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BWW Reviews: TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA Opens 'The Christmas Attic' at Consol Energy Center

When most bands finish their shows, they take a bow, leave the stage or acknowledge the crew, then play a song or two for their encore. But for Trans-Siberian Orchestra, excess is everything. Their encore, as long or longer than the first set, is a show unto itself, distinct from the Christmas rock opera that traditionally makes up the first act of the evening (sans a short prelude featuring their theme song, "Time and Distance"). Audiences are guaranteed to leave exhilarated, slightly deafened, and full of goodwill toward men.

There's something appealingly corny, so uncool it's hip, about Trans-Siberian Orchestra's unique presentation method. They blend the nostalgic and old-fashioned appeals of classical and vintage Christmas music with the now-nostalgic and old-fashioned appeals of the golden age of hard rock and heavy metal, encompassing the varied genres of progressive rock, headbanging hard rock, classic metal, speed metal and symphonic metal within their sound. Their multiple vocalists include a Broadway-style singer (Rob Evan on this tour, the original Jekyll and Hyde in the Broadway production of the same name), a heavy metal singer (Sir Russell Evans, of Symphony X), and a varied selection of nearly-identical beauties who sing choral backup vocals and soulful solos in equal measure. Add to this a weepy and stentorian narrator (Bryan Hicks), a six-piece string section, an electric violinist, two keyboardists playing five keyboards, and a rock band with no less than four guitars, and you have one of the most unlikely cultural institutions in modern music.

Despite the overall weirdness of concept, it's no surprise that the Consol Energy Center was packed with fans young and old, black and white, dressed from "metal concert" to "symphony orchestra." Trans-Siberian Orchestra is uniquely inoffensive, turning away neither stodgy traditionalists nor younger and more ironic types. It's exactly the sort of universal-appeal act that would have scored big marks on "America's Got Talent," had they not predated the dawn of reality TV by thirty years or so (as themselves and as metal band Savatage, their former alter ego). Their look, combining formal concert wear, Victorian affectations and hard rock accessories, is both casual and self-important enough to justify the bombast of their production. Even their subject matter and iconography draw equally from Christmas tradition, rock history and classic Gothic literature- notably their obsession with ghosts and angels meddling in the affairs of men. The TSO may technically be in the so-called Christian Ghetto, the space between where Christian Rock or praise and worship music ends and mainstream music begins, but their theology is never pushy or overly preachy, and their overall approach is so kooky it's hard to find fault with it. They sometimes mention God or Jesus more directly than their compatriots Evanescence, Relient K, mid-period U2 and the like, but in the same breath, they're likely to throw in spirits, wizards and dragons- clearly an unorthodox take on religious themes.

Unfortunately, it is this peculiar iconography that provided the night's sole disappointment. "The Christmas Attic," the rock opera toured this holiday season, has precious little of the band's trademark supernaturalism. There are no tortured souls, haunted houses, angels on missions or shadowy figures; rather, the story is a Lifetime Original-styled tearjerker about a little girl whose loss of faith in Santa, and in Christmas, leads her to wait in the attic on Christmas Eve to see if presents and holidays are magic or deceptions. To pass the time, she explores relics left behind by the house's previous tenants, and uncovers letters that reveal a tragic tale of lost love between a poor young woman and a young man grown rich and important before he had gained the emotional maturity necessary. (Fans of Christmas stories- or classic literature- will recognize these as modern versions of Ebenezer Scrooge and his lost love.) The little girl decides to perform her own Christmas miracle by reuniting the two lost souls for Christmas Day, leading the audience to the moral that Christmas- and ultimately God- works sometimes with its own hands, but more often with ours. It would be sappy and treacly- and indeed, Hicks's frequently choked-up narrator borders on camp- if it weren't pumped with adrenaline by a series of soaring power ballads, instrumental workouts riffing on classical themes, and one or two moments of unexpected wry humor. When a number describing the long-ago journey of the Magi suddenly surges into Led Zeppelin's Arabic-inflected rocker "Kashmir," or guitarists run into the audience to take selfies with the crowd while soloing, it's hard to take issue with dramatic integrity. The band even defies expectations by covering a cover, performing a hard-rocking reimagining of their ubiquitous children's-choir version of Pachelbel's "Canon in D."

Though Act 1 may be a little staid in subject matter, the TSO's well-loved weird side gets to come out and play in Act 2. Here the band gets to show off their non-Christmas material that they tour through the other three seasons of the year, try out new material from upcoming albums, shred on a few covers (most notably Ted Nugent's "Paralyzed," which an earlier album had also featured as a Christmas jam), and hit a few greatest hits from their other holiday records. Anything goes in the second act, from a Black Sabbath/Beethoven mashup synchronized to literal walls of fire and a projected dragon, to sparks raining down from every video monitor surrounding the stage during the aptly-named rocker "Sparks." The new material, from the upcoming album "Letters from the Labyrinth," appeared to be a throwback to Seventies hard rock more than the Eighties and Nineties heyday of heavy metal and prog rock, and from the samples played Saturday night, it will feature the female vocalists more than ever and rely less on the mystical and supernatural themes of their previous works. All the vocalists were in fine shape and genuine crowd-pleasers, though Rob Evan, arguably the most famous of all for his contributions both to TSO and musical theatre, seemed almost wasted in his two brief solos and heavy backup work. This is emphasized by his appearance as Beethoven in the projections from the "Beethoven's Last Nights" highlights, a tour in which he played the lead role.

Christmas comes but once a year, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra with it. However, if they should happen to hit Pittsburgh during one of their Ordinary Time tours this summer, any fans of rock opera, storytelling, music old and new, or just plain visual spectacle should snap up tickets while they can. I know I will.

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From This Author Greg Kerestan