Behold photos of a prog-rock feast at Toronto’s Mod Club

[Photographer Andrei Chlytchkov dispatched himself for an evening of prog. Text by L. Benny Sanders. – AC]

Not one but three phenomenal bands fired up The MOD Club–one of Toronto’s best venues–on Groundhog Day. Tonight. (The last time I was in here, my band, H to Oh!, was opening for The Kings back in the soon after I auditioned to be lead vocalist for INXS.) This was prog at its finest.

Sons of Apollo (Portnoy, Sheehan, Sherinian, with Soto and Thal) and Tony MacAlpine all on one stage. Amazing.

If the aforementioned musicians are the music gods, members of Mass Extinction Event must at least hold the title of demi-gods. Guitarist Ethan Weissman and brother Avery (bass), along with Cotter Champlin (guitar) and drummer Chris Iorio (ages respectively 21, 23, 23 & 24) make up the quartet. Suji and I had no idea what to expect as Ron (Bumblefoot) hadn’t indicated that they were opening when he invited us.

Seeing as this was only their third gig ever (Ethan told me the first one was for his culminating project at SUNY Purchase College where Bumblefoot used to teach) I didn’t have any background on them. After jamming with Ron in NYC, their second gig was opening for MacAlpine on June 23rd, 2020 in Buffalo NY at Mohawk Place. As a result they were asked if they wanted to open for the eastern swing of the tour.

Their set began with a non-stop presentation of three tunes from their debut CD Human Error (which I am enjoying while writing this review): “Mass Extinction Event”, “Six Feet of Ashes” and “Ed the Space Alien.”

The guitarists worked incredibly well together, leads and harmonies were traded and blended as only the enthusiastic and dedicated can do. I was impressed with Iorio’s tasteful use of the double kick drums. He didn’t just drive 16th notes through numbers, and he with Avery grounded the tunes as a great rhythm section must. For the final two tunes, “Thalassophobia” (which included a solo by Avery on a 5-string bass) and “Project Z” (the first song on their CD), Ethan and Cotter switched out their 6-strings for 7-strings. The latter number like an anthem and the crowd enthusiastically thanked the band as they ended their set.

Ethan (who is in addition a music teacher and recording engineer) told me he hopes that the band will be able to play more gigs here in Canada after this tour, and so should you.

Here on 2020-02-02, “The Electric Illusionist Tour” brought the entrance of guitar deity Tony MacAlpine. I spoke with Tony’s concert manager during this break, a very personable guy named Josiah. He told me that MacAlpine was really psyched for the gig tonight and said if I needed any details about him, that he’d be glad to provide them to me.

Later I asked fans John and Mary (who were in the in the stage right seating area that Suji and I were settled into) about their thoughts for this evening. They told me that they had gone on the 2017 Monsters of Rock cruise and saw early performances of tonight’s headliners, and were excited to see them again in their hometown. John also expressed that after witnessing MacAlpine gigging with bassist Billy Sheenan a few years ago, he believed that this would prove to be his concert of the year.

Tony jumped on-stage, threw a kiss to the audience and shouted “Thank you Toronto, we love you very much”. He broke into “The Stranger” (from his 1986 debut album Edge of Insanity) and continued his set with “King’s Rhapsody” (from his eleventh album Concrete Gardens from 2015). We also heard “Tower of London,” “Serpens Cauda,” and “Epic.” Each and every one showcased MacAlpine’s guitar virtuosity.

Tony’s piano solo briefly brought us into an entirely different headspace, highlighting his diversity and roots as a keyboard prodigy (pre-guitar, Tony took up the piano at age five). He regularly includes compositions written by his keyboard idol on his various albums. Next up was “Shundr Pritibi” followed by “The Kings Cup.” “Tears of Sahara” and his closer “The Vision” (all three from 1987’s Maximum Security). Then came “Porcelain Doll” for the encore.

By the time Sons of Apollo hit the stage, Suji and I were both already more than satisfied with this evening but we were definitely still wound-up to see Ron and his band-mates play. This evening was only m’lady’s second real rock concert ever (the first being in October 2019 when we went to see Bumblefoot’s solo event at The Rockpile in Etobicoke).

The quintet is composed of Mike Portnoy (who plays drums with the very Canadian ‘Sabian’ cymbals) and Derek Sherinian (keys), long-time buddies through Dream Theater fame with Billy Sheehan (bassist extraordinaire), the amazing Ron Bumblefoot Thal on guitar (ex-Guns & Roses) and veteran singer/showman Jeff Scott Soto (former vocalist with Journey among many others) to round out what is truly a prog supergroup.

An excerpt (the instrumental lead-in synth opening) from the new album MMXX introduced us to “Goodbye Divinity.” Another selection from that CD, “Fall to Ascend” followed before SoA presented us with “Signs of the Time” (from the 2017 album Psychotic Symphony and the first song they ever wrote together).

I spoke with Terry, who was there with his girlfriend Diana, who told me that they traveled all the way from Sudbury for the concert. Terry made an important comment to me: “Prog-rock walks a fine line between alienation and inclusiveness for the masses, but Sons of Apollo makes it inclusive” for all.

One of the band’s influences is apparent in a number of their compositions. When they continued the set with “Wither to Black” (an MMXX track in which Ron’s guitar work on the fretless neck of his beloved axe sounds so liquid many would mistake it for a synthesizer), a familiar iconic Canadian band comes to mind. Their set-list even read “Wither to RUSH”, as they included a tribute in the form of “Tom Sawyer.”

“Asphyxiation” from the new album grabbed us by the throat with Bumblefoot’s syncopated guitar chops, and Sherinian’s screaming synth sirens and Soto arresting vocals. During “Labyrinth” (a return to music of the first album) Soto called our attention to the “the legend himself” from Buffalo NY, as Billy (who briefly worked with his long-time friend, Toronto’s Kim Mitchell and Max Webster) executed a 4 minute bass solo, shredding as only the finest guitarists can. If you stop to realize how much heavier bass strings are than those of an electric guitar, and the amount of skill and strength of the fingers required, you’d wonder that any kind of solo on that instrument was possible.

His soliloquy led us into “Lost in Oblivion” (2017) before the band presented “Desolate July” (MMXX). Jeff spoke of the loss of his brother who was also a fellow musician, David Z (Soto). They worked together in the solo project that carried their shared last name, SOTO. Jeff also brought up the names of friends Neil Peart (who coincidentally died the day of the release of the new album) and Kobe Bryant, and then dedicated the song to those them.

Up next was “King of Delusion” one of the many tunes in which Soto alludes to religious disillusion (“You’re certifiably crazy I believe now you’ll fall”) beginning with its 7/8 piano riffs and haunting, hushed voices into the driving 11/8 guitar chops after which Jeff and Ron spoke of the passing of “The Professor” (i.e Neil Peart). The band played “Alive” (2017) in his memory and then lead into “New World Today” (from MMXX), a tune that begins with an almost dreamy fretless guitar, and reminiscent of Rush’s “YYZ” (RUSH) with addition flourishes of Jon Lord and Keith Emerson (obviously two of Derek Sherinian’s influences).

“New World Today” (with Soto’s help) went seamlessly into Derek performing an eight and a half minute multi-keyboard, multi-genre solo to repeated cheers from the fans at each momentary pause. Sherinian has a deep, caring relationship with the classic B3 organ and its companion, the Leslie. Hearing him play brings to mind wonderful memories of working with keyboardists who would lovingly haul these massive instruments around to gigs. They sound so great. There is nothing like them.

One such player, Lee Van Leer (aka C.J. Feeney) a long-time friend I worked with in numerous bands, passed away almost exactly 4 years ago. For him, as with Derek, the B3/Leslie combo was almost an extension of his being when he played it. Sherinian’s solo never really ended as it morphed into an extended version of “God of the Sun” (the first track on Psychotic Symphony and one of the most powerful songs in their repertoire.

The only tune missing (for me anyhow) was “Just Let Me Breathe” which contains the most simultaneously synchronous guitar, keys and bass solo known to humans in this or any time.

For their encore, Tony returned to the stage to join his old bandmates (PSMS, the initials of Portnoy, Sheehan, MacAlpine and Sherinian ) with a cover of Deep Purple’s “Burn” (but damn, the original is tame, even thin, compared to what we experienced here).

There were a few words from our hosts before they concluded with “Coming Home” (2017) a high energy tune that included a few licks and a scream from (another one of the band’s influences) The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Thank you Ron for the post-concert chat, the photo with us, your next day email from chilly Montreal and all of your kindness. Hugs from the two of us!

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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