By Derek May:
The word “spectacle” is far too casually thrown around these days, to the point of nearly diluting its impact. But after seeing a performance of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, you truly comprehend the full meaning of the word. Music, videos, moving stages, wires, flames, explosions, fireworks, lasers . . . even glitter! I’ve never seen a show use every single element with such skill and variety, and likely may never again.
Like many of you I’m sure, I’d heard of the TSO, and heard their couple of Christmas hits played amongst the holiday tunes that take over several stations this time of year. But I really knew nothing more than that they toured around at Christmas time and their tickets were pricey. Did they just do Christmas music? How do you really sustain that for an entire show?
Fortunately, we were generously gifted tickets this year to find out. So with my girlfriend, her mother, and her two nieces—all of us TSO noobs—we all set out for what we hoped would be a fun afternoon on Christmas Eve eve (or as niece Vivian put it, “Christmas Adam”—since he was before Eve. I thought that was pretty clever wordplay).
The show blew us away in every conceivable way! Which was no surprise given they’ve been at this for two decades now: this was their 20th anniversary tour, and their 18th year here in San Antonio. And if we ever wondered where those hefty tickets prices went, it didn’t take long to find out. Not only were the production values worth the price of admission, and the show a beefy 2.5 hours in length, but they announced at the start that $1 from every ticket went to a local charity. How’s that for Christmas spirit!
The show itself was basically broken into two parts. The first half is the holiday-focused celebration you’d expect: the titular The Ghosts of Christmas Eve. The stage is set with multiple layers and locations—several of which actually raise and lower hydraulically depending on the moment. Massive screens display anything from set backdrops to actual movies. Over the course, we’re told a story, narrated by a burly teddy-bear of a guy with a soothing baritone who pieces together the tale of a young girl (played by Allie Sheridan) who has run away from home, ending up in an abandoned theatre where she encounters a kindly old caretaker (Ossie Davis) who helps her decide to return to her family. Aside from the live narrator, the story is played out through video footage culled from the TSO-produced film from 2001. The rest is expressed musically by the band itself.
The music itself is a unique and artful blend of contemporary hard rock licks and classical instrumentals. Accompanying the operatic vocalists are no less than four electric guitars, a drummer, two keyboardists, a lead violinist, and a stable of background singers and orchestral musicians. The whole shebang! The arrangements are precise and vary between original pieces and reimaginings of classic holiday tunes. Naturally, there is a shared sound across the songs, and this can make them somewhat hard to distinguish and nearly impossible to recall after, save for their signature hit(s). But it doesn’t really matter, since what they do they do so well, and there is enough differentiation to keep you tapping your toes (or more accurately banging your head) along through each.
And in case you think the conceit of the group is limited, and thus might only attract B-level talent, you could not be more mistaken. These are some of the best performers in the field: sharp, talented, and to a one could headline their own band or stage. Some of the vocalists would put opera singers to shame with their silky, melodious voices covering a wide range of pitches and styles. The instrumentalists are equally impressive, whether fingering complicated guitar licks or beating out hard-rock drum solos while endlessly twirling their sticks, they’d be the prize of any superstar group without question.
Once the story is told (over about an hour) the band seemingly begins to wrap up, with lead guitarist and long-standing member Al Pitrelli chitchatting a bit, offering some fun facts and history of the band. But it’s not long before the show begins anew; and this time the list is full of more original songs, and the pyrotechnics are given free range (so to speak).
Words can barely do it justice, but the showmanship on display is second to none. Not satisfied simply to set their 6-foot logo on fire as it rises and rotates on the secondary stage out in the middle of the crowd, a dozen flamethrowers on the main stage send out giant streams of fire, hot enough that we could feel the heat from our seats in the upper level a few hundred feet away. I’ve seen superstars such as Metallica use similar devices, so trust me when I say they ain’t got nuthin’ on TSO.
But easily the most impressive stunt—and I use that word specifically as it is unquestionably apt—is the four extended-arm platforms that carry individuals out up and over the audience . . . WAY out over the audience. At a couple different points, the performers (usually 3 guitarists and violinist Asha Mevlana) step onto the relatively narrow circular platform while stage hands rush to clip a safety harness onto their belts in the dark. Then the arms are raised high—like 3 stories high—and extend 50 feet or so out over the audience. Showing no fear (hell, utterly LOVING it), they continue to rock out, playing to the crowd below. At one point, all four arms extend toward each other is a sort of high-rise battle that raises the heartrate to match the thunderous tempo. It’s a sight to behold!
While there’s certainly a freedom and unrestricted joy the band exudes in their performance, it’s clear that none of this falls into place by accident. As Pitrelli explained in quoting late-founder Paul O’Neil, “the devil is in the details,” and those details are sacrosanct. Each member nails their movements down to the note. Everyone is exactly where they need to be when they need to be there, and no one sings or plays a false note for the duration of the show. From a purely logistical perspective, it’s a case study in flawlessness.
For 20 years the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has been growing, evolving, and gaining new fans while prompting return visits each year. While they may be associated mostly with Christmas, they have certainly earned their right to be spoken of in the same vein as any top-level entertainment group from any genre. One viewing of their performance and you’ll see what I mean. They work hard, play hard, and deliver the goods while also offering a level of charity and positivity rare in rock circles. If like me you’ve gone your life without taking the plunge, I encourage you next holiday season to catch them at a city near you and treat yourself to a spectacle like no other. You won’t be disappointed.