The Astonishing Live, Hippodrome Theater, Baltimore, MD
This is a review written by a lucky fan who won a fan club organized trivia contest to meet Dream Theater after the show. It’s very interesting to read the impact the show and the band has on their fans. It makes me very happy to read how much of an impact our fan club events can have on someones experience. Thank you!
Before the show
WOW! I’m not sure how to describe this event. Writing this on a piece of paper will be an adventure and I hope to do justice with my words.
I would like to start by explaining this album is much better and heavier live than it sounds on CD. Maybe I am being bias to the fact that I was really close to the speakers, or maybe because I was a few feet from John Petrucci watching mesmerized by what a human being can do with a guitar.
My concert day actually started way before the concert started. First let me explain that I have a friend (Luiz Nieves) I met thru a mutual job and yes he is a big fan of Dream Theater. This is his concert number 16. He appears on the DVD Score (if you see a guy saying “Hey I’m from Puerto Rico”, that’s him)… he knows Mike Portnoy personally and yes, he is a drummer. I stayed in touch with him through the years and we were going to meet at Pratt’s restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland before the concert. He had mentioned the fan club Dream Theater USA would be there too, so I was there to meet him and gush our love for the new album and the band. 3pm was the set time but I got there half an hour late, and he was also not there. A little shy of being in a restaurant full of people I never met and looking for an exit, I call Luiz when he says is not too far away – so I wait.
DT Fan Club organizers Victoria and Tim Martinez, both Florida residents and by a sheer coincidence are also my city neighbors broke the ice asking what guitar my son, Juliano Santana (no relation to Carlos), brings…a JP70 that he carries with all his pride and plays only Dream Theater songs (slight lie here, he also plays Metallica and Iron Maiden upon my request). Just like that and knowing we had to be at the theater by 5pm and with about 12 people by the table, Victoria suggests a trivia game: Ten questions, five from the Astonishing album and five general about the band, we are allowed to play in pairs. Surprisingly, we won this trivia game but the real surprise was the prize: two after show backstage access. WOW! This is insane!!!! And all of a sudden, my friend Luiz arrives… if he was present he would have crushed us badly. Luck or destiny? Well, we are reading the Lifting Shadows book (bands biography by Rich Wilson) and in all honesty we are competing to see who ends the book first… (Juliano is beating me by two chapters). And yes, Luiz recommended me reading this book some time ago.
We left the restaurant and headed to the Hippodrome theatre really happy and excited.
Let me set the scene: there was a small line of about 30 people. As soon we get in to the theater we sign our names, get the tour merchandise (a tote-bag, an aluminum water-bottle, a badge and a poster – all with the Astonishing art cover) and there is a table to the right with merchandising being sold. We grab our tour shirts and find a NOMAC (this one is not flying) which function is to take pictures and put us in the Astonishing world… (I wish I was put in the Ravenskill side but, still a concert picture)
On the second floor, we get into a line to get an autograph from the band, two items per person and the chance to interact with them. The rules are announced (no pictures, no recordings and no handshakes). While we were waiting in line John Petrucci yells “any Game of Thrones fans here?” and we all salute the master (season 6 started this day). Then Mike Mangini, wearing a Patriots t-shirt yells “any Patriots fans?”, and of course, some approve and some boo… nothing changes in the world of sports.
Reaching the table Petrucci is the first one to sign followed by Jordan, James LaBrie, Mangini and John Myung. My son asks for a signature in the back of his guitar when I mention “he wants to be as good as you are”, JP replies: “Cool make sure you don’t blow up your hearing on your way”. We laughed.
Afterwards there is a picture with the band and I position myself in the middle between my son and Petrucci, I say “this is my son’s first concert ever, and he wanted to be with you guys”, Petrucci replies: “WOW, thanks for coming to the show and Have fun”.
The VIP platinum experience ends here but I got the so called “Diamond” experience, which I later learned was the first time it was ever done. Ten lucky people had the chance to ask questions to Maddi, the guitar tech, and a walk thru the stage to check the bands equipment ending with a picture.
There were a lot of questions and I will post one of mine. I mentioned that by the end of “A New beginning“ the song fades away, giving the impression it was cut to fit the CD. Maddi recalls that happening in the studio and says there was not much after that but live is a bit different, and yes, he was right.
Going thru two doors, we reach the stage and the tour begins…we start at John Myung’s station which has around 15 to 20 pedals, volumes and sound effects, etc. No questions were asked. Then we go to Jordan’s station where there is a keyboard, an ipad, a synthesizer, and a camera somewhere. Maddi mentions he is not fully sure what goes there but he has this individual camera so he can watch his performance after each concert. Now, we are at the vocalist station which I see another ipad and a set list on the floor next to the stand the microphone stands. We head to Mangini’s station which I am surprised to see how small it is. Everything is really compressed and the way he likes arranged. Maddi mentions it is compressed also due to the size of the stage. I am not a drummer but there were some interesting observations here, which I will not be fair to reproduce due to my lack of understanding. At last we get to John Petrucci’s station where there are about 20 pedals, my son remembers a “wah wah” one and a volume one. Maddi and JP exchange signals thru a set of colored boards on the floor so they know what each other is doing. Behind there are 2 amplifiers Mesa Boogie JP-2C , yes John Petrucci’s signature. On the left of the stage (facing the audience), there is one more station, not visible to the public and it is Maddi’s station. This is also where all the guitar stands, a total of 10 guitars, 2 acoustic,2 JP15, 2 JP16 and 4 Majesty. He picks up the burgundy and mentions is JP’s favorite, the one he plays more often. He puts it away and picks the golden one, this is the one he sometimes plays Lord Nafaryus songs, depending on his sense of humor. Maddi also explains everything on the stage has a backup off the stage. Impressive.
It is not my intention to get into the story line of the album here, nor that it is a conceptual album about rebels fighting the emperor in a distant dystopian future. The important part is Dream Theater decided to play the entire album in this tour. This album debut as number one (Rock Billboard charts. This, in my opinion, is their best bet to remove Operation Mindcrime from the #1 spot of best conceptual albums of all time. This is also the equivalent of attending a Pink Floyd The Wall concert in the 80’s, in my opinion. Rock vanguards love saying how good Led Zeppelin concerts were back in the day, Pink Floyd in the late 70’s and early 80’s and Iron Maiden and Metallica picked up a bit of that live performance you can’t miss in the 80’s. Rush is the same way. Dream Theater is the combination of all of them put together. No exaggeration here.
A little before the concert began we are reminded that any recording is prohibited and we will be expelled if we are caught recording anything. Security guards are right next to me so I take no chances. There is a pre-recording intro to the story with flying NOMACS on the “screen” a set of panels which the story will be played on behind the band. You can see it in the stage picture above which shows the Great Northern Empire of Americas, this is where the story takes place. After the pre-recorded intro (not in the CD), “Descent of the Nomacs” starts, which is also pre-recorded and really loud. “Dystopian Overture” rocks in, as loud as you can imagine, a triumphant and epic intro, the band walks in (no LaBrie), destroying our ears unaware of how loud it was.
“The Gift of Music” comes right after, now with LaBrie running to his mic, and it is much heavier live. At the end, “The Answer” does not start right away as the album suggests and there is a small break to change guitars and catch a breath. The quality of the sound is impeccable, yes, JP warned us to protect our beloved ears earlier on.
I am not sure if it was on “Brother, Can You Hear Me?” or “A Life Left Behind” but LaBrie chokes, and says “Sorry, I choke my spit”, which was a funny and honest statement, yet he does not miss the beat and carry the song on. This was the only mishap from the entire performance.
The surprise and highlight of the concert happens where I predicted “A New Beginning”, if you find this recording online (look for the Radio City performance) you will understand why he is such a great guitar player, if not the best. The solo is extended live (the part that fades away in the album) and much heavier, clean, and perfectly executed. My son in total disbelief to what he see, and says “How is this humanely possible?” He also noticed that during the song his index finger was on the 3rd fret and the pinky on the 8th fret. Suddenly, he throws it to the 9th fret, stretching his hand mesmerizing my son in more disbelief, if that it is even possible. John Petrucci is the Guitar God. His solo is an un-imaginable to duplicate, and makes Dave Mustaine or Kirk Hammet look like amateurs in the instrument. I witness perfection live.
“The Road to revolution” ends Act 1 and we have a 20 minute break. Meeting Luiz once again we talk about the bands performance and how they are so perfect live. He went to the Radio City concert the day before and said the performance was as good as the one today but the sound quality is much better today.
Back to the concert, a “Moment of Betrayal” is another highlight on how good they are live. James LaBrie is so alive asking the public to sing along and there is more interaction during Act 2. There are parts that my son pokes me saying that that specific part was Myung’s part and I must move my head to the left. He also swears that during a song John Petrucci looked at him and winked – that’s how close we were. I will not be able to tell my son’s side of the story, he must have a unique perspective of the concert – after all it is his first concert ever. When Iron Maiden was in town a month earlier he did not accept my ransom. There was no way to convince him or buy him out. Dream Theater must be his first concert.
By the finale of the concert I was under the impression the volume was a bit higher and left us all deaf if we were already not deaf by then. The Astonishing was… Astonishing Live.
After the show
By the end of the concert I meet up with Victoria and Tim for backstage access. Anxious, we awaited our chance to see our personal musical heroes in person.
Arriving at the room (reminds me a cafeteria room) I remember seeing John Petrucci already talking with a group of musicians about video games. Petrucci even ask us “Is it true that video gamers are really into metal?” We all nod our heads. So I got into the conversation by asking : “Petrucci when is the Astonishing game going to be ready?” He thanks me for my question and mentions it will be ready by this summer. I promptly ask him another question, “Just curious, did you approach Blizzard Entertainment to make the game?” To my surprise he replies: “No! Who are they? Should we have approached them?”. I was taken a bit back by that reply. My answer to him was “Nah… I worked for them no big deal”.
I hear a whisper: “We are going to have our chance to speak with them individually.” Victoria says. It was a discrete reminder not to ruin the moment and that I was a guest. I shut my mouth immediately.
A few minutes later he walks towards us and chats with each one of the fans. Being introduced as the first trivia game winners makes me feel a bit nerdy, but John asks: “How did that go?” “It was cool, Juliano and I are reading Lifting Shadows book which made it easy to answer most of the questions”. My son got the attention right after that and he asks which guitar my son brought… I captured that moment…
Juliano Santana looked at him like God has descended from the heavens to speak with him directly. At a loss for words I jumped in “My son sees you as the greatest guitar player ever, and I just want to take the opportunity to thank you for showing us that it is a lot of hard work and discipline because that is what you taught him with the DVD ” I forgot the name of the DVD and my son nodding his head in approval completes my sentence “Rock Discipline” . Petrucci is so down to earth and friendly, “Oh cool,” and gives my son some tips of advice. Tears of joy. The moment I most cherish from this day is seeing my son’s guitar hero giving him advice on how to succeed as a guitar player. He remembers every word said. For me this is the most memorable moment from the whole event. Unforgettable. My son, learning from the master himself, how to fulfill his dream.
I also must say that John Petrucci was the only one there for over an hour. He listens more than he speaks, he is extremely down to earth, and takes real care for getting to know his fan base. He was so nice that even brought us beer (I must say that a friend of his wife was there, they play on a band called Judas Priestess and was the recipient of the beer) and he joked “we have a low budget for alcohol”. We all laughed.
Next one in was John Myung. He sort of walked in and did not say a word until we noticed he was present. I walked to talk to him but someone jumped in front of me talking about Jack Bruce and other bass player names. He is a listener. He will not say a word if you don’t ask him or get him going. I remember reading in the book that he has his own space and enjoy being by himself more often, but I admire his work ethic and the fact he used to practice 8 hours a day before the bands rehearsals back in the day. I did not get a chance to speak much with him since there was a few fans wanting to take pictures including myself. John Myung was very attentive, polite, and nice with all of us.
I cannot remember if James La Brie was next in or Jordan, but they both talked to each of us individually for a few minutes before leaving. I could see that they looked a little tired, even though they tried not to show it. Their body language gave it away… blinking eyes and the bend over, ear reaching out to make sure they are paying attention to you. I must remind this was Dream Theater’s third concert in a row (PA on 22nd, NY, 23rd and today, MD).
The only exception from the backstage experience was that Mike Mangini did not show up. John Petrucci was the only one that stayed around from beginning to end. Around midnight Petrucci came to each one of us, thank us for being there and realizing that Mangini was not going to show up, we left the theater.
I have no words to describe all that happened that day, but I want to be thankful of this opportunity and mention how kind this band truly is. They are an example to be followed. A truly rock and roll icon where the fan seems to be the “star” and center of their attention. This is not an overstatement. I also want to thank John Petrucci for making my son’s first concert even more memorable.
Heading back to the hotel Juliano told me he will not wash his hands for a month, believing some of John’s greatness was passed to him.
For now, all I want to say is I would love to meet them on the road again (next tour for sure), watching them play the best rock and roll they have ever played. And even though I will never be able to top this moment, it will be an eternal bond I will cherish with my son for the rest of my life. Long Live Rock N’ Roll.