Review: TSO Brings Arena Rock to an Intimate Level

YOUNGSTOWN  –  Trans-Siberian Orchestra kicked off the Christmas season early in the Mahoning Valley, with two capacity concerts Friday at Covelli Centre.

This spectacle of holiday excess brings out the masses like few other acts can. It’s generally a good idea to leave early for concerts at Covelli in order to beat the crush of traffic heading for the parking lots, but no so much on this day.

Before the 3:30 p.m. show had ended at about 5:45 p.m., the cars were already bumper to bumper on the Market Street Bridge for the 7:30 p.m. show.

It had been three years since TSO, a concert-industry gorilla that just keeps dominating, had played Covelli. Somehow, they were even better than I remembered. Familiarity might have been a factor.

On this season’s tour, TSO is reverting to its “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” show, which is based on their debut album of the same name. It’s the show that introduced the world to TSO and  that started the act’s amazing run.

It’s also the one they did the first time I saw them.

TSO stuck with “Christmas Eve” for its first 12 years, from 1999 to 2011, before rotating in shows based on its subsequent albums.

“Christmas Eve” does seem to be the quintessential TSO show: warm and Christmas-y but brimming with ominous metal riffs. As with all TSO concerts, the special effects are fairly mind-blowing – and maybe vertigo-inducing if you get too close.

A series of diamond-shaped LED rigs hung above the stage and were maneuvered into ever-morphing positions to enhance the visual “set” created by the backdrops.

Of course, there was also the requisite flames shooting across the stage, angular dancing laser beams, lighting that matched the music, risers that lifted musicians 20 feet in the air, and did I mention the giant Tesla coil that appeared at the rear of the floor area? It emitted crackling electrical currents that I think might have “shocked” a few people before they realized what was happening.

Despite all this tech wonderment, “Christmas Eve” is big on intimacy.

The Covelli shows, in fact, were yet another lesson in how to turn a large, empty, functional space into a cozy little clubhouse.

The Old City Bar scenery on the screens did the trick. The bar is the setting for the story of goodwill that is told in “Christmas Eve”;  it depicts a well-worn little tavern with a red neon sign in the window and colorful bottles of liquor arranged against the back wall.

After the hour-long “Christmas” show was complete, TSO did another set in which they mixed some new cuts in with their greatest hits.

Friday marked the first TSO appearance in Youngstown since the 2017 death of Paul O’Neill, the visionary who created the act. Guitarist Chris Caffery gave a heartfelt thanks and a tip of the hat to O’Neill, and dedicated a song to him that was sung by Kayla Reeves.

O’Neill’s genius was in creating the bombastic act, with its outrageous effects, and gleaming metal takes on ancient carols. But the secret to its longevity is in selecting stage-loving musicians and fantastic singers – and stentorian-voiced narrator Bryan Hicks – as performers.

It is a veteran lineup but each member is as all-in today as they were two decades ago.

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