It was shortly after the release of A Dramatic Turn of Events when I got to see Dream Theater live for the second time (The first was when they were a part of the very first outing of Megadeth’s Gigantour package festival.) Things were settling in now for the band as Mike Mangini was preparing to take his place onstage for the first tour as the band’s drummer, following the contentious split between the group and founding member Mike Portnoy. The critics were prepared to rain down harsh statements and cast judgements, much as friends might tend to do when a divorced member of the circle brings the new boyfriend or girlfriend by. Oh, we’ll see just how bad a mistake they made this time, they clucked.
Contrary to presupposition, Mangini gelled nicely, the band was super-tight as expected, and more than that there was a camaraderie among the players that had been absent for a few years. They looked and sounded like they were working as a fully cohesive unit again, a team, and what might have been a night spent juggling conjecture turned into one well-spent at the show. I think that evening prejudiced me when I reviewed the band’s most recent eponymous titled album. In hindsight the songs have gotten better over subsequent listening, but one thing has not changed: they still sound like they, each of them, are competing with each other. For those hardcore prog-rock fans who enjoy inter-band smackdowns of proficiency, that might have been exactly what they were looking for. I was left wondering, where’s the group that seemed to be getting along so well on stage? Was it an illusion because that’s what I wanted to see, versus what was really there?
If the more-than-complete live collection Live At Luna Park says anything, it says that I’m not mistaken. Released in more configurations than seemed humanly possible, Live At Luna Park documents Dream Theater’s victory lap of sorts on the Dramatic Tour Of Events in Buenos Aires, everyone looks and sounds engaged, on-point, and committed to working together much as I had seen on stage in Morristown, New Jersey. Only this outing is much, much bigger than the well-appointed yet still smaller theater atmosphere. The group’s vast catalog gets a workout, even if fan favorites from Images and Words and Awake are reserved mostly for encore fodder. Tracks from A Dramatic Turn of Events take precedence, but that is just fine for me, as I felt that record brought the group back to a centrist place they once held firmly, an even division of the metal and the prog sides.
The video portion of the collection is probably one of the best-shot live shows in the band’s history. They’ve had a few now, but they range from polished to looking like it was shot with camcorders in a middle school all-purpose room. Live At Luna Park is very much a live movie as it is a document of the show, and I was glad of that. We’ve had a few rock show offerings this year, from Rush’s Clockwork Angels Tour which is well constructed but highly traditional to Metallica’s Through The Never which was weirdly concocted with a fictional story woven in, which helped absolutely nothing. Luna Park leans more toward Clockwork Angels Tour, but that is okay. (Small gripe: I wish the camera didn’t have to move all the time, but that’s the same for 80% of the video/film experience these days. Not much can be done about it.) The music is complicated enough without added artifice to gum up the works.
Eagle Records, and by extension Eagle Rock Entertainment, have been steadily growing with the quality of their output. Not that they were ever amateurish, but where their output once felt highly niche now they have the means to compete with just about any other label. Live At Luna Park is no exception. You can buy the DVD, or Blu-ray, or a combo of CD/DVD (reviewed here), or a limited run bookset that collects the whole magilla. For that rabid prog fan in your life, any iteration of the release would make a fine gift.
But more than just the packaging, I was particularly impressed with the sound. Allow a digression that would seem unrelated — in it’s theatrical release, Through The Never did pretty bad numbers. I suspect that the critical pointing out of the concert versus narrative eccentricities didn’t help, and neither did the idea that heavy music doesn’t have the very young fan base that would justify a national first-run theatrical release in 3-D. Those numbers are only justified by tween/teen idols where the fans are content to just stare at them on a massive screen for two hours. Is it snarky to say that music doesn’t really matter as much to them? Possibly, but that’s the only rationale why One Direction would need a documentary about their lives so soon in their careers, and why their fans flocked to see Harry Styles larger than all hell.
And there is nothing wrong with that directly. I enjoyed Live At Luna Park much more as a home video than I would have as a movie theater experience. The sound and visuals of live concerts on home video have been more sophisticated and, honestly, far superior to theaters for nearly a decade now. If you can’t actually be in the concert hall, where part of the thrill is just being there with like-minded individuals, then home video is definitely the way to go. When you’re talking about a band like Dream Theater, Rush, or even Metallica where there is a definite weight on technical proficiency, you want to hear and see what they’re doing without the deficiencies of unenthusiastic audiences retreating to smartphones during songs they don’t like (at least at the shows they’ll leave to either go get beer or recycle what they’ve already had).
So I’m not saying that Dream Theater’s Live At Luna Park is a good curio or representation of the band in concert. I’m saying this set is my preferred experience, and if you have an interest in this style of music it will probably be your best choice too. It shows a band getting to know each other again, and working well in that context, sounding great, and is therefore highly recommended.