Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Dreams”

Last night the family went to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert at Rupp Arena. Ben had gone with a friend to see T-SO in Cincinnati a couple of years ago and returned quite impressed. When I mentioned the possibility of scoring tickets for this year’s tour, he was enthusiastic. So, even though it would be during finals week for me and on a weeknight when Ben’s frequently been having piles of homework, we made our plans.

To be honest, I knew little going in outside of the five or so songs you hear on the radio regularly this time of year, so I learned a lot seeing them play (and doing a bit of online looking upon our return home). The group on stage last night consisted of two guitarists, bassist, drummer, two keyboardists, electric violinist, ten vocalists (five male, five female), and seven local orchestral musicians (they hire locals to fill out the sound at each show).

Rather than do a blow-by-blow, I’ll hit highlights, bullet-style:
–The experience was more hard rock/80s hair metal than I expected going in, but that’s due solely to my ignorance. I now know about the connections between T-SO and the 80s/90s metal band Savatage (who slipped under my radar back in the day);
–That said, the musicianship was rock-solid and all the vocalists were very good;
–There were stretches that I really enjoyed, but others that didn’t grab me all that much. I think that’s all about stylistic preferences (metal’s never been my thing). It seemed to be more Ben’s scene than mine or Martha’s overall;
–I ran into a couple of college friends and their son just as we walked in—we hadn’t seen one another in a long time, but from FB I know they’re big T-SO fans. Bonnie posted afterward that this was the best she’d seen of them;
–The light/laser show was effectively deployed throughout the night, and the band worked hard on engaging the audience;
–Our seats were on the aisle, to the right side of the stage as you face it. People were traipsing up and down the stairs all night long, blocking our view more than we’d have liked (it was really bad at the beginning, as latecomers kept pouring in). Fairly frustrating, but we know where not to sit next time!
–The strings were far, far down in the mix. It was essentially a guitar/bass/keyboard/drum affair all night long. I think I might have enjoyed a more “orchestral” experience;
–There are actually two touring T-SOs. Last night, the other one was in St. Louis. Tonight, the bunch we saw will be playing two shows in Greenville, SC, while the others will be in Knoxville.

They did play the songs I already knew, and that was fun. “Wizards in Winter” is probably my favorite of their works, and it didn’t disappoint. I especially enjoyed the rocked-up take on “Christmas Canon,” with four of the female singers out in front, and their closing “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” was mighty fine. But I figured maybe I’d feature one of the pieces that was new to me instead. The rock/metal influences of years gone by are prominent, but the melody and chord progressions strongly resonate. Were this a rock song of the late 80s instead of a holiday-themed tune, I daresay it would’ve been a favorite. Here’s “Christmas Dreams.”

(insert alcohol-related play on words here)

This past Thursday evening, the fam and I saw the a cappella men’s group Straight No Chaser in concert in Lexington. We have a few of their CDs, mostly Christmas stuff, but this was the first time we’ve had a chance to see them live.

I had gotten four tickets back in May (one was for the girl Ben was dating at the time—things do change in six months); our friend Becky joined us as we braved an uncharacteristic mid-November snow on the way to the show. The venue was the Opera House, a somewhat small but sweet venue for seeing shows and concerts (we’ve been there around a half-a-dozen times over the last three years, including “Weird Al” back in March). This time we were third row, mezzanine, a little right of center as you face the stage. I’d take those seats again anytime.

SNC got their start at Indiana University in Bloomington in the 90s. As folks graduated, new members took their place. An upload of one of their collegiate performances to YouTube in 2008 (more on that Friday) led to the original cast getting an audition (and subsequently a contract) with Atlantic Records. There has been some turnover in membership in the decade since, but replacements have come from later generations of the on-campus group. The current incarnation has nine performers; they used to have ten. Album titles have built on the group’s name, including With a Twist, Under the Influence, Holiday Spirits, and most recently, One Shot (hence the title of this post). The guys are fairly spread out when they’re not touring, stretching from PA to TX. One of them lives in Cincinnati, and his parents were in the audience, up in the mezzanine with us.

The show lasted close very nearly two hours, including a 15-20 minute intermission. Even though not every song was exactly my style, these thirty- and forty-somethings were consistently entertaining. Various members took turns at the mic between numbers; their attempts at humor mostly hit the mark. Being good Hoosiers, they gleefully took a couple of shots at UK. A reference to their bus driving by a scenic campus on the way to the venue turned into a shoutout to my alma mater (Becky is also a Transy grad), and they also made sure to mention the men’s hoops team’s recent debacle against Duke.

SNC almost exclusively does covers. The set list included several cuts from One Shot, including the medley “Motownphilly/This Is How We Do It,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Homeward Bound,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and “Working for the Weekend.” The Percy Sledge piece includes a key change before the final go-round with the chorus that they absolutely nailed. However, I thought the Loverboy contained perhaps the weakest moment of the show, with the lead not being quite strong enough to pull off singing the title phrase as high as he went (it sounded much better when a second voice joined him). The first half ended with a highlight: a Disney medley with altered lyrics that reflect what’s really going on in those movies.

They came out of intermission with a few Christmas tunes (I allowed myself to enjoy them even if it is still before Thanksgiving), including a tale of a football-loving husband corralled into attending a performance of The Nutcracker while the big game is on.  Then, maybe the piece of the evening, a mashup of “Thriller” and “Uptown Funk,” complete with MJ-inspired choreography. Definitely recommended.

Dancing isn’t their strength, but it’s more than smooth enough. The harmonies are uniformly great and their dedicated human “beat box” provided fun percussion effects all night long. After the show, Martha had a more-than-fair criticism, observing that they never have a bass take the lead, even for a verse (this leads me to reflect that perhaps it’d wouldn’t be bad if they had a little more volume overall in the lower register).

There were a couple of encores, and they ended the evening with an “old school” (that is, sans microphones) version of “You’ve Got a Friend.” You get the feeling that the fellows are feeling some nostalgia and maybe a little age with this latest recording (One Shot includes about a dozen brief spoken interludes reflecting on their journey across the years–they also showed clips from home movies on the backscreen during “Homeward Bound”). I figure the closing number was an attempt to share/recapture the feel of undergraduate days, even if just for a few moments. In my own way, I can relate.

One fun thing they do at each show is take a picture of the audience and post it on their FB page. If you know where to look, you can find us. I’m wearing a maroon sweater, three rows up and left of center on the middle level. I’m clapping, but it looks like I’m holding clenched hands up like a champ. Martha is a little more discernible, in a grey sweater; Ben and Becky are to my right and her left, respectively. It’s a pretty cool way to connect with the crowd.


I’d be happy to see them again.

When Tomorrow Comes

Sometime in the middle of last week Martha let me know via text that she wanted to spend a portion of our weekend going to see our high school’s annual musical production. This year, their choice of show was Les Misérables. Ben opted not to go, saying it’d be “weird” to see friends and classmates on stage (his D&D group was also wrapping up a fierce campaign on Sunday afternoon, when we went). He missed a whale of a show.

I’d seen Les Miz one other time, when I was in grad school—a touring company had come to Champaign to play at the Assembly Hall. Sometime soon after I picked up the soundtrack, but it’s been years since I’d listened to it.

Contra Ben’s opinion, what made this special was seeing “kids” we knew. Éponine was the older sister of a boy who takes lessons from the piano teacher that Ben had. We’ve known Cosette since pre-school. The Bishop and Thérnadier are in the band with Ben. And Jean Valjean was, well, he was someone I remember well from ten years ago.

I did a little volunteering when Ben started his elementary years, going in one Friday a month to read to his class. It was a combined first- and second-grade primary; “Jean” was a year ahead of Ben, but the two of them got along very well. They’re in my mind’s eye right now, sitting together, looking up at me as I plow through McBroom and the Big Wind, by Sid Fleischman, a Weekly Reader book I’ve had since I was 9 or so (I didn’t remember the story when I cracked it open again in 2007, but the names of McBroom’s 11 children came rushing back immediately when the title character called out to them to seek shelter from the storm: “Willjillhesterchesterpeterpollytimtommarylarryandlittleclarinda!”). Those Friday mornings were so very fun.

Jean killed it on Sunday.  So did Éponine, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Javert, the Thérnadiers, and so many others.

Before the show began, Ms. Marshall, the director, came to the stage to tell a little of how she came to choose such an ambitious production; it boiled down to believing the students she’d have on hand were up to it. But in the course of her remarks, one thing she said stood out: “I had to teach these students how to feel things they’ve never experienced.” Did she ever succeed—afterward I was emotionally drained, and remained so well into Monday. (Some of the same feelings are returning as I’ve been writing this.) There were plenty of points in the show where I was fighting back tears. “On My Own” was certainly one of them, but Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and her subsequent death scene with Valjean were probably the most affecting moments for me. Fantine’s despair and resignation, Jean’s tender care and resolve at her death bed—heavy stuff for 17- and 18-year olds, but they made me feel it all. I wonder if it being the final performance made it more emotional for the performers.

While the weight of the story hung over me for hours afterward, there was something else at least equally as important. At the end of the day, I was indeed another day older, but I was also inspired. Inspired by the dedication of everyone—director, actors, parents, teachers—to the success of the production. This was no doomed cause; Ms. Marshall had a vision, got the buy-in, and gave those students a fabulous learning experience as well as a treasure chest of memories.

I have heard the people sing, and it was magnificent. Those tomorrows keep on coming, and with them opportunities for making a difference in my students’ lives. Even though the school year is ending—finals start, as it turns out, tomorrow—I plan to be on the lookout.

Neko Has Landed (in Lexington)

I don’t go to very many concerts these days, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go with Martha on Friday to see Neko Case when she made a stop in my neck of the woods. A little over a decade ago, I was completely blown away by her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Since then I’ve checked out some of her other work, both from before and after.

The show was near downtown Lexington, at the relatively new and newly-renovated Manchester Music Hall. The building’s history goes back over a century, beginning as a distillery warehouse; most recently it had been Buster’s, a billiards/bar/concert spot. Security was fairly tight, as we had to show ID, empty our pockets, and submit to being wanded before we could enter (for all I know, this is standard operating procedure these days). The space behind the bar is large and wide open, with an elevated stage in the very back. While standing is not my favorite way to watch a show, it was fine. The acoustics were overall more than acceptable.

As for the music, I’ll start with the reason why we went. Case’s voice is a force of nature. She belted out just shy of two dozen songs over roughly ninety minutes and sounded just as strong at the end as when she started. Her voice is perfectly tailored for the alt-country/folk rock she favors on her solo works, but she also makes it fit right in when she’s hanging with the New Pornographers, the A.C. Newman-fronted group she’s been with for about two decades. Despite this being the next-to-last show in a 15-gigs-in-17-nights tour, she was playful, buoyant, and affable.

Neko was joined on stage by a guitarist who played a dizzying range of instruments, from steel guitar to banjo, a bassist who bounced between guitar and double bass (sorry I didn’t catch their names), and two female backups: Kelly Hogan, who’s worked with Case for years and occasionally contributed handheld percussion, and Nora O’Connor, who also contributed acoustic guitar. The harmonies were fantastic and the musicianship was top-notch. Neko played guitar on 40-50% of the pieces.

I had at least a passing familiarity with about half to two-thirds of the songs. She did five from Fox Confessor, including faves “Margaret vs. Pauline,” “The Needle Has Landed,” and “Hold On, Hold On,” though not “Star Witness,” the one I like best. She mentioned that she’ll have a new disk coming out later this year; I’m looking forward to it.

The opening act was Mt. Joy, a quintet whose leaders grew up in Philly. Two guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums. They describe themselves as indie folk, and played about eight songs over thirty-forty minutes. Matt Quinn, the front man, has some presence, but on the whole I didn’t find all that much that stood out—in particular, none of the keyboards, drumming, or back-up vocals made themselves felt. I liked the opening and closing numbers well enough, but the songwriting could use some work: they did one cover, Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” and the contrast in the quality of the lyrics was, well, I’ll leave it at decidedly noticeable. They’re recording their first album and playing SXSW in six weeks, though, so maybe I don’t know anything. I get that they’re still trying to figure things out.

I had a great time, and I think Martha enjoyed herself, too. Here’s another one from Fox Confessor that Neko sang at the show. It’s actually the first song of hers I encountered; I came across it on a blog I used to read, so maybe in some way I’m trying to pay it forward. If she’s new to you, I hope you’ll give her a spin.