TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA: Christmas Eve and Other Stories (25th Anniversary)

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

TSO East

Bon Secours Wellness Arena – Greenville, SC (December 10th, 2021)

The Return of Live Music

The past nearly two years have been (and remain) a challenge for the entire planet, not only in terms of the Covid-19 pandemic but also in terms of world economic turmoil and a growing stress on the fabric of humanity itself. Along with the struggles for mankind to gather in fellowship (in whatever form that may take) over the past two years, there is no denying that the privilege to celebrate life through music in the “live” setting has been seriously degraded.

But as we “move on” and learn to live with – rather than hide from – the threats of a considerably harmful pathogen in our midst, we can be blessed and assured that many-an-artist out there is more than willing, and more than able, to “bring it to us” live!

Amongst many other significant events in 2021, there is no denying that the return of “live” music ranks – for many of us – as one of the greatest. Let’s face it – music has the immeasurable ability to draw people from all walks of life together in joy, celebration and unity.

As many great acts and artists are succeeding in accomplishing this in 2021, there are few that I can count on my fingers more anticipated than the return of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This musical/artistic entity – originally conceived by the late Paul O’Neill in 1995-96 – has been a bastion of not only superb, cutting-edge live performance since their Philadelphia debut in 1999, but they have inspired countless lives over the past 25 years through the magic and message (of hope) in their enigmatic form of rock/metal symphonic opera.

The Christmas Gift

My wife and children will be the first to point-out that it can be a challenge to find a Christmas present for their husband/dad. Guilty as charged. When you are constantly in seek of rare and alternative editions of all things musical, or when you simply buy what you want to read or listen to on demand, it makes surprise “gifts” a bit daunting. Thankfully, my family is sensitive to this quality and they remain vigilant for any opportunity to “blindside” me with a piece of my own medicine!

Hence, my son and daughter-in-law (artists in truth) bought me and my wife tickets to go with them to the 2021 TSO show in Greenville, SC. I’d never been, my wife had never been – the perfect Christmas gift, indeed!

Yes, you read that right. Never been … to one of the live shows. Although TSO has been a part of our Christmas celebrations for years – I read the narratives and we listen to the music while opening gifts Christmas morning – my wife and I had never seen them perform live. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a better time than 2021 for this “gift” as this year not only marks the return of TSO to the pre-holiday touring frenzy, but also marks the 25th anniversary of their “live” manifestation.

As now band spokesman (and original member/guitarist) Chris Caffery highlights during the show, the guys in Savatage (circa 1996) never would have imagined that O’Neill’s concept would become what it has become today. In full circle, O’Neill’s gift to the world became our gift (and the gift to many others as well) this Christmas season.

“The wish of a soul for the happiness of another”

The Story

The lion’s share of material for the 25th Anniversary show is, in essence, most of the material – recreated with very few adaptations – from the original 1996 debut album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories. In fact, only “A Star to Follow,” “The Silent Nutcracker” and “The First Noel,” the latter two acoustic interlude instrumentals, have been excluded. (see set list below)

Storyteller Bryan Hicks (TSO East) powerfully and expressively narrates the spoken word verbatim from the original liner notes so his words interconnect the “scenes” of this massive theatrical. Whereas these words (on the original release) were only in the lyric booklet, they are brought to life anew within the context of the music. Hicks booming voice perfectly articulates every vital word and the flow is seamless between the songs and his narrative.

The gist of it all…

It’s every gift that someone gives, expecting nothing back

It’s every kindness that we do, each simple little act

…the things that we do in life will always end up touching others.

“Christmas stays if we don’t forget its meaning.”“Promises to Keep”

Two Shows in One

Depending on your vantage point (your seats) this show plays out very differently. There is the stage show (the band members doing their thing) and then the light/effects show which plays out in the expanse of the entire venue. While the former is better appreciated from the floor and up-close seating, the latter is best appreciated from a distance. We were in the upper balcony, near dead-center – Bon Secours Wellness Arena basically a glorified hockey rink – and so were treated to an expansive view of not only the entire arena, but also the stage and the video/effect “cuboid” behind the soundboard (literally at our feet).

Hopefully the words which follow will best describe what was going on with the music and the pictures here presented what was going on with the lights and effects. Regardless of your vantage point, the residual “smoke” (from the previous 4 P.M. show) in the arena portends what is to follow, and it is hard not to feel the excitement of something very special and very powerful in the air as the seats begin to fill.

The Sound

Perhaps the most gratifying thing for me was how much better these songs sound in the live setting – they have a whole new life – and that TSO delivers a powerful sonic punch and precision. As much as the light show astounds – undeniably world-class effects – it still comes down to the music. One thing I didn’t realize about the music is that TSO employs local talent (the strings) with each show, and so you’ve got the seasoned, consummate artists performing alongside less experienced, yet equally passionate players. Yet another example of TSO being all about giving back (and paying forward) to the communities they entertain.

So to this regard, TSO live is a loud and “heavy metal” affair. The guitars, violin and drums all lock in tempo with crushing precision and intensity – an intensity which rivals the commanding light and effects show. The balance between the two is perfect.

Christmas Eve…

I can’t think of a better way to open this anniversary show than with “Welcome” (to the show), originally released on the 1998 Savatage Wake of Magellan CD. (The original TSO album opened with “An Angel Came Down” which as a ballad isn’t exactly conducive to charging a crowd of listeners.) The floating stages are one of the most dynamic elements of this opening segment, initially carrying the two guitarists and Zak Stevens (in the middle) as he belts out the welcoming chants. Stevens originally recorded this song with Savatage in 1998 and so he is the perfect “voice” to introduce the show.

The opener flows seamlessly into the “Beethoven” instrumental (from the 2000 release Beethoven’s Last Night) as the crowd is introduced to Roddy Chong – the mad violinist – who takes over the center position on the flying stages from Stevens. This opening sequence is dynamic, heavy and sets the stage for what is to follow – an intricate web of musical and lighting wizardry.

After a fine reading of Christmas Eve (narrative introduction to the original album) by storyteller Bryan Hicks, the band flows into “An Angel Came Down.” This song represents the beginning of the story – Dustin Brayley’s voice captivating as he lays the foundation for the “angels” descent from Heaven as he begins his mission to find hope and meaning within humanity.

“O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night” is next up and features a guitar-centric instrumental lead by Joel Hoekstra (Whitesnake/Foreigner/Night Ranger/Cher). This song really allows Hoekstra to showcase his skillset (mirrored in TSO by the great Al Pitrelli), much to the fans delight.

At this point, the original song order gets shuffled a bit as the “princess of peace,” Erika Jerry, has her opportunity to shine on “Prince of Peace.” Lovers of Gospel music could easily embrace the power and intense expression in Jerry’s rendition of this classic TSO hymn/ballad. Her use of her arms, hands, body language augment the lyrics in dynamic manner – perfectly juxtaposing the beauty and power in the declaration of Christ’s birth.

“First Snow” next up dazzles with spectacular lights as Chris Caffery leads the band in this joyous romp – like kids running around in celebration of the first snowfall of the season – and hence endures as one of the more iconic TSO instrumentals.

 “…peace on earth … and a little Stolichnaya!”

I like how the song setlist was changed to put “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” in tandem with “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo” because the effect is to create a powerful contrast between what was going on in one part of the world with another as the angel traveled the span of the earth in search of a sense of humanity’s worth. This tandem is no doubt one of the highlights of the show. From Roddy Chong’s relentless energy to Jeff Plate’s drumstick tossing, the song exudes creative energy.

From the light perspective, its fascinating to watch how the illuminated “orbs” that are constantly moving up and down augment the music. Of course, the marching soldiers which appear in the background in the latter portion of the song add to the playful nature of the music.

“Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” – this has always been for me the quintessential TSO song. Not only was it the true “crossover” Savatage song (originally released in 1995 on Dead Winter Dead), it always has and remains emblematic of the kind of passion and experimentation that O’Neill envisioned in his dream for TSO.

Furthermore, this song has always had special meaning for me because although I wasn’t in Bosnia during the war, I was stationed there with the Army in ’96 and ’97 and witnessed the aftermath of what is alluded to in the impassioned narrative by Bryan Hicks (below), which during the show served as the prelude to this magnificent tribute.

When he flew over Sarajevo, there were scars upon the land, and there were scars upon the people …and the deepest scars of all – which to humans are unseen, but the angel could see clearly – were the scars upon the dreams … the only decorations here had been awarded for their crimes … now the angel had heard God speak many times, and he had always paid attention, but this killing of one’s neighbor was something the Lord had never mentioned… from among the ruins, he once more heard the sound, it was a single cello playing a forgotten Christmas song … and even on that battlefield, that song somehow belonged … and as he flew away, the angel did take note, that wherever he found this music played one always could find … hope.

Every aspect of this song live is perfected to precision – the haunting cello melody, the smoke, the carol of bells, the “orbs,” the powerful piano keys pounding, the flashing laser lights, the drums thundering and crashing, the guitars screaming … and the endless videos on every screen from center stage to the arena’s ad banner encircling the arena to the mysterious “cuboid” at the rear. Truly one of the highlight numbers in the set and easily my favorite TSO song of all time!

As things settle down from the smoke of Sarajevo … and after a brief vocal intro from one of the ladies and a bit of instrumental “jigging” from Caffery and Chong, Caleb Johnson (local Asheville, NC favorite) comes on to perform “Good King Joy” – one of the most difficult songs to sing from the debut, in my opinion. It won’t be a surprise to anyone who hears him sing to recall he previously won American Idol (13). The vocal section is half blues/half Gospel and only a dynamic vocalist with a dynamic range can nail this. I would go so far as to say I prefer Johnson’s performance to that of the original singer … and that is saying a lot!

It is so amazing to me that TSO – like the angel with the ability to find that humble prayer amidst millions – finds a way to grab some of the most talented singers in the world with which to ply their trade. Russell Allen (Symphony X/Aryeon/Star One) is no stranger to the stage … but balladic melodies are typically not his M.O. Thankfully, his abilities reach far beyond aggressive metal and rock opera. His performance on “Ornament” showcases his passion for flat-out vocal expression. This was truly one of the surprise numbers in the set for me. Beautiful.

And in equally enthralling manner, Robin Borneman (Dutch singer/producer/storyteller) is featured on the most pivotal song in the set – the dreams finally turning to actions – “Old City Bar.” This magical song represents the denouement – the moment of truth for the hope of humanity, the moment of revelation for the angel. For from the simplest and most humble places, the greatest gifts can flow…

… and as often can happen during the most “exposed” moment of any performance – the acoustic guitar/vocalist ballad doesn’t get any more exposed – something can go wrong with the equipment/sound. On this night the guitar amp receiver failed (I suppose) and the musical accompaniment distorted to noticeable levels. But in completely professional manner, the musicians paused between verses, the guitar was replaced, and the song flowed on perfectly as if only a small step was missed. (Buy that guitar tech a drink!).

“Promises to Keep” features Georgia Napolitano (U.K.) as she powerfully proclaims the eternal power of Christmas, “if we don’t forget its meaning.” Simply another astonishing vocal performance.

Russell Allen returns to sing of the joyous reunion of the father with his daughter on “This Christmas Day.” The entire vocal ensemble – in true finale fashion – joins the celebration. And as the girl returned home, so “An Angel Returned” to the Lord. Dustin Brayley returns to lead the ensemble in the angel’s exhortation, “Kyrie among the nations.” In fairness to the musicians and singers – this the one song which may be a bit repetitive and less than spectacular from a musical standpoint (the multitude of nation flags on the contrary quite inspiring) – the song follows the original composition. While a modification may have made for a better aural experience, I respect TSO for keeping things “true to the original” with respect for both Paul O’Neill and for what the story here represents.

After a brief narrative epilogue by Bryan Hicks, an interlude/intermission of sorts ensues as Chris Caffery proceeds to introduce the singers and gives thanks and praise to the fans AND to those who serve in the military. [Bravo!]

…And Other Stories

Just when you think the show is over … “Mozart and Madness” leads off the “other stories” frenzy of songs (basically Act II). This song was originally released on the 1995 Savatage Dead Winter Dead album and was later resurrected for TSO’s Night Castle album, and features Roddy Chong, once again, on violin. The classical masterpiece – engulfed visually in plenty of pyro – is then followed in tandem by “The Mountain” (also from Night Castle). This heavy number features Caffery’s guitar leads and dance team lead by dance captain Natalya Rose.

“Joy of Man/An Angel’s Song” features newcomer Gabbie Rae (her first time with TSO, accompanied by the entire vocal ensemble) and she nails it with plenty of power, passion and precision. The proggy outro to the song shreds. The fan favorite “Christmas Canon Rock” follows and sees the return of Georgia Napolatino accompanied by Natalya, Erika and Gabbie. Hoekstra’s guitar shred juxtaposed with the singers is so vintage TSO.

Caleb Johnson returns to close out this segment of the show as he belts out “Three Kings & I” (would love to hear this guy sing Led Zep), and then the song just continues to build to the final shred section featuring Joel Hoekstra, Jeff Plate, the keyboardists flanked by the dancing Natalya and Georgia.

Chris Caffery next introduces the band, which includes the “locals” string section, and musical director Derek Wieland (keys). Perhaps the most amazing factoid during the intros is that drummer Jeff Plate has played every show since the opening show in Philadelphia in 1999! He then moves on to pay tribute to the late Paul O’Neill, band visionary and creator, and introduces the song “A Little Too Far” (from the Savatage Streets album) and that they had never performed this song live prior to the 2021 tour.

The song – an incredible ballad originally written and sung by Jon Oliva – features Kayla Reeves, who we had not heard solo until this moment in the show. Oliva is a hard singer to duplicate – his raspy voice one of a kind – but Reeves nails the performance with plenty of grit and passion in true Oliva fashion! The song is one of the highlights of the show for me, and likely will be for many a Savatage fan.

And so … if all of this hasn’t been enough to raise your blood pressure yet, the final run of songs figuratively (and somewhat literally) sets the house on fire.

The dark gothic choral and visual bliss – featuring the entire vocal ensemble – of “Carmina Burana” gets things started with plenty of smoke and fire. “Wizards in Winter” – featuring those constantly changing video screens galore – follows with tons of dancing lights and shooting fire. Mee Eun Kim and Derek Wieland share the spotlight here along with the other musicians in this frolicking and rhythmic celebration of light and life.

And then comes “Requiem (The Fifth)” to blow everything else out of the water with boiling heavy riffs accompanied by perfectly timed bursts of fire from both the stage and the rotating “cuboid” in the back of the arena. The “maestro’s masterpiece” seamlessly transitions into the finale – via the “carol of bells” – “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo Reprise,” which jams out to the fiery end! Obliterating fantastic!!!

After 2 hours and 15 minutes of musical and effects splendor, I was left speechless, wondering how many lives this organization has touched over 25 years of live performance … and similarly amazed at how one man’s vision became a gift to millions. And as Paul O’Neill himself would humbly reflect – how one man’s love for humanity (God himself in the flesh) would be light and life to all humanity!

Obliterating fantastic, reprise! Merry Christmas, indeed!

The Setlist (TSO East)

Welcome (Zak Stevens)

Beethoven (Instrumental)

An Angel Came Down (Dustin Brayley)

O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night (Instrumental)

The Prince of Peace (Erika Jerry)

First Snow (Instrumental)

A Mad Russian’s Christmas (Instrumental)

Christmas Eve/Sarajevo (Instrumental)

Good King Joy (Caleb Johnson)

Ornament (Russ Allen)

Old City Bar (Robin Borneman)

Promises to Keep (Georgia Napolitano)

This Christmas Day (Russ Allen)

An Angel Returned (Dustin Brayley)

Vocal Intros

Mozart and Memories/The Mountain (Instrumental)

Joy of Man/An Angel’s Share (Gabbie Rae)

Christmas Canon Rock (Georgia Napolitano)

The Three Kings and I/Christmas Jam (Caleb Johnson)

Band Intros

A Little Too Far (Kayla Reeves)

Carmina Burana (Choral Ensemble)

Wizards in Winter (Instrumental)

Requiem (The Fifth) (Instrumental)

Christmas Eve/Sarajevo Reprise (Instrumental)

The Players (TSO East)

Bryan Hicks – Storyteller

Zak Stevens – Vocals

Dustin Brayley – Vocals

Erika Jerry – Vocals

Caleb Johnson – Vocals

Russell Allen – Vocals

Robin Borneman – Vocals

Georgia Napolitano – Vocals

Gabbie Rae – Vocals

Kayla Reeves – Vocals

Natalya Rose – Vocals

Chris Caffery – Guitars

Joel Hoekstra – Guitars

Tony Dickenson – Bass

Derek Wieland – Keys

Mee Eun Kim – Keys

Roddy Chong – Strings

Jeff Plate – Drums

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

TSO West Review HERE

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