October 2014 (e-mail)
Wizards Of Winter is rock band that performs in New England during the winter months with a Christmas/holiday themed concert that blends songs from their 2011 album Tales Beneath A Northern Star & the repertoire of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who brought holiday music to a new level via the fusion of classical music & hard rock. Like TSO their concert is taken to a new level via a narrator on stage who acts the role of the conductor of the Arctic Flyer train that descends space & time in the search for the true meaning of Christmas. In 2013 Wizards embarked on their most ambitious tour by featuring in the show the Kings Of Christmas, which included former TSO vocalists Tommy Farese, Guy LeMonnier, Michael Lanning & narrator Tony Gaynor who had debuted the previous year. In November 2013 Wizards will release a new album & go on an even larger tour with returning guests Farese, LeMonnier, Gaynor & vocalist Joe Cerisano, also formerly of TSO. Update: Soon after this post was originally posted it was announced LeMonnier had become an official member of the group, following the first show of the new tour.
Having hosted 100 episodes of the podcast "The World Of Trans-Siberian Orchestra" & being involved in fan/collectors circles of the band's guitarist Al Pitrelli, there was no way I was going to miss Wizards when they came to Portland, Maine in 2013 considering TSO doesn't come to town ... though I had never heard of them & was going primarily to see my acquaintances in Kings Of Christmas, a band I'd been following since before they had a name. Since that show I've gotten better acquainted with the music of Wizards & have been following the progress on their new album. Seeing them again in another month I look forward to experiencing the bigger picture & regret not being as familiar with them last year, as they are far more than the TSO tribute band some people mistakenly perceive them as. In 2013 this blog was on hiatus, so with its return I sent founding keyboardist Scott Kelly some questions about Wizard's past, future & relationship with the Kings. I got back a story far beyond my expectations that includes the heart-warming tale of a guy who opened for Cyndi Lauper & Twisted Sister, only to stop playing music for 20 years & then by chance create what was intended as a one-off TSO tribute concert to support a local food bank ... 4 years later they're performing with the actual original members of TSO, while the trajectory of the Kings of Christmas got its belayed final chapters finally written. After reading Scott's answers I can honestly say he found one of his biggest fans ... & my girlfriend follows me in that & she hasn't even heard their music yet! It's a pleasure to share this little behind the scenes look at the Arctic Flyer.
Special thanks to Dan Roth who first introduced me to the Kings of Christmas.
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AJ: How did WIZARDS OF WINTER form?
SCOTT: A lot of coincidences happened to coincide during the creation of the WIZARDS. The project started as concept in December 2009. It was nearing the holidays during the height of the recession. The word around town was that the local food pantry was really struggling due the volume of requests for help. As usual, we were playing TSO music at our home for the holidays. The song "Old City Bar" got my wheels spinning, wondering if there was anything we could do to help. At the same time, it just so happened that I was coming out of another original music project. A friend introduced me to Steve Ratchen at one of my last gigs with another group. I casually expressed to Steve that I had this concept to build a TSO tribute band built around the concept of helping one’s neighbor conveyed in "Old City Bar". I also conveyed to Steve that while I still really enjoyed their music, I felt that TSO had lost its way. Instead of being about the music as it was in the early days, it had now become more of a spectacle & about production versus substance. I realized that was what audiences now wanted, but perhaps there was a way to hearken back to those early days of TSO roots & present the music in a more intimate setting. Steve said that if we moved forward, he was in. The idea percolated over that holiday season till early January 2010, at which time we put an ad out on Craig's List to see if anyone else might interested in the concept. We got a surprisingly positive response. After that, as they say, the rest is history. I glad to say that we were able to stay true to that original vision & have been able to donate tens of thousands of dollars to many worthy charitable organizations over the years. Helping others is still one of our core values as an organization.
AJ: WIZARDS OF WINTER started life as a TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA tribute band ... but after hearing audience comments at your 2013 concert in Portland Maine it seems to me you're still considered that by many. For the record, according to your website: "we are not a TSO tribute band & haven't been for years." Am I assuming correct that the move away from being a tribute band to something more akin to a holiday prog-rock band with its roots in TSO was with the release of your 2011 album Tales Beneath A Northern Star? Does it bother you to still have to clarify that a chunk of the music in your live show is your own original music & you're not doing only a TSO tribute show?
SCOTT: The confusion of what the current hybrid situation that the WIZARDS currently find themselves in is both rewarding & confounding. It is great to be associated to the success that is TSO. At the same time, we are running as fast as reasonably possible to get out of their shadow. People that consider us a TSO tribute really can’t be close followers of TSO’s music. Our shows are about 60% original, 40% TSO these days. Many times where the confusion takes place is that people can’t tell the difference between what is our material & what is TSO’s. Perhaps my writing style is very similar to Bob Kinkel & Jon Oliva [founders & co-composers of TSO]. I just don’t know. One other point is that the tribute concept ends immediately upon the beginning of the narration. We have our own original story line. Having the former TSO members as part of our group also seems to exacerbate the situation. It is a conundrum for sure. Each year we just try to chip away at it as best as we can.
AJ: Continuing with this same train of thought, with the WIZARDS now going into its second year with former TSO members joining the show, how many times have you guys been thought to be a branch of TSO by audiences? In all seriousness ... years ago I saw ASIA FEATURING JOHN PAYNE & heard more than one person complain how Payne didn't play all his hits & that his voice had changed too much since the early days. They sadly didn't realize they were thinking he was his predecessor John Wetton & this was not the same band that once appeared on MTV. Being a music history junkie I forget that people don't always know the details of who, what, when like I do.
SCOTT: Sadly, as with the last question, it is a bit of a problem. It happens all the time. People come up & say "I saw you at X arena a few years ago, you guys are still great" or "I got great pictures of you when I was at this show or that one etc." Really? I wasn’t there. Depending on when or how we are confronted, we handle it in different ways. The last thing we want to do is offend the person. Especially since they took the time to come up & talk with us. If it is more of a one on one situation. All of the band members know to quickly & gently provide the true information, that we are not TSO. Sometimes in larger groups we have to just nod & brush it off. Lastly, when asked to sign a TSO CD, all of us say, that it isn’t our music, we aren’t members of TSO etc. It is funny though, some people still ask us to sign it. Admittedly, this became a bigger issue for us when we started touring with the former TSO members. Because of how we run our meet and greets, it can be quite chaotic.
AJ: What prompted the writing of your own Christmas music/album?
SCOTT: The first year together we cobbled together a few shows. They were mostly in churches, schools & small clubs. Really nothing to write home about. However, the audiences were great. They continually asked where they could buy our album ... which, of course, didn’t exist. As we reached the end of the first year, with its very limited success, we had to decide whether we wanted to do it again. The consensus was that we should, but include some of our own material. Thus, the dream grew. We set out to write our own story line & then the original music that would compliment it.
AJ: In 2013 you went on tour with former TSO vocalists Tommy Farese, Guy Lemmonier of the Broadway stage, Michael Lanning also of the classic rock band JIVA & concert narrator Tony Gaynor. At that point they were going under the name the KINGS OF CHRISTMAS, having formed & put out a Christmas album in 2012. On the current tour Tommy will be joining you only for a couple shows, while Michael has been replaced by Joe Cerisano, also formerly of TSO. How did this union of the 2 groups & plan to tour come about last year?
SCOTT: The groups came together by pure serendipity. I had known about the KINGS & had wondered about what became of them. As you state, they created an album & then disappeared. I sent a note to Tommy on Facebook one day, telling him about our project & sending him some of our original material. He wrote back immediately & said he loved it. He offered to come out & do a guest appearance if we ever wanted him. Initially I was like wow! We talked on the phone initially that first day for over 3 hours. We just hit it off. The idea of working together just grew from there. The KINGS guys came down one day in June 2013 to meet all of us & kick around some of their TSO classic songs. They were still considering doing their own tour at that time, so if anything was to come of things, it would really have been for just a couple special shows. When their tour funding didn’t come through, the groups embraced each other & decided to join forces for a full tour. At that time, it was already late August which really limited the amount of venues we could book. The shows that did come off together, however, were a lot of fun.
AJ: What was the biggest hurdle & the biggest surprise of last year's tour?
SCOTT: I think the biggest hurdle was getting the KINGS guys to recognize the reality of life as a touring musician at our level. The income is very limited, we don’t have large road crews, we don’t have tour buses, hotels & meals are haphazard etc. We have a lot of the complexity & resource requirements that the bigger bands do without the financial restrictions we have. On the upside, I think it was the way that we all just came together as people. While our life experiences have been different - we haven’t done the arena performances to adoring fans - we came together & became a band of brothers by the end of the season. What started out as more of an 'us & them' became much more of a 'we'.
AJ: Years ago I had the opportunity to interview Cornelius Goodwin who, at the time, narrated, played sax & sang with the TSO tribute band 12/24 that for one tour included former TSO vocalist Maxx Mann. Cornelius told me that Maxx gave them lots of tips of how to make their performance more authentically TSO-esque. Outside of repertoire changes, did Tommy & company give any input into your show? While how did working with them have an effect on the band in the bigger picture?
SCOTT: Tommy gave some input on how we might perform the TSO material closer to the original. As far as being more TSO-esque, that is something we actually don’t want. That is more of what the tribute bands are searching for. If anything, I think the biggest thing they brought to the table was their belief in our original music. If you ask any one of them, I confidently believe that they will tell you that they think our original material is better than TSO’s. They have emboldened us to dream bigger than we were before encountering them.
AJ: In the previous years the KINGS OF CHRISTMAS came together as a union of former TSO members, went through line-up changes, had fans shocked when Tommy & Tony were let go from TSO after being important & much loved members since the earliest days, recorded an under heard but great holiday album, then the band fragmented & concluded with a substitute band on a small tour with remaining member Maxx Mann only. The band was sadly mired in bad vibes & controversy across the TSO world. Many of us thought that was the pre-mature end of the band & loss of some great potential, until it was announced the 3 remaining members were touring with the WIZARDS, which has really brought a proper closure to the story. Was there any worries about what had gone down with the KINGS in the past & how it would effect the tour or with using the name legally? Was there any discussion of performing some of the songs from their album?
SCOTT: We had no real concern over using the KINGS OF CHRISTMAS name, basically because the guys we were working with owned the rights. The reputation left from the aborted attempt was a bit of a concern personally on my part, but it turned out to be unfounded. Sadly, very few people had heard of KINGS. The material from their album is quite different from the WIZARDS material or TSO’s for that matter. It really wouldn’t fit with our show & there are no plans to add any of it to our current production.
AJ: The WIZARDS have a new album out of new original Christmas music & includes guests Tommy co-producing & performing alongside Guy Lemmonier. Can you give me some insight into how this new album got off the ground & what fans can expect to hear on it? Was it in the works any previous to the KINGS joining the family last year or did they have any hand in the writing of it?
SCOTT: When we set out to do original material back in 2011, we literally had no money to record it. We scraped together enough money to get a copy of Pro Tools. Our vocalist, Michael, at the time set about learning how to use it. At the same time, we started kicking around concepts for the story & writing material. The clock was ticking & we were nowhere. Late in the summer of 2011 we started the recording process. It was a disaster. We were literally going into Michael’s garage 'studio', throwing down tracks without ever having even played them together. We had multiple people writing material ... in completely different styles, some of it not very good. Again, you have to keep in mind, the band had no visions of grandeur. We were just a group of regular joes playing music together to support charity & maybe make some gas money along the way. We did a Kickstarter campaign to actually raise the money to press the CD’s. The end result, while a gallant attempt, was a major disappointment. Since that time, we had some major lessons learned. We limited the music writing to the key members of the company. I turns out that I have a talent for writing & have composed all of our new material. Some of the other key members, Sharon Kelly, Steve Ratchen & Fred Gorhau, assist with arrangement. In our case, this has turned out to be a great approach .This limited ownership issues. It also allowed us to develop a cohesive style. With the new born vision of the potential inherent in the WIZARDS after last year’s tour, we decided to give it all a second go. We scrapped the weaker material & focused on building a strong initial album to build our future on. The band crafted a couple of new songs, re-tooled some of the early material & headed into a real studio for the first time. It has made a world of difference working with a real engineer. Also having Tommy add a critical ear to the content contained in the final material has been a benefit. All of us are quite proud of the quality of the album. We have decided to self title it simply as The Wizards Of Winter, as a sign of a new beginning. While the former TSO guys have not had an influence on our writing, we have been lucky enough to have Guy sing on 2 of our new songs. We had one under development for Joe Cerisano as well but the clock ran out. I am hoping we can get back to it again in the Spring & have another release next year. We have enough material under development for an additional album right now. As usual in our world, it is all matter of lack of time.
AJ: With the new album will we see on tour a different show this year with a different story, replacing the Tales From A Northern Star theme?
SCOTT: For the foreseeable future, our story will be based around Tales From A Northern Star. It is one of the great parts of our concept. We didn’t want to get trapped like TSO did with Christmas Eve & Other Stories, or any of the other albums. It became tough for them to get away from the initial story, which cost them some audiences in the end. With Tales From A Northern Star our story can be fresh every year. The story is about a train ride on Christmas Eve. Each stop of the train allows us to peer into people lives throughout time on Christmas Eve. We can make it different every year by changing the stops, thereby changing the story. I know you are a Doctor Who fan. Think of it like that. It is was has kept the good Doctor alive all this time ... traveling through time & making stops along the way. Instead of the Tardis, we have the Arctic Flyer. Our narrator - an angel in disguise of a train conductor - has lived all these stories ... having seen them himself over all the years. So with that said, yes, this year’s story will be a little different.
AJ: Outside of the KINGS, it seems the WIZARDS have only female vocalists. Watching your show last year at Portland's State Theater I was struck by the thought - where's the guys? While, is there any line-up changes or additions this year?
SCOTT: The WIZARDS have actually had their own male vocalists over the years. We had one male lead who had to make an emergency exit last year, With the help of our friends from TSO we rearranged the show & performed the next night, without missing a beat. The event proved to be a strong testament to our strength as a joint ensemble. This year we have several new members. We have new lead guitarist in T.W. Durfy. We also have a new person on violin. Her name is Natalia Niarezka who joins us from Belarus in the Ukraine. In addition, Vinny Jiovino has joined us as our new male lead vocalist. Lastly, we are lucky to have Joe Cerisano, previously of TSO, join us this year. Joe will be doing the material that Tommy Farese is most known for. Tommy will only join us for a few select shows if his schedule allows.
AJ: From a TSO tribute band, to your own Christmas album, to having former TSO members tour with you & in turn seeing their project get the send off or closure it long deserved, while doing a new album with them & now a second tour ... I can personally say having talked to numerous TSO tribute bands over the years you guys have moved the farthest of them all with the greatest leaps & bounds in the shortest amount of time. How do you, personally, see the progression the WIZARDS have made on their journey? If you could go back & tell your 2010 self what was down the pipeline, would you give him any advice?
SCOTT: As I previously stated, the WIZARDS had very humble beginnings with no illusions of grandeur or visions of the future that has developed. We just wanted to play some music we enjoyed, have some fun, & help some others along the way. After all, if a tribute band - especially a TSO tribute band - is honest with themselves, they must ask, how far can we realistically grow? TSO is still touring over 100 shows a year. Where do you intend to perform? What size audience can you reasonably expect? Additionally, given the monster production that TSO delivers each year, how do you intend to compete? Do you really want to undergo the comparisons that are inevitably going to take place? In general, I don’t most tribute bands consider any of this. In most cases they are happy doing some local shows & getting some local recognition. I know it was the case for us initially for sure. Tony, Joe, Guy, Michael & Tommy, all guys that were there during the period that TSO began its meteoric climb, say that we resemble the group so much so that it is a bit uncanny. They all convey just how much fun they are having and how refreshing the environment is. Personally, I take that as a great compliment. I think our view on what was achievable started to seriously change in December 2012 when we sold out our first 1200 seat theater. We got 5 standing ovations that night. It opened our eyes to the possibilities. After that point, we really started running the group more as a business. It just so happens that life has given me the opportunity to be a serial entrepreneur in the high tech industry. I started applying the lessons learned in that industry to this new music business that we had created. There is a very famous book that start-up companies look to called "Crossing the Chasm". It portrays the life cycle that successful companies go through. The first is, Innovators ... where people discover the unique vision that your company or product has to deliver. Then come the Early Adopters. This is where the WIZARDS finds ourselves currently. We are starting to grow a fan base but success is still tentative. After that comes the crisis zone called The Chasm. It is where most businesses, & in this case bands, go to die. They never seem to find their way forward to reach the large audience of Pragmatics ... basically, mass market appeal. It takes a lot of forethought & careful planning to make that transition. We are gingerly walking through that minefield as we speak. If successful, the concept is to remain on top as long as possible. After that point, it becomes a question of managing your decline ... to hopefully come in with as soft a landing as possible. There is no doubt in my mind that there is room in the market for a band like the WIZARDS. There are really only 2 major touring “holiday” acts, TSO & MANNHEIM STEAMROLLER. They don’t own Christmas. We can still capture our own audience by providing a unique message, that actually stays closer to the true meaning of the season. In addition, we have some concepts under discussion for the non-holiday season that may prove to be quite unique as well. I also credit our success to a lot of hard work on the part of many people. Most bands really don’t account for the business side of things. Without it, you are just going to spin your wheels. For me, this is a full time job all year long ... on top of working a day job. Many weeks I will invest 50 or more hours to the band. I firmly believe that if you don’t make that kind of investment you won’t succeed. Success is a combination of passion & vision. The band finds itself at a crossroad. As you state, we have bootstrapped & put in a lot of sweat equity to get to where we are now. The effort has rewarded us with former, original members of TSO, finding us worthy to actually tie their names to. Even we recognize the prestige this brought us, the question is where do we go from here? Do we continue to muddle along as we have been, growing a little each year? Or, like in the high tech industry, do we accept to dance with the devil, enter the shark tank, & take some external investment to blow this thing out? We are very thankful to have the opportunity to ponder this question, but it is a tough one just the same. There has been so much I/we have had to learn about music industry to get us this far. If I could go back to my past self, I would say study the business more, be more cautious of the shysters that are out there, trust but verify, & believe in ourselves more strongly. Lastly, try not to stress so much & enjoy the ride for what it is worth.
AJ: My final question ... can you tell me a little about yourself, Scott?
SCOTT: I don’t have a strong musical pedigree. I am self-taught musician, like many others out there. I started playing at 16. After attending an EMERSON LAKE & PALMER concert I knew I wanted to play keyboard. I convinced my parents to let me get my first Hammond. After that it was just hard work. I learned how to read music & just stumbled my way around the keyboard. I got a job in a music store & asked anyone that would let me, show me what they were doing. I became good enough to finally join a band. Throughout college, & for several years after, I banged around the club circuit in NY/NJ/CT performing with various cover bands. I had the opportunity to open for many of the industry greats in their early days like Cyndi Lauper, Joe Jackson, TWISTED SISTER, South Side Johnny & many others. Eventually I ended up in one of the first tribute bands of the era DR. JIMMY & THE WHO SHOW. Unfortunately, one evening I came to a gig to find that all of my instruments had been stolen out of our truck. About $14k worth, which as you know, back then, especially as a kid, was an unbelievable amount of money. My music career was literally over in one night. I was married, we were buying our first house, there was no chance of recovering. So, with that, I didn’t touch a keyboard again for another 20 years. It was only when my kids entered high school that I got involved in music again. I started teaching the local high school drumline since no one else was available. I bought a keyboard to help in the instruction of the pit percussion students. That lead to me to get the bug & start playing again. Eventually my wife Sharon - who sings lead & plays flute in the WIZARDS now - and I started performing as a duet in local restaurants. I then got a chance to perform with an original prog-rock band called CONTRARIAN. It was great music. The only problem was they didn’t want to do live shows & I did, so we parted ways. That led to my encounter with Steve which takes us to today. While I will never have the requisite training to play like an Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman [of YES], or for that matter, Jane Mangini [of TSO], people tell me I happen to have a strong talent as a composer. In the end, it all works out. All in all, I am just very thankful for the opportunities that I have been afforded through this project. At my age, I never expected to get to play rock star again ... even if it is just for a few weeks a year. To do it with my whole family involved - Sharon on vocals/flute; Briana, my daughter, involved in production; my daughter Shawna as band photographer; Steve's girlfriend Denise running merch; & Briana’s time boyfriend Lance leading our crew - has been icing on the cake. We truly are a family run business.