Charlottesville, VA – It was 1979 in Tarpon Springs, FL. Brothers Criss and Jon Oliva started a thrash metal band called Avatar (not to be confused with the modern Avatar). Who would have guessed their musical vision would have evolved into an annual Christmas tradition that has spanned 23 years. Of course, that tradition is Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO for short).
Founded in 1996 by Paul O’Neil and Jon Oliva as the next step up from the rock opera genre metal band, Savatage, the TSO Christmas tradition started in 1999 and has been the staple of every Christmas since then. On Dec 15, 2022, at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, VA, TSO kept the tradition going to a near sold out arena.
Before the TSO took the stage, Chris Caffery announced the recipients of this year’s local TSO charity donations (one dollar from every ticket sold is donated to local charities). The two Charlottesville charities that received $4333 each (total of $8666) this year were Toy Lift Charities and Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
This performance was again the east coast touring group (they have a west coast also touring at the same time). The east lineup is powerful, including vocalists Georgia Napolitano, Gabbie Rae, Erika Jerry, Kayla Reeves, Zak Stevens, John Brink, Robin Borneman, Caleb Johnson, and Russell Allen. Returning the Charlottesville stage, as the voice of the Christmas tale, was none other than Bryan Hicks.
One thing that makes the TSO winter tour special is how they are able to involve the community. With every performance they bring in local musicians to make up the supporting string section. TSO East musicians included Roddy Chong (strings), Tony Dickinson (bass), Joel Hoekstra (guitar), Jeff Plate (drums), Mee Eun Kim (keys), Derek Wieland (keys, musical director), and, of course, Chris Caffery (guitar).
As the curtain arose we peered upon shelves and shelves of books moving about the stage. From out of the darkness emerged the choir of vocalists with “Fate” from their non-Christmas album, Beethoven’s Last Night. Roddy Chong, was the highlight of the kickoff.
After a short instrumental from their most recent Letters from the Labyrinth, John Brink got the Christmas theme going with “The Lost Christmas Eve“, transitioning to the well known storyline narrated by the soothing voice of Bryan Hicks.
Throughout the story the video backdrop was wild. Often showing clips from the 1999 TSO video that tells the full story, “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve” starring the band, Ossie Davis, and Allie Sheridan. It is a tale of a runaway child, a mysterious theater caretaker, and the powerful spirit of Christmas as she finds her way home. I highly recommend finding a copy of the video as it is a look behind the story they tell every performance.
The story is told with many interpretations of old and new Christmas songs. A few examples include “Oh Come All Ye Faithful“, “Oh Holy Night“, and “Good King Joy” (an adaptation of “Joy to the World“).
No performance would be complete without the song (that I feel) defines TSO, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)“. Heavily influenced by “Carol of the Bells” and originally released on the Savatage album, Dead Winter Dead, it has become one of their most iconic Christmas songs
Highlights from the story also include “Christmas Canon Rock” with wonderous vocals provided by Georgia Napolitano, backed by the other female vocalists. A little bluesy “Music Box Blues” (Erika Jerry), through the joyous, “This Christmas Day” (Russell Allen), depicting the return home from a sad journey away. With that the story ended and the rocking could commence.
The second half of the show was out of this world. The stage show never ceases to amaze me as Roddy, Joel, Chris, Tony, Derek, Jeff, and Mee Eun all took turns wowing the crowd. With jumping flames heating the eyebrows of those on the floor (I can only imagine what it felt like on stage) and several members going above and beyond (literally) on lifts bring the show to new heights. This show appealed to all senses (you had to have good taste to be there!).
As I have recently gotten together with Richmond Ballet, I have come to appreciate the TSO version of “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” even more. This is one song that lets the stringed prowess of Roddy, Joel, and Chris shine with Mee Eun and Derek blowing us away on the keys. Shut your eyes and imagine the Russian dance scene from the Nutcracker and you will see what I mean.
Another tradition that has evolved out of TSO music is dancing Christmas lights. First done by an electrical engineer with an innovative mind and a lot of spare change (and a talent for programing controllers), the dancing lights have become a Christmas tradition in many areas (honestly, I would not like to live anywhere close to those who do it… the traffic is unreal). Here are a few of the songs from this performance that have found their way to choreographed light shows. “Wizards in Winter“, “Christmas Eve“, and “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” (see what I mean about traffic).
A major hightlight from the second half included a commemoration of one of the driving TSO forces, Paul O’Neil, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 61. The song was from the first rock opera he produced with Savatage, Streets. Kayla Reeves nailed the powerful, “If I Go Away“. Silence fell over JPJ.
When the night came to an end, they had gone full circle. Returning to Beethoven with “Requiem, The Fifth” and finishing with a reprise of “Christmas Eve“, the audience was on their feet.
As the lights came back up and I gazed on the audience preparing to head home to celebrate Christmas with their loved ones, there were few empty seats. It is hard to believe that after 20+ years, something that started out as a creative idea in the early 1990s, rooted to thrash metal, would still be so powerful and relevant in Christmas 2022. What I find most amazing is the audience. TSO brings together people with vast diversity in musical tastes, from classical to contemporary to heavy metal, they provide something for everyone in a way so all can relate to. This was my 6th time seeing TSO (my 5th Christmas show) and they continue to rock my world.
The Lost Christmas Eve
The Ghosts of Christmas Eve
O Come All Ye Faithful / O Holy Night
Good King Joy
Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)
Christmas Canon Rock
What Child Is This?
Music Box Blues
Promises to Keep
This Christmas Day
Christmas Carousels / Siberian Sleigh Ride
A Mad Russian’s Christmas
For the Sake of Our Brother
Christmas in the Air
Wizards in Winter
Child of the Night / A Last Illusion
If I Go Away (Dedicated to Paul O’Neil)
Madness of Men
The Snow Came Down
Requiem (The Fifth)
Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)
Check out this live performance bringing in 2014!