Dream Theater Astonishes Royal Oak Music Theater with The Astonishing Live

by Brian Kuhn on May 3, 2016
Electric Award
Electric Award

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Fresh off their latest album release, “The Astonishing,” Dream Theater have embarked on a world tour in support of the album performing it in it’s entirety and ONLY that. Fans can expect to not hear “Pull Me Under” at any stop, the band wants to put emphasis on the experience of the story, stage show, full production, and the old fashioned concert experience before the advent of modern cell phone cameras.

I’m a confident shooter. I have a silver tongue and a give ’em hell attitude. Having done this around many bands, I’ve grown somewhat immune to being “starstruck” but little did I know, there are few exceptions to that. The five members of Dream Theater will always have the ability to do that to me and when taking on this assignment, little did I know that it would go on to be some of the most stressful 15 minutes of my life. Photographing your musical idols tends to have that effect on you.

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After 5 hours in the car, which I was late for the 5:30 Meet & Greet Roll Call, I arrived in Detroit to a sold out line of the Royal Oak Music Theater and the giant marquee that dedicated one entire side to “DREAM THEATER,” I began to get a little nervous. I wasn’t permitted to shoot photos during the Meet & Greet, which was pretty standard; You fall in line to jump in a group shot with the band, then again to meet each member and have a small word and they sign two items each. My strategy was to stay at the back of the line to talk to them longer. Each member was nicer than the last. My most notable conversation was with guitarist John Petrucci. John has, like myself, a very large and define viking style beard. He made it a point to talk beard oils with me, recommend one (which was “Captain Faucett’s Million Dollar Beard Oil,” prime with flakes of 23k Gold in it) then he proceeded to sign his signature with “Beard Brother” and draw a beard on the NOMAC on my poster. Drummer Mike Mangini made it a point to invite me back to the bus after the show to sign items I forgot because I was late. As expected, Bassist John Myung was very soft spoken. It’s well known to fans that John tends to keep very to himself. The best I could come up with was apologizing for interrupting his rigorous practice schedule  and tell him not to drink the water in Detroit. Vocalist James LaBrie was surprised that I wasn’t approved for the Cincinnati show and said he’d look forward to an interview if I was granted one. Finally, The Wizard himself, Mr. Jordan Rudess was as pleasant in person as he always appears on his social media. After the Meet and Greet ended, I returned my signed items to my car and prepared myself for the shoot and show.

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The inside of the venue itself was beautiful. The lobby housed the bands merchandise stand and a NOMAC, musical flying drone from the album, that would take your picture, assign you a name and a side of the story (rebellion or empire). Signs everywhere made it VERY clear that there was to be absolutely no photos or video. The security was enforcing this heavily as I witnessed on several occasions people being forced to delete images from their phones. I understand the reasoning behind the policy, but on this particular night, there were far more distracting things than phones, namely the waitresses that would patrol the isles and take beer requests, sometimes shouting over everybody. One that note, let’s talk about the shoot and show.

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Because of the nature of the album, production and overall stage setup, contrary to previous Dream Theater shoots, this was a “Front of House” shoot. For those unaware, this means the photographer has to shoot from the back of the theater, next to the Front of House soundboard for 15 minutes, which is roughly 3 songs. This clearly requires your camera lenses to have reach. Luckily I did my homework and came prepared with two long lenses. Call time was 8:05 P.M. and that was the moment the band went on, as punctual as always. The lights died to dialogue that wasn’t present on the album and made way to the Decent of the NOMAC’s. The drone-like music machines filled the large LED panels on the backdrop of the stage to overlook the crowd and make way to the Overture.

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Those who know Dream Theater know the amount of precision and technical tenacity that comes with their performances and this night was no different short of a few notable instances which I will discuss later but right now I want to firmly express that The Astonishing Live is easily one of the most impressive stage productions I’ve ever seen, almost surpassing TOOL for me. Between the dynamic lighting covering every inch of the stage, to the highly detailed and synchronized visuals on the LED panels. If you went into this show not understanding the story of The Astonishing, you were visually told with the music. More than anything, if you didn’t like the music, there isn’t any possible way you could find anything to critique about the production value of the show. With that said, a strong production is nothing without the grace of the band performing with it.

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Of the entire two sets of music (The band would perform Act 1, there was then a 15 Minute Intermission, then Act 2) the band was pin point and precise as they were on the studio recording. Mike Mangini was exceptionally entertaining because it genuinely looked like he was having a blast behind the kit, which is contrary to some of his recent criticisms of being emotionless. I can say that I have at least a dozen shots from this show where he has a huge smile on his face. Rudess, Myung and Petrucci were equally as on point, especially when a bulk of the performance of the night falls on JP and JR. I couldn’t hear a single note missed by either and Petrucci’s extended solo at the end of Act 1 during “A New Beginning” made me feel like I was watching the hidden psycho exercise tapes from days past. My head felt like it was going to explode. It was also quite nice to hear John Myung be audible on stage vs. his low volume on the album. This can also be said about Mangini. I found myself hearing things Mangini was doing that isn’t audible on the album, even my FLAC copy. This only leaves me to talk about James LaBrie which, not to trivialize what the rest of the band is doing, arguably has the most difficult job in sonically portraying 13 different characters on stage over the course of the story of The Astonishing. Short of 1 minor issue, James was on point everywhere, even on the particularly difficult notes. Each character was distinct, had a unique personality, and James was perfect at every dynamic of the performance, it was really quite amazing. Having said that, the one issue I found was not of vocal tone, but timing. One of the most difficult vocal cues on the album comes from the song “Three Days” where James has to come in immediately after a particularly chaotic instrumental section with the vocal cue being a single bar of four 16th notes played on the snare by Mangini. There’s less than a second of time for this. Live, James prepared himself for this by simply holding the mic with his eyes closed and was focusing on this cue but Mangini decided to play 16th note TRIPLETS instead, which is more notes over the same time and more difficult to count. As a result, I don’t think James was ready for this change and missed the cue which was followed by him turning around and looking at Mike after it happened. This didn’t derail the band, nor did it affect the performance, but I went into this show specifically watching to see if this cue would be hit, and it wasn’t.

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After the show ended, I made my way to the back of the building to meet the band at the bus. Unsurprisingly, John Myung was the first to exit the building at least an hour before any other member and he still made it a point to come over to the few of us standing there to sign and pose for pictures. After about an hour, Jordan came back and walked straight over to me to talk to me and ask how the pictures were, which resonated with me because it tells me I was memorable from the Meet & Greet. He the posed for me for a quick headshot and greeted the rest of the fans. Petrucci was the next to exit whom ALSO came over to me to ask about the images and pose for a headshot with Mangini doing the same. The last to exit was James who, after two hours of us waiting, commended how much of troopers the few of us were for being out there in the cold. This says a lot about the integrity of the band. no matter how big these guys get, they’re humble enough to come talk to a few of us at their bus after their long show at midnight. Many other bands should take notes here.

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Now that the dust has settled and I’m back in Ohio, I’ve had time to reflect on the show. It’s easily one of the best concert experiences I’ve been to. From the stage show, to the musical performance to the humble and welcoming attitude of the band members, it overall was something I won’t forget. I emplore you to catch one of the few remaining shows in North America. Before I sign off, I’d like to give special thanks to both Violet Alfrey of Bullet Images and George Peyton of Lost or Forgotten Photography for entrusting me with their super long lenses for this show. I needed them.

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