BY JOE BOSSO | ROBERT DOWNS PHOTOS | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
From New York to Rio, London to L.A., drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy’s music career has taken him around the world and back again. But the two hours that he spends onstage during any given concert are unquestionably the best and easiest part of his day. “It’s the other 22 hours that I sometimes have trouble with,” he says with a laugh. “Musicians love to play. They live to play. All the traveling and waiting around—these are things we have to deal with so we can have that brief period of time onstage.”
Much like athletes, musicians sometimes have to perform when they’re plagued by sickness and injury. In fact, Portnoy recalls several instances when he’s been forced to play with a fever as high as 105 degrees. “It’s hard to do anything when you’re in that kind of condition,” he says. “You can hardly lift your arms, let alone think of drumming at peak level. You’re barely seeing straight when you’re feeling that bad. But it’s funny . . . once I get out there and sit behind the drums and I see that audience, that’s all it takes to lift me up. I’m flying when I’m seated on that throne.”
During his 30-plus-year career, Portnoy—a champion keeper of records—has checked off nearly all the boxes on his “Venues I Want To Play” wish list. Wembley Arena? Done. Radio City Music Hall? Yep. Madison Square Garden? Check-a-roony. As he sees it, there are only two iconic music venues he has yet to perform at: London’s Royal Albert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl in L.A. “The Royal Albert Hall seems plausible to me,” he notes. “For some reason, I don’t know if I could be in a band that would ever play the Hollywood Bowl.” He pauses, then adds, “But you never know. I’ve exceeded my wildest dreams so far, so here’s hoping.”
Now Portnoy, who just finished a tour with The Neal Morse Band in support of the epic double album The Great Adventure, looks back on his storied playing history and discusses his 10 most memorable onstage moments.
DREAM THEATER UNCOVERED
DATE: 1/31/95 CITY: London VENUE: Ronnie Scott’s BAND: Dream Theater DETAILS: With Steve Howe, Steve Hogarth, Steve Rothery, and Barney Greenway
Ronnie Scott’s—the world-famous jazz club in London. I don’t think you could fit more than 200 people in there. This was a special show for Dream Theater in that it was the first time we did anything that strayed from the norm. We decided to do a show for our fan club in England and Europe, and the whole set list was covers. It was billed as “Dream Theater Uncovered.”
In all the years that followed, I incorporated covers into the band’s live show, whether it was one-off songs in a particular city or full-album shows. Down the road, we did Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, and Metallica complete-album shows. I think people knew it was going to be a special set list because of how we billed it. Later on, it was always a surprise when we did one-offs or complete albums.
The Ronnie Scott’s show was a lot of fun, and at the time it was a real career highlight. Not only was it fun doing the covers, but we did a Yes medley with [Yes guitarist] Steve Howe joining us, and we also had Steve Hogarth and Steve Rothery from Marillion doing some songs with us. It was one of those nights that was unique and special, and it was the first time we’d done something like that.
Radio City Dream Comes True
DATE: 4/01/06 CITY: New York City VENUE: Radio City Music Hall BAND: Dream Theater
This was our first—and my only—time playing Radio City, and it was an idea that I’d had for a long time. Being a New Yorker, it was always a dream of mine to play the place. It’s such a prestigious venue. I’d seen everybody from The Who to Rush perform there, and I always wondered what it would be like to actually be on that stage.
If I had to pick just one Dream Theater show out of my entire career with them, this would be the one. It was the last night of our 20th anniversary tour, which had been going on for about a year. We even played with an orchestra, which was a total surprise to everybody, and we were filming a DVD that I was directing. There were so many variables that could have made it disastrous, but we managed to pull it off. The stars were aligned on every level.
Playing the show was pretty surreal. I was looking out at the audience and thinking, We’re really here! If you watch the DVD of the show, you can see the point where I start to settle in. At first, I’m full of this wild excitement because everything’s so unbelievable, but a few songs in, when we’re doing “I Walk Beside You,” I spot my family in the audience and I point to my son, Max. At that moment, I calmed down and enjoyed the ride.
The funny and strange thing about the show has to do with the venue’s union curfews. Anybody who’s ever played Radio City knows how strict the place is with bands playing over the allotted time. The minute you step on the stage, the clock begins running. We hit the stage at 8 o’clock, and it was an 11 o’clock curfew. You get charged $10,000 every minute you go over. We finished the show at 11:03, so we got hit with a $30,000 charge. If you watch the DVD of the show, you can see us running off the stage as fast as we can. That was the only sour aspect of the night. On every other level, it still stands out in my mind as one of my favorite Dream Theater moments.
Opening For Iron Maiden
DATE: 7/12/10 CITY: New York City VENUE: Madison Square Garden BAND: Dream Theater DETAILS: Last tour with Dream Theater
The ultimate dream for any New Yorker is to play Madison Square Garden. I even have a video of me in my first band, Intruder, in which I talk about it being my goal. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Concert For Bangladesh—you don’t get more legendary than the Garden. That was the stage were I saw KISS in 1977, a night that changed my life. So here we were, 25 years into our career, and we’re finally getting a chance to step on that stage as the opening act for Iron Maiden.
Everything about the place is special. In the hallway they have pictures of all the famous Garden concerts. I have a photo of myself standing between live shots of John Lennon and George Harrison. Being backstage is so surreal, because you’re just thinking, This is it. All these legends have been here. Playing the show was amazing. For some reason, I remember looking out and focusing on the Jumbotron during most of the set. At the end, I gave a little speech and thanked everybody for helping us get there. Then I looked up in the sky and gave a little kiss to my mom and dad. Neither of them were with me at that point. It was a little sad that they couldn’t experience it with me.
The Garden concert was also significant because it was one of my last shows with Dream Theater. This was my last American tour before I left the band. It’s kind of strange that we reached this pinnacle and that I left the band soon after.
100,000 Fans, No Pressure
DATE: 9/24/11 CITY: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil VENUE: Rock In Rio BAND: Stone Sour
This one is significant in that it’s the biggest show I ever played. It was about 100,000 people at Rock In Rio. Nothing like the pressure of stepping in for a one-off fill-in gig for an audience of that size, and it was being broadcast on the internet to millions of people as well. It’s like, Hey, no big deal, right?
Roy Mayorga, the drummer for Stone Sour, couldn’t make the gig because his baby was about to be born, so he asked me to fill in. I was pretty familiar with the music, so I felt good stepping into the situation. And I’ve got to say, it was a real blast. To play for a crowd that huge was incredible. I love everybody in the Stone Sour and Slipknot camp. The whole thing was a really cool experience.
Eddie Trunk’s 30th Anniversary
DATE: 10/23/13 CITY: New York City VENUE: Hard Rock Cafe BAND: Winery Dogs and friends DETAILS: With Bumblefoot, Scott Ian, Ace Frehley, Peter Criss, and others
This was [music historian] Eddie Trunk’s 30th anniversary of being on the air. He invited the Winery Dogs to play, and I had the idea of taking it to the next level with an all-star jam after the Winery Dogs’ set. I became the musical director for the event, and I put together a house band with me, Bumblefoot on guitar, and Billy Sheehan on bass.
I invited so many great people, and they all came by to perform Eddie’s favorite tunes. The highlight of it all was when I reunited Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. It was their first time seeing each other in about 12 years. That was pretty special. I played drums along with Peter, which was a childhood dream of mine come true. We did “Parasite,” “Hooligan,” “Love Her All I Can,” and “Rock And Roll All Nite.” For all of us, it was an amazing capper.
Yes, Yes, Yes!
DATE: 2/21/14 CITY: International waters VENUE: Progressive Nation At Sea cruise BAND: Transatlantic with Jon Anderson
This was the grand finale of my Prog Nation At Sea cruise. I played seven sets during those four days—two sets with Transatlantic, two sets with PSMS [Portnoy, Sheehan, MacAlpine, Sherinian], and two sets with Big Elf. The final set was Transatlantic doing an entire Yes set with [Yes vocalist] Jon Anderson. As a prog fan, this was something else. Yes is one of Transatlantic’s all-time favorite bands, so to play this music with Jon Anderson himself was an unbelievable honor.
Choosing the set list was funny. At first, Jon wanted to keep it simple and do the songs everybody knows. He wanted to do “Starship Trooper” and “Long Distance Runaround” and call it a day. I wanted to go deeper and do all of Close To The Edge. He didn’t think so, and I was a little disappointed. A few days later, I got a call from him, and he said that he’d had a dream in which we did side one of Tales From Topographic Oceans. He threw that on the table, which overjoyed us, but then it made us go from doing the easy stuff to the doing probably the most difficult song in the Yes catalog.
It was a big undertaking, but ultimately it was a brilliant experience. I had goosebumps during the entire set. To play “And You And I” under a moonlit sky with Jon Anderson singing is one of my most treasured memories.
DATE: 12/12/15 CITY: Los Angeles VENUE: The Wiltern Theatre BAND: Derek Sherinian, Billy Sheehan, and friends DETAILS: Tony MacAlpine benefit concert
Derek Sherinian should get the real credit for putting this together, along with Tony MacAlpine’s manager, Michael Mesker. Tony is a dear friend of ours, and he had been battling cancer. Derek and Michael put together a tribute concert, and they made me musical director for the event. That’s something I love doing—picking the songs and playing musical Cupid.
The house band was me, Derek Sherinian, and Billy Sheehan, and as for guitarists, well, it was a guitar player’s wet dream. We did a whole set with Zakk Wylde, and then we had jams with Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, John 5, Nuno Bettencourt, Tom Morello, and Richie Kotzen. It was an amazing night, with just the greatest guitar playing around.
I made suggestions to some of the guys for other tunes. I asked Tom Morello to do an Audioslave song with Richie Kotzen singing—his voice is so similar to the late, great Chris Cornell’s. They were both open to it, but Tom also wanted to do “The Ghost Of Tom Joad.” John 5 wanted to do “Beat It,” and Zakk wanted to do some Mountain and Allman Brothers songs. All the combinations were great, and it was a wonderful feeling to help Tony out. The great footnote to it all is, he’s doing fine now and is in good health.
A Tribute To Lemmy
DATE: 1/20/16 CITY: Los Angeles VENUE: The Whisky a Go Go BAND: Metal Allegiance and friends
Metal Allegiance is a great outlet for the metal side of me. It’s given me an amazing opportunity for me to play with guys from Slayer, Mastodon, Megadeth, Testament, Death Angel, and Machine Head—a who’s-who of the metal world. They’re all great friends of mine and they’re amazing players.
We were already booked to play the Whisky a month in advance, and it just so happened to fall on the night of Lemmy’s funeral and memorial service. They closed down Sunset Boulevard and designated the Whisky and the Rainbow for fan memorials. So we were basically the house band for Lemmy’s memorial service that night. It was a little somber because people had been to the funeral that day. Dave Grohl came by, and Motörhead’s drummer, Mikkey D, came over and played with us. Corey Taylor did some songs, too. We did an all-Motörhead set with all these special guests joining us. I’ve done a lot of Metal Allegiance shows and they’re all memorable, but this one was probably the most significant.
Plot Twist: Maiden’s Now The Opener
DATES: 6/18/16; 6/19/16 CITIES: Clisson, France; Dessel, Belgium VENUES: Hellfest Open Air; Graspop Metal Meeting BAND: Twisted Sister DETAILS: Official farewell tour
Twisted Sister drummer A.J. Pero passed away in March 2015, so I was asked to do two tours with Twisted Sister—one in the summer of 2015 and another in 2016. They were both memorable tours for different reasons. The 2015 tour was very much a tribute to A.J. Everybody was still reeling from his death and processing their emotions. And 2016 was the band’s official farewell tour on their 40th anniversary.
I put two back-to-back gigs on this list, Hellfest in France and Graspop in Belgium. We were headlining two of the biggest festivals in Europe. I think each one had about 80,000 people. I’ve played those festivals many times with different bands over the years, but there’s something different when you headline a festival of that magnitude. Over there, Twisted Sister gets the respect that their legacy deserves. It was pretty amazing that the band got that kind of billing along with Metallica, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, and Black Sabbath.
They were incredible nights. At the show in France, Phil Campbell from Motörhead joined us for a Motörhead song, and the next night at Graspop we closed the show—we went on after Iron Maiden. It was absolutely surreal to be in the dressing room, hear “Run to the Hills,” and think, I’m going on after this. Both of those shows were two of my highlights with Twisted Sister. They were bittersweet and joyous. It was very gratifying for them to end their career on such high notes.
Happy Birthday To Me
DATES: 2/7/17 & 2/10/17 CITY: International waters VENUE: Cruise to the Edge BANDS: Flying Colors, Transatlantic, Liquid Tension Experiment, Dream Theater
My birthday bash shows were spread out over two nights. The whole idea was to have a concert that spanned my whole career, but I’ve been in something like 87 bands, so it’s a little tough. Being that Cruise To The Edge is prog-oriented, I decided to narrow things down to the important bands I’ve been part of in the prog world.
There were surprise appearances by Flying Colors and Transatlantic, neither of which were advertised. I did a set with each band to kick off the cruise, and that was the first part of my birthday bash. The second part was the big finale, in which I did a Liquid Tension Experiment set with Tony Levin, and then we closed with the Dream Theater set. We played “The Twelve-step Suite,” which had never been performed live before.
It was remarkable to share all of this with the fans, and not only that, but I had my family there—my wife and kids, my sister. Casey McPherson from Flying Colors joked, “You’re the only person who would celebrate a birthday by giving a gift to everybody else.” I could have enjoyed myself and went on vacation, but instead I put together a concert with four different bands. It was a labor of love, and it was a lot of work. But I had to give back. A lot of people have made it possible for me to have this career.