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Concert Review: Trans-Siberian Orchestra

If it's almost December, it must be time for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour.  My son describes them as the "rock electronic Christmas band," and that is as fair a label as any.  Many tend to compare TSO to Mannheim Steamroller, the other band that has created a niche for themselves with modern takes on Christmas music, but TSO tends to skew more towards heavy rock than Mannheim Steamroller.  I think TSO is similar in many ways to Emerson Lake and Palmer, both with their tendency to cover classical songs as well as their flirtations with pretentiousness in some of their productions.  For those unfamiliar with TSO, probably their most famous work of late was "Wizards in Winter," parts of whose music video I think was included in a beer commercial last year.

My son and I got tickets to the concert because we had a couple of TSO albums (we tend to like the instrumentals and think less of the vocals).  What we had not realized is that TSO has quite a cult following.  Most of the folks around us in the audience had been to 3,4,5 or more of their shows.  Many go every year, in a ritual similar to how other folks might go to the Nutcracker every year.

There is no doubt that TSO delivers value to its fans.  We saw their second show of the day (!) and they played for a full three hours.  Members of the band at different points went all through the audience, down aisles and up stairs while playing some of the final tunes -- far more intimate contact than you will get in most other bands.  The key band members all were present after the show in the lobby for a meet and greet with their fans. 

OK, so what about the show?  Well, I was a little disappointed.  To be fair, their leader had a knee injury which forced him to play sitting down, and this tended to reduce some of the band's energy.  The music was generally good to very good.   The keyboard solos and the high-energy songs at the end were terrific. 

The problems were twofold.  First, the opening half of the show was stitched together with a narration that was just painful.  The poetry was Touched by an Angel meets Dr. Seuss.  It was a Night Before Christmas crossed with LA noir.  It just did not work for me, and I know it was weak because my 14-year-old son was laughing at it.  We both thought we were watching Spinal Tap 2.

The other problem is one that TSO fans will call me out for, but the light show through all the songs was just too much.  Don't get me wrong, I have never, ever seen anything to rival the floor show here - 6 trillion lights on the fastest-changing programming I have ever seen, zillions of lasers, flames, more flames, a ten-minute snow storm, band members descending from the sky, band members ascending to the sky, etc. etc.  You can get an idea of about 1% of it with this video  but any digital camera image of the show is worthless because the ccd can't possibly keep up.  Seriously, this video grossly understates the full effect.

The problem was that my eyes could not keep up either.  I have walked away from concerts thinking I had a perforated ear drum, but never before thinking I had a burned-out optic nerve.  My son said he needed to wear eye-plugs.  90% of the effects would have been OK had it not been for the direct audience facing lights at about 6 trillion candle power they kept insisting on flashing in my face.  Anyway, we both are quite experienced with loud, heavy metal concerts and we both walked away with a headache from this one.

Anyway, it was interesting and I am glad I went.  And I may even go back next year, but I will be prepared - I am bringing my RayBans next time.

Posted on November 24, 2008 at 10:06 PM | Permalink


So TSO isn't really an orchestra?

Posted by: Craig | Nov 24, 2008 10:35:43 PM

On stage you will see - 2-3 guitarists, 2 people prancing about playing electric violin, 2 keyboardists, 1 drummer, about 6-8 vocalists, and here in Phoenix we had some extra strings being played by a local strings group. Most wear tails sortof like an orchestra, but this is definitely a rock band. Sortof. Kindof.

Posted by: Coyote | Nov 24, 2008 11:17:55 PM

TSO started out of Savatage's Dead Winter Dead Disc. I saw them the first year they toured at the Riveria theater in Chicago which is kind of a dive. As for the musicians depending on if its TSO west or east you'll get a different variety. With the East group you get Chris Caffery of Savatage on guitar. Alex Skolnick of Testament/Savatage a very talented thrash metal guitarist. Jeff Plate on drums of Savatage and who spent the summer touring with Metal Church. This was the only way I could get my parents to realize how talented thrash metal musicians are.
I do have to agree with you I've seen them every year since 1999 and the first year with minimal lights was the best. Also that year I got autographs from the entire band. That also was the year Al Pitrelli ex Megadeth/Alice Cooper/Savatage/Widowmaker played. I believe he is currently with the TSO west production. With the current light show they are more Def Leppard from the Hysteria tour when they did the in the round tour with all the lasers and lighting.
We will see them 12/23 in Grand Rapids and yes we are going to both shows. Intersting thing to watch is how technically proficient the band is. Listen to some old Testament with Alex Skolnick and hear him shred and than realize how versatile he is to go from thrash to playing 'A Mad Russians Christmas' and than slow down for 'Christmas Canon'.

Posted by: Swede | Nov 25, 2008 6:39:56 AM

Thirty-one years in rock tour stage lights design, and I've always said that most people will not explicitly know a great light show when they're looking at it, because it stays out of the way. Even something like Pink Floyd in stadiums will work this way. When it's well integrated, it will never get in the way of the music, no matter how big it is. This is proper cue design. It's a hell of a lot of rehearsal work, and it's also a matter of world-view exposed through the designer's eye.

I've seen video of TSO and always thought that look needed discipline.

Posted by: Billy Beck | Nov 25, 2008 9:30:39 AM

I have seen two TSO shows in my local arena and I love their music. The story line is sometimes pushed a bit far. My wife is a singer, so she makes sure that I appreciate the vocals (some of the girls can hit and hold high notes very well). I will agree, however, that frequently the light show is just too much. We have gotten floor seats (feeling the music is amazing that close), but it does burn the eyes with everything that goes on. In many ways I wish they would reduce the lighting that hits the fans. However, I do like the lasers and flames they use. Overall, I always recommend this show to everyone, but I will wait to go to my next show after they finish up their new CD so I can hear some new content.

Posted by: EconStudent | Nov 25, 2008 9:43:00 AM

I agree with the above comments but am even less forgiving of TSO. My wife and I attended the 11/20 TSO concert here in Las Vegas. We had become attracted to the TSO sound from hearing such classics as Wizards in Winter and others from YouTube. We were hoping the concert would be like that and more, we were sorely disappointed. My description of them would be 80s Hair Band meets American Idol meets The Polar Express.
First of all, credit should be given to the awesome light show that comes with a live TSO performance. You will probably never, ever see such a display of lasers, LEDs, robo-spots, etc. anywhere else. But, as others have mentioned, shining megawatts of high-intensity spots into the audience's eyes is not a welcome thing. Now for the bad: Everything else. A live TSO production tells a Christmas story with narrator, intermixed with hard-edged Def Leppard-style guitar-driven rock. As I understand it, the first half of the show is this Christmas story, the second half more of what TSO is traditionally known for (see YouTube). I wish they did it the other way around, because the Christmas story and narration part of the show is painfully boring, but then if the better part of the show was first, most people would probably leave at half-time. As it was, we had enough after an hour and three quarters and departed. Actually, several hundred audience members (my estimation) left before us, so we weren't alone in our feeling that TSO had failed to entertain. The problem is pacing. The show gets bogged down by the Christmas story, and the VERY lengthy vocal solo numbers with piano accompaniment are arduous to endure. All the energy of the hard-driving "orchestral" numbers is lost when you have to sit through 15 minutes of a hobo singing about who-knows-what.
As someone else pointed out, people tend to either like or dislike TSO, we fall in the latter group. Perhaps if they shortened the interminable vocal numbers and did more with the full-band, it might have turned out to be an enjoyable event, but as it is now, I can say I've been there, done that, won't go again.

Posted by: Duncan Johnston | Nov 25, 2008 9:53:40 AM

I never miss these guys on tour and have seen them in various East Coast locations each year since '99. The narration part of the show slows it down but it DOES tell a story about an angel that is very sweet. I too wish they would change up the set list though as there are some great tunes on the 2nd and 3rd Xmas-themed cd's that never get played because them playing the entire first cd takes up alot of time. Funny how the reference to ELP appears here because I saw them in NJ two years ago and Greg Lake jumped onstage to do "Karn Evil 9". WOW!!!! Am seeing them there again on 12/13 and it is the closest they come to NYC on this tour (which is strange) and I will expect another big rocker from classic rock to join them. This is a treat and takes Christmas to places it has never been though thrash metal and a stage show that would make Pink Floyd envious. The girls are very hot also. Mark Wood on electric violin just kicks everloving ass as does Alex Skolnick on thrash guitar. I have taken my son- now 10- for 5 straight years and am flying him in from Minnestota for the NJ show.

Posted by: LennyWood | Nov 26, 2008 8:14:40 AM

Isn’t Mannheim Steamroller the same guy who did “Convoy”?

And absolutely true about the lighting, from what little I’ve seen from TSO, they need a Mark Brickman (Pink Floyd’s and David Gilmour’s lighting designer).

Posted by: Mesa Econoguy | Nov 26, 2008 4:58:01 PM

Brickman's design for the "Delicate Sound of Thunder" tour in '87 was revolutionary. It set new standards for the first time in nearly a decade since the appearance of the V*L-1 moving head. To anyone who works in lights, Brickman is something like our Frank Lloyd Wright.

Posted by: Billy Beck | Nov 27, 2008 9:09:39 AM

I will respectfully contradict many previous statements. I can understand where you are coming from with the lights/projection/pryo being overpowering, but I think that you are sort of missing the point.

A live show from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra isn’t entirely about the music; its about a performance. I understand that this is not typical of touring shows, usually filled with arrogant musicians, but it is what Mark Wood and the rest of the production staff has said from the beginning.

While not everyone who enjoys the music may enjoy the show, they are certainly catering to a demographic that is willing to fork out the dollars to have their minds blown year after year. They want it to be a production, a show- not just a concert. Why else would they hire engineers right out of college to discover new ways to blow crap up? Note also that they split into two shows. No doubt, it is partially to make money. But they don’t need the musicians who recorded in the studio for the full show because the show is so much bigger than the musicians. They hired the best lighting designer (for metal/hard rock/in-your-face lighting) in the industry, and he sufficiently delivered. Brian Hartley is as much a part of the show as Woods and Caffery are.

I fully understand what people are saying, but I hope you understand that they’re doing it on purpose to please a large, but maybe differnt group of people. And it works (citing the ‘cult following’). Think again about Mannheim Steamroller. Have you seen them live? They are GOD-AWFUL. The most PATHETIC show I’ve ever seen in my life. I saw TSO and MS last year about a week apart, and I nearly stabbed myself during MS. If I’d actually paid for the tickets, I would have asked for my money back. I love Steamroller, but wouldn’t ever see them live again. But I will continue to be amazed by the work they do under the direction of Chip Davis and buy their albums. I hope you will continue to follow TSO, even if you can’t handle them live.

PS- My TSO 2008 show starts in 22 hours 16 minutes.

Posted by: Kyle | Nov 28, 2008 8:45:48 PM

I thought that TSO had too many flashing lights, it burned my eyes. It was a cacophony of light.

Posted by: Little Buddy | Dec 1, 2008 2:43:05 PM

"I needed eye-plugs"
The show may be worth attending just for the vertigo inducing photonic extravaganza.

Posted by: Mike | Dec 2, 2008 1:35:27 PM

Saw the TSO show Sunday in Hartford. Have some friends who go every year and rave about the band. This was my first show and for a 50+ old fart, I was thoroughly entertained. The narration portion of the show was slow at times but the various genres of music made up for it.
Hafta to agree with some of the posters here, thought I had burned retina's by the time it was over.

Posted by: Mopie | Dec 2, 2008 5:27:07 PM

Googling TSO came up with this blog - which contains the best info I've seen on the net!

Has anyone taken young ones to one of these shows or seen young kids at the shows? Did they like it? We're seeing the 4pm show tomorrow and bringing my 4 & 6 yr old. I hope they like it!

Posted by: Bryan | Dec 3, 2008 8:07:12 PM

When we saw them in Vegas it was almost entirely a 35+ audience, with the exception of one woman who brought an infant to the event. Now THAT is child abuse.

Posted by: Duncan Johnston | Dec 4, 2008 7:38:46 PM

>>Isn’t Mannheim Steamroller the same guy who did “Convoy”

Yep, Chip Davis, the leader of Mannheim Steamroller was also the guy that did Convoy.

I tend to agree with the comment that Mannheim shows are not as entertaining as TSO. I like TSO but understand those that may not. I saw Mannheim about 10 years ago and described it as listening to their albums on a really good sound system, they were note for note.

We saw TSO last night in Colorado (the west tour group). Found some differences in this years Christmas story section, slower tempos and more live input from the instrumentalists. The second half feature more of the classical themed songs where as in the past they have also done some straight up rock numbers.

Great show though -- and their second of that day -- these guys work hard!

Posted by: Dave H | Dec 5, 2008 9:49:38 AM

So we saw the show yesterday in Colorado. My kids (4 yr old boy, 6 yr old girl) LOVED it! Although, my daughter almost fell asleep during the first half. Certain points were more painful than a root canal. Luckily we stuck around for the 2nd half although my wife and kids were hinting it was time to go, but I convinced them it was going to get better. Well it got much better and wound up being a great show.

I do have to agree with some of the other posts - I absolutely loved the light show, but the "temporary blinding retina burning mind melding" audience facing lights were rediculous. I can't believe anyone in the audience appreciated going blind temporarily. You'd think TSO would recognize this and fix it!

Posted by: Bryan | Dec 5, 2008 2:11:05 PM

Saw them last night. Disjointed, blasting overdone production, HEAVY effects so to overlook rather simplistic blasting overdone production - not. Siberians from...new jersey? Expecting modern, at least current - got timewarp back to 80's glamour rock hair, contrived guitar moves boy bands. Are all those people on stage really necessary? Overpriced. Will stop now :)

Posted by: vstar | Dec 5, 2008 9:25:37 PM

My wife and I (we are in our early to mid 50s) are attending the TSO performance in Nashville in a few weeks. I'm a rock fan from the 60s, but she isn't. I like "oldies" rock, while she is more of a mellow rock (non-heavy metal) fan. My question is do we attend or bail on the opportunity (even though we already have the tickets)?

Posted by: Mark | Dec 6, 2008 6:22:39 AM

Early 50's here also. Didn't miss very many concerts back in the 70's. Enjoyed the TSO show even though the light show was a bit over the top. If you have the tix, go and see for yourself. It appeals to all ages and taste.

Posted by: Mopie | Dec 6, 2008 9:05:31 PM

This was our 3rd time seeing them in atlanta. We look foward to it all year long. However, this year I got sick from all the lights and had to run out. There was also a kid that threw up in the aisle and several people around us closing their eyes and shielding them with their hands. We were sitting straight on. I thought maybe it wouldnt be so bad from the side?! I have never had that happen before. Other than that they are just awesome.

Posted by: sheila | Dec 7, 2008 12:03:22 PM

I saw my first show last night in Buffalo and I have mixed feelings. I see why people are attracted to the splendor but parts of the show are downright cheesy (most notably the lyrics to their original songs and the non-sensical narrative). I wrote my own review at the link below:


Posted by: muchgooder | Dec 7, 2008 3:20:55 PM

I just got home and feel cheated and almost lied to!! The Good: Most of the second half, the pirotechnics, the lazer lights and spot lights show and about 20% of their music. The Bad: the other 80% of the music is HEAVY METAL, they may as well not even have the two violins cause theyre just for looks, the music sucked im sorry to say it, it sucked. The Ugly: BRING YOUR EARPLUGS IF

Posted by: Ryan | Dec 7, 2008 11:10:43 PM

I also just got home, I don't know if I was a different concert than the previous poster, or what. It was a BLAST!!! The first 1:15 is a Christmas story, beautifully done with narration, lyrics, and music. The second half of the show is TSO's rock adaption of some great classical music with lights and pyro thrown in.

I would suggest you edit your post and add the word STUPID to your first sentence,


Posted by: Stu | Dec 7, 2008 11:37:06 PM

Sell your tickets if you can. Save yourself. The music is BAD and the narration is pitiful. The light show is lame. The sound system is the WORST. We attended the Dec 3rd, 2008 concert in Denver and wished we'd bought an ipod Nano for our son instead for the amount we spent.

Posted by: rjl | Dec 10, 2008 8:40:33 PM

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