Friday, December 9, 2011

Burkey Reviews Stuff: The Trans-Siberian Orchestra Winter Tour, 2011 Is it just a bad Nativity story, or a bad rock concert? I can’t decide… Neither Trans-Siberian, nor an Orchestra… what is it?

Note: If you already love TSO or hate TSO, this review will not help you.  However, if you are like me, and are vaguely familiar with them and considering going to a show, read on.

I had very high hopes for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra show, since I was familiar with a few songs, but not really a fan.  Indeed, my wife and I used one of their songs in our wedding.  Before the show I Googled information about it, only wanting to know the length so I could plan for daycare and my bladder.  In addition to learning that the show was around 2 ½ hours with no break, I recall reading a couple of comments by other reviewers:
1) Though it is partly a Christmas show, it does not leave you feeling “Christmasey”
2) The Christmas part of the show has some sort of narration in between the songs, which simply DOES NOT WORK

I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments.  Additionally, the show was tiresome and overall not very enjoyable.  While the musical and voice talents were adequate, and a lot of effort was obviously put into the show, it simply didn’t work.  I have thought long and hard about why this show left such a bad taste in my mouth.  My best answer is that every single thing seemed to be overly contrived—melodramatic is the word -- just not honest.  The performers were working hard—working WAY too hard, and most of the audience wasn’t quite able to buy into it.  Don’t get me wrong, there were a few enjoyable spots, but these would quickly be overshadowed by something inane.  Let me provide some specific examples.

The narrated story seemed overly dramatic, and the narrator went overboard to use a low, breathy, shaky voice and exaggerated hand gestures (think of a combination of Charlton Heston’s Moses and a bad TV preacher).  Similarly, some of the singers used fakey, gravely voices that didn’t work.  In one “song”, a guy dressed as a beggar pseudo sings an overly long story-more a spoken word piece than a song.  I couldn’t really follow what he was rambling on about, but it felt like a sermon of some type accompanied by a simple, repetitious guitar riff.  I could feel a sense of relief from the audience when it was finally over.

The general performance style of all of the band members involved a similar melodramatic, attention-whoring style that was unnatural and needy. One female singer tore at her hair as if recalling a recent genocide of her people.  She moved unnaturally-- the musicians and singers in general tried to move in an exaggerated fashion as if they were really into it.  Or, they stuck to contrived moves like well-timed head banging, throwing their TSO-required long hair back and forth, or the electric violinist swinging his arm around in circles over and over again, mimicking a juvenile electric guitar move.  Look- I love it when musicians really get into what they are doing, move and sway in weird ways, and even make funny faces,  but it has to be real.  Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder do it, and you know that they didn’t learn it from watching others—they are genuinely feeling it.  With the TSO performance, I was led to believe that this was all an over-choreographed act.

This show was what a precocious 12 year old, who is confused about his musical identity, would design as his perfect show—throwing in a lot of everything imaginable.  Or perhaps, it is what aliens who don’t understand humans would construct after carefully reading about musical performances.  Just as a casserole does not benefit from adding a tablespoon of every spice known to man, a show can actually benefit from subtlety.  The TSO has laser lights, strobes, fog machines, copious amounts of propane burning, fake snow, giant monster heads, a floating three-axis stage above the crowd, silly uniforms, pretentious quotes from Reagan, JFK, and Churchill, long blonde hair, and an overly-loud sound system.  And, they actually do have some good music (I am listening to it as I type this).  However, the show doesn’t work.  It is over thought and under felt.  If they took everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, and toned it down about 50%, I think the show could be much, much better. 

I hate to be repetitive, so I will reiterate. ☺ The critical flaw for me was that the performers made every effort to let us know that the show was about THEM, not about US.  They were jumping up and down on the stage yelling “LOOK AT ME!!!!!” and pointing at themselves.  Yes, literally POINTING at themselves.  When you can’t get applause because your show deserves it, you jump up and down pointing and telling people to yell.   Also, FOUR TIMES the band forced the audience to stand up.  By forced, I mean that they asked the people in the front row to stand, which causes a chain reaction.  How impressive is it to beg for a standing ovation… how about earning it?  By the fourth time, about 20% of the audience had had enough and just sat there shaking their heads.

This quote from the TSO website sums up the kind of hubris that created this monster.  Actually, created TWO monsters—since there are actually two versions of TSO touring simultaneously (apparently the group I saw was the “original” one- I wonder if the other group pulls it off better?).

When Paul O'Neill first conceived Trans-Siberian Orchestra, his goal was as straightforward as it was ambitious. "The whole idea," he explains, "was to create a progressive rock band that would push the boundaries further than any group before, following in the footsteps of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd, the Who...but take it way, way further."

Wow.  Would a “real” band put the following on their website?
With more than 7 million albums sold TSO has inspired generations of fans to rediscover the multi-dimensional art form of the rock opera. On the road, meanwhile, they have become one of the world's top acts including a recent mention in Billboard magazine as one of the top touring artists of the past decade. With a $20 million-plus production that has played to over 7 million people in 80+ cities, selling more than $280 million worth of tickets.

More “look at me!”, indeed.  Stop telling us how you are great, and just BE great!  Now, when I started analyzing what was wrong with the TSO show, I couldn’t help but compare it to the Blue Man Group.  After all, the BMG has multiple groups as well, and their show is certainly contrived and overdone.  And, how can I possibly complain about the overuse of stage props like propane when the BMG uses tons of toilet-paper-like streamers?  The first time I saw the BMG in New York, I left laughing and crying, simply amazed.  I didn’t want it to end.  One of the Blue Men put a little blue paint on my face and I wore it on the subway back to the flat where I was staying.  In contrast, I was begging for the TSO pain to end about 45 minutes in.  What is the difference?

You see, the big difference is that the BMG is actually making fun of TSO—The following two YouTube  clips sum everything up beautifully.
Blue ManGroup (1 minute) (also watch the first minute or so of this one: BMGFloppy the Clown)

While TSO is religiously exploiting the stereotypes (even Rock Concert Movement #37), BMG is lampooning them— all listed in their fictitious “Rock Concert Instruction Manual”, outlined here

Hey, I know that performing is hard work and that it is easy to throw stones.  All in all, I would recommend buying TSO’s albums, and of course their show must be great for some people.  I wanted to be wowed.  But don’t go if you expect a Christmas show, or even real artistry.  But, if you want a whiz-bang light show and the planetarium's Pink Floyd laser show is sold out, then this is a good bet.  If you want to try a Christmas event that is a little different and more than likely Free, how about going to see the Tuba Christmas in your local area?  A brass choir with only Tubas, Euphoniums, Baritones, and the occasional Sousaphone. Oh, give it a try at least on YouTube…  Link 1   Link 2

-Dr. B

PS- I do understand that TSO is supposedly trying to be socially conscious and give us a message.  Great.  But the way they are doing it is boring and incoherent.  Here is a clip where you can see what I am talking about in action (including blinding the audience by pointing spotlights directly into their eyes, just as they did in the show I went to). (TSO Clip). If you want to deliver a message, there are better ways to do it (BMGClip).