The question I kept asking myself the entire cold, rainy afternoon at the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth, over and over again was how exactly does one approach something like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra critically? For those playing at home with just a passing knowledge of the band, Trans-Siberian Orchestra seems, on the surface, to be nothing more than one of those Groundhog Day sort of musical acts. It’s the kind of music people generally seem to like only during one particular time of the year and who take their spot on the calendar to musically own prime real estate in the heads of many with their songs for the entire month of December and then have the kindness to politely leave as if they were about to overstay their welcome.
My point being, I had no expectations for Trans-Siberian Orchestra or experience with the group outside of hearing a few songs that I probably already knew and liked. Such is the world of Christmas music. Love it or hate it, it’s always a safe bet. In my head it was probably going to be a perfectly lovely time, with perfectly lovely people, playing perfectly lovely songs like a massive Christmastime, feel good Jukebox. What I did not expect was a massive, full-blown mind melting experience that defied all expectations. Trans-Siberian Orchestra you see, is no mere run of the mill Christmas cover band. They’re not here to hold your hand and gently ease you into the yuletide season with the sounds of gentle bells and the quiet smolders of chestnuts over an open fire. Trans-Siberian Orchestra is more in the marketing of using the skeletons of Christmas melodies and exploding them into life.
Forget simply feeling the warmth of Christmas cheer slowly over take you. TSO attacked with nothing less than a beautiful, swirling dazzling assault of sound, colors, pyro and light. They combined the over indulgence of 70’s prog rock with the theatrics of Broadway along with stunning visuals and pyrotechnics of a Michael Bay production all with the subtlety of the world’s least subtle teenager. Even the softer moments felt extravagant, building into an epic swell of sound. Once those doors closed, the lights went out, plunging the audience into a sea of darkness illuminated only by scattered points of light on the ceiling resembling stars. After what felt like an agonizingly long pause, out of nowhere, the stage was bathed in light. In the brief moment of darkness that had transpired before, the massive band took the stage getting into their precise positions; all 30+ members consisting of guitarists, bassist, drummer, keyboards, choir and a chamber orchestra. Somehow with the clockwork precision of a dance troupe paired with the timing and of a Vegas magic show, everyone was in their proper place before the lights would come back on.
After opening with their first three songs, “Night Enchanted,” “Winter Palace,” and “Lost Christmas Eve,” the ensemble properly began Act 1 of their show. The massive stage awash with light and using a combination of mechanically moving stage props, lights and prop snow falling from the ceiling. The band transported the stage to a quiet street on a winter’s night in front of a brightly lit theater set that revealed a door where the narrator (yes you read that right, the narrator) would enter and egress the stage throughout the first act between songs. In a crisp suit and a warm rich baritone voice, he began to set the scene for the performance we were about to see.
Act 1 would turn out to be the band performing their 1999 rock opera/movie in its entirety, with each song from the soundtrack of the film, coordinated as a tightly woven affair; with different crews assembling for each song and sets being moved into place. The next 10-12 songs stayed firmly on the Christmas side of things, reworking familiar melodies with blistering guitar solos, dizzying orchestral arrangements, and multiple singers and set changes to boot; all taking place within a matter of minutes between each song.
You couldn’t take your eye off the ball for a second and try as you might to focus on everything, everything quickly turned into too much. Focus on the singer at the time and you’d miss the guitarists on stage. Focus on them and then you’d miss the sudden arrival of chorus singers on stage. Were you focusing on them as well? Well…great, you just missed the scene transition into the next song while the drum platform was moving through the smoke. And if by some miracle chance you knew to pay attention to all the moving parts on stage, congratulations; you completely missed the rotating platforms hanging from the ceiling that now hold a pair of electric violinists performing 25 feet above your head.
And that was just the first act! After being sure there was nothing left to surprise me, Trans-Siberian Orchestra found yet another way. The lights went off once again and came back on, this time revealing the stage as it was before without all the sets and props. Taking the stage all alone, devoid any of the bells and whistles that had defined the show from the jump, one of the original founding members of TSO, Al Pitrelli, took the stage alone to thank the audience and to formerly introduce the many many members of the band by first and last name.
After experiencing all the dizzying emotions Trans-Siberian Orchestra could serve up, it was easy to be blinded by all the glitz and the production values to forgetting the human element beneath the machine that made it all go. In that moment that human element was all on display. Not only was the whole group acknowledged, Pitrelli took the time to make sure to properly credit the entire support staff behind the lights and machines of the group. In addition, he dedicated the show to the U.S Troops and Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s founder Paul O’Neil who passed away in April of 2017.
It’s tempting to write about Trans-Siberian Orchestra as purely elaborate stage production paired with classic trained musicianship. But it was in moments like this, and the moments when Pitrelli retook the stage again alone to dedicate the next song (the stripped down number “Someday”) to his friend and the groups founder, the late Paul O’ Neil, that moment reveled a very raw and real human element at the heart of the glamour that made all of this possible.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra closed out the show with their stunning Act II, which continued to mix in some of their more Christmas related material; alternating between classic crowd pleases such as “Wizards of Winter” and dabbling in newer material like “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” from their 2015 album. As they neared the end of their final crescendo, Trans-Siberian Orchestra pulled out all the stops including “Eve/Sarajevo,” a song that brought back a few samples from the Christmas classic “Good King Wenceslas.”
After a final goodbye from the band and one last bow, Trans-Siberian Orchestra deserted the stage and the lights came back on. They began to reset their whole machine for their second show of the evening. It was in that moment that I had started to process what I had seen. Trans-Siberian Orchestra was just a band in every technical sense of the word but what I had seen that nigh felt like so much more. I had been taken for a ride into a magical world of highs and lows and magic, backed by beautiful, passionate music that threaded the line between metal, opera, symphony and storytelling. And the whole time, it never looked back.
Photos by Marina Delaine-Siegel for Bullet Music