The show was packed with life-long rock fans, and many had seen the best bands around. Some had been queuing for hours to get a good place in the sold-out venue. Word was that some had been to each of the four UK gigs on this tour.
As the show began, the crowd was animated. Along with the obligatory dry ice, the screen behind the stage was showing an impressionistic video of a man setting out on a journey. So constant were the energy and excitement of the music that the band didn’t do their first “Hello” from the stage until fifteen minutes into the second set.
At the end, the crowd reaction was ecstatic.
What was the show about, to have created such a rapturous atmosphere?
It was, er, Christian allegory from over three hundred years ago: The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Even trying to sell that idea to a Christian record company might be somewhat hopeful, and getting a large crowd of men from outside the Church to turn up would be an outstanding leap of faith.
So what Neal Morse has achieved with his band on this recent tour is, putting it mildly, quite remarkable.
But this has not come out of the blue. With his brother, he co-founded Spock’s Beard, the band that – along with Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree – led the 1990’s wave of prog rock. Since he came to faith and left them, Morse has consistently put out blatantly Christian work – often with somewhat esoteric themes.
The album ? (yes, that’s actually the title) dealt with God’s glory. It began with the tabernacle and ended with how, by God’s Spirit living inside us, we can become “the temple of the living God”. One dealt with how the relationship with God was broken in Eden and how Jesus’ death and resurrection can re-unite a fragmented world. Sola Scriptura was about Martin Luther.
Morse is a collaborator. In his solo work, he has always had the rhythm section of Randy George on bass and Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy on drums. But he and Portnoy have also been part of two prog super-groups: Transatlantic and, more recently Flying Colours, which includes Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse (no relation).
When The Prog Report listed its top 50 tracks over the 25-year period from 1990, Morse was involved in 8 tracks from the top 38. In describing “The Light,” the song based on a Neal Morse demo and listed in second spot, they commented that “The song became the launching point for one of the most prolific careers in progressive rock.”
Morse began that career early, with help from his family. “We were encouraged, sure,” he told me before the show that climaxed this year’s European tour. “My Dad was teaching us to sing madrigals when we were very young. I learned to sing quite elaborate harmonies, actually, at a very young age. I got used to hearing all those parts moving and that definitely was an influence.
“We were a musical family. There are sports families; we were a music family. And there was so much music around: not just my Dad’s concerts, but my uncle was in a group called the High-lows – a jazz vocal group – and all the music that was going on in the world at the time. Music was really at the forefront, it seems, of the culture. It was wonderful.”
When I asked what made him go a step further and form a band, he exclaimed, “Oh, well!” as if to say, “Who wouldn’t?!” adding, “There is a big difference between [wanting to] and really doing it, so I tagged along. I saw some great bands early on and started writing music when I was in my early teens. I decided pretty early on, yeah, I was going to go for it.”
Because his brothers were older, they took him to gigs, such as Yes opening for Black Sabbath. That’s got to be pretty seminal for a twelve year old. So many other British bands caught his imagination, and he ended up playing keys for one English rock journeyman, Eric Burdon.
But higher influences shaped his life once he had formed Spock’s Beard. One of the key moments in his spiritual journey was the healing of his daughter Jayda, who was born with a hole in her heart. After much prayer, and Morse’s wife presenting Jayda to God on Mother’s Day in 1998, her heart problems vanished.
Given that the healing came after a church service, I wondered what else had been leading up to that moment. Likening it to book-of-the-moment Pilgrims’ Progress, Morse explained that he, “didn’t just walk into church, say, ‘Hallelujah, here’s my life,’” but it was a process, “Over the course of about five years, slowly putting my toe in the water, going in ankle deep and then ultimately diving in.”
Experiencing the Holy Spirit was one big factor, as was, “Praying, ‘Jesus, if you’re real, help me get off the road.’ I was playing keyboards in the Eric Burdon Band and after a while I really wanted to be home, because my kids were little. I felt like I was damaging them by leaving. So I got down on my knees at a hotel room in Boston, like ‘Jesus if you’re real, would you help me get off the road?’
“A couple of weeks later, I got a fax from Metal Blade Records. They wanted to licence all our older records and they made us an offer for our newer records. It wasn’t that much money, but I took it as a sign from God. I stepped out in faith and I quit my job with Eric – which was the first really decent-paying job in music that I had had – ever, really. It was a really big leap of faith.
“I was in Germany somewhere at the time that Jayda was healed. I heard about it on the phone and I didn’t want to believe it at first, because I didn’t want to fall for something that was not true; I was afraid to get my hopes up and have them dashed. But, as you know, the hole in her heart did close up in a miraculous way. And that was a big step.
“And then there was a moment in church at the altar, where I felt like God was calling me and I just felt like it was time to jump in all the way and give my life.”
It is testament to his musical skill that many music fans write on forums that, although there is plenty of faith in the lyrics, the music is great. That approach – work excellently, wear your faith proudly, and leave the rest to God – is such a strong model for Christian professionals that I wondered whether he considers himself more a musician or a missionary?
“That’s an interesting question! I guess they’re just right in there together. Once somebody called themselves a musicianary,” he recalled, laughing. “I don’t know; missionary sometimes has connotations to it. I like to think of this as a big kind of sharing: sharing of music, of spiritual things; of the good things of God and what he can take you from and where he can take you to. A lot of it’s storytelling and testimonies. When I get to the end of Similitude and I start singing ‘Broken Sky,’ I think, ‘OK, now I’m testifying to you,’ which is a fancy way of saying, ‘I’m going to tell my story.’”
That story is so personal to him and it has come out in various ways. Sola Scriptura, his somewhat strident take on Martin Luther’s reformation story, offended some Catholics. But lately, he has become less preachy and more invitational.
“Sure, each season of life I feel to do something a little bit different. When I came out of Spock’s, I really felt like I wanted to give my testimony very clearly; I was tired of mincing my words. I wanted to tell people what ‘love beyond words’ was.
Now I somehow have understanding
Like I’ve never had before in my life
Do you know what that’s like?
I think you know what it’s like, to love beyond words
“But later on, like with the ? album, it’s cool: God hides things. In Psalms, it says, ‘It’s the glory of God to hide things and it’s the pursuit of kings to seek them out.’ So I think it’s also cool to hint at things and not give everything away.
“The great thing about music is it’s the language of the heart, so you can bypass the brain. That’s what we all love about it, I believe. There’s this heart thing that we can’t explain, just from notes being played and you just feel something. That’s what movie soundtracks are all about: the feeling, all this emotion, whatever it is – fear, love, all of it. I pray. I hope that people receive good from what we’re doing.”
This is part 1 of a ‘director’s cut’ version of my 2017 interview with Neal Morse, parts of which were used in The Church of England Newspaper and the Phantom Tollbooth e-zine. Part 2 has less story and more about the music.