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Trans-Siberian Orchestra brings holiday spirit

By Tim O’Shei

News Contributing Reviewer

The elements that comprise the Trans-Siberian Orchestra blend as well as a cozy, cerebral coffee shop and an edgy, artsy tattoo parlor. You don’t usually see them together.

But people who get inked can also drink lattes, yes?

And music fans who like Beethoven can appreciate some head-banging compositions too. Right?

Apparently so. TSO has been around for 16 years and its annual holiday tours are such big events that there are West Coast and East Coast versions. When the latter swung through First Niagara Center on Tuesday for a pair of shows, guitarist Chris Caffrey presented a check before the afternoon performance for $8,732 to the local Leukemia & Lymphona Society.

That’s one buck for every ticket sold, and it’s something TSO does at every show. Caffrey, whose shoulder-length blond locks befit his status as a longtime metal guitarist, pointed out that this year, TSO has donated more than $11 million.

Eleven million tickets sold. Let’s break down what TSO is doing right – and mull a humble suggestion or two for what the show can do better.

First, some clarity, on the off chance you’re dwelling in Trans-Siberian ignorance: TSO isn’t really an orchestra, but rather an orchestration of sound (think classical smashed with rock tinged with metal), video screens, strobes, lasers, spotlights, rising platforms and pyrotechnics that blaze intensely enough for the first couple dozen rows to feel the heat.

The show, which ran about two-and-a-half hours, is split into two parts: The lengthier first half is a narrated musical story based on the show’s title, “The Christmas Attic.” Part two is a rock concert with all the trappings of a major tour.

“The Christmas Attic” is skillfully narrated by Bryan Hicks, who flexes his ringmaster-quality voice as he tells the story of a young girl questioning whether holiday traditions are based on anything real. She ventures into an attic, opens a chest, and discovers artifacts and treasures that reveal the holiday spirit in the people around her. Each passage of the story plays into a song, which frankly, probably waters down the touching message in a wash of lasers, guitar licks and sudsy fake snow blown from the rafters onto the crowd, and a powerful electric rock violin by the ever-kinetic Roddy Chong.

That’s OK; it’s TSO’s way to straddle the touching and the throbbing, and it works. Although if the story was a bit shorter, or perhaps performed with musicians who double as actors onstage before breaking into song, it would deliver the message more tightly.

The rock-concert portion brought the crowd to its feet and showcased the incredible musicianship of TSO’s players, which included two guitarists and a bassist, a pair of keyboardists, a drummer, Chong on violin, and eight singers. A half-dozen local string players rounded out the band, which performed on and around a gigantic treasure chest that served as the two-tiered stage.

While no musician in TSO is a headliner or household name, every one of them has a budding or thriving career independent of the band. Four performers emerged as particularly worth watching once the tour ends in a few days:

Vocalist Russell Allen punched out a funky, bluesy number after a lead-in of “O Holy Night.” It was far different from the heavier vocals he delivers 10 months a year as the lead man in a pair of metal bands.

Chong, with his windmill wind-ups, should do a public service announcement enticing kids to sign up for violin. He’s like a male Lindsey Stirling; he makes violin seem like the coolest instrument a budding rocker could play.

English singer Georgia Napolitano delivered leading-lady vocals – keep an ear on her.

With platinum hair and soft features, Texas vocalist Kayla Reeves looks like she belongs on the set of “Pretty Little Liars” but brought out an edgier side not only when she sang, but also when she joined her male companions on guitar.

In fact, TSO would do well to recruit more performers like Reeves – women who effectively mash the sweet and the raw – and give them more prominent roles. They’ll help give a fresh look to a long-standing brand that has plenty more thrashing to do.

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