Mike Portnoy: my best and worst gigs ever

The agony and the ecstasy... Mike Portnoy knows them both
The agony and the ecstasy... Mike Portnoy knows them both (Image credit: Riccardo Arena/Demotix/Corbis)

Whether you're playing to packed arenas or duking it out on Monday night open-audition club gigs, chances are you've experienced the yings and the yangs - those shows that are so absolutely perfect that you want them to go on forever, as well as ones so soul-crushingly horrible that they can't end fast enough.

Superstar drummer Mike Portnoy recalls his greatest onstage night - in fact, he even remembers the date: 1 April 2006. Performing on April Fool's Day may have posed something of a risk for the venerable sticksman, but he says that Dream Theater's gig that night at New York's Radio City Music Hall was an unqualified triumph.

"Whenever I think of my career thus far, that show always comes to mind as being the pinnacle of my achievements," Portnoy says. "It was the one night that all of the stars aligned for a perfect evening."

Not only was the show the last of an exhausting, 20th Anniversary tour, it was also staged with a full orchestra. And to top it all off, the band was filming a concert DVD of the event, with Portnoy directing. "Could I have put any more pressure on myself?" he asks, laughing. "We're playing Radio City, the most prestigious, beautiful venue I've ever been in. We have the orchestra; it's New York, our hometown. It was definitely one of those gigs where you don't want anything to go wrong."

In spite of the circumstances, Portnoy says that from the moment the curtain rose, the show was sheer bliss from start to finish. "Right away, the pressures fell away, and all I had to do was play drums, sing and enjoy the best seat in the house," he says. "It was truly one of those magical nights, and I'm so glad that we were able to capture it on the Score DVD so we can cherish it forever."

Of course, there's always the flipside, and for Portnoy, a touring pro with thousands of shows under his belt and with a variety of different bands, his performance life has been filled with what he calls "the Spinal Tap moments."

Only things weren't so funny on the night of 10 March 1998, during Dream Theater's sold-out concert at the Colosseum in Munich, Germany. Everything had been going right - "the conditions were fine, we were playing great" - but two minutes before the end of the group's closing song, Learning To Live, Portnoy went to execute a drum fill, and as he puts it, "I must've bit off more than I could chew."

All at once, he felt a blinding jolt of pain shoot through his right arm. At first, he thought he pulled a muscle, but looking down, he quickly realized that the situation was much worse: "My wrist was completely snapped backwards," he says, "with my palm facing up in the air. I turned pale white."

While Portnoy continued to play, his drum tech immediately snapped the injured wrist back into place and shoved the drummer's arm into a bucket of ice. "I finished the song Rick Allen-style, just playing one handed," he says.

Any other drummer might have called it quits right there, but Portnoy says that the overflow crowd demanded an encore. "I went back out and did Metropolis - one-handed with my right arm in the ice bucket," he says. "That song and Learning to Live are both incredibly progressive and technically demanding. Luckily, I had played them a thousand times, so it wasn't too hard for me to adapt to playing them one handed."

After the show, Portnoy was raced to the hospital, where it was determined that he had dislocated his wrist. His hand and arm were put into a brace, which he wore for the remainder of the tour. Looking back on the Colosseum date, Portnoy rates the band's performance that night as being particularly strong. "Everything was great," he says. "There were no real problems at all. But for purely personal reasons, it was probably the worst night of my life on stage." He then adds with a chuckle, "Let's just say that if I ever decided to join a Def Leppard tribute band, I'll be fine."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.