To my knowledge, the slew of vocalists which accompanied the Trans-Siberian Orchestra last evening never sang the word "Jesus." The concert did not feature a denouncement of Santa or the formation of a manger in laser lights on the Scottrade Center's roof. Yet the event felt an awful lot like the world's highest-budget contemporary Christian Christmas program, slathered with just enough uncommitted references of angels, stars and Bethlehem to offend none but keep the Catholics, Baptists and Lutherans happy.
My infatuation with Trans-Siberian Orchestra has been admittedly novel; the band's Ironic-Maiden licks and unsubtle orchestrations add a welcome level of triumph to the seasonal songbook. TSO's inherent shock value carried the first half of its set. Melodies from "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "O Holy Night" were seamlessly woven into an instru-metal medley that soundtracked the evening's most epic and epileptic light display. My view of the green laser mountains were only blocked by the dude six rows up throwing up a pair of unironic devil horns.
"Nutrocker," the unfortunately named take on Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite featured the best pairing of audio and visual stimulation. Brilliantly programmed LED lights animated a marching army of nutcrackers while the band primitively plowed through the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" like Cavemannheim Steamroller. TSO's crowd-pleasing gem "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" was sonically spectacular but tainted by vaguely political images of helicopters, guns, George W Bush and Barack Obama. The pyrotechnics that erupted on the tune's last few hits were achingly predictable. Flame throwers have never felt so safe.
Although the group recently released a new double album, Night Castle, the bulk of its set came from its landmark Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Narration from the James-Earl-Jones-ish Anthony Gaynor moved a convoluted plot forward: An old guy at bar tells young guy a story about an angel sent to Earth to find the true meaning of Christmas and finds a child who points out a stranded girl to some bartender and he gives her money to fly home for the holiday and then the guy telling the story winds up being an angel himself. Or, uh, something like that.
Like many seasonal confections, TSO was unsatisfying in large doses. After the initial sugar rush of its rousing instrumentals, the band crashed into a series of "it should be Christmas every day" power ballads. Each time somebody approached the vocal microphone, it was a virtual invitation to use the restroom.
Steve Broderick Bart Shatto dressed like a homeless man and sang an endless solo with acoustic accompaniment, and James Lewis Tommy Farese lent his gruff tenor to the sappy "Ornament." Jeff Scott Soto spent the most time in the spotlight, his awkward melodic improvisations landing somewhere between Huey Lewis and Creed's Scott Stapp while fake snow flowed from the heavenly rafters.
While Soto's textbook rockstar moves wore on me, others in the audience ate it up like tree-shaped marshmallow Peeps. The truth is, Trans-Siberian Orchestra knows its demographic -- rockers, Christians and Christian rockers. The band made no concessions for Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, and it didn't broaden its spectrum from Christmastime to "Holiday Season." The rhythm guitarist resembled Jesus in a tuxedo. While announcing band members, James Lewis gave a shout out to the men and women of the armed forces. However, Lewis also made references to getting drinks after the show and Broderick slipped a "Freebird" joke into "Old City Bar." Not exactly edgy, but it was enough of a stretch from the the band's seasonal spirituality to not alienate the agnostics.
Anthony Gaynor wrapped up the Christmas Eve and Other Stories tale with a couplet along the lines of "You must admit the tale had charm / And if you didn't learn from it, at least it did no harm." At its worst, the band did no harm. At its best, Trans-Siberian Orchestra gave the audience something to brag about to their church buddies Sunday morning -- or at least a reason why they have 75 dollars less for the offering basket.