Whoever is responsible for paying for the electricity at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center should probably consider sitting down before tearing open the next bill.
That’s because the Trans-Siberian Orchestra came to town on Thursday night. And when the world’s most popular progressive-rock band (and largest, at two dozen members) comes to town, it comes with four mixing boards, dozens of full-color lasers, 100-plus speaker boxes, flame modules and pyrotechnic effects out the wazoo, and enough lighting fixtures to fill up both your preferred home-improvement store and its competitor.
Then TSO takes those things – plus, oh, only what appears to be the largest collection of video panels I’ve ever seen in my life – and turns them all up to 11 at the same time, dialing it back only a few times over 2 hours and 15 minutes of show.
Of course, the band’s colorful, loud and very unsubtle efforts to overload your senses are nothing new to anyone who’s been to a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert before. That’s part of what makes a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert.
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But (full disclosure) they’re new to me. While I’ve appreciated TSO on iTunes and in YouTube videos of private Christmas-light displays for years, this was my first time seeing the band live.
And there’s no way around this but to say: The experience is just a little bit weird. Even the die-hards – of which they are legion – would have to admit this. Right?
I mean, I saw dragons. I saw tigers. I saw nutcrackers. Helicopters shooting and dodging missiles. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill Gates. Young female dancers gyrating like cheerleaders. It started fake-snowing at one point. At another, I could literally feel the heat from on-stage blasts of fire.
I kept looking at lead guitarist Joel Hoekstra and pseudo-frontman Chris Caffery and thinking, Man, it seems like they’ve been ripped straight out of the pages of an ’80s hair-metal magazine. So it came as almost no surprise that, when I looked them up, I discovered one (Hoekstra) has toured with Whitesnake and Night Ranger and the other (Caffery) was an early member of Savatage.
Anyway, the first half of the show – essentially a live run-through of its long-running PBS special, “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve – is arguably the weaker half, even though it’s fortunate to include two of the most creative and beloved tracks in the TSO oeuvre: “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” and “Christmas Canon.”
The problem, for me, is that the flimsy storyline about the runaway girl who seeks shelter in an abandoned vaudeville theater on Christmas Eve then gets back on the right track thanks to the building’s caretaker is... flimsy.
I guess I already said that... but it is, and even the most ultra-dramatic narration by a quite-game Bryan Hicks can’t give it the weight it needs to warrant taking time away from the music.
Shoot. Sorry. I feel like it’s starting to sound like I didn’t like the show – which I don’t want, because I did.
Look, for all of their cheeseball grinning and lip-biting and face-scrunching, Caffery and Hoekstra really do have charisma to match their talents on the axe; violinist Roddy Chong absolutely crushed his solos, most notably on TSO’s drop-the-hammer twist on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” suite; and vocalist Kayla Reeves shined in the second half, both on stirring ballad “Someday” (which had many in the crowd holding up cellphone lights) and on head-banger “The Night Conceives.”
It’s not for everybody. Only those with predispositions toward metal are likely to champion the use of a flood of electric guitars and rock violins on a cover of “Hall of the Mountain King,” or “Flight of the Bumblebee,” or “Beethoven’s Fifth,” or “Joy to the World,” or “O Holy Night.” But if you’re open-minded, this is creative, catchy, captivating stuff.
And to be fair, it’s clear a good many people have that predisposition. On Thursday night, Spectrum Center was as close to sold out (for a concert) as I’ve seen in recent memory; TSO drew way, way more people than showed up for either Carrie Underwood or Dolly Parton, two of the biggest shows of the fall for Charlotte.
So I say this to those two leading ladies, or to anyone else looking to put butts in seats at uptown’s big arena: If all else fails, try dragons, tigers, fake snow, a laser light show that would make Pink Floyd jealous, and guys with cheeseball grins who can crush holiday tunes on electric guitars.
It may not work, but apparently, it’s worth a shot.