We are here at Morsefest, and our hearts are overflowing. The first day was an emotional, exciting, thrilling, and altogether exhausting day. And the next day, we did it all over again. Through it all, we've been acutely aware that we are only here because of the kindness of strangers.
We arrived here in the Nashville, Tennessee area a day early. The idea was for me to be able to get a rest and recovery day before the excitement started. That didn't exactly work out. I had a terrible night's sleep on Thursday night. In fact, I haven't slept well for over a week, which is unheard of for me. I'm blaming prednisone. But we're not here for me to bellyache about my treatment. There's plenty of room for that in other posts. This one is all about what love can do.
I told the story of how this miraculous trip came to be in my post The Conclusion. One day I got very bad news from my doctor, and came home to discover that people I'd never met had banded together to make it possible for Sharon and me to attend this two day festival featuring my favorite artist, band, and music. It was an astonishing example of the kindness of strangers, and completely unexpected. It turned a very bad time in our lives into one of great meaning, blessing, friendship and love.
The music of Neal Morse speaks most deeply to my soul at this time in my life. It's the only rock music I know that's this musically satisfying and spiritually uplifting all at the same time. Nothing else comes close for me. That being the case, my greatest wish, my one bucket list item, was to come to this two night festival of my favorite music performed by my favorite band. Especially when they were performing my all-time favorite album, The Similitude Of A Dream, in its entirety for the last time.
It was also the DVD taping. How incredibly special for me to be there for that. It's like someone told me I have a front row seat for the final performance and DVD taping of Dark Side Of The Moon. But Roger Waters, for all his brilliance, never wrote an uplifting lyric in his life. Neal Morse's lyrics take me straight to Heaven, and his music stands toe to toe with any of the greats in rock history. To paraphrase Neal's dear friend, drummer, and collaborator, Mike Portnoy, if I had to pick one artist for my desert island music collection, between the Beatles catalog and the Neal Morse catalog, it would be a tough call.
That being the case, you can imagine the thrill it's been to be here. Everything at Morsefest has been far beyond our expectations. From the moment we arrived at the hotel and met our new friends Mark, Patricia, Paul and Angus, we've been humbled by their kindness and generosity. They've allowed us to tag along with their party, and trust me, their party is the one you want to be part of.
We arrived at New Life Fellowship in Cross Plains, Tennessee Friday afternoon and received special VIP passes for the day. The staff at Morsefest is kind, gracious and helpful. The love of God shines through in their faces. They have gone the extra mile to make this time special for us, and we will always be grateful.
Because of the party that we were with, and because of the kindness of the Morsefest staff, we were given front row seats for both night's concerts. Dinner is served at the church, which contributes to the feeling of community here. Our group had its own table at dinner, which made it easy for people to find us. And many came by to greet us. Paul and I seemed to garner most of the attention.
Wherever I go here, I am recognized. At the church where Morsefest is held, at our hotel and in restaurants, people approach us and express how happy they are that we were able to be here. This was evident from the very first.
When we arrived at the church the first day and received our VIP passes, the first activity was a game called "Neal Of Fortune." Contestants were called up by number to play. In each group, someone I knew from Facebook was introduced to me. It was a weekend of putting faces with names. When there was one group left, my number was called. As soon as I stood, a murmur went through the crowd. When I walked onstage, everyone there seemed to know me. I didn't even have to give my name. It was my first indication of the incredible amount of love and support I would receive here.
Since then, I've hardly been able to walk down a hallway without meeting someone who wants to say some encouraging words to me. I can't describe how that feels. Each time someone shows such love to me, my eyes fill with tears. The tears come very easily this weekend. It's no coincidence that music like this by a man like this draws fans like this.
At the meet and greet, I was able to have meaningful conversations with each member of the band. They all seemed to know my story. Some told me they are praying for me. For me, this is a little like The Beatles telling me they are praying for me. When my wife and I talked with Neal, we gave him two pints of my gourmet chocolate ice cream, which I had brought on the plane from Denver packed in dry ice. I don't know if he's sharing it or not. That's up to him.
After dinner, where more love and support were showered upon us, our party was ushered in and escorted down to the front row on one side of the stage. The picture at the top of this post was taken from that vantage point. We had a perfect view. We couldn't believe our good fortune. You see, we were not able to buy VIP passes. By the time our tickets were purchased, VIP was no longer available. We certainly hadn't paid for front row seats. All of this was a gift. The kindness of strangers.
The first night's concert was a performance of Neal's autobiographical concept album Testimony 2, along with some "rare epics." I won't do a detailed concert review here. The internet would run out of space. I'll just say that, like all Neal Morse Band concerts, it was musically thrilling, spiritually uplifting, and God-glorifying. And loud. It was loud. And I loved it. As I always say, if it's too loud, you're too old.
I first saw Neal Morse live in 2010 when he first came to Denver on the Testimony 2 tour. So it was fitting that T2 was one of the albums I saw them perform at my last Neal Morse Band concert. A beautiful way to begin and end my six times seeing Neal Morse live. My favorite moment on this album, and my favorite lyric in the entire Neal Morse catalog, is from a song called, "It's For You." At the end of the chorus, God is speaking. He says:
Take my hand
Trade everything you are
For everything I AM.
Trade everything we are for everything God is. What a trade! And one I can relate to easily. Everything I was is gone. I've traded everything I am in exchange for everything He is. And He is so much more than I ever could have been.
When we reached that moment in the concert, I was undone. I was torn between rocking out on my favorite song on the album and breaking down in sobs. I think I did both.
Progressive rock concerts are long. My wife and I were running on fumes for the entire show. While were were thrilled to have front row seats, we discovered that when you're right in front of the band, you have a responsibility to rock out. And rock out we did. But there are long stretches where everyone is seated for mellower sections. During those times, I can't tell you how many times I thought, "Don't yawn! Neal's looking at you!"
I don't know how those guys put out so much energy for two straight nights. The first concert began at 7:30 PM and didn't end till after 11:30 PM. Our day at the church had begun at 2:30 PM, so when we got in our rental car at about midnight, we were beyond exhausted. But we were feeling very blessed, and still pinching ourselves that we're actually here.
I'll need to talk about Saturday and Sunday at Morsefest in my next post. This one is long enough. Aren't they all? But I want to close with a story about the Inner Circle concert on Saturday morning. Inner Circle is a group of Neal Morse super fans who pay a monthly fee to get all kinds of inside material from Neal every month. We've never been Inner Circle, but somehow, we were included in this concert as well. I think that's what they call grace. We don't deserve it, but we're included anyway. Undeserved favor. The kindness of strangers.
At the concert, which was basically a solo acoustic set, Neal was introducing a song called, "If I Had A Year To Live." In his introduction, Neal asked what he would do if he only had six months to live. Though the song talks about time increments of a year, a month, a week, and a day, the first number out of Neal's mouth was six months. That's about the number I'm looking at, realistically. Barring a miracle, that is. When Neal said that, it hit me hard. And I immediately thought, "I'm doing it. I'm doing it right now." I still am.
The rest of Saturday is a whole other story. I was interviewed for the DVD. We were placed front and center so that Paul and I would be in the camera shot. And so much more.
It's Sunday morning. The worship service is at noon. They will lay hands on us and pray for us. I expect it to be transformative. I know I won't be able to hold back the tears.
For the uninitiated, the title of this post is a reference to an album title in Neal's back catalog. I thought it very fitting for this post. But there's one problem with it. I've discovered that there are no strangers here. There is only family. A #progfamily. It's a family that's growing all the time. We are humbled and eternally grateful to be part of it. #waroncancer #bearingwitness #morsefest2017