Trans-Siberian Orchestra spectacular comes with local connection
West Cola native provides vocals for the powerful Christmas rock show set for Saturday
Most fans of Christmas music know the Trans-Siberian Orchestra through the group’s classic holiday hit “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” an instrumental that fuses arena rock excess and bombast with Broadway-worthy melody and a tinge of melancholic holiday spirit.
The group didn’t start out to be a Christmas music juggernaut, but its history twists and turns through several other bands and a fluid membership that has swelled to the point of having two different touring versions for east and west coast shows. The east coast one will be in town on Saturday for two shows at the Colonial Life Arena on their “Ghosts of Christmas Eve: The Best of TSO” tour.
Columbia audiences might be most interested in the fact that TSO vocalist Zachary “Zak” Stevens grew up in West Columbia. Stevens was in the marching band at Brookland-Cayce High School, playing in the drum line. After his graduation in 1984, Stevens attended the University of South Carolina and graduated in 1988 with a degree in psychology.
Stevens’ route to TSO ran through several other heavy rock bands including Wicked Witch and Savatage. Stevens joined the latter in 1992 when founder and original lead singer John Oliva stepped down to concentrate on a rock opera that would eventually lead to the formation of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra project.
Savatage released increasingly prog-leaning hard rock albums such as 1997’s “The Wake of Magellan.” The seeds of the TSO were already growing during this time, as the original “Christmas Eve Sarajevo” appeared on Savatage’s “Dead Winter Dead” album, which featured vocals from both Stevens and Oliva.
After leaving the band in 2000, Stevens formed the ongoing project Circle II Circle, which for a time also included Columbia drummer Jayson Moore, currently playing with local rock band Stardog. Since 1996, Stevens has also performed with the TSO, and he’ll be in the lineup for Saturday’s shows in Columbia.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has the distinction of being one of the rare acts that has played nothing but large arena or theater shows from the start. One look at the production values and theatrical nature of the concerts is all it takes to realize that this kind of experience wouldn’t really pack the same punch anywhere else, however.
One of the most sensory-overloading concerts you’ll ever attend, the TSO throw in lasers, lights, flame and pyro, a massive wall of video monitors and speaker boxes, and a cast of dozens to perform a sometimes confusing, oddly affecting, but never less than entertaining, really big show.
The prog-metal roots of Savatage are where the conceptual genesis of the TSO grew from; the band’s collaborator and producer Paul O’Neill helped steer them to Broadway-style production values and narrative story lines, and John Oliva’s original “Romanov” opera plans morphed into the early Christmas rock opera style of the TSO.
What does this all mean for the audience come Saturday? The show features longtime TSO narrator Brian Hicks with a voice made for the stage; he’ll tell the story that was the framework of the 1999 made for television movie, “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” starring Ossie Davis and Allie Sheridan, who also pop up on the screens in clips from the movie during the concert.
In addition to the band’s own original holiday songs such as “Christmas Canon,” they include familiar carols such as “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night,” and the second half of the concert focuses on the group’s non-holiday material and covers of classical favorites done TSO style.
Stevens won’t be the only local on stage for the concert, as the group typically uses local string players to beef up the touring string section. He’s also not the only vocalist, as there is a mini-choir and several other lead voices included at various points during the show.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s yearly appearance at the Colonial Life Arena has become a holiday tradition for many, and it’s definitely one of the biggest shows of the season in town. Among all the other amazing production features, there is one that will stand out for local audiences for sure, however – this might be your best chance to see snow falling in Columbia for Christmas, even if it’s only the gilttery indoor kind.