Nobody can say that the people in and behind the Trans-Siberian Orchestra aren’t trying to look alive. But when the twentieth anniversary of The Ghosts of Christmas Eve prog-rock extravaganza came to Denver for two shows on Saturday, November 17, thousands of people witnessed one of the world’s best-selling acts of rock-music taxidermy.
The musicians did everything they could to make a corpse of an idea look like a larger-than-life Christmas celebration. They smiled. They played wizardly. They performed all the moves that a band should and wore all the gear, hair as long, flowing and conditioned as Axl Rose’s was back in the day.
“The devil’s in the details,” Paul O’Neill, the late Aerosmith producer, songwriter and force behind this musical experience, once said to his team. And even after O'Neill's death in 2017, Trans-Siberian Orchestra members still get the details right and keep selling tickets — but the experience, as spectacular as it is, lacks a pulse.
In the same way that a wax museum can make it seem like John F. Kennedy is still alive, the TSO almost created a sense that dudes with guitars peddling stadium rock shouldn’t have already been entombed, mourned and forgotten. The only people who failed to pretend to be alive were the deader-than-wax consumers at the jam-packed Pepsi Center. No amount of pyrotechnics, lasers or fist-raising musicians imploring audience members to cheer could make the dull-eyed zombies seem like anything more than rotting corpses who happened to be able to afford a ticket.
“You seem like a rowdy bunch,” said one of the performers. If that was true, he must think Arlington National Cemetery looks like a 400,000-person mosh pit filled with nudists on acid.
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Concerts have distinct smells: An Insane Clown Posse show smells like Faygo. An Ozzy Osbourne concert smells like beer and vomit. A Juicy J concert smells like pot. A Trans-Siberian Orchestra Concert? That smells like church perfume – the kind that gives kids headaches and drives them from Jesus.
Other than the musicians, who grinned and mugged like the rock stars they labored so hard to pretend to be, there were at least five people who seemed to be having a legitimately good time out of the couple hundred fans I could see in the dark. Two — one next to me and the other a few seats down — were weather-worn men caterwauling when the performers reminded the crowd to find hope in Christ, Christmas and family.
The other three good-timers were a stocky mom and her two daughters, all painted up in Dolly Parton-style makeup, drinking beer and enjoying a party amid the legions of stone-faced ticket buyers. But their fun seemed to be at the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s expense, as they gleefully mocked the backup singers' cribbed dance moves.
Every now and then, somebody in the crowd would shout out nonsense to the band, like a stumbling drunk uncle too blitzed to remember that funerals demand silence.
The first half of the concert — which should have been the whole concert — was the twentieth anniversary of The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, a perplexing tale of a young girl who meets an older man who takes her through dreams so that she comes back home. Was she sex-trafficked? A victim of domestic violence? A wayward cigarette-smoking teen? Did she read A Clockwork Orange too early? Somebody who watched the made-for-TV special knows, but I have to confess I didn't, and after suffering through that concert, I won't.
But really, the plot didn’t matter: The story was second to the spectacle. Everything was second to the spectacle, including soulful, honest feelings, the stuff that makes the best rock music matter.
One of the saddest lines sung during the concert — "If we pretend long enough/Never giving up/It just might be who we are" — pretty much sums up the spirit of the cast and crew's relationship with Christmas and rock: They're faking it — but if they keep faking it long enough, maybe nobody will notice the show is DOA.
The set list included a glut of familiar Christmas carols — “Joy to the World,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells” — turned into rock bangers, replete with guitar riffs shoplifted from Queen’s Brian May and Van Halen in turns, banged so hard that the holiday hits came off as concussed.
The second half of the concert included a smattering of material from other Trans-Siberian Orchestra projects: more Christmas fodder, along with a fire-and-brimstone version of Karl Orff’s pagan anthem “O Fortuna,” from Carmina Burana, a rendition so clumsy in excess that the stunning dynamics the composer crafted were mauled to death.
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Trans-Siberian Orchestra even managed to ruin Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by nodding to it and then boring the audience with supersized prog played over a beautifully shot, utterly brainless music video with an aging maestro trying to compose as he is in turn haunted, inspired and seduced by vixens who looked like they belonged in a creepy Aerosmith video in which Steven Tyler seduces his daughter's friends.
It must be a good business model to pack the Pepsi Center two times in one day and simultaneously have a different Trans-Siberian Orchestra doing the same production halfway across the country in Allentown, Pennsylvania. What's amazing is that tens of thousands of consumers ignore the fact that what they’re seeing isn’t an authentic rock band, but a replicable model that might as well be replaced with holograms and run simultaneously in hundreds of cities — when the technology catches up with the scale of the show, that is.
But authenticity clearly didn't matter to the band’s consumers. Neither did substance or feeling. All that seemed to matter was flash, bang, pop fireworks and a showy homage to baby Jesus and the hope that he brings Christians.
Then the smoke and spectacle were gone, everybody lined up for a trip to the bathroom, and the holiday season had officially begun.