TSO rocks back onto the stage

Donald Halsing / THE GATEPOST

In the winter of 1995, the late Paul O’Neill called together the musicians who would form the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, said Chris Caffery during the band’s 3 p.m. show in Worcester Nov. 27.

Caffery, the lead electric guitarist of TSO’s east tour group, said they all listened intently to O’Neill’s novel proposal. “You know that look that young kids will give you when you ask them to try to figure out how to use a rotary phone?”

He said the band members “really started to get it” once O’Neill explained what he wanted to do with the band’s first album.

Caffery said, “He wanted to create some great art, and he was hoping if it had some luck it would catch on.

“Well boss,” he said looking up to the heavens, then pointing to over 9,000 audience members in the DCU Center, “I’m pretty sure these people are agreeing it caught on!”

Winter 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the American rock band’s debut studio album, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.”

Unlike other softer Christmas albums, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” is one of three rock opera albums in TSO’s “Christmas trilogy.” The other two albums in the trilogy are “The Christmas Attic” and “The Lost Christmas Eve.”

TSO has toured since 1999, according to the band’s website. Different from other rock bands, TSO prides themselves on tours filled with stories, songs, electric guitars and violins, powerful vocalists, magical narrators, whiplash-inducing hair flips, bright lights and lasers, and yes: Fire.

TSO’s east tour group consists of storyteller Bryan Hicks, guitarist Caffery, electric violinist Roddy Chong, vocalist Russell Allen, and many others, according to TSO’s website.

At each concert, the show pauses partway through for Caffery to introduce each member of the band. 

He always seems to have fun introducing Derek Wieland, saying this year, “And this gentleman to my left,” pausing while Wieland walked behind him, “right, he happens to be our musical director.”

The audience cheered before Caffery yelled, “He is our musical director!” It’s moments of deep connection like this throughout the show that bring TSO close to our hearts, knowing the band members love their music and their fans.

Chong can run and jump across the stage without missing a note. You’re missing out if you haven’t seen him play live.

You’re also missing some intense songs accompanied by pyrotechnics.

Many FM radio listeners have probably heard two of TSO’s most popular Christmas songs, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” and “Christmas Canon.” 

Listening to TSO’s songs on the radio, Spotify, or YouTube is like watching them play at the North Pole from the moon – you don’t experience any thrills. Seeing them in concert is exhilarating.

After a year’s hiatus from touring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were both excited to see the show in-person again.

Kathleen attended the Nov. 26, 3:30 p.m. show at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, while Donald attended the Nov. 27, 3 p.m. show at the DCU Center in Worcester. 

Both shows were unforgettable!

Replaying TSO’s albums in your car doesn’t provide the same rush that their concerts do. 

They have fire. 

They have lasers. 

You probably don’t want either of those in your car.

This year’s set featured over 100 color-changing orbs suspended from the ceiling.

Those won’t fit in your car, either.

The set designs vary from year to year, but they always include projection screens to provide appropriate backdrops for each and every song and story performed by TSO.

You could read O’Neill’s Christmas stories on the band’s CD jackets, but you probably don’t carry around the TSO “Christmas trilogy” box set because nobody spins CDs anymore.

Some of our core memories include TSO’s storyteller Hicks reciting O’Neill’s stories in his unforgettably incredible narration voice. 

Hicks is an amazing narrator. His deep, booming voice projects loudly, so even audience members in the highest balcony seats at the back of the arena can hear him clear as day. His stories are timeless, and audience members feel like children again whenever they listen to him.

If you hear Hicks say “Merry Christmas” three times while gesturing with his hat, you know you’re in the right universe. Last year, without a live concert, we longed for his voice to fill our ears.

TSO’s storytelling doesn’t end with narration, fire, and shifting illuminated orbs. Robin Borneman’s costume for “Old City Bar” complimented the song’s lyrics. 

The heavy coat, black knit cap, and fingerless gloves reminded us of the ghost hobo from Warner Brothers’ “Polar Express” movie. Borneman’s singing added to the powerful atmosphere of the song.

Another favorite moment during TSO concerts is when long-haired vocalists perform synchronized hair flips as they sing “Christmas Canon Rock.”

“Christmas Canon Rock” is a more upbeat, rock version of their song “Christmas Canon.” “Christmas Canon Rock” is from TSO’s 2004 album, The Lost Christmas Eve, and “Christmas Canon” is from TSO’s 1998 album “The Christmas Attic.”

While this year’s tour mainly consisted of songs from “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” content from TSO’s other albums was also featured.

In addition to TSO’s “Christmas trilogy,” the band released another rock opera in 2000, titled “Beethoven’s Last Night.” This album had a TSO spin on composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s classic symphonies.

No two TSO tours are the same. This year’s set included an unexpected transition between two songs that demonstrate the power of their music.

Near the end of the usual run of “Three Kings and I,” a few bell notes were inserted leading right into the band blasting “Christmas Jam.” 

The crowd went crazy, and so did we.

Another one of the band’s songs, “This Christmas Day,” is composed of a gentle piano intro, powerful lead vocals by Allen, backing vocals by the female singers in the ensemble, and a coordinating flashing laser light show.

Well, all of their songs are complimented by a laser show.

Complimenting their hard rock songs, TSO also performed a number of gentler songs. In addition to “Old City Bar,” “Prince of Peace” was sung by Erika Jerry with incredible emotion and gusto.

One of the most memorable moments of the show was Kayla Reeves singing this year’s tribute to O’Neill, “A Little Too Far.” 

A crew member at the soundbooth held up their phone flashlight first, and everyone followed along. Soon the stadiums at Manchester and Worcester were brightened by thousands of phone flashlights, as if they were holding up lighters in tribute. One person at the Worcester show even held up an actual lighter. 

TSO also played tracks from their most recent album Night Castle (2009) which have never been played live in the northeast until this tour: “Mozart & Magic” followed by “The Mountain.” Both songs owe their roots to Savatage, a band which several TSO members played in before.

The opening track for this year’s tour, “Welcome to the show,” was the perfect song to set the mood for each concert. TSO enthusiastically welcomed their audience to every venue they played this winter.

We are grateful they could welcome us back to their show this year. This year’s TSO tour happening amid the pandemic is truly a Christmas miracle.

Grade: A+

Lasers, fire, and Bryan Hicks. The world has never been the same.