Ticket prices for the first nine rows had dropped from over $300 and $187 down to $62.50, which is what the regular floor seats had cost. There were only 1,100 fans in the 1,649-seat venue, with many fans likely turned off by the initially high ticket prices.
It was a mixed crowd. The progressive rock nerds and hippie fans were out in force. They'd shown up to see Zappa Plays Zappa, the band led by Dweezil Zappa that plays Frank Zappa's music. Everyone else appeared to be Dream Theater fans.
Openers Scale The Summit were a bit of an oddity with two lead guitarists, a bassist and a drummer but no lead singer or keyboardist. Keyboards are usually de rigeur for progressive rock bands. Fortunately, they were quite entertaining with their tight, intricate instrumentals. They were also surprisingly adept and earned standing ovations from some people. I thought they looked like they were barely out of their teens.
Next up were a strange-looking group, the oddly named Bigelf. They were mostly bearded and looked as if they'd survived living in a swamp since in the '70s. Lead singer Damon Fox played two keyboards and wore a top hat that would have made Slash proud. They had a heavy sound, but weren't overly loud. Imagine progressive rock mixed with Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and a bit of Jethro Tull. I wasn't crazy about these guys. As with a lot of progressive rock, for many who are only hearing it for the first time it can be difficult to follow, yielding descriptions of such music as pretentious. On the other hand, there are always magical moments, which may or may not make up for some of the genre's seemingly overindulgent, instrumental noodling.
Zappa Plays Zappa were an eight-piece band, a bit smaller than the incarnation that gave their first-ever performance at Winnipeg's Concert Hall on July 18, 2007. That was a special show, with the band playing along to synchronized video footage of Frank Zappa. This time around saw some different players, including a tall, young guy who sang the quirky vocal parts that Frank would have sang. The music of Frank Zappa can be quite busy and challenging to listen to and I fear they may have lost many in the audience who were there to see one band in particular, namely headliners Dream Theater. Still, Dweezil looked really pleased, nodding and smiling a lot to acknowledge the generous applause and standing ovations that the group received.
As I suspected, Dream Theater opened with "A Nightmare To Remember," which has opened many of their shows on this tour as well as being the first track from their new album, Black Clouds & Silver Linings.
Dream Theater can be described as Rush meets Metallica — who sometimes meets Journey. As artsy and technical as they can be, some of their music is melodic balladry stuff that seems far removed from their biggest influence, Rush, and much closer to the corporate arena rock of Journey. Lead singer James LaBrie is not a screamer and really does sing well. Drummer and band organizer/ de facto leader Mike Portnoy works a huge drum kit, with two stools. Melodic shredding guitarist John Petrucci played flawlessly but, despite his prodigious amount of talent, doesn't seem to have his own sound unlike fellow guitar gods like Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen. Of course, hardcore fans will disagree with me. Keyboardist Jordan Rudess is the other hero-worshipped virtuoso in the band. He played a couple of "instruments" that I had not even seen before. One looked like a really small laptop screen, in which he would draw his fingers on the screen, back and forth and up and down, resulting in some fast and spacey psychedelic sounds. The other instrument was a longer and wider flat panel in which he made similar actions and produced equally fascinating sounds. At one point, he dueled with guitarist Petrucci at the front of the stage, using a keytar.
While I was a bit familiar with the new album — having played it a handful of times so far — I found myself exhausted in trying to keep up with the complexity of the tunes, many of which were instrumentals. I actually thought James LaBrie would sing more than he did, but regardless, everything the group played was met with great applause. At times, LaBrie's vocals were drowned out by the sound. And while he sang really well, he didn't appear to break much of a sweat or look like he was pouring his heart into it.
At the end of the show, which finished at 12:10 am, Dream Theater made their way to the front of the stage to shake hands with the lucky few who were standing at the front. Apparently, security were only letting those sitting in the first row to stand up front. Given the number of people standing, though, I'd say it was more like the first three rows. Zappa Plays Zappa had also reached out to shake hands following their set, and Dweezil Zappa made a point of shaking hands with the very first person who left his seat for the front of the stage. It's always nice to see bands take a moment to acknowledge the fans, and there was plenty of that.
Not every band who plays the MTS Centre bothers to have big video screens so that the fans can get a great view from every seat. It's even less common to have them in the Burton Cummings Theater, but Dream Theater brought one which featured plenty of three-dimensional computer animation interspersed with live footage of the band. Some of the animation featured a cartoon version of keyboardist Rudess, complete with wizard hat, playing in unison and then even dueling together. When you consider that many of the fans in attendance are musicians and instrument fanatics, it made sense that there were close up shots of each member soloing on the big screen.
There's no doubt that Dream Theater's show will become the stuff of legend among the local community of their fans and progressive-rock fans who know of them (and I bet your average Rush fan doesn't have any DT music). The Zappa crowd was also treated to an abbreviated but dizzying display of music prowess. I do wonder, however, how long Zappa Plays Zappa can tour by playing only Frank's music. Dweezil Zappa is a composer and guitar virtuoso in his own right and I would like to see him play some of this solo material.
Dream Theater's setlist:
A Nightmare To Remember
Beyond This Life
The Count Of Tuscany
Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle