The Lamb Lies Down in Toronto

Cover, Oct 21, 2011

Story:Lenny Stoute

The year was 1993; Bill Clinton was the American president, a bomb went off at The World Trade Centre, Lorena Bobbit bobbed her hubby’s knob, the Toronto Blue Jays won its second World Series and The Late Show With David Letterman debuted. Also debuting that entertainment-packed year, a Montreal prog rock collective dedicated to the music of Genesis, calling themselves The Musical Box.

Named for a 1971 Genesis song about an old man reclaiming his youth, the Montreal outfit has since become one of rock music’s least likely success stories: a French-Canadian cover band playing progressive-rock epics to raving crowds across the globe.

The Musical Box came together in Montreal initally to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 1973 album Selling England By The Pound

The original lineup was a seven-piece with a strong theatrical outlook, and plunged into using visual effects and costumes that were in the original Genesis shows of the 1970s. This kind of intimate meta connection to the original is a large part of what has placed The Musical Box apart from pretenders in the genre ever since.

The act was only meant to last a weekend; a group of Montreal prog-rockers doing  Selling England by the Pound at the Montreal Spectrum. Instead, it morphed into the longest one-of in rock history, becoming their ticket on a ride that has seen The Musical Box play to hundreds of thousands of  people around the world.

The tribute band industry  is on a steady roll, each generation coming up with access to all of the music from all time, fed by a steady culture stream  from outlets like Behind the Music and VH1. This is apart from the rock steady nostalgia demographic, so little surprise that  it’s become a mark of success to spawn clone bands.

When, as in the case of Genesis, the original may never play together again, the ante is considerably upped.

The band has been on hiatus since 1997, when comeback  album Calling All Stations and accompanying  tour tanked. Even if a reunion should eventually come to pass, the players, all closing in on 60 , would be unable to recrate the excitement, energy and dazzling musicianship of their youthful selves. Which is what people go to a Musical Box show to see , the forever young Genesis.

A Musical Box show is no mere tribute; it is a revival. The band evokes the experience of a Genesis concert from the blazing glory of their past. The lighting, the sets, even the musicians’ gestures are choreographed from painstaking study of archival footage. Though its lineup has varied through the years, the Musical Box has guarded the authenticity of the act with great care.

“We keep that music alive, in a way,” says Serge Morissette, who serves as the band’s artistic director. “I’m sure we’ve sold a lot of Genesis albums. No doubt. Each time we’re in a new city, in a new arena, there’s new interest.” The group has an exclusive licence to mount its current tour, restaging Genesis’s 1974 rock opera The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.

“They’d never granted anyone that kind of licence,” says Morissette, who spent two years negotiating the rights. Morissette is a lifelong Genesis fan. with a collection of memorabilia that includes hundreds of photos, films and documents, material the crew uses to reconstruct the elaborate costumes and sets. The 1,120 slides in the Musical Box’s current stage show are replicas of the 31-year-old originals; the band even hired Genesis’s original slide operator to put them in proper sequence.

In preparation for the original launch of ‘Lamb’, Genesis opened up their recording studio in  Surrey, England, to the band. As there was no sheet music available, the Musical Box were there for a group listen to the Lamb’s master tapes track by track, making a instrumentation list and checking it twice. When perfection meant locating vintage instruments or custom-building their own, they did that too without hesitation.

From the get go, the project has always enjoyed the approval and support of Genesis. Rutherford saw the band play on its first European tour in 2002. Peter Gabriel brought his daughters to their show in Bristol, allegedly to show them what Daddy used to do. When the band played London’s Royal Albert Hall that May, guitarist Steve Hackett joined them for the encore and Phil Collins repeated the feat in Geneva.

It’s not hard to figure out why the men of Genesis approve. Their material is handled with the reverence usually accorded only to classical music and just like the Beethovens and Bachs, the name of Genesis may achieve a similar immortality, due to the efforts of The Musical Box.

It’s concievable the franchise can go on forever with an ever-rejuvenating cast of players, all dedicated to delivering the music of Genesis to future generations in the same pristine condition in which they received it.

The band’s licence to perform the Lamb expires next year, after which they may return to the Selling England tour they began with. Or they may pack it in.This puts an even higher  premium on the current tour, which is doing Eastern Canada and the United States from October to December 2011, and then onto Western Europe in February 2012

The Musical Box through the years have always striven to make each tour, and even each show within a tour, a unique experience. The Toronto engagement offers just such an opportunity because of its location. The Danforth Music Hall in the heart of Greektown is an Art Deco Heritage building that carries in its bones the glories of great shows past. It will bring an intimacy to the show without any diminishment of production values and the decision to stage The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway here is a smart and tasteful one.

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway plays The Danforth Music Hall in Toronto Dec. 2&3, 2011.