WIZARDS OF WINTER - Getting The Holiday Spirits In New Jersey

December 8, 2015, 2 years ago

Mark Gromen

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Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, Heatmiser, the Grinch (Boris Karloff, not Jim Carey)...childhood was filled with a plethora of Christmas stories. As we got older, there were attempts at more refined entertainment, with varying degrees of success/interest, like the annual Rockettes show in NYC, local productions of The Nutcracker and countless church pageants/chorales. Eventually, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (originally centering around members of Savatage, onstage and off) opened the door for rock/metal Holiday music. Yes, there had been some novelty songs/albums (“I Am Santa Claus” set to Black Sabbath's “Iron Man” brings a chuckle every time it's played), but the original TSO album, Christmas Eve And Other Stories remains the definitive rock Christmas album. Thus, some ill-mannered Scrooges inaccurately portray this troupe as nothing more than a knockoff. 

However, for more than a decade now, the TSO behemoth (and make no mistake, it's dual touring companies, with multiple tractor trailers of lasers, fireworks & mountains of sound equipment, plus the recent Wacken foray outside pre-holiday months, confirm the magnitude) has shifted away from the compelling Christmas angle, embracing more secular tones, and although still a perennial holiday event for many, striving to become a regular touring rock band. Copping their name from a TSO song, New Jersey based Wizards Of Winter began as musicians for a hometown charity (giving back is still something near to their hearts) and while they perform several "well known" covers and employ ex-TSO members, there's more than one option, when it comes to Christmas. Of course, the ticket price (2 to 8 times cheaper than an arena gig and much more intimate) resonates in this economy. Managed by Megaforce Records founder Jon Zazula (who teamed with metal associated PR firm Adrenaline, both also NJ natives), outlets like BraveWords are taking a (ahem) harder look at WoW.

A mix of rock, classical, Broadway and traditional holiday tunes, Wizards Of Winter utilize seven vocalists and a two guitar (plus keyboards) band. The long, silver haired man behind the ivories is Scott Kelly, composer and Wizards mastermind (reminiscent of Dewey Largo, the music teacher on The Simpsons), along with his leggy, statuesque flute-playing wife, Sharon. The focus of the live show, split into two sets, around a 15 minute intermission, almost exclusively revolves around Christmas, even if it was a little hard to think about snowfall, with 50 degree temperatures being the norm this month. There were some families with young children in the crowd, although (surprisingly) the majority filling the 1000 seat Scottish Rites Auditorium were middle aged Baby Boomers or senior citizens.

Beneath a backdrop featuring the snow cover village which adorns their latest CD, The Magic Of Winter, WoW took the stage with “Flight Of The Snow Angels”, the rousing instrumental that also opens said disc. There's more than a little Yngwie Malmsteen in the mannerisms of goateed lead guitarist Fred Gorhau: not the Swedes' flashy histrionics, but with unbuttoned white shirt, beneath black tailed suitcoat (all the members wore similar tux inspired fashions, apart from the drummer, in black t-shirt) and his playing style. Columns of smoke shot skyward from the risers, either side of the plexi-glass enclosed drums. Mrs. Kelly and Ukrainian born violinist Natalia Nierezka finish the song center stage, each bent over backwards, yet still playing, an effect that would be demonstrated a few more times before the night was through. 

Depositing the flute backstage, Kelly returned, in lead vocalist role, for the album's title track, during which she toyed with guitarist Gorhau and did a few Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac) inspired pirouettes. It's one of the softer tunes on display tonight. Between many of the songs, narrator Tony Gaynor (reprising his TSO role) appears, with wooden stick, topped with illuminated snow globe, to move the story along: a journey inside the magical globe, which allows time travel, to witness assorted Christmas related vignettes. A good portion of the show is instrumental, allowing the rock element to shine. The songs, originals and a few TSO adaptation, are peppered with holiday carols, but rather than secular favorites like “Jingle Bells” or Santa-based hymns, these are more liturgical (“O Holy Night”, “Do You Hear What I Hear”, “Come All Thee Faithful’, etc). In fact, much of the first set revolves around the true (moralistic/religious) spirit of Christmas, although it also includes aural references to Dickens' Christmas Carol and the aforementioned Nutcracker.

The voiceless “Arctic Flyer” gives way to the male vocals of business suit & tie attired Guy LeMonnier, another TSO alum, on “Special Feeling”. “First Snow” is the initial cover, the audience clapping along (given the make-up of the attendees, a German schlager moment, for sure) as the violin takes center stage and engages in a duel with lead guitar, as the plumbs of smoke erupt once more. Gorhau is spotlighted (literally) as “Come All Thee Faithful” leads into a solo, complete with hammer-ons. He works his way towards Kelly's keyboards, as they transition into the dual voiced “Sing Alleluia” / “3 Ships”, Sharon singing the former, alternating with LeMonnier, on the later, atop a lone piano accompaniment. “Once Long Ago” and “3 Kings: What Really Happened” retell the Biblical Christmas story. The earlier tune includes a chorus of five voices, all female apart from LeMonnier, arranged by height. A guitar led section is suddenly interrupted by the returning male voice, before ending with a snippet of “Do You Hear What I Hear”, which was also heard at the beginning. Vinny Jiovino, looking the long haired rocker, complete with mustache and soul patch, does the lead vocals (including piercing highs), dropping to his knee, for emphasis on the final note.

A pair of men and four ladies sing Hallelujah as the guitarist headbangs (you can take the guitarist out of a metal band, but you can't take the metal band out of the guitarist)! There's a cover of Electric Light Orchestra's instrumental “Nutrocker”, a mismatch of styles, including ragtime piano and ‘50s rockers, giving keyboardist Kelly a comical bit of showmanship: playing sideways, facing the crowd, single-handed as he mugs to the audience. It builds to crescendo as the flutist and violinist, opposing each other, alternate kicks, before heading stage front, for another backwards bending finale. Following “Ebeneezer” the moderator returns, commenting on the state of the world and war torn areas. His words are more appropriate than ever, talking about "people killing in the name of their God," although that "being nowhere in his plan," which leads into “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)”. The Savatage original closes the first set, the two guitarists side-by-side for the first time tonight.

After intermission, Kelly introduces each band member, individually walking onto the stage. He talks about the charity aspect of WoW: proceeds from “March of The Metal Soldiers” goes to the Wounded Warrior Project and active service military members can receive a free CD at shows, by showing ID. The composer also lets everyone know they will do a free signing/meet & greet immediately after the show. Wisps of smoke emanate from beneath the drums as the initially red lit, “Metal Soldiers”, with its chorus of six (women in stiletto heel, knee length boots), kicks off the second set, which is less lyrical, more audience participation and slightly more secular, including a visit by mini-skirt and leggings wearing Mrs. Santa Claus, distributing candy canes to children in the audience. Following right on the heels of the opener, a green lighted, classical flavored twin guitar workout, “Season's Lament” begins with a tolling bell and flute, atop synth underpinning. 

“Just Believe” could be Broadway, female singer, joined by male counterpart, ultimately ending in duet, as it morphs from ballad to mid-tempo rocker. A flourish of keys introduces the colorfully lit “Gales Of December”. At the back of the stage, four columns of blue lights shine from above and columns of smoke spew forth. Again the flute and violin bend backwards to finish it off. The ‘50s doo-wop of “Whoville” sees the red suited and elf hat adorned Mrs. Claus venture from the stage, sing to surprised fans and hand sweets to the kiddies. Before returning to rejoin her bandmates, she throws the white tasseled red cap into the crowd. “Waken To The Sound” has four female voices onstage before “Toys Will Be Toys” sees about a dozen beach balls tossed from the stage. Priceless reactions as the orbs are bounced around the room, occasionally beaning an unsuspecting (but usually laughing) grandma. 

The instrumental “Journey” segues into “Queen Of The Winter Night”, Mrs. Kelly beginning in the audience and working her way onstage, where she simply sings scales (no actual words). Another TSO standard, “Electric Blue” follows, with just the rock elements onstage. Midway, there's a lone electric piano and a quartet of backing female singers appear, snapping their fingers as they stand in profile. “With A Little Help From My Friends”, The Beatles tune made famous by Joe Cocker is handled by Jiovino, as well as many in the seats, although not with his flare. The narrator returns, to wrap up this 2+ hour journey, and it's all hands on deck for the “Spirit Of Christmas” finale, which sees snow falling above the keyboardist. Returning for an encore, it's more TSO, the Beethoven's 5th adapted “Requiem”, with tons of red/yellow lights, before “With One Voice” calls it a night. There are six vocalists onstage, offering rendition of “Gloria In Excelsis Deo” within its confines, as the ladies offer choreographed windmill motions, while the guitarist solos and violinist crosses the stage, before the house light flicker on.

While a major expense has been undertaken with the impressive lighting (not to mention payroll and travel expenses), the staging could do with a bit more professionalism. It's all a bit too high school musical (non-capitalized), aching for improvements like the use of scrims and/or skirts of material to cover the fronts of each synth stand and the tangle of wires beneath Kelly. Likewise, the exposed front edge of each riser should probably be disguised, maybe with a snowflake or dangling icicle facade that also hides the smoke machines, which just sit there in plain sight. Not sure the general public noticed my rock journalist nit-picking complaints, enjoying all aspects of evening.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays & have a safe New Years!

Featured Audio

ROBB FINLAYSON - "Winter's Apprentice" (Independent)

ROBB FINLAYSON - "Winter's Apprentice" (Independent)

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TRAGUL Premiers "The Tree Of Life"

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