Whatever happened to Savatage? They really weren't half bad. Somewhere between their 1995 album Dead Winter Dead and the light bulb that lit up in producer Paul O'Neill's head in 1996 and told him to create the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a metal-lite equivalent of Mannheim Steamroller, something went tragically awry. Not surprisingly, Sunday evening's TSO performance at Toyota Center was barely half good. As Thora Birch says in Ghost World, "This is so bad it's gone past good and back to bad again." Most of the crowd seemed to care little that what they were watching defied any notion that quality beats quantity. On the contrary, the TSO is a touring extravaganza that has no qualms about admitting to having been influenced by the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Since the radio success of "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" - originally recorded by Savatage - the TSO has become a commercial brand name synonymous with perennial Christmas. And lights. Lots and lots of lights.
The Toyota Center probably has never been bedecked with as many lights as it was during this show. There were robotic lasers. Diamond-shaped light riggings on the ceiling. Scaffolds of more lights and television screens that changed formations while displaying news reels of Americana and wartime footage. There was snow - yes, snow - falling onto the audience from above. There were platforms that elevated and emitted bursts of fire. Epileptics should never go see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. All these visual extravagances (which were often painfully blinding) accompanied a small string section, two guitarists and a bassist (Al Pitrelli, Angus Clark, Chris Altenhof), two keyboardists (one with a strange, floppy wrist technique), vocal soloists, dramatic recitations, synchronized head-banging and violin-bow-throwing choreography and a drummer with a mullet. According to audience member Rich Zwelling, "The lights are there pretty much to distract you from how bad the music is." And, oh, how bad it was. Christmas carol rearrangements were interspersed with forgettable original songs and melodramatic storytelling. A Nutcracker Suite medley and variations on Mozart (also adapted from the Savatage version) attempted - unsuccessfully - to add classical legitimacy to the relatively simple melodies.
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Gone are the heavy, rhythmic riffs from albums like Hall of the Mountain King and Gutter Ballet; gone are the gritty stories of suffering and redemption from Streets: A Rock Opera and Dead Winter Dead; in their place are familiar tunes, like "Joy to the World" slowed to a plodding tempo, with every note played as dramatically as though it were the last note the guitarist would play for the rest of his life. Passion is one thing. Kitsch is another.
With each band and orchestra member dressed in tuxedos or skintight black dresses, it's hard not to associate the formality, coupled with the visual and musical excess, with an annual church Christmas production. Subtract from the TSO a couple hundred lights (which would still leave about several hundred more), throw in some more specifically religious lyrics, and what you've got is something you can see for at least half-price at your local megachurch. Fittingly, Sunday night's audience sat and watched attentively, as though viewing a sacred service - save the occasional sign of the horns flashed at the band by a hand here and there. One such gesturer was a man with long, stringy hair who was sitting in front of us. He was wearing a Savatage T-shirt. We suppose he was there for the same reason we were: to see the remaining vestiges of what used to be a decent, if unheralded, metal band from the '80s to mid-'90s. If we're tough on the TSO, it's because we've heard what guys like Chris Oliva, Chris Caffrey, and Al Pitrelli used to be able to do - together. They used to be able to rock. Now, the former Savatage lineup splits itself between two separate TSO touring groups, East and West. (TSO West performed at Toyota Center; Oliva is not performing this year, and Caffrey tours with TSO East.) Unfortunately, hearing talented musicians devolve into a bloated spectacle beholden to a holiday is as much a Christmas gift as is a stocking full of coal.