Liquid Tension Experiment – Chicago, IL 6/25/08
June 25th, 2008
When you go to a concert to see a band you really enjoy, your hope of course is that everyone plays great, and they play your favorite songs, right? Just meeting that simple criteria would have most concert goers leaving the venue with a smile. However, every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to witness a live performance that goes beyond your hopes and expectations; something unique and special. A one-of-kind gig, the likes of which may never happen again. Such was the case when I saw Liquid Tension Experiment on Wednesday, June 25th at the Park West in Chicago. Had the show gone off without a hitch, I’m sure I still would have loved it, and would have been raving about it afterwards. There was a hitch however – a big one. But that hitch turned out to be the catalyst that pushed this already amazing show into that category of unique and special. More on the hitch later – first some background.
Liquid Tension Experiment is one of the great modern-day progressive rock super groups. Featuring John Petrucci on guitar, Mike Portnoy on drums, Jordan Rudess on keyboards, and Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick, the group recorded two excellent albums in the late 90s; Liquid Tension Experiment (1998 – Magna Carta), and Liquid Tension Experiment 2 (1999 – Magna Carta). Petrucci, Portnoy, and Rudess are members of the prog-metal band Dream Theater (though Rudess was not yet in that band when LTE first formed), and Levin is a prog-rock legend who has played and recorded with King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, and countless others. Last year, a third recording was released under the name Liquid Trio Experiment entitled Spontaneous Combustion (Magna Carta). This album features completely improvised jams that Portnoy, Rudess, and Levin recorded during the making of the second Liquid Tension Experiment album in late 1998, after Petrucci had to leave the sessions early to be with his wife who had gone into labor. The band played some gigs in 1998 and 1999, but that was it. It seemed like this great prog-rock project had come and gone.
Then, late last year it was announced that LTE were reforming to play the NEARFest Progressive Rock Festival in Bethlehem, PA in June of 2008. I live near Chicago, and was considering driving out to Pennsylvania to see this can’t-miss performance. Turns out I didn’t have to. The group decided to book some more dates, and turn the NEARFest show into the first gig of a short 10th Anniversary reunion tour. Luckily for me, the third stop on this tour was the Park West in Chicago, IL.
When I arrived about 30 minutes before the doors opened, my heart sank – the line was already around the corner and halfway down the block. Would I be able to get a good spot once inside? No problem; despite the huge line I still ended up pretty close to the stage. Shortly after 7:30pm, Flight of the Valkyries starts playing over the PA as video screens slowly drop on either side of the stage. When the band finally walked out, the crowd went insane. Their opening song was Acid Rain – one of my favorites. Petrucci uses a seven string for this song, making it extra-heavy. Levin had the Chapman Stick, and was fascinating to watch right from the start. Rudess’ rig consisted of a single keyboard – a Roland Fantom G8. It was mounted on a rotating platform of sorts, and he would often spin around to face a different direction. I actually thought he was a little buried in the mix from where I was standing, but I could still hear him. Petrucci’s solo in this first tune was incredible. He’s one of the few players who’s alternate-picking speed rivals that of the late Shawn Lane, in my opinion. When the first song ended, the crowd again went bananas. The band also played Kindred Spirits – a strong riff-based tune, Biaxident – a piano-heavy piece that featured some great work on the keys by Rudess, and Freedom of Speech – a song that starts out quite low-key and melodic, before building into some uber-heavy James Bondesque riffs. Levin used a regular 5-string bass on a couple of these tunes. Petrucci and Rudess also played the duet State of Grace while Levin sat in front of his amp and snapped a few pictures.
Group improvisation is one of this band’s strong points. Both of their albums include long improvised pieces, and the Liquid Trio Experiment songs were entirely improvised in the studio. The band’s first foray into this area during the show were some long jams leading into Another Dimension, the highlight of which was Levin’s Stick playing. The amount of music he can create on that instrument is amazing.
On to the hitch I mentioned earlier. Maybe an hour into the show, after the band finished Universal Mind, it was obvious something was wrong with Rudess’ keyboard. He spent a couple of minutes trying to fix the problem, before finally saying something to Portnoy and leaving the stage. Portnoy, in his comical showman way, told the crowd one of the things this band loves to do is improvise, even when they don’t plan on it such as when the keyboard rig goes down. He informed us that the rest of group were going to jam awhile until they got the thumbs-up from Rudess that the keyboard was good to go. Well guess what… that thumbs-up never came. The trio of Levin, Petrucci, and Portnoy spent the next hour improvising through a wide range of grooves and moods. Blues, heavy riffs, atmospheric stuff, crazy experimental stuff, you name it. I’d say if anyone was the leader here, it was Levin. Oftentimes it would be his riff or groove that would start the jam, then Portnoy and Petrucci would build on it and change it’s direction. It was a fascinating thing to see. Group improv is something normally associated with jazz or fusion, or jam-band groups like Phish or Umphrey’s McGee. To hear it done in a heavy prog-rock context by players of this caliber was remarkable. Levin used both the Stick and his bass during these jams; and even whipped out his famous miniature finger drumsticks (known as funk fingers) a few times to attack the bass strings. Petrucci was very impressive during these jams. Yes, he did a ton of shredding, but he also displayed some great blues and jazzy chops during certain sections. He also had a keen sense of when to back down and throw in some clean chordal stuff. Occasionally, Portnoy would chat with the crowd to make sure we were all still on-board (everyone was). He mentioned at one point that he hoped someone was bootlegging this, since this could be their next album. Rudess came back out a few times to check some things on the keyboard, but it was no use. He was out of the picture completely, or so it seemed. There came a point where Portnoy said they could only play for another ten minutes. The show had already lasted about 2 hours by this time. So they launched into what would apparently be their final jam. Had the show ended that way, it would have been seen by all in attendance as an amazing gig, I’m sure. But a few minutes later, something happened that pushed the evening even further over the edge. Rudess walked out and went right up to Petrucci while he was shredding his brains out. He said a few words to him then asked if he could play his guitar. Petrucci took off his guitar, handed it to Rudess, and watched as Rudess – who moments before was the fallen band member – became the hero who stole the show. Rudess stood right at the front of the stage and wailed. The crowd went cock-eyed stinking nuts. Everyone was screaming their heads off as a sea of cell phone cameras were thrust into the air to capture this rare moment. Levin then handed his bass to Petrucci and picked up his Stick. Now I’m watching Liquid Tension Experiment with Jordan Rudess on guitar, John Petrucci on bass, Tony Levin on Chapman Stick, and Mike Portnoy on drums. What a amazingly cool thing to see. After awhile, the instruments changed hands again with Portnoy taking over the bass while Charlie Benante from Anthrax (apparently there to take in the show) played drums, Petrucci played guitar once again, and Levin played the Stick.
When all this incredible music came to an end, more than 2 hours after it began, Portnoy said a few words to thank the crowd then handed the mic to Rudess who explained his keyboard situation. Apparently, the Roland had freaked out, and every fourth key was playing up about a half-step. He was unable to fix the problem, so he had called Roland in Japan while he was backstage, and they were stumped too! The audience cheered when he mentioned there was a high-profile meeting taking place in Japan at that very moment to figure out what was wrong with his keyboard. I’m sure Rudess was none-too-happy when his keyboard freaked out, and I certainly would have liked to hear him play more that night, but I have to call it like I see it – it was a blessing in disguise.
I was looking forward to hearing Paradigm Shift (a popular LTE song which I’m sure they would have played), and the prog version of Rhapsody in Blue they had arranged for this tour. Was I disappointed that I didn’t get to hear those songs? Not at all. What I got to see and hear instead was so cool, the stuff they weren’t able to get to didn’t matter. This unforgettable gig turned out to be a very special treat for those lucky enough to attend. I’ve read that the show they played two days later in Downey, California was filmed for a possible DVD release. If and when that DVD comes out, it will be at the top of my most-wanted list.