For many in the packed audience for the Neal Morse Band’s April 6 concert in Birmingham, England, the fact that Neal’s one of the leaders of the nonconformist City on a Hill Church in Nashville will be almost completely unknown.
Another name unknown to most of them is that of Kerry Livgren, who is a member of Topeka Bible Church in Kansas.
But play them Kerry’s best-known composition (from 1976!), and every single one of them would know the words.
His prog-rock anthem, “Carry On Wayward Son,” was a huge hit for Kansas all over the world and has cropped up in several films in the decades since.
So what’s Livgren’s song got to do with Morse playing his new album, based on the story of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” in England to a capacity audience made up almost exclusively of nonbelievers?
Well, Morse and his minstrels probably wouldn’t be able to walk this particular road had it not been for Livgren finding his Christian faith while at the top of his fame with Kansas, going on to make it all right, cool even, to be a Christian in a prog-rock band – going on to record entire albums that drew on that faith.
Because he too found his Christian faith at the top of his game (while with the hugely influential band, Spock’s Beard), Morse has trodden the path made smooth by Livgren. And hasn’t he made the most of it?
Recording entire suites around his faith, producing along the way astonishing albums like “Sola Scriptura” (based on the life of Martin Luther), Morse has gotten to the point where he has a vast back catalog to draw on, both secular and sacred, from his involvement with Spock’s Beard, Flying Colors and Transatlantic.
And he doesn’t play a note of it, until the one encore tune. Not a single song.
And the amazing thing is that no one seems to mind a bit.
So they play the contents of their new album, “The Similitude of a Dream,” from start to finish, in full.
The name comes from the subtitle of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” written by a jailed John Bunyan in 1678, in which he tells an old story in a radically new way for an audience who didn’t all share his very public faith, which was what got him jailed in the first place.
Appropriate then, that Morse should do exactly the same, more than 300 years later, as he reinterprets Bunyan’s story for a new audience in a similarly radical way.
Morse and his band nail it, every last song from the album, in the right order. They pause for breath with a 15-minute interval, but then immediately come roaring back with “Slave to Your Mind.”
The night’s performance rips along, with Morse playing characters in a way that no one has since the heady days of Gabriel (Peter, not the angel) dressed as a flower. Masks and all, one character dressed in white, another in black, hooded.
The band members are no slouches either; you have the feeling that in this band you know you need to get it right, every night.
So Eric Gillette is superbly understated on guitar, bass legend Randy George lays down a rock-solid foundation along with drumming superstar Mike Portnoy while Bill Hubauer (sporting a natty bow tie and country house waistcoat combo in the first set) ensures that the keyboard lines are kept fully intact as Morse himself switches rapidly between lead and acoustic guitars, plus keyboards and vocals.
It’s almost redundant to single out individual songs, as the whole point of the exercise is that it forms a single, seamless narrative, following the story of Pilgrim.
There’s raging intensity (“The Man in the Iron Cage”), the string-led (“Long Day”) and all-out worship (“Freedom Song”) with drumming icon Portnoy on (no, really) tambourine at the front of the stage.
And everything in between with animations and specially shot film and images to help the story along in the minds who aren’t familiar with it. Our photographer at the gig genuinely wasn’t, and he left the venue saying, “Wow – what a story that is!”
The tour is titled “The Road Called Home.” That’s entirely appropriate, given that Livgren found his way on to that road too, laying the way for those who would follow, amazing musicians with a Christian faith, which they convey with authenticity and verve while inviting the whole audience to be fully part of a breath-taking live event.
Neal Morse and his band of pilgrims have much to thank the wayward son for.
And so does the audience in Birmingham, who little realized that their night’s wonderful musical performance is based on the faith of not one, but two of America’s standout nonconformist Christian musicians. If only they knew.
Mark Craig is director of communications at BMS World Mission in England. He’s a regular commentator on the intersection of Christianity and rock music.