THE MUSICAL BOX
The Continuing Adventures
Sixth Time (Foxtrot, 20 October 2006)
In the late Summer/early Fall of 2006, I began to hear rumors that TMB was going back at it with a new tour, returning to what was probably their most popular and most impressive show: the Selling England re-creation. What made the whole thing more interesting and important to me was that I heard further news that the Peter clone was planning his retirement after this string of shows. I even heard the amazing rumor that the band planned to carry on after Peter's departure with their Phil clone as lead singer, performing Trick of the Tail-era material! (Is that life imitating art, art imitating life, or just life imitating life?) At the time of writing this, I still don't know if these rumors are true (in a way, though it would be very sad to know that I'll never have the chance to hear them do the Pete-era stuff again, I hope they are going to move on to Phil-era stuff--it would once again reinforce the true dedication of the band to their subject!); but regardless, those rumors were the perfect incentive for me to jump onto the Ticketmaster web site again, as soon as I saw that tour dates had been added.
I didn't think my brother would actually be interested in seeing TMB again, as he is not much of a live music person and had pretty much seen the best they had to offer. So the first tickets I purchased were for my wife and myself, on 27 October at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville. Afterwards, however, I talked with my brother and it turned out he was willing to see TMB with me if we could see the one show he hadn't seen them do yet: the Foxtrot show. Also, the redundancy of my seeing the band twice in two weeks would be out-weighed by the fact that I'd be seeing them play two different sets (so my wife wouldn't think I was too, too insane). Hence I found myself taking off from work on Friday, October 20, and heading down to my brother's place in Haddonfield, New Jersey. This would be the launch point for our journey to the Tower Theater in Philadelphia.
Going to see TMB at the Tower was weird, because I knew that during their Selling England days the real band had hit this venue--I have the bootleg to prove it! What made the whole thing even more exciting was that just the day before I had read an article on the internet from BBC stating that the former members of Genesis were indeed going to reunite and tour again as a group. I emailed this news to my brother with a subject line which read simply: AHHHHHHH. He guessed the basic contents of the email before even reading it.
The Tower itself is one of those fine old theaters that is still well maintained and has some fantastic acoustics--I'd venture to say that the band probably sounded as good here as I have ever heard them sound. TMB had managed to sell out all the really good seats up front before my brother and I got our tickets, which put us in the middle section but quite a few rows back. I was a bit disappointed to see that the side sections of the theater seemed to be entirely unoccupied, and I don't think there were more than one or two rows of occupied seats behind us, even though there was plenty of room for more people back there. This may perhaps have been more a result of the lesser draw of the Foxtrot show as compared to Selling England (which they were playing at the Tower the next night, I think) than to unpopularity of the band itself.
Which is just unfair, because the show we saw was fantastic as usual. The band if anything were tighter and better at playing the material than ever before. Even though "The Musical Box" came in the middle of the set, it generated a spontaneous standing ovation from the audience, most of whom were ecstatic, rabid fans of the best kind. Some particularly enthusiastic (and very drunk) fans formed their own party section to the right of our seats, in the unoccupied side part of the theater, and spent most of the show standing up and gesturing--one guy in particular from what I saw seemed to be physically acting out every song with sweeping hand and body gestures. There was much fist-pumping and head-rocking in general.
Some things I noticed as I was watching the show: it had been a while since I'd seen the band and in fact over two years since I'd seen them do the Foxtrot gig, and I had forgotten just how spare the show was. Yes, Pete used a lot of his costumes: the bat wings (but not the multi-colored cape) for "Watcher," the old man for "Musical Box," a hat I think for when he played the evil businessman in "Friday," and the typical "Supper's Ready" get-ups, including even the glowing rod at the conclusion. But this still left about half of the set with no costumes except Pete's very plain body suit, and quite a few numbers during which all he did during the whole song was stand there with his arms crossed. He did do his great flower dance in "Willow Farm," ran around the stage with his microphone pole in "Hogweed," and did some great jumping in time with Phil during the "Knife" (as in the old Genesis shows, Phil did a little hop on his drum stool and gave a sharp toot on his whistle at the same time).
Another thing that surprised me was the lack or shortness of the stories from Peter. He told a short one for "Can-Utility," and the test pressing Live version of the "Friday" story involving the love of a butterfly and a male alsatian dog. But he told absolutely no story for "Musical Box," again duplicating what is heard on the test pressing version of Live, right down to the "unaccompanied bass pedal solo from Michael Rutherford." This was disappointing as bootleg evidence shows that Peter always told a story for that song, as far back as the Nursery Cryme tour. His intros for "Hogweed" and the encores were also very short and could not really be called stories at all. In its own way this was impressive, since it meant that the band required little setup or adjustment time between songs. But I still felt as though I were missing something.
The stage itself was also about as spare as can be imagined--everything was just white. Of course this is as always authentic and identical to the original, and I don't necessarily mean it as a criticism. For one thing, the all-white stage gave the whole performance a rather other-worldly aspect, and for another it served as the perfect blank canvas on which to "paint" the resultingly intense and deep colors of the modestly impressive light show.
One player who really stood out for me at this show was Rutherford. In my past reviews he has gotten only passing comments involving the word "backbone" and not sounding too positive. This time around what I noticed the most during the show was how many times poor Mike had to change guitars--it seemed like he was constantly going over to the rack to pick another one out, and then hurriedly getting back into position to start playing again. And as always, he had to stand during the whole show. In contrast, there was Hackett sitting hunched over his small single-neck guitar, which he never seemed to swap out. Even during his blistering solo at the end of the "Knife" Hackett seemed unmoved, without any of the pinwheeling melodramatics of other guitar heroes. Actually I did feel that Hackett was not very well represented in the mixing of the show, and often I found myself straining to pick out the lead guitar from the layers of sound. Phil, as per the last few times I'd seen them, was in excellent form, precise, masterful, aggressive (perhaps a bit too aggressive during some of the quieter bits).
At the end of the regular set while we were clapping for the first encore, a guy in front of us said to his friend, "You know, we could stop clapping now, and they'd still come out and do 'The Knife.'" I'm sure he was absolutely right, and the comment showed that in one way TMB is different than the original, in that their set order is much more strict and undeviating. When these same guys in front of us realized the band were going to play an unheard-of (for old-time Genesis, anyway) second encore of "Salmacis," one of them said: "Oh, this is too much!" After the show, my brother agreed with my description of the set before the show had started: it was an ideal live set for fans of this period of Genesis. For my brother it was all of his favorite Genesis epics played one after the other--he could hardly believe that they could finish "Supper" and then go almost immediately into a rousing "Hogweed," or blast the audience with "The Knife" and then come back on for the opus "Salmacis." For me also this is an ideal picture of at least the Foxtrot-era Genesis, with "Can-Utility" and "Supper" sharing the same set (something that never happened to my knowledge in the real band's history). I am also getting over my initial qualms about the historical inaccuracy of a live "Salmacis."
The Seventh Time (Selling England, 27 October 2006)
It was only one week after that previous great show at the Tower that I excitedly left work early to get home in time to get to Sayreville with my wife. By this time it was definite from several official internet sources that Phil, Mike and Tony were going to go on tour. As I was driving home thinking of this, it seemed to me that all things were for the best in this best of all possible worlds. It was raining as my wife and I set out, but we managed to arrive early (for what I think may be the only time in our concert-going careers), and joined the line of people standing and waiting outside in the cold and wet because the club had not yet opened their doors. Fortunately there was an awning above our heads so we weren't actually rained on. Outside in the line I got to overhear the conversations of other fans discussing the band a little and also related bands like Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. This show in particular gave me a real sense of the community of Genesis fans out there, meeting one another and swapping stories. I'm not much of a concert-goer for whatever reason, so I'm still learning the ins and outs of the lifestyle.
Coming to the Starland was in a way like coming full circle, back to our first TMB show at the TLA. The Starland is a tiny little club with a big bar, out in the middle of a fairly rural part of New Jersey which seems filled with tractor factories and agricultural schools. The club itself did not have anything resembling a seat in the main area, so we were back to standing for the whole show again (just like Mike Rutherford!), and having to deal with particularly drunk people at particularly close range. What made this experience different--and so much better--than the TLA was our timing. Not only were we there early, but we made our way immediately to the general admission area and did not go back to stare at the merchandise on display or to purchase any beers. As a result, my wife and I got some of the best spots in the house: front and center, just one row of people back from the stage. I have never been this close to musicians at a live show before, and it was very exhilarating. Also, while I found standing in one constricted spot very tiring (my job involves sitting at a desk all day), I felt much more free about banging my head and rocking to the music than when I am stuck sitting in a theater seat.
There are, of course, disadvantages to the small club venue, and of arriving early and having to save your really good spot up front. The venue was too small, it seemed, or perhaps just not equipped to permit the band to use the slide show that usually accompanies the Selling England performance. This I didn't really miss as much as I would have thought, though, because it's always been kind of hard to make out or pay much attention to the slides anyway; and I had seen them before. As for our earliness: the time on our tickets said 7:30. While we were waiting outside, I heard a guy talking on his cell phone saying "Yeah, I think the show starts at 9 and runs to 11." I thought, "He can't be talking about this show--he must be talking about something else." I had had experiences before with the band starting late, but I thought that even with their usual tardiness the show would start by 8. Well, I guess this just shows my real ignorance of tiny club shows like this where there is a bar involved. We actually did all have to stand around for an hour and a half before TMB took the stage. This is less the band's fault and more a result of the Starland wanting to sell lots of drinks to people.
They certainly were successful in that respect. My wife and I met a pair of drunken men, one of whom I think may have been trying to hit on my wife before she introduced me to him. Fortunately the guy decided after a couple of minutes of inane drunk talk that we were uninteresting and commenced talking with his older and possibly drunker buddy. I believe they left not too long into the show, possibly having imbibed a bit too much in the long interval before the music started. I don't think they were the only ones who had to retire early. Also at the big finale to "Supper's Ready," a big guy and his very drunk girlfriend shoved their way next to us. She managed to hold onto him and stay on her feet until the show was over, and also did not puke on us, which was nice.
There were also plenty of die hard fans there who provided some interesting conversation before the show began. I overheard talk of the big reunion news, as well as confirmation of the earlier rumors I'd heard about TMB breaking up in the near future. Most people there understandably were against the idea of a three-piece reunion, one going even so far as to say that Genesis was not Genesis without Peter. This seems to be the crux around which most of the reunion talk revolves. I don't see the point in it myself: I had always assumed that if there ever was a reunion it would not involve Peter, and that in all likelihood it would be a best-of tour, and I'm OK with that: anything that will let me finally see the real thing live.
A few amusing fellows behind us decided that they should call for "Sussudio" or perhaps "Groovey Kind of Love." One excited guy was calling for "Hogweed" almost before we had gotten to our spot in the crowd (he was, of course, disappointed). I had to remind some other guys who probably could only remember from having seen the real thing over thirty years ago that the song during which Peter wears his flower mask is "Supper's Ready." There was a woman standing right next to us who had gotten interested in old Genesis from having it recommended to her by fellow Yes fans. She was an avid concert-goer, had seen Yes more than once as well as a Pink Floyd and a Queen cover band, and had managed to sneak a digital camera in with her in one of the pockets of the absurdly large bag she'd brought with her into the club (the bouncer outside specifically warned us all about bringing cameras in, but for some reason said there was no problem with cell phones, even though nowadays most of those include a camera anyway). She took many, many pictures throughout the course of the show, all without a flash (which is the only reason I can think of that it would annoy the musicians anyway); since she seems to take pictures at concerts often, I assume she knew what she was doing and that the pictures actually came out. Some of them are probably already on the internet as I write this (it is now one day after the concert).
I had the kind of opposite musical route from hers, as I had only started listening to Yes after having heard that they sounded like 70s Genesis. She kept saying that she had heard these guys were good and so wanted to see them. I gave her an idea of the set they'd be playing, and as I did this I was doing some arithmetic in my head and realized that I was about to see the Musical Box for the seventh time. It's kind of weird that I felt like more of an expert than a lot of the guys there who had seen the real thing.
A few other notes about the audience members before I get to the actual show (this review is particularly long because I have just seen the show and my memories of it are still very clear). Right in front of us and leaning on the dividing low fence between us and the stage was a tough-looking fellow in a leather vest. He had saved a spot for his girlfriend, who eventually arrived not long before the show started. Before the show started I thought he was kind of a jerk, but by the time it was over I felt a sort of camaraderie for him. He was an expert finger-pointer: whenever there was a part in a song where Peter had to point his finger in the air, this guy was there too. He even matched some of the other hand gestures. Like many in the audience, he knew all the words.
Off well to our right and also leaning casually against the divider was a wide-bodied man with glasses and a bushy gray beard and mustache who, I told my wife, looked exactly like the real band's current manager, Tony Smith. Every time I looked over at him (and I looked over at him many times), I had to keep reminding myself that it was very unlikely that Tony would fly all the way over from England just to see a Genesis cover band play a tiny club in New Jersey. Also, though I tried to restrain myself since I knew it was futile, I still ended up yelling out "Harold the Barrell!" once.
Anyway. To the show. I was a bit afraid that being that close to the band would make me see some rough edges, the flaws in Peter's costumes or something. Not at all: it was fantastic. There were plenty of occasions where Pete looked into the audience and was almost looking right at me, and of course when he did his "Now, now, now!" bit at the end of "Musical Box," he was leaning right at us to get over the flashing light. Peter was so close to the people at the front row that one guy was sure he was going to get a concussion from a stabbing microphone pole in "The Knife," and leaned his body away when it swiped at him.
The performance was spot-on, killer. I was a bit disappointed that they did not do "More Fool Me," as they had done previously, but "Horizons" saved my opinion of Hackett. Having noticed all the work Rutherford was doing in the last show, I got the idea that the Hackett clone was not really pulling his weight. Every time I looked over at him during the first few numbers, he didn't seem to be doing anything at all, whereas Rutherford was strumming away, switching guitars, and being strapped into his big double-necker by a roadie (in the roadie department, I found it amusing that Peter seemed to almost have a personal assistant at the Starland in the form of a dark-haired girl who walked out on stage a few times to adjust things around him and could be seen running after him after he walked off-stage at one point). At the beginning of "Cinema Show," it was Rutherford who played the opening guitar melody. I had always thought that Hackett played this bit, and couldn't remember how it had been at other TMB shows. I pretty much concluded at that point that this Hackett guy didn't really know his part fully, and Rutherford was picking up the slack. Did he even deserve to be wearing that strawberry-sleeved jacket, I wondered?
I was understandably interested in seeing what would happen when "Firth of Fifth" came along. The first wonderful thing that happened was the piano intro. I remember the first time I saw TMB that Tony did play this bit, but that there were a few awkward notes in it. Even the real Tony had had this problem, and both TMB and Genesis in the past had shown some hesitation and slowness in starting the main song at the end of the intro. However, that night Tony played his intro perfectly (fighting against what I believe was a somewhat out-of-tune mellotron), and then to my astonishment the full band jumped into the song without missing a beat. That blew me away--it was just perfect. Then I waited for Hackett's big guitar solo. It was perfectly fine, and he played it in the standard manner, no problem. Unfortunately he did once again suffer from not being loud enough in the mix that night. But then after a typically awesome "Musical Box" I was shocked to hear him break into the opening notes of "Horizons," which he played perfectly. My confidence in him was restored.
Some highlights: "Moonlit Knight" sounded great, the instrumental ending of "Cinema" was fantastic (though it was annoying that they did not properly end the song as the real band did on this tour, but petered out instead--the same problem that flawed their Lamb re-creation), Peter's old man acting was wonderfully lascivious at the end of "Box," and all of his stage acrobatics during "Epping Forest" were very fun to watch. "Forest" is a tough song in particular for Peter, which I think may be why the real band did not play it much as the Selling England tour progressed. Not only does Peter have to switch between multiple costumes for all the different characters he portrays, and run around the stage at the end and the beginning with his martial microphone pole, but his singing duties are very difficut. He has to sing many words very rapidly. This Peter (much like the real one) was not totally up to the task, and I think this Peter's vocal range is naturally higher than is needed for this song (whereas the real Peter is I think more suited to a slightly lower range and so might have felt more comfortable singing, for instance, the "Reverend" section). Still, I'm glad they performed the song as it is a great one for costumes and playacting, and a great showpiece for the instrumental power and cohesiveness of the band.
As for "Supper," it was as amazing as ever, especially Tony's fantastic solo in the "Apocalypse" section, before the "666" line kicks in. We got to see the full effect of the finale, as Peter lowered his black light (or whatever) rod down over himself, until it looked like his entire body was glowing from within. The audience loved it, and it didn't seem long at all before the band were back on for "The Knife."
Interesting to note that in Peter's story before "Supper," he plays with Phil to get the drum beat right and then sings the actual words to the "Jerusalem Boogie." This is in contrast to the Foxtrot story of the previous week, where Peter whistled the piece without any rhythm accompaniment. (Peter actually told two different versions of the "Supper" story for the two different shows, representing the way it was told and performed during the two different tours. How's that for accuracy?) After the "Boogie," Pete and Phil shake hands--it was great to see the little dynamic between the two of them, and how throughout the show they would give little sly looks at each other.
It's possible that this may be the last TMB show I ever see, at least in this form. In a way I think it was appropriate, since as I said I feel like I've come full circle with the shows I've seen them do. Seeing them so close up was a real treat. I just don't think they could get any better at doing what they do than they are now. If they do quit doing the Gabriel-era material, I hope it is with the feeling that they are quitting at the top of their game. When the lights came up after "Knife," it was impossible to disagree with the Yes fan and photographer standing next to us, who said simply: "Wow! That was good!!"