box," and "Supper." Actually by late in the Foxtrot tour, the real Peter had come up with the batwings for "Watcher" and probably a good deal of the other costumes which would see their full usage during Selling England. But the original band never played a set like this set. It featured all the classic numbers from the tour, but in a more complete list than had ever been possible for Genesis. The only song which I was surprised they did not play was "Twilight Alehouse," an old classic like "Salmacis" which the real Genesis did actually play a couple of times during the Foxtrot period. But it was fantastic to hear the driving power of "Hogweed" followed by "Knife." It was also very neat to think that the band could find its own creative way to make a beautiful set list that was not absolutely accurate, but was in fact better than the real thing--it also showed that the band were capable of a certain amount of originality with the material, which I had begun to worry about. Very interesting to hear "Salmacis" as an encore, a position it never enjoyed as a Genesis number--but really it worked very well as a conclusion to the actual Nursery Cryme album, so it made perfect sense as an encore.
And the Music Box was a beautiful, comfortable, and excellent venue for watching the show. Unlike the Selling England shows I'd seen, we actually got to sit down through the whole concert, and it was nice. The acoustics of the area were very nice also. I'm not a big fan of casinos, but it was hard not to be impressed by the Borgata's lavish but modern design.
After this concert I felt I had pretty much seen all that the Musical Box could do. And I was very impressed. I was fully converted. They were an amazing experience, and anyone who was a real Genesis fan was a fool if they didn't find a way to see them. I felt like a coward for blanching before at the idea of traveling all the way to upstate New York in order to see them. I decided that in order to see them do something I hadn't seen before, I would be willing to cross the border into Canada or take a trip across the United States. They were my time machine, they resurrected Genesis in its purest most classic form.
Of course, I was not so much of a fanatic that I didn't see the small flaws in the facade. I eventually traded for a sample CD of a few Musical Box numbers, and I realized while listening to it not only how precise and faithful the playing was, but also how it was perhaps too precise. The music was note-for-note correct, but it lacked the life and unpredictability of real Genesis performances; the "Firth of Fifth" solo, for instance, is probably the very same solo every night when Musical Box plays it. And when Peter's counterpart encountered a difficulty which caused a delay in the beginning of a song, he simply did not have the humorous improvisational abilities of the real Peter to make jokes about the situation or really pad out the story he was telling--all he knew was one story, which he always told the same way, and if he had to make it longer, he just added pauses between the words and looked around uncomfortably.
One might even complain that the Peter clone's "reverse mohawk" haircut was not real, like Peter's, but most likely some sort of partial bald cap and wig--but it's asking a bit much to make the guy shave the front part of his head every day. What the Musical Box achieved every night was nothing short of astounding--not the mere fiddlings of some musicians who happened to like Genesis, but the caring, devotional offerings of true disciples, who really understood and loved what they were doing. And after all, the improvisational parts of the music were something only the real Genesis could have done the "correct" way; any improvisations on the Musical Box's part would merely be the musical creations of they themselves, with no bearing on how the real guys would have done it. So the Musical Box were probably my favorite live act (apart from the real thing), but I had seen what they could do--if a few years passed and the memory faded, I would probably go see their show again, but I was pretty much satisfied with my experiences. The only single, crowning experience that I really hoped to have was to see their rendition of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. A live presentation of my favorite album by the closest thing to my favorite band, a live show I had never seen before even on video. But what, I thought, were the chances of that happening?