For the past four years seeing the Trans Siberian Orchestra (TSO) has been as much a seasonal tradition as seeing the lighting of the Christmas Tree in Pioneer Square or hanging decorations around the house. If fact, the season doesnt actually feel like it's started until after attending a TSO concert. Fortunately, The Cutting Edge was at the very first TSO show EVER. It was in 1998 at the 2, 000 seat Tower Theater in Upper Darby, PA. We actually sat next to Paul O' Neil, the founder and captain of the TSO project. (see our review in issue #53)
That first year (1998) the tour group consisted of several of the main characters found on the "Christmas Eve And Other Stories" CD whose release a year earlier was already gaining serious airplay. "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" a metallic re-working of the traditional classic "Carol The Bells" was quickly rising as a modern-day Christmas anthem. Among those featured were Chris Caffery, Johnny Lee Middleton, Jeff Plate and Al Pitrelli, the core of the metal band Savatage. Added where the vocal stylings of Tommy Faresse and Daryl Pediford (to name a few) as well as keyboard/composer Robert (Bobby) Kinkel. Violin wizard, Mark Wood, conducted the local orchestra.
After favorable response including three sold out shows in Cleveland. O' Neil and record company executive David Krebs decided to split the troop into an East and West coast touring group. Heavy promotion on PBS and the release of mini-film The Ghost Of Christmas Eve widened the groups audience and appeal. Additions were made to the show, which included and an extended story line. By the third year they were playing songs from the their third album Beethoven's Last Night. Lighting and stage theatrics were included to compliment the already emotional story-line and a new round of actor/singers were carrying the Trans Siberian flag from city to city - most selling out in record time.
So it was with amazement to see over 6,000 fans crammed into the Rose Garden some four years after the groups first appearance. Familiar with the layout of the show it was exciting to observe subtle changes that make each tour special. Aside from the enthusiastic smog machines and stage lighting this was the first addition of lasers and charismatic backdrops. All the glitz aside tonights performance was about the outstanding musicians and the magic they created.
When asked about the uniqueness of the Christmas drama, creator Paul O Neil commented that his dream was looking for ways to make the music have a building emotional impact. He tried to write music that was so melodic it needed no lyrics. And lyrics that were so poetic they needed no music but once you put the two of them together, the sum of the parts would be greater than the whole. This was, without a doubt, achieved tonight. Flanked by an orchestra on one side of the stage and a tuxedo-clad metal band up front, a rotating roster of singers would take center spot and deliver their sermon full-throttle. The whole act rested on the baritone voice of the narrator who tells the story of an angel sent from on high to retrieve one shred of evidence that somewhere, in a war-torn society, there was hope of peace and kindness.
Not to be confused with the ordinary holiday pageant this was a rock show with orchestral moments. TSO rocked through such carols as "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "Joy to the World," and "Silent Night" with verbose metallic efficiency and spirit. Standards like Oh Holy Night and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen were mixed with Led Zeppelin riffs and Golden Earring melodies. The crowd jumped to their feet after the bands rifled through Beethovens Fur Elise and Flight Of The Bumblebee from the band's "Beethoven's Last Night."
Though the tone was centered on the jubilant as well as reflective moments, the group brought an almost slapstick comedy to ease the heavier tension in subtle ways. One vocalist donned a Blazers jersey and slipped into an Elvis meets Bon Jovi routine. In another instance, on old man stumbled to the mic to deliver a Tom Waits inspired Old City Bar off the bands Christmas and Other Stories release.
TSO seamlessly merged classical with hard rock, yet appealed to all ages. They added elements from their second Christmas disc "The Christmas Attic" to rousing heights it the later part of the show. They nailed passages from Beethovens Fifth and Ninth Symphonies without a glitch, They even threw in "Oh Fortuna," the first movement of the opera "Carmina Burana" and stopped the music on a dime twice - letting the angelic voices of a six-piece chorus soar acappella before resuming with the same lightning precision.
We briefly spoke to original vocalist Tommy Faresse, whose trademark Joe Cocker-style voice closes the show with the jubilant This Christmas Day. Describing the difference between the two troops he says, We try to keep them similar but allow each to take on their own personalities. I tour with the West coast so, of course, Im going to think we are the better group. But it really comes down to the people who come out and see us night after night. They come for the music and the magic way it makes them feel. Then he added, I do think we have more fun and a better since of humor than the East coast troop and Im from New York he says with a laugh.
We talked about the expansion next year of a third troop. Says Faresee, "The next phase of TSO will be a troop to tour Europe. They have been eager for us to bring the show over their for years. I think the combination of orchestrated classics and hard rock will do very well over there."
Faresees own band A Place Called Rage is doing very well in Japan and is looking for a US deal. "I think its one the best hard rock albums out there," says Foresee. Al Pitrelli is the guitar player and the songs are top-notch. Its different than TSO but has the same class.
Web site: www.trans-siberian.com