Wednesday night at the Smoothie King Center, the symphonic prog rock holiday band gave their fans a great show. Did it give them anything else?
The lighting rig that hung over the members of Trans-Siberian Orchestra at the Smoothie King Center Wednesday night could serve as the New World Order Olympic rings—seven, not five, close together but not interlocking, each with an LED square inside. Three songs into the set, the rings surprised the crowd when the LED squares inside the front three lowered to bring band members including violin player Asha Mevlana to the stage. That wasn’t the only time the rings acted up, as they lowered and tilted to create the illusion of a ceiling over the stage in some instances, or fell in behind the band to add to the backdrop in others. That wasn’t the only time TSO would play hide and seek with its band members either. Twice during the show, band members discreetly disappeared from the stage, only to reappear at the back of the room—Magic!—on cherry pickers that swung them out over the audience as they played. At one point, guitarist Angus Clark hung the opening guitar line of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” from his perch on the cherry picker before the band moved back to its regularly scheduled song.
A Pink Floyd cover would have been welcome in the set, not because the set needed something different, but because it would have been genuinely surprising. The peekaboo games TSO plays with its members and the random eruptions of lights and lasers might startle, but they don’t surprise because TSO is known for its production. That’s what it does. The show is its calling card as much as the music, so an unpredictable cover would have carried some real weight.
Everything at a TSO show is designed to elicit a “Wow” but not necessarily more than a “wow,” and in that way the band is much like Cirque du Soleil and professional wrestling. It’s spectacle first, and the content is just a frame from which to hang that spectacle. The late Paul O’Neill treated clichés—rightly, perhaps—as the lingua franca, and the whole enterprise rests on them because they speak quickly and easily to a broad audience. I heard Jim Steinman, who produced Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in the show’s self-consciously oversized scale, and identified moments of Rick Springfield, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Styx—a lot of Styx, which makes sense—in TSO songs. But those familiar fragments never appeared in a pastiche or knowing way. Instead, O’Neill used them as easy, common sense ways to get from Point A to Point B musically, just as lyrics about ghosts, angels, dreams, hearts and music boxes form a texture-free, resistance-free pathway through the songs. All that efficiency comes with a cost though.
TSO, like Cirque du Soleil, can be a little faceless. The show’s the thing, and the players just execute it. TSO has made that a strength from a business perspective with two road companies on tour playing the same show nightly so that they can get the act in front of as many people as possible between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. That makes the “band” very different from more conventional rock bands, where fans connect specific members with specific contributions to the music. TSO clearly has fan favorites—band leader Al Pitrelli, narrator Bryan Hicks, lead guitarist Clark, and violin player Mevlana—but on the same night that they played in New Orleans, it’s likely fans in Uniondale, New York were just as happy with the lineup they got, and they saw essentially the same thing. The show is bigger than its players, and in that way TSO live also evokes musical theater, particularly during the opening hour when it performed the rock opera The Ghosts of Christmas Eve. Some of the singers bring that connection into focus as they sing with rich, round vocal tones that clearly announce, “Acting!”
The Ghosts of Christmas Eve and a number of other similar seasonal rock operas have made TSO a holiday favorite, and the degree to which you hear Christmas in their prog-metal varies with your interest in hearing a Hallmark Channel movie translated to the arena rock stage, or your desire to hear the melodies of classic carols performed up the neck. I was there for Pitrelli when he coaxed out a screaming “O Holy Night,” but guitarist Clark’s grinning efforts to get sections of the audience to respond while he played “Joy to the World” added a bro-y, fist-bumping flavor that reduced the song to notes he seemed to have little interest in. Still, this connection of arena rock with the holiday movie was Paul O’Neill’s breakthrough more than the band itself, which has roots in Electric Light Orchestra as well as Styx. What he seemed to tap into was people’s desire to hear Christmas music played their way. Classic rock fans whose bands existed to kiss off the musical world of Andy Williams and Perry Como weren’t immune to Christmas music; quite the opposite. They were fine with it if it sounded like their music, and that’s what TSO made.
The irony is that TSO’s arena rock embodies musical values that were codified 40 years ago—the same kind of gap that existed between TSO and Bing Crosby when the band formed in 1998.
No one around me seemed in on this irony, but that makes sense. How arch do you have to be to pay arena ticket prices to see a show that questions your musical self-awareness? And if you ever start to wonder about the man behind the curtain at a TSO show, there’s always another laser display or pyro effect to snap you out of it. On Wednesday night like every night, I suspect, TSO gave fans a professional show—another Cirque du Soleil similarity—that served as both a holiday show and a rock show. Who could they argue with value like that?