Concert Review: Dream Theater – The Astonishing Live in Portland

Well, that was different.

If you’re going to write and record a concept album you might as well play the whole thing, front to back and center the accompanying tour around it. That’s exactly what Dream Theater did with their latest release The Astonishing and they brought it live to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, OR on Tuesday to the faithful.

The casual fan, the mildly interested fan, even the old school fan still cranking out Images and Words and Awake on their way to work might have come away a bit less than inspired but the true fan – The Astonishing Live was for them.

Dream Theater Concert Review

Dream Theater played no other songs from any other album. They opened with the first track “Descent of the NOMACS” which was pre-recorded then the band plugged in with “Dystopian Overture” and they cranked off the entire album, in order, all the way through to the final song, “Astonishing.” They took one break, a 20 minute intermission, after playing 90 minutes then returned for the second set, another 45 minutes, and then the final song for the encore which really was unnecessary as wrapping up the show to conclude the second set would have proved just as effective.

It was a rock concert yet it wasn’t. Lots of lights, some strobes and a video played on a carefully crafted screen behind the stage just as you’d expect at most concerts. But it was also very much a musical, or a play. It even included rolling credits to end the show. In fact, the supporting video streamed during most of the concert felt more like a graphic novel on screen as it illustrated the plot of The Astonishing which Dream Theater carried forward in song.

The band? Merely the actors in this stage performance. Singer James LaBrie singing his parts and often, if not always, leaving the stage as the supporting cast played their lines. And on cue, LaBrie returned when it was his time. Meanwhile, the mostly male audience watched intently some head bobbing but no air drums, air guitar or even help with chorus singing. Maybe that’s because it’s a new album and the only album played this evening but it just didn’t seem right to rock out. It was indeed a theatrical production.

LeBrie doesn’t envelope the stage like other larger than life front men.  He’s pretty straightforward actually, bringing his vocals to the spotlight and letting the band fill in the rest. He only engaged with the audience at the end of the show when he urged them to stand for the final two songs but what he lacks in charisma he certainly makes up for in song. His soaring and ultra-smooth vocals stole the show at times and he didn’t miss one note and sang strong throughout the evening.

Guitarist John Petrucci, the mastermind behind The Astonishing, is also a master on the fret board. Quite graceful, Petrucci ripped solid chords all night and peppered the evening with a number of solos that helped the audience to remember they were indeed at a rock show. He was accompanied by fellow founder and bassist John Myung, keyboardist Jordan Rudess and drummer Mike Mangini who aptly replaced longtime drummer and co-founder Mike Portnoy six years ago.

The Astonishing, the band’s 13th, is a hard album to digest. If any of the overheard pre-show chatter is believed, most of the fans appreciated the effort but it’s not a favorite. The record released in January features 34 tracts with a few a minute or so long but fully comes in at around two hours of music. The album as a whole moves the story along though a few songs work singularly like the classic sounding “The Gift of Music” and the hard rocking “Moment of Betrayal.” The album is ambitious to say the least and LaBrie described The Astonishing as a pinnacle moment for the band and something they had to do.

Most of the songs melt in to one another so unless you’ve dialed the album into your subconscious you’ll likely get lost as far as song placement which isn’t so much of an issue – it’s not like walking in on a movie halfway through. But show up late to The Astonshing Live you might wonder what’s going on if you didn’t catch this performance from the beginning.

Of course, both halves of the show (Act 1 – 17 songs; Act 2 – 12 songs), included many songs, but each felt like one long song saga. It’s not as if they all sound the same, though you can hear similar approaches and argue like-themes, which perhaps in many respects that’s how a concept album works, but they often sound complementary while incorporating different harmonies, structures and bridges throughout. Occasionally melodious and majestic but sometimes tedious and a bit lengthy you don’t necessary need to know the plot to enjoy The Astonishing though it certainly helps.

Like all concept albums it seems, the record revolves around a dystopian society and this one somehow incorporates an ancient past, shades of Games of Thrones here, with a distant and frightful future. The concept album is a favorite of late for the progressive rock type, well at least those bands whose members actually play their instruments. The Astonishing arrived on the heels of Muse’s Drones and a few years back Clockwork Angels from Rush.

But leave it to Dream Theater to take it to a whole new and untapped level. All that really felt missing was an accompanying playbill to further immerse fans in the band’s adventure and help the audience follow along as each act of this play unfolded.

By the way, if you’re planning on catching a show don’t bother bringing a camera or trying to use your cellphone. Venue staff makes it clear taking photos is unacceptable and if you’re caught – you’re out.

Dream Theater Portland (Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall) Setlist:

  1. Descent of the NOMACS
  2. Dystopian Overture
  3. The Gift of Music
  4. The Answer
  5. A Better Life
  6. Lord Nafaryus
  7. A Savior in the Square
  8. When Your Time Has Come
  9. Act of Faythe
  10. Three Days
  11. The Hovering Sojourn
  12. Brother, Can You Hear Me?
  13. A Life Left Behind
  14. Ravenskill
  15. Chosen
  16. A Tempting Offer
  17. Digital Discord
  18. The X Aspect
  19. A New Beginning
  20. The Road to Revolution
  21. 2285 Entr’acte
  22. Moment of Betrayal
  23. Heaven’s Cove
  24. Begin Again
  25. The Path That Divides
  26. Machine Chatter
  27. The Walking Shadow
  28. My Last Farewell
  29. Losing Faythe
  30. Whispers on the Wind
  31. Hymn of a Thousand Voices
  32. Our New World
  33. Power Down
  34. Astonishing



5 thoughts on “Concert Review: Dream Theater – The Astonishing Live in Portland

  1. Nice review except the Portland fans are to blame! Labrie tried to engage the crowd early, urging them to ‘come on’ as he motioned them to rise. I stood in amazement with my jaw dropped to the floor as the disinterested audience flat out would have none of it and ignored him! Yes, the crowd finally arose at the end of the first set and at the obligatory ovation during the last song at the end of show. Other than that, the Portland crowd all slept in their seats, totally unaware of the genius that was being played live in front of them. I attended three other shows in two different cities on this tour and all of them had tons of fans, standing most of the time, rocking out all over the place. Portland was a snoozefest! To many true Dream Theater fans, The Astonishing is a masterpiece, and to see it live raises it to a whole new level. To the rest, well, they just don’t realize it yet but their time will come! I’ve seen over 30 DT shows and have never rocked out harder on this tour. Portland! Wake up!!

  2. DyingSoul, you couldn’t be more accurate in your assessment! And I did see to guys totally head banging the whole show. They were in the 2nd row, and then because nobody would stand up, they moved off to the side and rocked out all night. I’ve never seen two guys rock so hard! Before they moved to the side, they were standing (they were the only two) during “A Better Life” they made some kind of connection with John Petrucci during his squeals in that song; it was pretty cool to watch!!

    And yes, wake the hell up Portland!

    Thank you Seattle and LA for showing the respect DT deserves and rocking throughout the whole show!!!!!

    Dreeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaammmmmmm Theeeeeeeaaaaaaattttttteeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrr!

    1. That was “two guys”, not “to guys” for all you spelling police out there. 🙂

  3. Great to see other reviews out there. It’s a different show for sure, for me that’s a welcomed breath of fresh air. The Oakland gig was pretty subdued looking but loud and appreciative.

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