Heavy Metal’s Glorious Holiday Spectacle
Reno Event Center, Dec 1st, 2006
by Todd K Smith

I was sitting in the eighth row at the very first TSO show in Philly. It was December 1999 at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby and it was freezing outside. David Krebs, famed manager/director (he had his hand in just about every great hard rock band of the “70s) stood next to me. He was nervous. It was the group’s first night fusing hard rock and orchestrated Christmas classics before a live crowd. Would it work? Ex-Alice Cooper/Asia/Savatage guitarist Al Pitrelli huddled in the corner and the only one really chatty was Savatage bassist Johnny Lee Middleton. A gust of wind and snow blew the hall’s side door opened and in walks the rest of the band. It was basically the Dead Winter Dead Savatage line up which included guitarist Chris Caffery and drummer Jeff Plate joining Middleton and Pitrelli. Over their shoulders hung their stage outfit, a black tuxedo.

That was seven years ago and the magic of that first night is now carried across the country in two separate touring groups from mid-November to New Years Eve. The staging has changed from its humble string of lights to an elaborate set of light trusses; pyrotechnics and a stunning laser show. Several eighteen-wheelers haul the staging from city to city. Management sends out sheet music to local orchestra’s months in advance to guarantee hometown involvement when the production arrives. Combining rock, jazz and classical, the group - including six vocalists - pump up the volume on all your holiday favorites and include a “greatest hits” of classical masterpieces from Bach and Beethoven to Mozart. The show runs nearly three hours with no intermission, yet the team makes sure the performance is both visually and musically exciting. Get tickets early because they always, always sell out.

This year Reno was added to the West coast roster. Surprising to all but the band, every seat was filled at the downtown Event Center. Promptly at 8:00pm the lights went out and a single spot found narrator Tony Gaynor. After his introduction and with a snap of his fingers, the show began. The first 90-minutes (or Act One) take the audience on a visually mezmerizing roller coaster as the story of an angel searching for the spirit of Christmas unfolds. Between beefed up instrumentals of “O Holy Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” a rotation of vocalists take the stage and deliver rousing renditions of selected highlights from the three TSO albums including Christmas Eve and Other Stories, Christmas Attic and The Lost Christmas Eve.

Pitrelli, which only three years ago was a hired gun for thrash metal icons Megadeth, was joined by Angus Clark in a twin guitar attack that reverberated off the venue walls. Bassist Middleton and drummer John O. Reilly kept the thunder rolling while keyboardists Jane Mangini (Pitrelli’s wife) and Julliard-trained Derek Wieland made sonic waves in a clash of titans. Mainstay vocalists Tommy Farese, Guy LeMonnier and Steena Hernandez welcomed newcomer Kelly Keeling (Baton Rouge, Michael Schenker, George Lynch), a highly profiled singer, into their illustrious ranks. His soulful baritone resonated through the hall giving a nice balance to the bombastic orchestrated numbers. The Savatage classic “Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24” joined “A Carol of the Bells” for one of the many crescendos of the night.

The story follows the angel to a scene underneath the neon glow of an old city bar. Broadway vocalist, Bart Shatto, took on the personification of a homeless drunk and delivered one of the show’s more touching and indeed emotional moments in “Old City Bar.” The song describes how a group of dunk barflies help a young girl get home on Christmas Eve. Act one ends with Long Island legend Tommy Farese playing the lost girl’s father as he welcomed her home in the jubilant “This Christmas Day.” Stopping only long enough to introduce the band and throw a few jokes around, Farese turned the rest of the night (or Act Two) over to the Reno Chamber Orchestra led by London-native violinist Anna Phoebe. Band and orchestra then rolled out familiar classical adaptations done the TSO way.

Elements of “Figaro,” “Fur Elise,” and “Flight of the Bumble Bee” came charging out of the gate complete with a visual experience par excellence. The band’s version of the 1,000-year old “Carmina Burana” was positively chilling. Occasional rock moments of Yes’s “Fragile,” Led Zeppelin’s “Been A Long Time” and a full scale “Layla” thrilled die-hard head bangers. There may have even been a Pink Floyd riff or two, however the way it was woven in to the fabric of the overall display, it was difficult to separate. Several times the crowd was left in awe as lasers danced above their heads, flash explosions blinded their eyes and snow fell from specialized machines in the rafters.

“We never thought it would have come this far,” said Middleton after the show. “We were so nervous that first night so many years ago – we didn’t think it would last to the end of that tour.” After the 2006 holiday season, TSO will have sold more tickets than any band this year - including the Stones, with 500,000 sold before the tour even started. They stand to make close to 30 million dollars all on a belief that people still want to hear Christmas carols.

Website: Trans Siberian Orchestra, Atlantic Records