Concert Memories: Dream Theater at Harborlights Pavilion, Boston MA August 2, 2009

(As you can see I refuse to call it Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, which is what it's now called ...I hate corporate naming of venues!)

In 2009, I ticked another name off of my concert bucket list when I finally saw Dream Theater live in concert. I've been a fan since the late 1990s when their landmark album Metropolis 2: Scenes From a Memory was released, although I didn't really get into their music until a few years after that. Having formed at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the mid-1980s, the band has always had a special affection for the city and it's always been a main stop on their tours through the years. My brother Alex was able to see them in 2007 when they were touring in support of their Systematic Chaos album. I was living in South Carolina at the time working on my postdoctorate fellowship so I missed out on seeing them (I believe the closest they came to SC on that tour was either Charlotte or Atlanta) so when they toured a couple of years later supporting their Black Clouds & Silver Linings album, I was living back home in New England and jumped at the chance. We bought three tickets: one for me, one for my brother, and one for our friend Marc who was also a DT fan and had seen them many times dating back to 2000. This tour was going to be a bit different than the way they usually did them, though.  DT was famous for playing marathon sets of three to four hours with no opening acts, billing each show as "An Evening With Dream Theater." However, starting with this 2009 jaunt they began touring under the heading of "Progressive Nation" and including other progressive rock bands as openers. That was fine with me when I saw the bill, as besides Big Elf (who I had heard of, but never actually heard) they would also have Zappa Plays Zappa opening. I've been a massive, massive fan of Frank Zappa from when I'd started high school back in the early 1990s, so the chance to see his talented son Dweezil and a band made up of several of Frank's band alumni playing his music was a real thrill. With all of that out of the way, now let's get to the story of the day when it all came together...

August 2nd was a typical summer day in New England: hot, oppressively humid, and overcast. At the time, my brother was in law school and living on Beacon Hill in Boston while my wife and I were living on the New Hampshire seacoast about an hour away. On the day of the concert I made the drive down into the city with the idea of parking in Alex's neighborhood; I was planning on staying over at his place and wanted my car close by. However, as anyone who has ever been to Beacon Hill can tell you, its neighborhoods are a maze of narrow streets, many of them cobblestoned and one-way, and as with everywhere in Boston parking is at a premium. I'd driven to his place several times before and never had too much of a problem parking, but this time there was absolutely no way I was going to find a spot. I ended up double parking a block from his place with my car left running and sprinted up the steep hill to his apartment with my overnight bag slung on my shoulder. I pressed the intercom button and yelled for them to come down and get in my car. The original plan (had I been able to park where I'd intended) was for the three of us to walk somewhere to eat dinner and then take the T over to the Pavilion for the concert. However, now I needed to find somewhere else to park my car. They followed me running to my car, which miraculously hadn't been ticketed or towed and was still there. I decided I'd park it overnight in the parking garage under Boston Common so we drove there and left the car. Since we were already halfway across the city, we decided to find somewhere to eat along the way and just walk to the seaport district where the Pavilion was afterward. We did all of this during the hottest part of the afternoon so by the time we got to the venue an hour before showtime, we were absolutely drenched in sweat and very, very hot. Thankfully all of the seating there is underneath a huge canvas covering which offered some much-appreciated shade and respite from the heat. We got to our seats, which were about fifty feet from the stage and slightly to the right with an excellent view of the stage. After grabbing some cold drinks, we sat and chatted until it was time for the show to begin. At this point the sun was still up and it was daylight, but there was a nice breeze coming off the water (since the Pavilion is right on the harbor) which helped to cool us down nicely.

Big Elf was up first and they struck a very psychedelic, Gothic figure on stage. The lead singer wore a long jacket and top hat and faced the crowd standing in between two Hammond organs that were on either side of him and tilted toward him. He played one with each hand while he sang and their sound was very heavy and psychedelic. I can't say they made me into a fan, but I really enjoyed their set and it was certainly unique! Zappa Plays Zappa was on next and they began by playing an instrumental ("The Purple Lagoon") when suddenly a guy in the crowd stood up and started shouting and heckling them. Eventually he ran up to the front of the stage and yelled some more before he climbed up on to the stage and ran toward a microphone. We were all looking at each other in confusion, wondering what the hell was going on and whether this fellow was going to cause some trouble when he turned to the crowd and started singing "Zomby Woof!" He sounded just like Ricky Lancelotti, who sang the vocal on the record (and who had a VERY weird voice) when we realized he was part of the band! Indeed, after the song ended Dweezil introduced him and the rest of the band before they continued on with the rest of their set, which was fantastic and included several of my favorite FZ songs like "Zomby Woof," "Montana," "Inca Roads," and "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama."  By the time they left the stage it was just about dark and we waited for the main attraction...

Zappa Plays Zappa set list:

The Purple Lagoon
Zomby Woof
Village of the Sun
Echidna's Arf (Of You)
Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?
My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama
Inca Roads
Peaches en Regalia
Bamboozled by Love
More Trouble Every Day
Willie the Pimp

After all of ZPZ's gear was torn down and Dream Theater's gear was set up, the lights went down and the crowd began to cheer as DT came onto the stage to begin their set. Their first song, "A Nightmare to Remember," exploded from the stage as the intense light show and backing projections bathed all of us in a brilliant glow. The first thing that struck me as soon as the show started, however, was that it was freaking LOUD! Now, I've been to loads of concerts...I'm also a musician myself and as you all know, I'm a hugely obsessive music fan who listens to music at every possible moment throughout the day. That being said, I try to take care of my hearing and I always try to protect my ears by bringing earplugs with me to every concert as a precaution. However, given the chaos of parking and getting to the venue, I had left my earplugs in the car! I'd foolishly figured that since it was an outdoor show that the sound wouldn't be as loud as it usually is at an indoor. Needless to say I was very wrong! The sound was actually borderline painful and beyond that, it was poorly mixed; it was much too trebly and the nuances of the music were lost in a wash of cymbals and ringing high, especially from the guitar and keyboards. I spent most of the show with my fingers in my ears in order to block out as much of the sound as I could...this also helped to filter out the tinniness of the mix and actually made the music sound better. The set list is below.

Dream Theater set list:

A Nightmare to Remember
A Rite of Passage
Hollow Years
Prophets of War
The Dance of Eternity
One Last Time
Solitary Shell
In the Name of God

The Count of Tuscany

I was most excited to hear the more seldomly played older songs like "The Dance of Eternity/One Last Time" (from Scenes From a Memory) and "Solitary Shell" (from Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence). The most welcome surprise for me was "Hollow Years," a song that I not only love, but that they ended up playing in a very unique ten-plus minute version at this concert. The newer songs were very good, especially the first and last songs, each of which are 15-20 minute epics. However, having to endure one of my least favorite DT songs, "Prophets of War," in the middle of the set was a real momentum killer. I also remember being a bit disappointed at the brevity of the set. It was only nine songs and a little under two hours, which normally would be more than enough from any other band, but having listened to all of Dream Theater's live albums for years I was used to hearing three hours (or more) of them onstage. Perhaps what was most unsatisfying to me was the fact that this show was in support of what was their weakest album (in my view) to date and 30% of the set was drawn from it. Add in another song being one of my least favorites and in reality 40% of the set was stuff I really didn't care to hear all that much. It was still a really good concert and I'm glad I went, but it was a bit disappointing.

After the show ended, we realized we were quite a ways away from Alex's apartment and it was pretty late. The T is notorious for stopping service shortly after midnight and we were right around that hour so we decided to hoof it back instead.  Thankfully it had cooled off a bit and was fairly pleasant out, although it was still very humid. After stopping at a 7-11 a few blocks from the venue to get a snack and a cold drink, we walked all the way across the city back to Beacon Hill. By now it was close to past midnight and we passed through several neighborhoods where there was literally no one around. Boston is not New York City but it's usually not totally dead at midnight, especially given the number of universities, hospitals, and young professionals that call it home. But our walk back to Beacon Hill was unlike anything I've experienced before or since. There was a stretch in the middle of our journey where the streets and neighborhoods were completely empty: no people, no cars, no traffic, no activity, nothing. These were not bad parts of the city, either (do you really think we'd have been walking home if they were?)...just several random areas where everyone apparently decided to make an early night of it. At one point we were literally walking down the middle of the street in total disbelief that we were actually doing this in Boston, one of the worst cities when it comes to traffic congestion. Finally we got back to Alex's apartment where Marc decided to drive back home to New Hampshire. We said goodnight to him and then walked up the three flights to my brother's place.After putting the air conditioning on (it was still humid outside and he lived on the top floor so it was stuffy), we sat down with some cold drinks to reflect on the concert and to unwind before catching some sleep. The next morning we walked somewhere to have breakfast before I said goodbye, walked to the Common and my car, and drove home. And you know what? My ears were still feeling the effects of the horrible sound mix and would continue to for another day! Before I'd gone to bed the previous night, my ears had a little bit of ringing which didn't surprise me given how loud the concert amount of plugging my ears with my fingers had been able to completely lessen the effect of the volume. However, when I woke up that morning, I had a constant "whooshing" in my ear; think of a steady wind down the end of a tunnel or a white noise generator, only it's RIGHT INSIDE YOUR EARS. It didn't hurt but it was very unpleasant and was the first (and so far, thankfully, last) time I've ever experienced this phenomenon. Overall, it wasn't the best concert I'd ever been to but it wasn't anywhere near the worst and I still enjoyed it. I'm fortunate that I went as a year later, Mike Portnoy (one of my favorite drummers ever and a co-founder of the band) quit and was replaced by Boston's own Mike Mangini. While I've enjoyed DT's most recent two albums in the wake of Mike's departure, they're the weakest albums of their career and the band are showing signs (at least to me) of being a nearly spent force. I'm definitely glad I saw them when I did, though, and also thankful that I was able to see Zappa Plays Zappa at the same time...I just know that my ears couldn't take such an awful sound mix again!

(As a final aside, I have a recording of the entire Dream Theater performance from this show which sounds better than when I was actually there...if I ever want to relive the experience, I can at least listen to it without damaging my ears, for which I'm very thankful!)


    1. I've not listened to much of Dream Theater, although I have an album by Transatlantic. DT may be a bit too close to metal for my personal taste, but I should at least give a few of those YT video a chance. By and large I like progressive music, in fact it's one of my favorite styles. Seeing the Zappa band would be fun, I have the DVD Zappa Plays Zappa, and when I first heard that Dweezil was playing his father's hits, I pretty much didn't consider it much. But I saw the concert one night on PBS during a pledge drive, and eventually bought a copy.

      You pretty much had to work to make that concert. I even take ear plugs to movies these days just in case. I don't know why bands make a decision to play that freaking loud. Yes, they have to get their music back to their fans in the nosebleed section, but I think they overdo it. Louder is not better. I have fairly constant ringing in my ears anyway, which is a nuisance--I try to ignore it.

      I've actually thought about buying a new acoustic guitar for a while now. I've thought about the Seagull brand. I actually have a pretty old Martin D-18, but it's pretty hard to play compared to just about any new guitar. Of course the music store here can work on it and get the action better, but I'm a bit hesitant to invest any more into it, and think buying a new one might be the better road. I should take it in and see what they'd charge me, I guess I could at least do that. I also wouldn't mind having a new amp either. I'd probably go with a Roland Cube. I've got a Fender Twin, which is way to big for just fun. The Roland Cubes have circuitry that allows for different effects as well, whereas I'd need some pedals for my Fender--I have some, but some have played out or are broken. I can't see investing in more. So what are you using and playing thru?

    2. DT definitely became more metal as they went on, but I'd highly recommend all of their albums up to and including Octavarium...great stuff. As one friend described them, "they're Rush on steroids!" The metal influences were tempered by Mike Portnoy, who is a massive Beatles, Zeppelin, Who, Zappa, Genesis fan...however, after Octavarium (2005) their last two albums with him and the two with Mangini are way more metal. Still good, but the dyanmics are gone so they tend to sound samey after a while.

      I used to have tons of guitars, and some of the ones I got rid of before I got married I cry about even to this day: Gibson Les Paul Standard, USA Fender Strat, '52 USA Fender Telecaster reissue, Gibson SG, Epiphone Sheraton, and my sweet Marshall Bluesbreaker amp...I wish I'd kept all of that gear. The two guitars I have now I love though, Epiphone ES-335 Dot that I put a Bigsby on, and a Rickenbacker 360. My next purchase will be a Rickenbacker 360/12. I play through a Vox Pathfinder but my dream amp has always been a Vox AC-30 which I hope to get someday soon. And a good acoustic, too...I'd like to get an Epiphone John Lennon J-160 (the Gibson versions are nice but cost 5x as much and the quality isn't THAT much better to warrant the huge price increase, in m view).

      As for ear plugs, I agree...some of the best sounding shows in terms of mix that I've been to were not the loudest, and many were in big arenas or outdoor amphitheatres. I've been warned that Ride, who I'm seeing in October, are exceedingly loud so I am definitely bringing ear plugs to that one! I like loud music but it needs to still sound good and not damage my hearing. I love music too much to want to hurt my ears so much that I can never enjoy it again. Sounds like you're much the same! :)


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