At CenturyLink Center, Bossier City, Louisiana: I’ve seen Trans-Siberian Orchestra at least a half dozen times over the last decade, and when it comes to Savatage, well, my fanboy enthusiasm knows no bounds. Folks who talk music with me tend to avoid the subject because they know I can go on for hours about the genius of Paul O’Neill and Jon Oliva whether anyone in the room agrees with me – or even knows what I’m talking about.
With all the connections between the two groups, I’ve always hoped against hope that they’d throw the handful of Savatage fans in the audience a bone and crank out one of the old tunes. I got the first taste of it a few years ago, when Night Castle was finally coming out and they played “Prelude to Madness,” Savatage’s take on Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” The song was re-recorded and very slight altered as “The Mountain” on Night Castle. But I didn’t get that big follow-up riff of “Hall of the Mountain King” that I was holding my breath for. Still, it was enough to make my night.
Now, several years later on the current Beethoven’s Last Night tour, my wish to hear a Savatage tune (or two) has finally been granted. But we’ll get to that.
Let’s start with the feature of the night, a performance of Beethoven’s Last Night with the background story read in poetry by Bryan Hicks. I’ll admit that I’ve grown fond of Anthony Gaynor as the voice of Trans-Siberian Orchestra in all the Christmas shows I’ve seen, but Hicks has a great voice as well, and his acting in one scene toward the end of the show is particularly entertaining — though I won’t give it away for people who haven’t seen it.
Then there’s the amazing amount of musical talent on display on the stage. Most notable is the array of singers that O’Neill seems to be able to come up with for the tours. Most of the people on this tour have a history with TSO. Rob Evan brings a great deal of gravitas to the role of Beethoven, in addition to his considerable vocal chops. He’s the perfect guy for the job. Andrew Ross makes a delightfully fiendish Twist, and Chloe Lowery shines as Theresa, the love of Beethoven’s life.
But the guy who steals the show is former Metal Church vocalist Ronny Munroe in the role of Mephistopheles. I had some questions about the devil’s two songs — “Mephistopheles” and “Misery” — going into the night. Jon Oliva is my favorite singer in the world, and he originally performed the role on the record. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear anyone else sing them, but Munroe absolutely tore it up — particularly on “Misery,” which just happens to be my favorite song from Beethoven’s Last Night.
The band features a core of musicians that have been with TSO since its beginnings — Chris Caffery and Al Pitrelli on guitar, Johnny Lee Middleton on bass, Jeff Plate on drums. All were in Savatage at one point or another. Vitalij Kuprij brings Beethoven’s piano pieces to life, while Mee Eun Kim provides the atmospheric keys. Violinist Roddy Chong rounds things out, leading a local string section in every market. As always, it was tight and near perfect. As serious as the music is, though, there’s also time to have a little fun, as when Pitrelli throws the main lick of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” in the midst of a Beethoven melody he’s playing in a solo spot.
The effects and spectacle are over the top, in the O’Neill fashion, with loads of lights, lasers, smoke and huge gouts of flame — most notably punctuating those big notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The setup for this tour is not quite as big or extravagant as the Christmas tour, but still fantastic. The light show alone is worth the price of admission, and I get the feeling there are a segment of folks in the crowd who are there just for that spectacle.
And speaking of the crowd, a TSO show is an interesting one to observe. It never gets old, to be honest, looking around at many people who would never, ever dream of listening to or admit to enjoying metal doing just that. On the stage, you have Caffery, Middleton and Plate from Savatage, Pitrelli who has played with the likes of Savatage, Alice Cooper and Megadeth, and Munroe from Metal Church and, briefly, Lillian Axe. You’ve got loud, distorted guitars, crunchy riffing and over the top solos. You’re basically listening to Savatage on a grander scale, and those folks are eating it up. You’ve got to love it, and it speaks to the power of music when you break down and ignore the walls of genre and the preconceptions they bring.
Which brings me back to where I started — the highlight of my night. After the Beethoven album is done, the band has time to throw out a few more songs. I was cruising right along enjoying the show, when rising up softly, I hear the clean guitar lick that opens Savatage’s “Handful of Rain.” At first, I thought surely they were just teasing, maybe throwing a bone to the ’Tage fans in the house, but then Ross steps up to the mic and away we go. When the song ends, my night is even more made than it already was. A couple of songs later, it got even better.
There’s a history here. For me, the holy trinity of Savatage records is Hall of the Mountain King, Gutter Ballet and Streets. The band has never (not counting Fight for the Rock, of course) disappointed me, but those three records, in my mind, are among the finest metal albums ever recorded. The first time I actually had a chance to see Savatage live, though, was on the tour for 1994’s Handful of Rain. By that time, guitarist Criss Oliva had been killed by a drunk driver and Jon Oliva had stepped away from vocals in favor of Zachary Stevens, though he remained as a songwriter and on keys. The show was in a club, ironically, in Bossier City. After the opening band was done and before Savatage could go on, the cops shut the show down for violation of a noise ordinance. I got to meet all the guys in the band and get autographs, but I never got to hear them play.
One of my absolute favorite Savatage songs and one that I was looking forward to hearing that night, “Chance,” comes from that album, and since Jon Oliva pretty much retired the band after 2001’s Poets and Madmen, I thought I’d never get to hear it performed. So, when Ross stepped to the front of the stage and sang softly, “He was standing all alone, trying to find the words to say when every prayer he’d ever prayed was gone,” I yelled like I was a teenager again.
It was a small thing, I suppose, but an incredible moment for me. As the heavier parts of the song kicked in, I defied the largely dignified and stoic crowd there by headbanging, throwing horns and singing along — much to the regret of those around me, I imagine. Well, except for my wife and son, who are used to it. Even better, with the number of singers TSO has available, they were able to do the counterpoint vocal parts at the end of the song live. Those are my favorite part of the song — and one of my favorite elements of the later, more symphonic Savatage sound. There was no Zachary Stevens or Jon Oliva, but most of the rest of a lineup of Savatage was on the stage. The performance is still ringing in my ears, and the grin is still on my face as I write this about now. I doubt it will go away for several days yet.
TSO has never failed to impress me, and as many times as I’ve seen them, I’ve never walked away with any disappointment at all. But this show, I believe I’ll remember above all others. Then again, who knows? They might top it next time out.
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