By Carl Begai
Regardless of whether you like ’em or don’t give a damn, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a big deal. The two-headed troupe’s annual east and west coast road trips through North America – leading up to Christmas and beyond – are consistently ranked as top-grossing concert tours year after year, and the production seemingly gets bigger each time out. It’s fair to say that TSO has become a tradition for many a metal and/or music lover. If there’s one misfire in this success story, however, it’s the lack of attention to the European market. Not that they necessarily need the exposure, but given that the legendary Savatage is the foundation for everything TSO has become and Europe embraced Savatage with the equivalent of a bone-crushing bear hug early on, some folks figure the Orchestra owes those fans some attention. Thus, 2014 began (literally) with an exclusive performance at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany on New Year’s Eve followed by a stripped down but still impressive European tour; only their second in a 15 year history as a live act. Guitarist Chris Caffery and drummer Jeff Plate sat down to discuss the stripped down TSO production when the band hit Nuremberg, Germany…
Jeff: “It’s very comfortable. We came over to Europe a few years ago with the Beethoven’s Last Night tour (in 2011) and it’s a great story, but I think some of it was too much for the European audiences. We had to trim that down quite a bit, and the Savatage element is much more present in the show this time. And for myself, being able to work with Chris, Johnny (Middleton/bass) and Al (Pitrelli/guitars) again is a blast. This is an arena show and we just happened to squeeze it into a theater.”
Chris: “The biggest difference for me is that I’m not nearly as tired as I am during the big production we do (laughs). We do one show a day and it’s stripped down, and we don’t have the wings that we have on the North American stage. The big stage has at least another 30 feet on each side, so you run the arena and do two shows a day. The European tour is more like doing the old Savatage concerts in many ways except the people are sitting. In a lot of ways it’s the same because I put my in-ears in and what I hear is the same as always. I don’t really hear a difference. The band is different in that I’ve got Johnny and Al there, which is always great. I usually play with Jeff and the singers rotate, so it’s not really that different of a TSO show for me.”
Savatage’s music has always been a part of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra repertoire, but a few extra songs were added to the European set to widespread approval… and a certain amount of envy from the folks at home
Chris: “The Savatage songs that we’re doing are very similar to the TSO music we’re doing on the tour, and songs like ‘This Is The Time’ or ‘The Hourglass’ could be on a TSO album. The same way a song like ‘Epiphany’ could be on a Savatage album. It’s fun. The show feels good, the music feels good; ‘The Hourglass’ is always a great tune to play. There are other Savatage songs I wish we could do as well, but in that respect it’s not a Savatage tour. I think we’re doing as much as we can without people saying ‘Well, why don’t you just do a Savatage tour?'”
Jeff: “Doing the Savatage songs is awesome, and it’s a testament to how good these songs are. For the Savatage fan or anyone else who may have an opinion on it, Jon (Oliva) and Paul (O’Neill) wrote the songs years ago, so they have the right to do what they want with the songs. And I think we all know as fans of the band that Savatage never quite got its just due. There’s a lot of great music that hadn’t been heard by the masses and this is the way to do it. Some of the interpretations a little bit different, but that’s what happens over the years.”
Talk of Savatage leads to questions about the transition of going from the band to the much larger and commercially accessible Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Both Jeff and Chris have been part of TSO since 1999, with Chris’ Savatage history dating back to 1987.
Jeff: “When I joined Savatage in 1994 the band had gone through such a transition at that time anyhow. Criss (Oliva) was gone (killed by a drunk driver), Jon had stepped down as the singer, so Savatage as many people knew it didn’t exist anymore. The Handful Of Rain record had a lot of hints of what would become TSO, especially the song ‘Chance’. I was in there kind of soaking up the idea I had gotten the gig and enjoying all of that, and it was all changing right under my feet. I didn’t really look at it so much as one thing changing into another, because when I came in there was always this talk about what Jon and Paul and Bob Kinkel were doing – the Romanov project and some other Broadway things – and those elements were creeping into the music. A lot of the Gutter Ballet stuff is orchestrated, the Streets album, even Edge Of Thorns has some pretty interesting passages, but the fact that track took off the way it did in America, Paul and Jon saw an opportunity and took it.”
Chris: “Like Bryan (Hicks/narrator) says at the beginning of the TSO show, it’s the music that’s brought us here. With due respect to Savatage, without that band and that music Al wouldn’t have been introduced to Paul, Jeff wouldn’t have been introduced to Savatage, Johnny wouldn’t have met Paul. All these connections are important. I’m the only guy that met Paul outside of Savatage, and maybe I’d still be working with him even if Savatage wasn’t a factor. Who knows? It was a little embryo that started this thing, and Paul’s idea for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was something he’d mentioned to me long before we put out the first record. He told he always wanted to have one band that could do anything, whether it was just one person up there singing or a huge orchestra. You can even look back to Gutter Ballet and the ‘When The Crowds Are Gone’ video, then look at the stage we have now; this is the concept Paul has had for a long time.”
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Go to this location for the new TSO rendition of Savatage’s ‘Handful Of Rain’, one of the many highlights from the European tour.