"The art of illusion or the art of flattery?" - The Musical Box live at the Montreal Spectrum, October 13 and 14, 2000. Review by Roger Salem.
It is here. It is now. It is real. It is... The Musical Box!
Back in July of this year when I first discovered that The Musical Box (TMB) were planning to bring to life "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" for four nights in Montreal, I did not hesitate one moment to book my airline ticket for two reasons: My friends in the States who had seen both the "Foxtrot" and "Selling England By the Pound" tour re-enactments between 1997 and 1998 had been raving about this Canadian ‘cover’ band incessantly. As I’ve always trusted their judgement I could not treat this matter lightly. In fact I had even planned to go to Philadelphia in ’97 but the show had been cancelled at the last minute. Secondly, "The Lamb...", of all of the Genesis shows of the past, was the one that I regret the most of having missed. It now my chance to see the second best thing to the real thing. And, so what if I was not going to see Peter sing it and Steve play his heavenly chords; these guys will never do it again or couldn’t be bothered (apart from Steve’s majestic rendition of "Hairless Heart" which I saw him do twice last summer during his mini tour of Italy). So I thought I may as well see TMB do it. And not just one song, but the whole "big lump" of it as Peter once said. Besides, when people go see a Mozart piano concerto, I have never heard anyone complain that the original piano player (i.e Mr Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) himself is not playing the piece!
My friends Scott and John from the States were then quick in making the necessary arrangements for the hotel and bookings for concert tickets. I cannot thank them enough for their efforts. From July until days before my arrival in Montreal we corresponded by e-mail about the eminent ‘Arrival’... where I was left "wondering lonely as a cloud" as to what to expect... "continually pacing with nonchalant embracing"... they kept reminding me of what I was in for and how I would travel back in time. They especially insisted on the fact that TMB were not just a ‘cover band’, and to consider them as such did not do them or the experience of seeing them any justice. So up till the last minute I was impatient and on the verge of a "nervous breakdown" constantly feeding on my imaginary idea of what to expect.
My flight to Montreal from Zurich was uneventful. I tried to catch some sleep and conserve as much energy as possible for the coming evening. I knew it was going to be a tough one with the jet lag and my one week old cold. When I engaged in conversation with the person sitting next to me, I felt somewhat embarrassed telling him that I was flying across the Atlantic for three days just to see a ‘cover’ band of Genesis. First of all, most people these days hardly know who Genesis are, so you can imagine talking about a ‘cover’ of Genesis! But actually one guy sitting on my left, who was from Montreal, had actually heard of TMB and knew about their local notoriety even though he had not seen them.
At the airport my friend Thierry, from Nice, was waiting at the arrival gate. Yes, he too had decided to make the trip over to see TMB (in fact the only Frenchman present for the event as far as I know). Minutes later Scott and John showed up and we all drove down to our hotel. Thierry had already seen the first two nights and kept "sealed mouth" about everything in order to keep the element of surprise intact for me. Thanks, Thierry!
Back in the hotel room, a maid was preparing my room. I engaged in some small talk about how bad the weather in Europe was compared Montreal’s. I told her that I was in town to see a ‘cover’ of Genesis, the band which Phil Collins used to be in I emphasised. "Phil Collins, he was with Genesis?" Boy, you can imagine if I had said Peter Gabriel! He is becoming even more unknown to the general public after years of absence from the concert scene.
By 7pm we all flocked down to the Spectrum in the downtown area. The capacity of this venue is around 1,500 people. All four nights were sold out by the way; not bad for a cover band! Inside the club I met Alan Hewitt (who runs "The Waiting Room" web page [well, that's what I let him think - TB.] and who recently completed a wonderful book on Genesis, "Opening the Musical Box"). Then, part of the TMB team, Serge Morissette (Artistic direction), François Patry (Business Manager) and the lead singer Denis Gagné who patted me on the shoulder when I told him I had come all the way from Switzerland. To my great surprise the one and only Paul Whitehead - the artist behind the legendary early Genesis cover albums of "Trespass", "Nursery Cryme" and "Foxtrot" - was present with a booth inside the venues lobby, selling lithographs of his works, T-shirts of the "Mad Hatter" and other paraphernalia of his creation. A pretty brunette, Yvonne, was helping him sell the stuff.
The opening act was a local Canadian artist, Jean-Philippe, on acoustic guitar, whose soft ballads managed to mellow me out somewhat as I was finding it extremely hard to contain my excitement for what was to come. I sat at a table behind the mix board, dead center. "Not too close" was Thierry’s suggestion as to avoid seeing any "imperfections" and most of all being reminded of the fact that we were not actually seeing our beloved Genesis! At 9-30pm on the dot, the show started and Denis Gagné, posing as Peter Gabriel in the legendary black leather jacket, introduced the story of our hero Rael. The first slides flashed up on the three giant screens above the stage showing New York City taken from the water front. It took me literally 30 seconds after the intro to be totally sold by this act. I mean the "obstacle", so much initially feared, that I was just seeing a ‘cover’ band, was instantly overcome. By the time they reached the majestic "Fly On A Windshield" I was actually under the impression that I was sitting at the Festhalle in Berne, Switzerland or the Palais des Expositions in Annecy, France back in the spring of 1975, watching an actual "Lamb" show. The pimple-faced teenager that I was could have conceivably attended one of these two concerts, being the two closest venues near Geneva where I used to live. But how could I in those days: Gas, Ass, music and Grass were definitely a luxury well out of my reach in those days. Too young to even begin to fathom the depths of Genesis! Now that I’m forty I can settle for TMB that not only sound exactly like Genesis, note by note, but have meticulously and painstakingly recreated almost every visual detail of an actual Lamb show to bring this perfect illusion. It was almost unreal.
In their quest to create this perfect show TMB went to many extremes: the complete 1120 slides originally used by Genesis were reproduced by permission of Tony Smith, Genesis’ management. The keyboard player, Eric Savard, used today’s technology on CD-Rom to reproduce the key board sounds of the era, which allowed, in particular to achieve a feat which Genesis could not do at the time; use eight different Melotron sounds instead of the three limited in the memory capacity of the Melotron used at the time. TMB opted for re-creating the sound of the studio album rather then the simplified or scaled-down sound used on stage by Genesis. This explains the differences in the endings compared to the ones on the live Lamb versions of Genesis. The end of "Carpet Crawlers" is the most noteworthy in that respect.
The instruments were almost all the same: a perfect reproduction of the black Rickenbaker that Mike Rutherford used to play was now in the hands of Sébastien Lamothe (who happens to be right-handed while Mike is left-handed [other way around actually - sorry... -TB.]). The "Rael" make-up on Gagné, the stage set-up, the lights, every nuance of the original was there. During many songs, images of Armando Gallo’s (author of the book on Genesis "I know what I like") shots of "Lamb" shows came to mind. Or, even covers of certain bootlegs of "The Lamb" were brought to life. This was a clone of the original, so perfect, so unreal that at times I asked myself if I was not dreaming. And I was completely sober too, at least on the second night! Hats off to all involved in TMB. You guys did a wonderful job. You made my dream come true and brought me the most intense musical pleasure in years. Now I finally know what it must have been like at the real Genesis "Lamb" shows. I was so glad to have seen TMB in the end. Some people, like the Italian fan Mino Profumo, although he loved the concert later admitted to me feeling even more frustrated in not having seen the original show.
The guitarist, Christian Hébert was perfect, he even managed to get in a couple of ‘zuits’ (ring noises). On "Fly On A Windshield" I literally jumped out of my seat! Steve would be quite impressed. In fact all the original Genesis members would be baffled. The drummer, Guillaume Courteau would make Phil Collins regret that he wrote score for "Tarzan" if he could see this reflection of his, past golden age! During "Cuckoo Cocoon", Denis was laying on his stomach under the key-boardists’ equipment with a flute in hand under a deep blue light. It was an awesome image, very reminiscent of what Peter was to do on his 1978 tour during "Moribund the Burgermeister". Seeing the "Lamb" show live helped me to better visualise the respective instrumental parts of each of the band members, how they articulated to create this magical synergy or alchemy of sound. I could even see in Gagné the Gabriel of the early eighties whose typical stage antics had survived his Genesis years. This way of sweeping across the stage ferociously and swaying his head back and forth from the microphone.
I started imagining the tensions that existed in Genesis at the time of "The Lamb" and how the band members finally were able to overcome their differences and keep together such a complex show over 100 times between 1974 and 1975. My first musical "orgasm" was at the end of "The Waiting Room". At this point, they had these headlights full blast on the audience. The effect was eerie and the audience went wild. Serge Morissette later confided to me that he had recently discovered some new "Lamb" super 8 footage which featured "The Waiting Room" and that the show had to be modified at the last moment to accommodate what could now be seen for the first time on film.
The snake-patterned curtain during "Lamia" was by far the visual highlight of the show, where sound and vision were perfectly merged for a moment of true bliss. Whose brilliant idea lay behind this special effect, I wonder? The singing had reached such a level of excellence at this point that it was almost impossible to tell the difference between Gabriel’s voice and Gagnés’.
The arrival of the Slipperman from a long transparent plastic tunnel "worming" its way across the stage was both spectacular as intriguing. I could not believe the extent to which this production of "The Lamb" had gone in re-creating the original costumes. This big, lumpy, bumpy green mass looked exactly like the one I had seen in photos and in a rare but short video footage from the famous L.A. Shrine Auditorium concert in 1974. The fourth side of the record (funny how we still associate the music to the vinyl form after all these years of the CD being the dominant medium) was very ambient, cerebral and haunting with a majestic interpretation of "The Light Dies Down On Broadway". It was at this point that I came to realise how much "The Lamb" had withstood the test of time compared to "Foxtrot" and "Selling" which sound more dated. I mean, "The Lamb" could have been written today, it was clearly avant-garde for its time. I would say that "Selling" is the work of Genesis which reached the highest level of musical virtuosity in the classical sense of the term, both from the compositional and technical standpoint. "The Lamb", however, Genesis’ sound into a different dimension, the band experimenting with totally new arrangements; inventing a musical form of a new kind and of a new age.
The famous ‘flash/explosion’ sequence during "it", featuring the Gabriel "dummy" on the right hand side of the stage facing the singer to his left, was included in the TMB show. Again, not one detail was omitted. The crowd stood standing cheering for well over three minutes before they came back on for the "kill" with sweeping and impassioned interpretations of "The Musical Box" and "Watcher Of The Skies". The sound got louder and the crowd was in such a state of excitement that I realised why TMB were so convincing as a band. They were not just duplicating the music of Genesis, they were living it with genuine sincerity and a thirst to transmit the pleasure that they were experiencing on to the audience. I have seen many contemporary rock acts these last few years and believe me I have rarely seen such enthusiasm from a crowd... and to say that these guys are a ‘cover’ band makes it all that more incredible! The level of energy there must have been in that club was unimaginable. The highest concentration of hard-core Genesis fans who have lived living with this passion, some for over 25 years. In a way it was sad to note that the majority of people were 40 or above. But I am convinced that younger people would also "dig" this show, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Thierry did notice some younger people, seemingly in their twenties, getting rather carried away by the splendour unveiled before their eyes and ears. This confirms that "The Lamb" is a modern work and does not necessarily cater just to nostalgics of the musical genre of the seventies.
After the concert I found myself chatting away with fans. Paul Whitehead, who had seen the original "Lamb" show admitted that this was like the real thing. An American fan from Rochester also confided that the show was exactly like the real one as far as he could remember that long ago. My American friends who had seen TMB do "Foxtrot" and "Selling", as much as they adored the "Lamb" show, all agreed that they had a slight preference for the other tours. I have unfortunately not had the benefit of having seen these other TMB shows. But, in conclusion, to all of us, the show was worth the trip and TMB proved once again to be more then just a ‘cover’ band. They are a phenomenon and from the bottom of my heart I wish Serge and all those involved with TMB all the success they deserve for their future endeavours.
The second night equalled the first in intensity, minus the surprise effect. But the band was just as tight and excelled in all respects. The slides which directly related to the story of Rael seemed less distracting to me on the second night. On the first I seemed to be paying more attention to the band members, I found it hard to keep shifting from the band to the slides going by. That is why one needs to see this show several times to catch all its details. The ones which come most to mind from the slide show were the ones shown during "Back In NYC" showing pictures of what looked to be like the Bronx, "The Chamber of 32 Doors" with a photo of an impressive unending spiral staircase taken in some museum (looked like the Guggenheim in New York), the erotic women series shown during "Counting Out Time", which must have been considered rather shocking for their time. Or, the sumptuous drawings of "female snakes" during "Lamia", very reminiscent of the French cartoon "Corto Maltes".
I particularly liked the moment at the end of "The Waiting Room", when the singer’s shadow was projected behind the screens revealing a "Nosferatu" vampire type of figure with long fingers and ears. This reminded me somewhat of another Peter Gabriel "shadow effect" employed during his "US" tour of 1993/4 during "San Jacinto" where the shadow of his body stretches like a rubber band on the giant screen.
I got a kick at looking at an Italian fan, Marcello, sitting at my table, whose first words at seeing the stage and the singer lit up in full splendour was "catzo, e un diavolo". He reiterated his elation during the "Slipperman" sequence by a "catzo, e eguale"! (fuckin’ a, its exactly the same!) I could not stop looking at his expression and laughing during the whole concert. It was a show in itself! Thierry who had seen the shows the first two nights also got a kick at looking at me the third night.
The two after-show parties held by the band, at the Renaissance Hotel, on Friday and Saturday where also a lot of fun. The attendance on the first night was surprisingly small but it allowed many fans to exchange stories about their experiences with Genesis. The second night proved more interesting with all the band present and relaxed enjoying drinks and chatting with the fans. Some brought photo albums of rare Genesis photos, bootleg collections while others, like myself, looked nervously at their watch by the time it struck 3 AM ,thinking about the long day of travel ahead a few hours away.
In a conversation between Mino Profumo, and Serge Morissette, I learnt that there were talks engaged about the prospects of Mike Rutherford and Peter Gabriel coming to Montreal at the end of November to see the next show. Also, the present and past Genesis manager Tony Smith is planning to come. If the show is considered viable by them, which by any stretch will certainly be, there are chances that TMB will get the authorisation to tour this production outside of Canada (so far they have the rights only for the provinces of Quebec and Ontario), like in the USA to begin with. My sincere hope is that TMB get enough attention and financing to bring the show to Europe, especially to Italy where I am convinced it will be a big hit. After all I have never met such big Genesis fans as in Italy. It always has been a very special place to all members of Genesis, more then anywhere else. But to be fair to other European countries, let me just say that it would be a pity to deny so many fans the possibility of seeing such an excellent show on account of the distance and cost of crossing the Atlantic. Face it, not every one is as crazy as me.