(December 18, 2015; EFFINGHAM PERFORMANCE CENTER, Effingham IL)
Let me say this upfront: I do not go in for these big Christmas spectacles. I have never seen the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I have never seen Mannheim Steamroller; I have never bemoaned the fact that I’ve never seen either act. The same could probably be said about the Wizards of Winter, as well, so I was perhaps a bit apprehensive when their publicist, Arielle, contacted me to review the show. All I can say is, “Thank you, Arielle!” I came away with an entirely new perspective regarding these types of shows. Not only was the show’s choreography amazing, the narration spot-on and the music both stirring and hard-rocking, highlighting both the Christian and secular aspects of Christmas, but every member of the band and their crew – right down to the bus driver – went out of their way to make me feel at ease and, yes, at home, amongst their little group. Additionally, the management and staff of the Effingham Performance Center made my first visit there as easy and pain-free as any venue I’ve ever worked. Thank you all for making this night’s assignment such a joy.
The band asked me to try to get a few shots from behind the drum riser into the crowd. The idea sounded good to me; however, the smoke machines were working overtime, which caused problems seeing the front of the stage, much less past the lights into the crowd. It did offer a unique glimpse into the band, though. The show kicked off with the first track from the group’s new album, THE MAGIC OF WINTER. As an overture, the instrumental “Flight of the Snow Angels” had everything you would expect from a holiday show, including heavy metal keyboard bombast, massive soloing from guitarists Fred Gorhau and TW Durfy, flautist Sharon Kelly and violinist Natalia Niarezka and… snow? Yeah, snow. The illusion was pretty cool and set the feeling for the entire evening. The albums “title track,” “Winter Magic,” was next, followed by another instrumental, the relatively quiet piano-dominated “The Arctic Flyer” and the power ballad, “Special Feeling,” which featured some nice dual lead guitar and the introduction of former Trans-Siberian Orchestra vocalist Guy LeMonnier. Both of the numbers are from last year’s eponymous record (and, apparently, an earlier version called TALES BENEATH A NORTHERN STAR). With drummer Tommy Ference pounding away and Gorhau and Durfy trading solos and power chords, it was hard not to get into the spirit of the season or, at least, into the progressive rock monster on stage. Sharon Kelly (co-founder of the group, with her husband, Scott), keyboardist Mary McIntyre and Natalia Niarezka added, not only a touch of beauty but, some nice choreographed flourishes, as well. With “First Snow,” we were presented with the first of several TSO covers (along with a few others).
The music could very easily have carried the entire show but, Tony Gaynor’s presence, delivering a loose narrative thread, utilizing the accepted Christian nativity, as well as adding bits of ancient Winter Solstice celebrations and the legend of Santa Claus, was impressive. You are definitely drawn to Gaynor when he’s onstage, hanging on his every word. The first half of the show ended with a retelling of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, highlighted by Scott’s keyboards (approximating a harpsichord and a pipe organ). The song, “Ebeneezer,” was sandwiched between a pair of covers, the pomp of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Nut Rocker” (itself, a cover of a 1962 Bumble and the Stingers recording of Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Toy Soldiers” from THE NUTCRACKER) and the TSO hit, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” (again, a cover of a cover, as TSO progenitor, Savatge first recorded the medley of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells” for their 1995 album, DEAD WINTER DEAD). The latter, coupling a pair of the most well-known and beloved Christmas Carols of all time, was certainly stirring and elicited one of the loudest reactions from the audience.
During the short intermission, someone called the bass player (who I’d been eying all night long as someone I should know) “Greg” and, as the light went on over my head, I turned into the fan-boy that I am, pointed to him and said, “You’re Greg Smith. You used to play with Alice.” Sharon said, “Yeah, and we borrowed him from Ted Nugent’s band for this tour. He gets around.” Suddenly, this whole thing had been elevated a notch in my estimation, as if the spectacle (and the warmth of the band and the crew themselves) hadn’t already made this a great night. As the second part of the show opened, more keyboard and guitar bombast was in the air, with the hard-driving “March of the Metal Soldiers.” It’s obvious that this is a band of consummate – if not virtuoso – musicians, as they exhibited on several instrumentals throughout the evening, including “Gales of December,” which highlighted Sharon’s flute and some killer dual shredding from Fred and TW. A definite highlight of the night came when Mary McIntyre donned a little red Missus Claus costume, heading into the crowd for a spirited “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Another instrumental, “Toys Will Be Toys,” saw the vocalists tossing mini beach balls into the audience, as well as featuring a nice Natalia Niarezka violin solo. Even though all of the vocalists continued to be featured, the metal maven, Vinny Jiovino, was fully in charge of the second set, with his keening vocals falling somewhere between Dee Snider and Mark Slaughter, including a great version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The anthemic “Spirit of Christmas” closed the show proper. “Requiem,” the fifth and final Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover, opened the encore before the rousing, everybody-in finale, “With One Voice.”
I really cannot say enough about the friendly atmosphere the band fostered backstage and, when I mentioned seeing a young special needs fan in the audience, Vinny and the rest went out of their way to make sure she had a mini beach ball, autographed by the entire band (I’m sure I made a pain of myself in securing the autographs for the young lady). So… maybe next year, not only will I revisit the Wizards of Winter, but add the TSO and Mannheim Steamroller to my winter concert schedule also.