Every year about this time, a stunning light show in downtown Salt Lake City kicks off the holiday season in spectacular style.
No, we're not talking about the traditional, reverential even, turning on of the lights at Temple Square. That switch isn't flipped until the day after Thanksgiving. Although, it can definitely be said that what we're referring to also engenders a near-religious fervor from its devoted followers.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with its massive lights and special effects-laden production, not only turned in an electrifying ode to the holidays Wednesday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, but it set the seasonal fires burning with a dazzling "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" production that left no over-the-top stone unturned.
To say you can set your holiday timepiece to TSO's annual pre-Thanksgiving Salt Lake pyro-palooza may sound trite, but it's no joke. For example, Wednesday's visit marked one year to the day since the band's 2018 appearance.
"We've been looking forward to tonight for 364 days," lead guitarist/musical director Al Pitrelli told the crowd.
So popular is TSO this time of year in Salt Lake, as well as many other North American locations, that the band actually plays a matinee show as well as the main nightcap. This is no easy feat to pull off for an arena tour.
This was my first actual TSO live experience, despite years of prodding from friends whose musical tastes I respect. Ironically, my avoidance stemmed more from the time of year of the show than anything else. The SLC shows always seemed to fall on the main production days for our entertainment section, and a time of year we're slammed with early deadlines for Thanksgiving. I also can't say I'm the biggest fan of classical music -- and wasn't sure what my take would be on the rocked-up classical stylings of TSO.
But, after seeing Wednesday's evening show, my take is this: Count me in for future years.
The first thing that people tend to mention about TSO concerts is the no-holds-barred stage production. There is no doubt that is a huge part of the draw. With dazzling lights, laser effects, eye-popping video boards displaying intriguing content and scene settings all night, rising platforms and a back-of-arena contraption spitting electrical streaks like a deranged Tesla coil -- I could go on and on describing the evening's eye candy -- there was always something fascinating to soak in, from a visual standpoint.
The musicianship, of course, is also a gigantic plus to the proceedings. There are 17 musicians, plus a storyteller, onstage at different parts of the evening. This includes multiples on some instruments, including two guitarists, two keyboardists and 10 -- yes 10! -- vocalists handling both lead and background duties at various times. That's not even counting an additional four-person Salt Lake-based string section that joined in for part of the evening. Believe me, the band leaves no note unplayed.
Interestingly, the TSO cast of characters definitely shine as a collective rather than as a collection of individuals. There may be a few recognizable names to rock connoisseurs -- such as drummer Blas Elias from Slaughter and one-time Journey lead singer Jeff Scott Soto, as well as Savatage members Pitrelli and bassist John Lee Middleton -- but most of the performers are undoubtedly unknown by name to all but the most diehard followers.
What has perhaps been undersold in describing the TSO live experience is the actual spirit and storytelling aspect of the evening. "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" hearkens back to TSO's debut album and tour, and was last performed in 2014. The album's story, which features the visit of an angel to an otherwise nondescript New York City bar on Christmas Eve, and helping a stranded daughter find her way home for the holiday, resonated strongly through music and the spoken word -- the latter thanks to a thoroughly engaging effort by storyteller/narrator Phillip Brandon.
The show opened with "Who I Am," then dove straight into "Christmas Eve and Other Stories." Highlights included Pitrelli's piercing, melodic guitar solo in "O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night," the tremendously sultry lead vocals of Chloe Lowery on "The Prince of Peace," the rocking instrumental "First Snow" featuring the frenetic work of violinist Asha Mevlana front and center as fake snow fell on the audience, Rosa Larruchiata's strong vocal on "Good King Joy" and Soto's heartfelt lead vocal on "Ornament."
The emotional high point came during "Old City Bar," which delivers key plot elements to the story in a captivating duet with Pitrelli on acoustic guitar and Nate Amor on vocals. Amor is new to TSO, and as Pitrelli later pointed out, was only playing his eighth show with the group. The stripped-down nature of the song also provided a few minutes' reprieve from the continual sensory overload of special effects -- which was a welcome break afforded a couple times during the show.
Throughout most of the evening, the crowd sat and watched, fervently taking in all the proceedings -- oft delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. But everyone finally cut loose during a joyous rendition of "This Christmas Day" as vocalist Soto figuratively -- and literally as well -- let his hair down. This romp brought the crowd to its feet in celebration.
The storytelling part of the evening came to a close with "An Angel Returned" and a touching epilogue delivered by Brandon.
This served as the dividing line between poignancy and reckless abandon. Pitrelli finally addressed the crowd, lauding the efforts of the band's crew and introducing all of the singers. With formalities out of the way, he then delivered the game plan for the rest of the evening.
"I know it's a school night," he said, "but do you guys want to stick around, get in trouble and blow some stuff up?"
What followed was just over 50 minutes of rock 'n' roll revelry. The second set opened with "The Storm/The Mountain" and saw Mevlana and guitarist Angus Clark take their talents out into the audience. One of my main memories from the concert will be the sight of Mevlana rocking out on the violin right in the face of an exuberant young boy, about 10 years old, flossing in the aisle. The spotlight's glare was not too bright for him in the moment, and he gave as good as he got on the energy front.
"Handful of Rain" was also stunning in its delivery with all the main video elements displaying rolling ocean waves around one sinking ship.
Another poignant moment was the acoustic duet between Pitrelli and singer Dino Jelusick on "Hey, Can You Hear Me Now?" Pitrelli introduced the song while giving honor to TSO founder and braintrust Paul O'Neill, who died unexpectedly in 2017. Pitrelli said that about six months ago, he'd been rooting around in the band's recording studio when he found a cassette tape on which O'Neill had demoed the song, but never done anything further with it.
"Hey, can you hear me now?" Pitrelli said before starting the song, looking to the heavens. "Brother, loud and clear."
The show closed with the segued trifecta of "Wish Liszt (Toy Shop Madness)," "Requiem (The Fifth)" and "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24) (Reprise)." The tour's production managers better check the band's supply of pyro, because I'm not sure there's anything left for the next stop. At the end of the 2-hour, 25-minute performance everything and everyone was pretty well spent.
At one point a bit earlier, Pitrelli asked how many people were seeing TSO for the first time. There was a pretty good response. He followed that up by saying, "Now, where's all the repeat offenders?" The place went wild.
With my virgin TSO concert experience in the books, I look forward to earning my official repeat offender status next year.
Click HERE to see Trans-Siberian Orchestra's setlist and a list of all the band's musicians at Wednesday's Vivint Smart Home Arena shows.