Straight No Chaser: Dec. 12
By Alan Sculley
Holiday music has been a mainstay for Straight No Chaser throughout the group’s decade-and-a-half career. In fact, it was a viral video of “The 12 Days of Christmas” that became an unexpected big break for the group.
Originally formed in 1996 at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, the original members had gone their separate ways upon graduation, only to get the surprise of a lifetime after the video, which was posted online as part of a 10th anniversary reunion of the a cappella group, caught on – and caught the attention of Atlantic Records.
Soon calls were going out to the various singers, and Straight No Chaser, with a record deal in hand, had regrouped for a totally unexpected second chapter.
Thinking Christmas music was the perfect introduction to the group, Craig Kallman, the chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, had the group debut with the 2008 Christmas album, “Holiday Spirits.” It was an immediate hit. Since then, the group has released three more full-length holiday albums, five full-length non-holiday albums, as well as two holiday and four non-Christmas EPs. The second of the holiday EPs is “Stocking Stuffer,” a new eight-song release that includes several original tunes and a cappella interpretations of “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Feliz Navidad/We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
This year’s holiday tour will mark a return to familiar territory for the group, which has made these tours an annual tradition. But this past summer, Straight No Chaser switched things up for fans in a big way, releasing the yacht-rock-themed album “Yacht on the Rocks” and going on a tour on which the singers ditched their usual Rat Pack-styled suits for pastel colored beach/boating attire.
But now the guys in Straight No Chaser are breaking out the familiar wardrobe again to celebrate the holiday season, while also mixing in some songs from across the group’s non-holiday albums.
“For the fall, we’re going to get back kind of what people expect in the fall, a lot of holiday music, some of those staples that people know and love us for and of course, new music as well,” said singer Seggie Isho in a recent phone interview. “We want to make sure we’re continuing to move the catalog forward, you know, so we’re not getting stale and singing the same songs.”
The idea to take a deep dive into yacht rock — an emerging genre in which a number of music acts are performing soft rock hits from the late 1970s and early 1980s or original songs in that vein that fit the vibe of relaxing on the water or the beach – stemmed from Straight No Chaser’s management team.
The group generally does a spring/summer tour and then an extensive fall/Christmas season tour, and some of the shows each year visit cities that are close to each other. The concern was fan fatigue might set in and people wouldn’t feel the need to see the group each time they played in their markets.
“Our tour manager was like ‘Listen, you can’t expect those people to spend their hard-earned money to come and see you guys if they think they’re going to hear somewhat of the same show they just saw in December or in the spring.’” Isho said. “‘Let’s give them something different. Let’s give them a reason (to come out). Let’s make this a destination show, switch it up, make it a different vibe, make it into different sounds, give them a reason to want to see both shows.’”
The nine singers – Isho, Steve Morgan, Randy Stine, Walter Chase, Tyler Trepp, Jerome Collins, Michael Luginbill, Jasper Smith and Freedom Young – frequently listened to yacht rock backstage and Collins eventually suggested doing a yacht rock album.
In making the “Yacht on the Rocks” album, Straight No Chaser developed a cappella arrangements for songs by some acts that are considered pillars of the style – including Toto, Kenny Loggins, the Michael McDonald edition of the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan and Rupert Holmes. And the group teamed up with a producer who was uniquely qualified to help the group authentically convey the yacht rock experience — Nicholas Niespodziani, singer/guitarist/band leader of the Yacht Rock Revue, the group that has spearheaded the rise of the genre.
Isho had high praise for how Niespodziani worked with the nine vocalists.
“Nick was really intent on getting us to really understand the (yacht rock) vibe,” Isho said. “And it got as intricate as how to attack a note, how to come off of a note, what type of vibrato to use. Nick was really, really involved in the details.”
Isho said there’s a chance Straight No Chaser may do a few selections from “Yacht on the Rocks” on this fall’s holiday tour, just to give fans a taste of that material.
“We’re kind of having that debate internally because we’re thinking about keeping these kind of experiences different,” he said. “But then on the flipside, the majority of the country that we’re traveling to in the fall will not have had a chance to see the Yacht Rock tour. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword. We’ll see.”
Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Dec. 16
By L. Kent Wolgamott
Al Pitrelli found a way to describe the Trans-Siberian Orchestra this summer when he was reading a biography of conductor Leonard Bernstein.
“He had a quote in there: ‘True art needs to be accessible, but never ordinary,’” Pitrelli said. “It kind of lit me up and I read that passage a bunch of times, over and over. I think that sums up Paul O’Neill and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in one sentence.”
Guitarist Pitrelli has been with TSO since he was brought into the band by O’Neill in 1996 and now, after nearly 30 years of recording and touring, he knows precisely how the Christmas rock ensemble fits into Bernstein’s notion.
“It’s very, very accessible and it’s far from ordinary regarding the amount of different genres of music we perform, everything from Mozart and Beethoven symphonies through good old-fashioned American rock and roll, R&B, swing, choral pieces,” PItrelli said. “Visually, it’s the biggest rock and roll band on the planet. And at the center of it is this incredibly sensitive, accessible, but not ordinary story that Paul O’Neill wrote.”
The story for this year’s tour by TSO is “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” a rock opera created by O’Neil that follows the journey of a runaway who breaks into an abandoned vaudeville theater on Dec. 24. It debuted on a 2001 DVD that combined the most popular songs from the TSO albums “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” and “The Christmas Attic,” It will be the centerpiece of this year’s show for a very good reason.
“We’ve noticed that people have kind of embraced this as part of the holiday tradition,’ said Pitrelli. “When we were kids, maybe it was ‘Charlie Brown’s Christmas’ or ‘Miracle on 34th St.’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ ‘The Ghost of Christmas Eve’ has become that for many, many people, ourselves included.
“We’ve got a bunch of people in the audience that have been coming to see us for 20-something years now and we affectionately refer to them as the repeat offenders because they want the familiarity. … We’re gonna give that to them again, in content, meaning the poetry, the songs, the characters that Paul O’Neill had written into the story. But everything (else) about the show is different.”
That “different” part of the show is infused with the spirit and philosophy of O’Neill, who died in 2017. O’Neill’s way of doing shows figures into TSO’s elaborate visual production, which changes every year, even if the story it is telling does not.
“Initially the decision on anything we do is what Paul would think of this?” said drummer Jeff Plate. “This tour every year is different and it is better every year and, in some aspects, it is bigger every year. This was something that Paull just insisted on doing. He was never going to run out with the same show year after year.”
Those “what would Paul do” decisions aren’t just about the production. They include considering what new songs, if any, will be added to the second half of the show – a laser-lit presentation of TSO’s “greatest hits.”
“Certainly, the opening of the show is always different,” Pitrelli said. “We have a pretty deep catalog that Paul O’Neill has left us and we could draw from that. Then you know the back end of the show, you’ll have your five, six, seven songs that the folks in the audience really look forward to hearing. That leaves us like another half a dozen to say ‘Hey, you know we haven’t done that in a long time where we’ve never done that.’ So it’s a fun process.”
That process begins in January when TSO management and producers start putting together the show that will go out for its two-month run in November.
And that show, from the music to the production, gets finely honed during a month of rehearsals in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the two TSO troupes simultaneously rehearse, one at each end of the arena floor.
The bands are largely made up, year after year, of the same musicians. So the players are more than familiar with the music and how it is incorporated into the story.
Both troupes perform the same setlist. But, Plate said, the rehearsals reveal some differences in the musical approaches.
“We get to watch each other rehearse and it’s pretty cool because there are some things that the West group does and the East group does,” Pitrelli said. “There’s a lot of give and take in what we do, but it all starts in the same place.”
Trans-Siberian Orchestra brings its The Ghosts Of Christmas Eve Tour to PPG Paints Arena at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 16. Tickets.