I was all set to review tonight’s Dream Theater show at London’s Hammersmith Apollo (on the 21st of February 2020) in the traditional way. The tour sees them playing their acclaimed concept album, Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From A Memory, in full, along with a selection of other songs. Tonight’s show is the first of two in London. The album is one of my favourite albums of all time, so it was always going to be something of an emotional experience. It was something I’d been waiting for since getting to interview Jordan Rudess back at Download 2019 when he suggested this tour would be coming to the UK. The way things unfolded took it way past that.
The first part of the evening, as expected, was Dream Theater performing a selection of other tracks, with a fairly heavy weighting on most recent album Distance Over Time (it is the Distance Over Time world tour after all). Despite continuing their on / off tradition of making venues all seater for their UK shows, the anticipation and energy in the room was palpable. Kicking off with the expected Untethered Angel, Dream Theater immediately found their groove, although it took their sound person a little while to find James Labrie the right place in the mix. A thunderous Nightmare To Remember followed, reminding everyone why Black Clouds and Silver Linings is the best Dream Theater album of the last decade or so, although it was a little weird hearing James sing Mike Portnoy’s growly bit in his normal vocal style. The rest of the first part comes from Distance Over Time, with Paralyzed being the pick of the bunch of those songs, punctuated by an excellent sprint through In The Presence Of Enemies part 1, similar to their Download Festival set for those who were there to enjoy that.
Here’s where the normal rulebook goes out the window; Dream Theater’s PR person, who is a good friend, sends me a text at the interval asking where we are. Turns out there are two seats near her in the front row that have remained empty for the whole first half. We very gratefully take up the invitation to make use of them, safe in the knowledge that if the original owners come to claim them, we have our own perfectly good seats to return to. No one ever came to ask for the seats.
The realisation of the fact I’m about to watch one of my favourite bands do one of my all time favourite albums in full from touching distance with one of my best friends in tow hits like a train. No fighting on a barrier, jostling for position, no crowd surges, a clear front row view. This kind of shit just doesn’t happen. Except it is happening and very shortly after the intro video begins and Dream Theater return from the interval to begin Scenes From A Memory in full. Having been made aware that one of the cameramen filming the DVD of tonight’s show was grateful that there wouldn’t be empty seats on view on the filming, we give it everything, not that we needed another reason to do so. If ever there is a time not to fuck up singing some of your favourite songs, this is it.
The intro video and Overture 1928 are great, but it’s THAT intro drum blast for Strange Deja Vu that fully brings the Apollo roaring to life. James Labrie asks for audience participation on the vocals and gets it in spades as four and a half thousand people bellow every word back at him. Being so close to the band, things you notice from further back are magnified while you also notice new things. Mike Mangini has always looked like he enjoys being in Dream Theater, but when you are this close you can see just how much he absolutely LOVES what he is doing. He’s living the dream, and making the most of every moment, making eye contact with us and others in the front row and beaming away regularly throughout the set. The always metronomic fingers of John Myung are even more impressive up close, thundering through a flawless Fatal Tragedy and approaching speeds that just shouldn’t be possible on Beyond This Life. It’s on Beyond This Life where John Petrucci fully displays his almost superhuman skills, making complex riffs and intricate sections look as easy as strumming an open E string. My fellow Dream Theater devotee and Rock Sins scribe Matt rises at the conclusion and half bows to John, getting rewarded with a plectrum for his salute. At this point the only thing we are missing is Jordan Rudess donning the wizard’s hat to go with his absurdly bad ass keytar, which got a couple of run outs at various points.
Things slow right down for another personal favourite, Through Her Eyes. James is perched on a stool a couple of feet in front of us for this and you can see the wet shining off his eyes as he’s fully involved in the emotion of the song. Its a fantastic performance on a song that would be very easy to get wrong, but thats never going to happen on a night like tonight. Before Home, James engages the audience in practicing to join in every time the big “Home” hits. On the evidence, practice wasn’t needed. Home is a Dream Theater song I’ve been waiting to see live for 16 years, and it very much was worth the wait. Watching all four of the bands instrumentalists hammer through the various sections without vocals is a jaw dropping experience. Being so close, it’s impossible to know where to look at any given time, as we try to soak it all in. Collective efforts to air drum along with Mike Mangini’s playing even see him blow a kiss in our direction (words I thought I’d never be writing for sure). Things go from the sublime to the ridiculous with The Dance Of Eternity. The whole thing is wonderful, but Jordan’s cheerful keys jingle-esque solo is the standout moment.
This is the kind of experience you never want to end, but of course sooner or later it will. We collectively belt the “One last time” section of that song as if our lives depend on it. The Spirit Carries On is, pardon the cliche, verging on a spiritual experience as John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess in particular are performing at their absolute peak. We are all encouraged to get our phone lights out to “light the place up”. It briefly enters my head that being in the front row, doing such a thing might actually cause the band a problem, but no harm is done. James overdoes the vocals a tad in one or two places but at this point few, if any, are bothered. Everyone is just enjoying this momentous experience.
We, like everyone around us by this point are emotionally shattered, but Finally Free gives us one last (extended) dose of the joy we’ve all had for the past hour plus. Again, the “One last time” interlude is a big highlight in a song performance full of wow factor. The band deserve every single clap of the ovation they receive at the end of Finally Free. If the roof had fallen in at this point you wouldn’t have been surprised. Everyone would have been very happy to go home at this point but we get an encore of At Wit’s End from Distance Over Time, to square the circle of this being the Distance Over Time tour as well as the celebration of Scenes From A Memory.
Without a doubt, this is one of the top 5 gigs I’ve ever been to in my seventeen years of attending hundreds of shows. A mindblowing, once in a lifetime experience. If you are a Dream Theater fan and have a chance to see this tour, whether you’re in the front row or the very back, you need to take the opportunity. Scenes From A Memory in full is an experience every Dream Theater fan deserves to experience.
Words by Jamie Giberti. All photos except John Petrucci (which is by Jamie Giberti) by Matt Hill.