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Courtesy of Adrenaline PR
Back in 1999, Wizards of Winter musical director and keyboardist Scott Kelly and his wife were at the first Trans-Siberian performance at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Kelly instantly embraced the concept of presenting Christmas music with a prog rock theme.
“I loved the music of TSO, and we became fans,” he says in a recent phone interview from a tour stop. Wizards of Winter perform at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 23, at the Canton Palace Theatre.
Ten years later, it was the height of the recession and the local food pantry in Kelly’s town was really hurting. There were lines around the block, and the shelves were pretty empty.
“We said, ‘Let’s put together a band and play some music and see if we can raise some money for them,’” says Kelly. “We put together a band with some friends and ran an ad on Craigslist to get some instruments we didn’t have. We had no intention of playing more than one show just as a benefit. One became two became ten. People liked the music and wanted to buy our album. There was no album. We tried it again the next year and started writing original music and it took off from there.”
While Kelly says he didn’t know the late Paul O’Neill, the mastermind behind TSO, he has a strong connection with the band. After a lineup change in 2013, several TSO members joined the Wizards of Winter.
“They had heard about our music, and I had a conversation with [singer] Tommy Farese who was with TSO for like 12 years at that point,” says Kelly. “He was the face of TSO at the time but had been forced out. He liked our music and wanted to join us. He and a few other guys joined us.”
Kelly maintains that the Wizards share more with early TSO than with the present-day version of the band that now brings its big-budget productions to arenas across the country each winter.
“We’re pretty different,” he says. “They put out those original Christmas albums. I think Christmas Eve and Other Stories
is a masterpiece. Since that time, Bob Kinkel left the band, and the focus went away from being about the music to the lights and production. You won’t find dancing girls or flames or dragons at our shows. Our focus is on Christmas.”
The Wizards' concerts center on a snow globe, and the group takes audiences on a virtual sleigh ride with a mythical vehicle Kelly calls the Arctic Flyer.
“You go in search of the true meaning of Christmas,” he says. “It’s melancholy and joyful. Because the Arctic Flyer can travel anywhere in space and time, it allows me to change the story. We don’t carry the big string section. If you were behind the scenes, you know they’re not in the mix anyway. We don’t use prerecorded tracks. That first year we cobbled together $300 and bought 12 lights on Craigslist and cobbled that together. I ran the light show with my feet. It’s grown since then, but it won’t ever be like TSO.”
The band’s new single, “A Christmas Dream,” opens with a dramatic piano riff which gives away to noodle-y guitars and pounding drums. Kelly says it’s an old song that he only recently got around to recording.
“I didn’t play out for many, many years,” he explains. “I had this version of ‘Carol of the Bells’ mixed in with ‘My Favorite Things’ that I always played on the piano. My kids grew up with that. I wanted to flesh in out to turn it into a song for the Wizards. I finished the rest of the orchestration this year. People are loving it.”
A mid-song flute solo gives the music a Jethro Tull feel and suggests the influence of '70s prog rock.
“People like the different flavor we have,” says Kelly. “My influences were Kansas, Styx, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and you’ll find their influences in a lot of our stuff. I would hope that if we got bigger, we could add more performances, but we don't want to be in bigger venues. When you move into an arena, everything changes and the connection is not there. Now, we’re selling out 2,500 seat theaters, and that’s great. We’re loving it. ”
Wizards of Winter, 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 23, Canton Palace Theatre, 330-454-8172. Tickets: $34-$69, cantonpalacetheatre.org.