A Roadtrip, a Concert, and a Surprise
There’s nothing unusual about friendships that fade over time. Years begin to break the bonds between friends from high school: college, jobs, spouses, and new families all find ways to carve paths that lead us away from each other, and with this I am reminded of Don Henley and how he sings that the days of summer are out of reach: you can never go back. But you can remember.
That is how we spent the drive up from Selma to San Francisco to see Dream Theater. For the four of us, seeing Dream Theater was nothing new. This was my fifth time seeing them live, and I believe the others who, with me, completed the lineup for Selma sensation [punk?] rock band Jimmyrigg (yes, one word—we were very particular about that) had all seen Dream Theater at least twice as well. What was new, however, was all of us seeing Dream Theater together. Thirteen years after the days of Jimmyrigg, with me being the most out of touch with the group during that time, you can bet that the drive could be characterized by nothing but nostalgia-induced laughter. We were high from the funny-pheromones before we even hit the Bay Bridge. We were the boys of summer once again, and the night was only about to begin.
Only a Matter of Time
Dream Theater is one of those bands that can do [almost] no wrong in my eyes. My parents can vouch for me here when I say that I had listened to them almost every day of my life throughout my teens. If the album Images and Words wasn’t in my CD player, Awake was. I am one of those fans who have supported the various personnel changes throughout the band’s life. I am also one who has supported personnel that hasn’t changed—the voice of the band—James LaBrie. The story of this voice is one that is well documented (and hotly debated by supporters and haters) on the Internet, so details on that here would be redundant; however, I will write (with as little bias as possible) that the overall arch of James’ story has come full circle. When he began with Dream Theater during the recording of Images and Words back in ’91, his was one of the most impressive and expressive voices to hit the rock scene, and that momentum carried through Awake, LaBrie’s second album with the band. Listen for yourself in his 1992 performance of “Another Day”:
Unfortunately, accidents and tragedies have a way of taking musicians away from their art right in their prime. From dreamtheater.wikia.com, I quote:
Sometime in 1994 shortly after the recording of Awake, while vacationing in Cuba, Labrie caught food poisoning from some bad shellfish, the constant vomiting causing him to rupture his vocal chords. LaBrie sought out many vocal coaches, doctors and experts who all said there was nothing that could be done other than to rest his voice as much as possible for at least a year. However, LaBrie went against these wishes to tour with Dream Theater, further damaging his voice, leading to a live career that is notably spotty.
LaBrie claimed his voice did not feel normal until 1997, though he injured his voice again in 2000, almost completely destroying it. It was at this point that he fell into depression and suffered some weight gain, and his performances suffered, with inconsistencies in both his vocal performance and frontman abilities leading Portnoy and Petrucci to consider replacing him. After a "wake up call" confrontation, LaBrie focused his energy on improvement, seeking out a new vocal coach and starting a regimen of diet and exercise, which improved both his physique and vocal abilities. By 2004, LaBrie’s voice was stronger than ever and has remained so since then.
In my eyes, it’s difficult not to steal a show with a success story like this. A look at any recent footage of Dream Theater will immediately reveal that James absolutely owns his performance, and the voice that we all thought we had lost is back. It was a spectacular performance by Dream Theater as a whole, and it was all underscored by this win.
Lifting Shadows off a Dream
There is a story I enjoy telling all of my friends, how when first seeing Dream Theater back in ’99, my buddies and I (three of four from the aforementioned “boys of summer” Jimmyrigg, in fact) were shocked to see both John Petrucci and John Myung step out of a taxi right in front of the venue, the Maritime Hall as I recall. We found out that arriving six hours before the doors opened definitely had advantages other than having slightly better odds of finding good general admission positions near the stage. As if being able to say hi to our guitar heroes wasn’t enough, James LaBrie does the exact same thing a half hour later. They were all more than happy to take a few minutes to say hello and sign a few autographs. I can’t explain why, but I have a thing about autographs: I never ask for one. I find that I am always content with shaking hands and saying “thanks for the music.” We were bound to make this, or at least something like it, happen again.
After perhaps the best live performance of Dream Theater I’ve witnessed and being reunited with my old friends, there was definitely something electric in the air after walking out of the Warfield Theater. Three of us decided to wait around near the buses, and after watching techs and roadies stow away gear for an hour, I caught a man with a long black pony tail and grizzly arms walking down the sidewalk between the busses and the Warfield. “There’s John Petrucci guys, and he’s walking the wrong way!” There was a brief moment of panic, then as nonchalantly as a giddy man reliving his childhood dreams could be, I lead the way around the barricade to try and intercept him while he was signing and photographing with a fan who was smart (or lucky) enough to be waiting by the right tour bus. We were greeted with nothing but grins and appreciation despite copious amounts of fumes from bus exhaust.
It wasn’t much longer than half an hour later when the rest of the band emerged from the theater, and our small, motley group of die heard fans who braved San Fran’s finest panhandlers were likewise greeted by James LaBrie, Mike Mangini, and John Myung with such graciousness and appreciation that make the night such a highlight that it will never be forgotten.