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A rockin' Trans-Siberian holiday show

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a holiday entertainment franchise with two national touring companies -- one for each side of the Mississippi River -- performing Christmas music with a pop/progressive metal slant. Sunday's program in HSBC Arena was scheduled for duplication in Sacramento, Calif., that same day.

At first it may seem a bit odd to hear guitars wailing and distorting as their owners fiercely pick, tap and slap at the instrument's strings, thereby rearranging the basic musical DNA of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "O Holy Night." But, it is also a strangely beguiling concept that works for a lot of people, especially if metal-inflected hair bands of the 1980s and 1990s were part of their personal listening history.

One of the key movers and shakers of the TSO experience is Rob Kinkel, who plays keyboards and acts as a co-producer for the operation. A Williamsville native, Kinkel was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame this year, but wasn't able to receive his honor at the regular induction ceremony (he was helping put together this year's show) until just before the band took to the arena's stage Sunday afternoon.

The production also makes a habit of donating money to a worthy organization in the cities they play; in this case, $1 out of the ticket price went to Women and Children's Hospital in the form of a check for $11,773.

As to the show's staging, well, it was a rockin' and rollin' affair, showcasing an impressive light and effects show, one that came complete with lasers, smoke machines, small explosions and "snow" flakes drifting down from the arena's rafters.

Musically, it was a pleasantly bombastic affair, a sort of pop metal passion play with music structured around a story line having to do with angels, a tavern, and hope in a troubled world.

All the rhyming couplets were related in a suitably theatrical baritone by a narrator backed up with suitably ethereal music. When the spoken text was over, the band tore into the score with a vengeance, powering a potent mixture of riffs from Christmas classics and classical music composers.

It wasn't all a spoken word/instrumental affair, however.

Vocalists, most of them pretty talented and from a patently metallic background, came up front, sang their parts and then faded off stage to let the guitarists, especially longtime TSO associate Chris Caffery, have their way with the melodies. The most notable of the singers was Jay Pierce, whose vocal dynamics revealed an impressive range that was probably schooled, quite admirably and appropriately, in the gospel tradition.

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