CONCERT REVIEW: Holiday magic of Wizards of Winter extends beyond TSO tribute in Wilkes-Barre
I’m sure a lot of us in attendance at the Wizards of Winter concert at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, Nov. 27 didn’t know quite what to expect.
Knowing the group began life in 2009 as a Trans-Siberian Orchestra tribute band, many of us assumed the show would be just like TSO, but just a little bit smaller.
While it still plays a few TSO tunes and it is basically another hybrid heavy metal band and orchestra playing rock operas about Christmas, the Wizards of Winter is forging its own identity with its own music and its own tales of the true meaning of the holiday.
Even though there are up to 12 musicians on stage at times, it feels downright intimate compared to TSO.
And the intimacy works for the Wizards. Without the heavy bombardment of all the lights, lasers, and special effects present at a TSO performance, it is easier to focus on the music and narration and come away with a deeper appreciation of what you have heard and seen.
Founded by musical director Scott Kelly, his wife Sharon (vocals, flute), and bassist Steve Ratchen, the current version of the Wizards includes two former members of TSO: Guy LeMonnier (vocals) and Tony Gaynor (narration).
Other performers include vocalist Vinny Jiovino, guitarists Fred Gorhau and TW Durfy, drummer Tommy Ference, pianist/vocalist Mary McIntyre, and violinist/vocalist Natalia Nierezka.
The show in Wilkes-Barre featured music from the band’s self-titled first album, which came out in 2014, and its brand new sophomore effort, “The Magic of Winter.” Both albums tell the tale of the Arctic Flyer, a magical train that transports the audience to different scenes on Christmas Eve to search for the true meaning of Christmas.
With just a few words from narrator Gaynor, who spent 12 years with TSO, the band moves quickly from song to song and message to message. First set highlights included a violin-driven number about the first snowfall of the season, a guitar-driven version of “O Holy Night,” vocalist Jiovino with the story of “Ebenezer,” and a set-closing version of TSO’s “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.”
The second set began with “March of the Metal Soldiers,” a song from the band’s first album that supported the Wounded Warrior Project, and vocalist LeMonnier on “Just Believe.” A Jiovino lead vocal on a song about Christmas in New York City segued nicely into an unexpected treat: the Joe Cocker version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
After the second-set closing “Spirit of Christmas,” the band returned to play another TSO favorite, “Requiem (The Fifth)” from “Beethoven’s Last Night,” which morphed into a jubilant version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
Although TSO has been playing the Northeastern Pennsylvania market for years, the Wizards of Winter proved in its first area performance that the holiday season in NEPA is big enough for both bands. Let’s hope its first trip to Wilkes-Barre won’t be its last.
Photo via Wizards of Winter website