Trans-Siberian Orchestra Live

Christmas comes early to California

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This afternoon, around 10,000 fans attend a matinee performance by rock theatre outfit Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The two-and-a-half-hour show – which features a touring cast of 18, including Symphony X frontman Russell Allen and three Savatage alumni – is the first of two concerts the group will play at the local arena today.

Approximately 30 minutes after the Ohio matinee ends, another begins 2,000 miles and three time zones away in suburban Los Angeles, where a second TSO kick off the first of their own two arena performances. It’s one of exactly 100 concerts that the dual touring troupes will play over a seven-week period this winter, during which they’ll perform before a combined million fans.

Here in California, a whopping 17 TSO West performers – including vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, keyboardist Vitalij Kuprij (Artension, Ring Of Fire) and two more Savatage alumni – grace the stage for the bombastic opening number Time And Distance (The Dash), a track from TSO’s new release Letters From The Labyrinth.

Letters… marks a departure for TSO, whose previous five albums – the most successful of which are Christmas-themed – are all rock operas. This time around, however, there are no symphonic rock renditions of holiday carols, nor is there an overarching storyline. Also, at just 48 minutes, it’s by far TSO’s most accessible full-length yet, but while the record might be more digestible than its predecessors, it ultimately feels less fulfilling.

Onstage, though, TSO are anything but stripped-down. Five gigantic video screens provide impressive eye candy, and the group’s laser and light show puts hallucinogenics to shame. There’s also snow, flames, fireworks and even a transforming LED pyramid.

The first half of the gig sees TSO perform a beefed-up adaptation of their whimsical 1999 television broadcast The Ghosts Of Christmas Eve, which weaves songs from the group’s Yuletide rock operas around a tale of a runaway girl who seeks refuge inside a haunted (in a good way) theatre. The paper-thin storyline doesn’t translate to the stage well, but it gives the band an excuse to air their best-known material, including a show-stopping rendition of Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 1224, the Savatage song that started it all two decades ago.

During the concert’s second half, four Letters… tracks are performed consecutively, but you get the feeling that only the instrumental Madness Of Men will make it into next year’s set list. More effective are perennials The Mountain and Requiem (The Fifth), two pyro-packed powerhouses that make you begin to wonder if TSO actually stands for Total Sensory Overload.