Last night I saw the Genesis tribute band, The Musical Box at the lovely Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. The Pabst is a gorgeous place that was built in 1895. With a seating capacity of around 1500, it provides a wonderfully intimate setting for a concert.
The Musical Box are a bunch of guys from Canada who go around recreating Genesis concerts from the early to mid-70s when Peter Gabriel was in the band. But these guys are no mere cover band. By “recreating” the concerts I mean that they use the same instruments, dress like the members of Genesis did back then (including Peter Gabriel’s costumes), and use replicas of the stage props. (Think of a Dark Star Orchestra for Genesis.) TMB are currently going around and recreating the concerts Genesis did from November 1975 – May 1975 in support of their double concept album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. If any of my readers associate Genesis with “Invisible Touch” and Peter Gabriel with “Sledgehammer”, then realize that in the first half of the 1970s, the band with Peter created some music very different from what they did in the 1980s. Genesis played the dreaded progressive rock – lengthy songs, odd time signatures, et al. The lyrics told strange surreal tales and, to help illustrate them, Gabriel started wearing costumes with the first time being at the 28 September 1972 show in Dublin, Ireland. Two years later, the band released The Lamb and put on their most adventurous shows in support of it. The album was a double and told the tale of a New York City street kid, Rael. Upon opening the gatefold sleeve, the listener found the whole story written out. Although still very surreal, the lyrics concerned a contemporary character instead of a figure from English history. They were, in Gabriel’s words, “less twee”. The music reflected this. Though not radically changed, it was definitely dark and more muscular. While definitely a million miles away from punk, it had some attitude. (Well, as much as prog can have.) For the tour, the band played The Lamb in its entirety plus the old favorite, “The Musical Box”. The encore was usually “Watcher of the Skies” though “The Knife” was thrown in a few times. As for the theatrics, there were a couple costumes, a couple props, and three screens at the back of the stage that featured slides projected onto them from behind which helped illustrate the storyline.
Part of the mystique of these concerts is that they were never professionally filmed. There exist a couple very brief clips from German television but, unlike the previous and succeeding tours, a whole concert was never committed to celluloid. The vast majority of video from this tour comes courtesy of eager fans who filmed parts with their silent Super-8 cameras. The Musical Box were given the seal of approval by Genesis and Peter Gabriel for their recreation. Gabriel and the rest of the band gave TMB the slides they used 30 years ago as well as the written stage directions used back then. The results I witnessed last night were just amazing.
When Genesis premiered The Lamb on 20 November 1974 in Chicago, the album was not yet in the shops. Last night, the vast majority of the audience knew every note and word of the lyrics. Most folks were middle-aged and looking to recapture a bit of their youth. But there were also people like myself who were too young to have seen a Lamb show. Some of the aging Baby Boomers brought their teenaged kids while there was a fair number of people like myself who were just fans coming to experience what our prog rock-loving forebears witnessed 30 years ago.
I got to the Pabst a bit before 7 and headed to the tavern attached to the theater. After grabbing a beer, I noticed that there were piles of questionnaires scattered on the tables so I took a look. Some guys were trying to gauge interest for a potential progressive rock festival to be held in Milwaukee next October. So I filled one out and then introduced myself to a group of fans. One guy was from Chicago while the other two were from St. Louis. We drank and chatted and I shamelessly plugged this podcast. As more fans filed in, I witnessed a common occurrence at prog shows. People from disparate parts of the country ran into one another. Prog shows aren’t exactly common so fans often travel hundreds of miles to attend festivals that primarily happen on the coasts. In addition, most prog bands aren’t able to cover the entire country when they tour so fans from certain areas, such as most of the South, travel to cities like Milwaukee to see prog shows. (For instance, when Yes played here in Madison in 2002, I ended up at the bar with a fan from Kansas.) There was a just a great camaraderie amongst the fans.
When the lights went down, I was really excited. After hearing from older fans for two decades about what I’d missed, I was finally going to get a taste. And when the lights went down and the piano to the first song trickled through the speakers, I just wanted to jump up and scream. (You can find a short clip of the first song, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”, here as well as few others.) There were many highlights to the show. The first was during the second song, “Fly on a Windshield”. It has a very quiet opening and then the drums and the rest of the band kick in and go on an instrumental rampage. It was the dynamics. The stage was dark during the hushed opening of the song and then the band crashed in and all the lights turn on and – WOW! (Plus I’ve been listening to that song a lot in my car lately.) I felt like crying when Denis Gagné, the Gabriel impersonator, came out in the fabled Slipperman costume.
Instead I just developed a huge grin on my face seeing him prancing around the stage in that outfit. The costume is legendary in Genesis fan circles. It was the one that caused the most consternation amongst the rest of the band and inspired the most “Did you see that’s?” from the fans. Another highlight was “Counting Out Time” in which Rael recalls having sex for the first time. He buys a book which is a guide to women’s erogenous zones and the projections on the screen showed various representations of a woman’s anatomy with arrows pointing to specific parts. Each arrow was numbered to go along with the song. “Touch and go with 1-6./Bit of trouble in zone No. 7./Gotta remember all of my tricks./There’s heaven ahead in No. 11!” The slides made me laugh because they reminded me of that Monty Python skit about identifying people’s naughty bits.
The whole thing gave me a new & different perspective on the album. I first heard it some 20 years ago but I found that the show really put a new spin on things. As I said above, Gabriel wanted to do something less twee, less quaint and the show really highlighted just how current, how of the moment The Lamb was at the time of its release. The name-checking during “Broadway Melody of 1974″, how the people in the slides were dressed, the fact that one of the characters, Doktor Dyper, was black, et al. (For the record, Doktor Dyper was on a pogo stick.) Rather than being a sci-fi piece like “Watcher of the Skies” or reveling in Victorian England like “The Musical Box”, The Lamb was really steeped in the year of its release, 1974. Granted, the album and concerts were very strange and surreal, but I can still imagine audiences back then looking at the slides and seeing their world in them rather than the fantasy realms that progressive rock was notorious for in the 1970s. Considering what most of the major progressive rock acts were doing at the time (and the next 3 albums Genesis did after Gabriel left the band), The Lamb really stic
ks out from the pack.
I also want to mention the musicians. The drummer, Martin Levac, did a great Phil Collins impersonation. I mean he looks like Collins and sounds like he did too. Seeing him last night really drove home just what an amazing performer Collins is or was, depending on your point of view, and just how integral he was to the band before he became lead singer. People tend to think of Collins as having been in the background while Gabriel was with the band but his backing vocals really added to the mix. And then there’s the drumming/percussion. In addition to drums, Kevac played vibraphone, chimes, tubular bells, and a host of other percussion instruments. And he was just a demon on the kit. Unlike most of Collins’ work since the early 1980s, the stuff he did in the 70s really pushed the music along. Instead of just providing a rhythm, his drumming would thrust the song forward and his fills were incredibly melodic. Rather than just providing a base for the rest of the band to build upon, his drum parts stood on equal footing with the rest of the instruments. In a certain sense, the rest of the band had to catch up with him.
The concert also highlighted just how great Mike Rutherford is or was. The baritone bass really added heft to the music and, on certain songs, was really the lead instrument. Prog fans tend to think of Yes’ Chris Squire or Rush’s Geddy Lee as being the prime bass players with their instruments often taking the lead in those bands’ songs but Rutherford did the same thing but it was less obvious. His playing managed to take the lead yet not sound outside of what the rest of the band were doing. It wasn’t as ostentatious, if you will – more integrated into the overall sound. Sadly, the concert also highlighted just how small then Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett’s role was on The Lamb. While there were a few songs in which he soloed or his guitar was at the lead, he was generally resigned to adding color to most of the songs. I think the tunes are all the better for his contributions but his role was really diminished in light of the band’s previous album, Selling England by the Pound, which had Hackett all over it. Luckily, he really got to tear it up on “The Musical Box”. For “Ravine”, it was just bass, drums, and keyboards and it really showed just how musically powerful the trio that went on to superstardom in the 1980s were beneath the pop hits of “That’s All”, “Invisible Touch”, and the like. Everyone in The Musical Box played their part and played them very well indeed.
Aside from some drunken audience members shouting for “Supper’s Ready”, the show was fantastic. (But, if you think about it, these people were no doubt recreating what some audience members did 30 years ago.) I of course loved the music but it was just a hoot to see a bit of rock’n'roll history recreated before my eyes. I’ve been a fan of Genesis for well over 20 years but got on the boat midway through the voyage so it was great to get a glimpse of what I missed. Plus it’s always great to gather with like-minded fans since it’s not everyday that I get a chance to socialize with people who love old Genesis as I do.
As I walked out of the theater, a group of 3 or 4 people next to me spontaneously burst into the opening lines of “Supper’s Ready”. Ahhhh…gotta love us progheads.