Grow my hair out (it would be very straight and blonde) give me a black, sleeve less shirt and toss a denim jacket on the top and I could head bang with the best metal-heads. And I have a soft spot for some of the more talented metal acts to make it through the dark and dreary guitar solo-less wilderness of the 90's. One of those bands I still enjoy is Savatage. From a pretty run of the mill metal band in the 80's, to evolve and become a rather progressive metal act in the 90's and beyond, Savatage kept my interest. Great guitar solos, layered, majestic vocals, and a penchant for the melodramatic, it seems logical that Paul O'Neil and Jon Oliva would create something like Trans-Siberian Orchestra. For the unfamiliar, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is an act that, on paper at least, probably shouldn't work. Take some of metal's most enduring instrumentalists, toss in a bunch of guest vocalists and choirs, then back them up with real orchestral instruments (woodwinds and strings most prominently), and have them play Christmas music and over-the-top rock opera stuff. Even I admit, it could be a hard sell.
Yet because of, and in spite of, all that, work it does. Melodramatic to the point of cheesy, with wild stylistic swings throughout, and no excuses offered at any point, Trans-Siberian Orchestra brought their annual show to the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina Monday night, the 21st of November. By no means unfamiliar to their music, my wife and I were virgins of their live act. But we try to hit different types of Christmas concerts each year. Mannheim Steamroller was the big show back in 2003, last year we went for the more long-haired approach and made the main concert a fabulous concert of The Messiah to a packed house in the Duke Chapel. So this year we figured we needed something different. TSO fit that bill for sure. A nearly full house, the first thing we noticed were the obvious, enormous speaker towers hanging from the rafters. No question about it, this would be a loud show. The second thing we noticed was the crowd. The diversity was almost humorous. There are not too many shows where you will find sexagenarians sitting next to guys in Slayer shirts. But there was no shortage of such dichotomies at this show.
And what a show it was. Introduced by the local rock radio gang, the show started off nice an mellow. Gotta keep those old folks from arresting, right? A narrator, with a rich, deep bass voice started the story of TSO's first album, "Christmas Eve and Other Stories". The music kicked in, and with a punch. Chris Caffery and Alex Skolnick on guitars traded crunching, metal riffs and soaring, blistering fast solos throughout the show. Yet they did a marvelous job balancing the heavier, more metal music with the more traditional tunes. But make no mistake, most of the music was driven by thundering bass and powerful electric guitars. Many different vocalists left their mark, each with their own distinctive style, and each brought a different personality to their songs. However, the instrumental stuff was what really got me going. Chris, Alex and Dave Z on bass jumped around the stage, banging their heads, swinging their hair, and playing off each other's energy. And there was no shortage of energy, both from the performers and from the light show. Upon completion of the basically their entire first album, an intermission of sorts introduced the audience to all the members of the band, and gave some very entertaining and human interplay between Chris Caffery and the audience. I almost thought for a moment the show was over. But not ones to disappoint, the band then jumped into a second half that was more loud, more energetic, and more fun than the first.
Every member seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly, which energy and enthusiasm spilled over to at least some in the crowd. Even the local folks in the string section were really getting into the music. The light show and pyrotechnics were stunning, with lasers, snow, and 25 foot colored flames adding to the whole experience. From start to finish, it was one of the most enjoyable and entertaining experiences of my life. However, to be honest, I must lodge one complaint. But not against the band. It is against the fans. Far too many in attendance seemed to forget that, first and foremost, this was a rock concert we were at. At the end of every rocking riff and blazing solo I lost count of the looks tossed my way as I screamed myself horse and jumped up, hands in the air. Others sat serenely, no excitement apparent as they watched two incredible guitarists trade off solos and monster riffs. I was truly embarrassed by the lack of crowd participation that is so common and integral to all rock concerts I have been to in the past. Nevertheless, there were enough of us who banged our heads and screamed our voices away to let the band know we appreciated them. And I am sure they are used to that mixed reaction, part and parcel of playing such varied music.
All in all, it was a magical, musical night. We left, more than slightly deaf and hoarse, our spirits lifted, renewed enthusiasm and excitement for Christmas filling us nicely. The performers gave their best effort, and you couldn't help but tell they were having a good time. There is no doubt, we will be looking forward to next year's tour. Anyone even remotely familiar with TSO or their music will be blown away by this show. As much as I enjoy listening to the CD's, the live show blows it out of the water. On a final note, I also appreciate that it is Christmas music they play. Not holiday music, but Christmas music, full of inspiring stories and no shortage of references to Christ and God. Some may balk at that, but I appreciate the refusal to succumb to the notion of 'pleasing everyone'.