Phoenix, AZ • 12/07/03
Mary Ellen Gustafson
Trans-Siberian Orchestra is celebrating the 5th Anniversary of their Christmas Eve And Other Stories Tour through the end of December. I just saw the West Tour for the fourth time (they didn’t tour the west the first year) and here’s my advice: If this show has not come to your city yet, and is scheduled to do so, BUY, BEG or FIND A SCALPER for tickets!!! Every time I’ve seen the show I can’t imagine how they could change or improve on it and every time they TOTALLY surprise the hell out of me! This year was bigger, better and even more exciting than any previous show I’ve attended. When I think back to the first year, in a small theater that held 1900, had a wooden stage about 4 ft. above the seating, standard 3 color lighting plus a spotlight, fewer musicians and fewer songs, I can’t help but marvel at how far this show has come in four years. At the same time, the spirit, commitment and energy of the cast is just as strong now as it was then! There’s just more OF everything!
The show opened with red and green lasers shining out at the audience and a hush on the stage, then the band (dressed in tuxedos — Al Pitrelli, Music Director/Guitarist Supreme!); Angus Clark, Guitars; John Lee Middleton, Bass; John O’Reilly, Drums; Jane Mangini, Keyboards; Carmine Giglio, Keyboards; Lucia Micarelli, Strings; and the Phoenix Strings) burst into the strains of Boughs of Holly with lights of all colors flashing on them and lasers shooting all over the place to kick things up a notch right from the get-go. As the stage went dark, a spotlight shone on Narrator Anthony Gainer as he began the now familiar story entitled Christmas Eve set in an old city bar.
If you’re unfamiliar with TSO, you should really get a copy of this CD, and its follow-up The Christmas Attic. These are “story” albums, but you won’t hear the narration that makes the story progress on the albums. Instead, the booklet/liner notes include a synopsis in the very beginning and the narrated parts are printed between the lyrics so you can follow along. The stories and all the lyrics were written by Paul O’Neill, while the music was written by O’Neill and his partners Robert Kinkel and Jon Oliva (of Savatage). This partnership has produced a new slant on the spiritual, fantasy and childhood wonder of the Christmas season for kids of all ages. Besides, if you haven’t heard Christmas carols done TSO style, you don’t know what you’re missing! Old standards like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Holy Night” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” come alive with the help of a tremendous hard rock treatment blended with orchestra strings and various vocals. The way O’Neill and company send traditional songs off in a more modern direction, with twists and turns and blazing guitars, before returning to traditional mode, is quite an experience.
As the show progressed, it stuck pretty close to the album with a few added attractions here and there. Some amazing instrumental songs from the album, like the wild ride through parts of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, named “The Silent Nutcracker” and “A Mad Russian’s Christmas,” were more than well received, especially new concert mistress Lucia Micarelli. An original song sung by Jill Gioia, “The Prince Of Peace,” as she stood center stage with little accompaniment, sent chills up my spine. This is a beautiful ballad and she gave it such pathos and power at the same time it was amazing. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” followed immediately, which she added a jazz twist to, then she returned to the original song to bring her segment to a close. This was the first standing ovation of the evening! When the lights came up again, it was snowing! The instrumental First Snow, another original song, blazed through the theater with lasers and flashing lights and a huge production to everyone’s delight.
As the Narrator once again took over, he talked about the angel flying over Sarajevo — and then departed from the usual narration to include several other points of strife in the world including Rwanda and other African nations and conspicuously leaving out places we’re all aware of. In the background there was the far away sound of bombs dropping as the opening cello notes of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12-24” rang out. Instead of the usual blue and white lighting there were flashing strobes and what sounded like guns until the band drowned out the sound, then smoke poured out of the light banks behind the band. All colors of lights were flashing and lasers were shooting everywhere. For some reason the song sounded heavier and darker than I’ve ever heard it before and it was wonderful and scary and AWESOME and almost terrifying. This version REALLY drove home the point of the original version from the Savatage Dead Winter Dead album AND what’s going on in the world right now. When the last note was played we were introduced to the first pyrotechnic display as a curtain of sparks sprayed down across the front of the stage. Now this was something new! The crowd once again gave a standing ovation and people were screaming and whistling, but it was more subdued than what I’m used to hearing after this song. I think it affected everyone and after my long association with TSO, I’m sure that was the intention.
The concert continued through the rest of the album with Michael Lanning singing “Good King Joy,” Tommy Farese doing “Ornament” and during “Old City Bar,” Bart Shatto stood on the stage dressed as an old, perhaps homeless, man to sing the story about the girl out in the snow by a broken pay phone. Accompanied only by Al Pitrelli on acoustic guitar, it was extremely moving. Coming close to the end with the song “Promises To Keep” sung by Sanya Mateyas, followed by Tommy Farese leading the entire cast through “This Christmas Day” with major guitar solos and lighting effects going all over the place and then “An Angel Returned” begun by Guy LeMonnier and soon joined by the entire cast once again, the Narrator finished the Christmas Eve story and the first half of the show was over with a resounding ovation/
Loosening up just a tad, Concert Part Two was less restrained and a lot of fun. Traveling through more of the TSO repertoire we were treated to the familiar boogie woogie strains of “The Three Kings And I (What Really Happened),” a totally cool song from TSO’s second album The Christmas Attic. sung by Michael Lanning. He was WAY awesome both singing this song AND joining a “note for note” challenge with Al Pitrelli picking notes from the guitar while Michael sang the same notes. I’ve seen this in past shows, but it’s still amazing! You could tell the audience was impressed and he got the biggest audience response so far that evening.
Then it was time to take off into a medley of songs from TSO’s third album, Beethoven’s Last Night. Angus Clark got things going this time, with the wild guitar track to kick off part of the “Overture” of the album, moving into “Flight Of The Bumble Bee” (the name people recognize), which had a really cool laser show with it that matched the notes to the nth degree. The real surprise was violinist Lucia Micarelli, who stepped to the front, fingers flying and long hair swinging, as she played first with the guitars, then took over and blew the rest of the band away! There were bits and pieces of other songs from the album, but the next major number, called “Mozart/Figaro” featured the string section in a major way along with the rock band. This marriage of classical music with rock is really something to experience TSO style! Sanya Mateyas performed one of the beautiful ballads, “Final Dream” and it was time to move on.
Executed to perfection by the entire cast was “O Fortuna” from the opera Carmina Burana. This was pretty darn amazing and extremely well received. Next up, TSO’s version of the Nutcracker called “Nutrocker Suite”! It was time for Jane and Carmine, the keyboard players, to show their stuff and they played in a variety of genres from classical to jazz to rock ending with a big drum solo from John O’Reilly. This was really fun and got another standing ovation. The vocalists performed “Christmas Canon” in the signature TSO round robin fashion, then the cast returned to Beethoven’s Last Night for some new surprises!
Starting with the song “Beethoven”, lasers were shooting all over, lights were flashing and plumes of FIRE shot up on the down beat! Then it was off into amazing guitar solos, string concertos and keyboard solos as fire shot up at dramatic moments, along with sprays of pyro sparks, as the song moved along. You’d have to know the song to understand what I mean, but suffice to say it was fantastic! Then the familiar notes of “Requiem (Beethoven’s Fifth)” rang out as HUGE fireballs soared in the air after each set of 4 notes and then the driving bass line took over as the rest of the band and vocalists played their parts in this amazing take on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony done TSO style! Fireballs shot in the air, lasers went everywhere, light patterns flashed and the stage generally went crazy. I can’t even tell you how awesome this song was and a completely fitting end to the show.
A wild standing ovation followed and Al Pitrelli returned to the stage and announced they weren’t playing the Encore game but would be available in the lobby after the show. (This is another TSO tradition. All the members of the cast show up at a long table in the lobby to sign autographs for the fans. After this huge, strenuous show, which they did TWICE in the same day in Phoenix, they take the time to talk to every single person that waits in line before they pack up and hit the road, headed for the next city.) In the meantime, the cast returned to the stage and Tommy Farese began singing “Find Our Way Home” from The Christmas Attic and was joined by the rest of the cast for the final chorus which was repeated several times. A reprise of “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” in the more traditional fashion followed, this time accompanied by showers of pyrotechnics behind the band, lasers, flashing lights and a curtain of pyro sparks across the front of the stage as the song ended. The cast took a group bow to wild applause, screams and whistles and it was over for another year. But the sights and sounds remain in my head, along with great anticipation to see what’s in store next year!
Trans-Siberian Orchestra: http://www.trans-siberian.com