4 Stars Music

The Musical Box live at Highline Ballroom, New York

The Musical Box is a Canadian group that stages elaborate recreations of entire concerts given by the English progressive rock band Genesis in the early 1970s. They perform closely-observed note-for-note cover versions of the original songs, in the original set list order, with full recreations of the set design, props, costumes, vintage instruments, and even the mannerisms of the original Genesis. So while it is technically true that they are essentially a cover band, how many of those tour the world several times over and land gigs at significant venues like The Highline Ballroom? It speaks to both the integrity of the original Genesis music and to The Musical Box’s own skills that they are not a mere tribute band gigging through bars and frat houses.

At the Highline Ballroom, The Musical Box performed Genesis’ famed “Black Show,” originally in support of the 1973 album Selling England By the Pound, and widely bootlegged as the “Rainbow Show”. Genesis’ typical “White Show” was more elaborately staged, but due to venue requirements and the troubles of shipping their gear internationally, they would sometimes play the stripped-down Black Show, so known for its low stage lighting and simple black backdrop. The Musical Box’s performance had amazing sound fidelity, and was one of the best-sounding live concerts I’ve ever heard. No doubt the actual Genesis (many of whom have seen The Musical Box live and have even sat in with them on occasion) wish they had such modern audio technology at their disposal in the early 1970s.

The Musical Box

The members of The Musical Box are as much actors as they are crack musicians. Fittingly, Peter Gabriel himself was mostly acting onstage; the famously shy young man masked his discomfort with an outlandish stage persona full of costumes, masks, and mime. Denis Gagné is perhaps a touch too old to play a stringbean-thin Gabriel in his early twenties, but does an extraordinary job of capturing his vocals and stage presence, right down to the hilariously filthy stories Gabriel used to tell between songs as the rest of the band retuned their instruments.

The only performer out of 70s bell-bottom costume was Gregg Bendian as “Phil Collins.” He was, however, paradoxically one of the most authentic performers, recreating Collins’ unmistakably muscular and enthusiastic drumming. After becoming famous as a television actor and cheesy pop superstar in the 1980s, It’s easy to forget that Collins is first and foremost one of rock’s best drummers.

The Musical Box

The rest of Genesis was very serious and reserved, and relied on Gabriel to engage the audience as they played. Sébastien Lamothe enlivens the bearded, serious Steve Hackett’s guitar embellishments (not one of Genesis’ core songwriters, Hackett was however a brilliant guitarist and one of the inventors of the two-handed tapping technique). Sébastien Lamothe straps on a genuine double-necked Rickenbocker to play Mike Rutherford, with the dedication to verisimilitude to grow a full beard and flowing locks. David Myers plays Tony Banks, the stoic unsmiling anchor on stage right, but sadly relies on modern synthesizers (nothing compares to the raw sound of an actual Mellotron).

And finally, a cheap shot: the audience was far from the usual sort seen at New York City venues. A noticeably older set, with a very strong dork flavor (with shirts tucked in over pot bellies), but there was a surprising number of women (not traditionally an audience for progressive rock).

The Musical Box

A few notes on the songs:

• Cinema Show – it’s difficult to fully appreciate the very long (approx. 5 minutes!) instrumental power trio sequence featuring Collins, Banks, Rutherford until you witness it live. Wow! Genesis was a lot “heavier” than I ever realized from simply listening to the albums.

• Firth of Fifth – Steve Hackett’s hair-raising melody line must be one of the best guitar moments in rock, ever, and no doubt Lamothe relishes playing it live.

• The Musical Box – the coda sequence (during which Gabriel famously wore a grotesque “old man” mask) drove the crowd bananas. Clearly the band is aware of the song’s power, for they took their name from it.

• The Battle of Epping Forest is the rare classic Genesis song that I haven’t already memorized over the years. Gabriel affected lots of character voices in the original, and thus this is perhaps the one point when Gagné’s impersonation fails him.

• Supper’s Ready – had The Musical Box not already provided a premature climax to the show, the closing “Apocalypse” sequence to Supper’s Ready would have been it.

• The Knife (encore) – why aren’t Genesis credited more often for recording one of the earliest hard rock songs? The Knife is so dark, loud, and aggressive, it could possibly even be called metal.

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