The Musical Box – Live at Variety Playhouse

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I don’t know that I particularly enjoy “cover bands.”  I recently saw Dark Star Orchestra recreate an entire concert set-list from the Grateful Dead.  It seemed well done, but the “cover” aspect didn’t affect me because I was never a Dead fan.  I didn’t know the songs and, thus, had no expectations with which to compare.  It was a fun show.

But there are ample others out there – covering The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Genesis – all of whom are bands whose music I followed quite closely.   The Musical Box is a Genesis cover band, and not of the saccharine Genesis that cashed in for the pop charts in the 1980’s, but the progressive rock version that lasted until the latter 1970’s.

That was (largely) the era with Peter Gabriel as the vocalist, and Phil Collins as a drummer.  Oh, and a great keyboardist and a great guitarist and a solid guitarist/bassist.   Their music was highly inventive, musically adventurous, somewhat pretentious, lyrically ridiculous, and, often, downright gorgeous.   It was, you might guess, also unfriendly to radio even in the days when radio had a breadth of rock content.

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The Musical Box is a French Canadian band that began in 1993, from the start built to cover Genesis’ 1973 album Selling England by the Pound for the 20th anniversary.   Over time, the band covered other albums, including what many perceive as their high point, a concept album titled The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.    This album features Genesis at a very musically mature point.  It’s also one of the wordiest “concept” albums around, and Peter Gabriel, who wrote most of the lyrics, left the band after their tour was complete.

Genesis and Peter Gabriel, no longer the same thing, have helped this band along.  They were furnished over 1200 slides from the original Lamb tour, and they’ve watched every bit of available footage regarding stage design and Gabriel’s theatric presentation.   In short, to see the show is not just to hear Genesis’ music, but it’s to approximate a live concert experience circa 1974, but hopefully without the technical glitches that seemed to trip the band from show to show.  Original Genesis members have even attended The Musical Box’s shows, with Phil Collins commenting “they played it better than we did.”

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$40, bought in advance, after reasonable fees.  That’s quite a bit for a cover band.  But, within the progressive rock genre, they have great appeal for me.  And it’s not like the band is touring (and if they did, they wouldn’t play the songs I’d want to hear).  And it was at Variety Playhouse, my favorite venue.  And, I like going to concerts.  So I went, with my concert buddy who was similarly susceptible.

I’m getting older at 47 years.  But, dang, I like it when I’m the youth movement at a show.  All the other fans were seated, no screaming, no shout outs, no standing even... just middle aged absorption of great music from decades ago.  And how about that concert volume?  From the balcony, it was like listening to a stereo, clear with only a hint of echo.  Pretty good.   It could have been a little louder, even.

The band members themselves are committed to their roles.  Hair styles of each of the original band members were distinctively familiar, even down to singer Denis’ Gagne’s shaved spot on the top of his head as Gabriel had at that time.

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I’ve seen Peter Gabriel three times in concert:   1982, 1992, and 2002.  He owns the stage, with carefully staged productions, occasional costumes, elaborate props on occasion, and exacting timing.  Watching Gagne’s performance gives hints as to where it all began, amongst a band as still as pillars that Gabriel could crawl, run, dance, and otherwise cavort amongst.   It was enjoyable, but... it was 1974, and performance was art.  Artists doing this today would suffer from critics, just as Genesis did back then - amusing, and a great throwback.

Helping that along were the fantastic three panel slides from the original shows, entertaining in that they often provided some visual interpretations of the songs, but also in that the show did not require lasers, plasma screens, and flash pots to supplement live music...  Even Variety’s phenomenal lighting was restrained from coloring the stage to vividly.

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The band sounded good – not perfect – but I don’t expect the original band would have either.  But, it was definitely good.  The album had a strong melodic and rock edge to the first disk, and the second disk lost a step with music that was forced to play into whatever the meaning of the lyrics might be.   The band worked through all that, but if it did anything, it made their closing songs “The Musical Box” and “Watcher of the Skies” all the more confident and enjoyable. 

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And as for the meaning of Lamb, despite the faux-Gabriel’s recitations of story segments, I still don’t get it.  And I don’t care.  It’s great music.

Note:  These fond memories are (not) sponsored by The Porter Bar, a fine nearby pub to taste a diverse selection of brews and a mighty fine cheeseburger before the show.  Top notch.

3 of 5 STARS

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