Singer Casey McPherson, guitar wizard Steve Morse, groove monster Dave LaRue and the relentless Mike Portnoy and Neal Morse, Flying Colors have been making music together for about a decade now.
Still, they have been making themselves rare by releasing only three albums but maintaining a high quality among all of them. When you throw together a supergroup of such big names who are frequently this present in the music business, there’s bound to be scheduling conflicts. As a result, the number of times the infamous Flying Colors have been standing on stage together since their genesis doesn’t extend 35 shows. This immediately raises the question: can a group like this create chemistry between its members after only so few live shows? Well, most of these guys have been knowing each other for quite a while. LaRue has joined Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci on stage for many G3 concerts. He can also be heard on over a dozen Steve Morse albums. And little has to be said about the collaborations of Mike Portnoy and Neal Morse, as these two musical brothers have been standing on stage together for around 20 years, performing with at least a handful of different bands, and by now playing as tightly intertwining as a single musician. It seems like all musicians of the progressive family comprise one big family. Alpha Rev singer Casey McPherson, a now ex non-progger, was the only new-by to this family a decade ago, and today he’s a well-respected member of it.
While still ranging in the progressive rock genre, the music of Flying Colors is a lot lighter and upbeat than the band’s individual components would suggest, and most of their songs have pop appeal and melody lines that can be sung along with by the second or third listen. Sophisticated Art Pop music with chanting potential performed by top-notch musicians – this should make for a great live experience. But does one need a third live document from the band after only the third studio output?
Firstly, far too few people had the pleasure to witness Flying Colors’ “Third Tour Is The Charm “, a very limited run of concerts taking place between fall and winter 2019. The chunk of Flying Colors fans didn’t see this show and are certainly happy to catch up on this – comfortably from their couch. Secondly, this show is the band’s first one to not feature any cover songs of the member’s main bands. This is purely a Flying Colors event. So at least looking at the setlist, Third Stage is the group’s go-to live release. And thirdly (since this release is called Third Stage): why the hell shouldn’t they release a third live album?
Third stage was recorded at London’s venerable Shepherd’s Bush Empire on the 14th of December 2019, marking the band’s final performance. And yes – there is a unique chemistry between the five Colors, with every member being as important as the next one. Portnoy and LaRue form a solid as a rock rhythm section that is as virtuosic as groove-oriented. LaRue’s bass lines often consist of ostinato patterns, cleverly varied as the songs progress, giving the other musicians enough space to add different flavors. His style and sound are entirely different from other Portnoy/Morse-companions plucking the thick strings, like Pete Trewavas or Randy George. Contrasting their Squire/McCartney/Lee-influenced style, LaRue’s jazz fusion-infused five-string Bongo bass sounds light as a feather, giving the band its unique groove. This is especially evident during the less heavy, upbeat songs featuring transparent instrumentation that evolved out of a full-band jam. An example of this facet of the band is the opener “Blue Ocean,” which gives each member the chance to greet their audience musically by adding their respective layer to the arrangement.
Beatles-influenced groovers aren’t the only thing in the Colors’ bag of tricks, though. The hard-hitting “The Loss Inside” and “More” off their latest studio output Third Degree show the band rocking everyone’s socks off, featuring a demonic organ solo by Neal Morse. They continued this streak later on with “Forever In A Daze,” showcasing LaRue’s slapping techniques and the closing “Mask Machine,” featuring a soaring guitar solo by Steve Morse. Credit has to be given to the latter for putting the icing on each and every song in the set with his masterful and tasty playing. This guy makes every song better.
The variety in the vocal department is another strength of the Flying Colors. Casey McPherson shares lead vocal duties with Neal Morse 80/16 percent, with Mike Portnoy providing the remaining four percent for a selected choice of bridges and interludes. All three of them come together for some tremendous three-part harmony sections, best observed during the band’s signature art pop-anthems “Kayla” and “The Storm.” These are the moments where the Flying Colors are at their pinnacle, and there are some tracks in their discography which admittedly I am missing in Third Stage’s setlist. Songs like “Cadence” and “Love Is What I’m Waiting For” would have made this concert even better, as would have “Lost Without You,” arguably their most underappreciated pop track. The latter could have perfectly replaced “Geronimo,”; a great song in itself, but performed a little hastily and missing the crucial laid-back halftime shuffle feel of the studio version. Yet, each fan has their own favorites, and the band can’t include all of them.
The quiet moments of the concerts give Casey McPherson a chance to shine. His trembling voice during “You Are Not Alone” should give every listener with a beating heart buckling knees. In an emotional sense, it is only topped by the gospel-influenced “Peaceful Harbour,” a touching duet between McPherson and Neal Morse, with beautiful details and grandiose guitar solos provided by Steve Morse.
Finally, Flying Colors can’t hide their roots within the progressive rock genre and had to include three 10 minute plus epics. I was especially delighted to discover Second Nature’s closer “Cosmic Symphony” among the songs since it featured one of Steve Morse’s best moments in Flying Colors. This should make any guitarist’s heart melt and proves that Steve is still a master of his craft, even after so many years in the business. But so does his furious solo during the finale of “Crawl.” This track off the band’s latest studio album features Muse-influenced melodic lines and once again showcases the band’s flawless harmony vocals. Neal Morse knows how to structure a prog epic, and this track is just another example of this ability. My personal favorite of Flying Colors’ longer tracks remains the debut album’s closer “Infinite Fire,” a perfect conglomerate of groovy parts, once again allowing the band’s rhythm section to show how perfectly they work together, as well as catchy motives and harmonic changes like only Neal Morse can write them. The relatively simple structure of “Infinite Fire” makes it fly by within a heartbeat and still packs instrumental features by almost every band member. Oh yeah, there is a chemistry between these guys.
And where else can this chemistry be seen than on stage? These songs work far better in a live context than on a studio record. Complex, yet catchy and inviting to dance and party, they will hopefully see the stage more often in the next few years. Sadly, during this particular concert, the audience was not always motivated enough to stand up and light the place on infinite fire together with the band. I only got to see the Flying Colors during their first tour and what McPherson, Morse, Morse, Portnoy & LaRue delivered was nothing short of a two-hour party that left no hands unclapped. This band belongs on the road, and until it’s that time again, we have this live document to enjoy and rock out.
Video / Production 8
A Place In Your World
The Loss Inside
You Are Not Alone
Forever In A Daze
* Earbook/Blu-Ray includes bonus show Live @ Morsefest
Flying Colors – Third Stage: Live in London
Released: 18th September 2020 Via: Music Theories Recordings
Check out the live video for ‘Mask Machine’ here:
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