The audience explodes with excitement as the theater darkens. Lights illuminate the stage as the large ensemble of musicians and vocalists begin to perform. Assorted video screens come to life and the awestruck crowd is ushered away on a magical holiday journey that is only limited by their imaginations. For the next two and a half hours, each audience member will become a child again, blanketed in the warm, comforting spirit of Christmas. They will escape the daily doldrums of the real world and find themselves ensconced inside a magical snow globe, traveling aboard The Arctic Flyer to different times and distant places in search of the true meaning of the season. Welcome to The Christmas Dream, The Wizards of Winter’s current tour and collection of original, holiday-themed songs.
“Screaming guitars, vocal armies, dramatic original, neo-classical music, and a unique story: It’s a Broadway-flavored rock opera with strong visuals, snow, and an appearance by Mrs. Claus,” beams founder, keyboardist, and musical director Scott Kelly.
“We created a libretto [for our vocalists] and have an awesome narrator [Tony Gaynor],” adds lead guitarist Fred Gorhau.
“We have a storyline, which is much better than [merely announcing], ‘The next song is called’,” laughs Scott. “This enables us to draw the audience deep into the story, which makes a big difference from [typical rock concerts].”
This year marks the New Jersey ensemble’s tenth anniversary. Yes, It’s been a decade since The Wizards of Winter were formed a “one-time thing” to raise money for a struggling Frenchtown, New Jersey food pantry.
“It was the height of the recession, 2009,” recalls Scott. “The lines at the food pantry were getting longer, while the shelves were growing empty. My wife [vocalist/flutist] Sharon and I, along with another friend, Steve Ratchen, got together for a benefit performance. At the time, we had no intention of becoming a permanent band. The show was so successful, however, that one show became two shows, which became five and then 10 shows.”
In the beginning, the band covered Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s music and played traditional Christmas songs. When it was decided that The Wizards of Winter would become an annual tradition, however, Scott decided to compose original music. As for why he decided to forgo covering traditional, time-honored classics, Scott is boldly honest.
“Christmas music is eternal,” he says. “A lot of the holiday hits have been around since the forties. If you develop a holiday album and it [contains a couple of] classic tracks, the album is going to enjoy a long life. The average hard rock or metal album is forgotten soon after its release. Unless you are a diehard fan, you will never listen to that music again.”
Yes, this band creates original music. Their songs, however, are not completely devoid of holiday classics. Often, the band will tease snippets of Christmas favorites.
“I don’t know if anyone has ever used part of the Handel’s ‘Halleluiah’ chorus during a metal song,” the keyboardist laughs. “Part of the melody from our song ‘Handel’s Torch’ [was inspired] by [the holiday favorite] ‘Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.’ I changed the timing of the [original music] and then mixed it with Handel’s Messiah. Sometimes, our songs are a mashup of traditional songs that Fred lays all of these guitars over.”
Although Scott remains the band’s musical director and chief composer, other members often offer suggestions. Fred, who has been with the band since its second year, has developed a special bond with the composer. When the progressive rock-meets-Broadway-styled songs requires something “metallic,” Fred “is there” to infuse that edge.
“Scott and I have developed a weird connection,” he laughs. “He will play something for me, and I immediately know where he is going. I’ll offer a few suggestions and then we hash it out. Sometimes, things come together in less than an hour; sometimes it will take a little longer, like three or four weeks.”
Although The Christmas Dream debuted during the end of September, the 10-track album has been in the works for several years, and it must be difficult getting into a holiday season mindset when it is the middle of June and Northeast thermometers are topping 90 degrees.
Fred chuckles. “We’re a bunch of elves. Yes, during my first year with The Wizards of Winter, I was taken aback working on Christmas music in July. Today, it comes along much more easily. Once Scott and I lock in, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is.
“When we decided to write our self-titled debut in June 2014, I pulled out all of these Christmas decorations and put them around my grand piano,” recalls Scott. “My wife has this little Christmas village, which we set up on top of the piano, and I began to imagine what [the residents] were doing. Over the years, however, it has gotten much easier [to get in the mood].
The Christmas Dream is the 12-piece band’s third effort, following their 2014 self-titled debut and 2015’s The Magic of Winter. Their growing library of original music enables them to mix up their songs and tell new, enchanting stories each year. Another reason why The Wizards of Winter have been so successful is the atmosphere the season creates.
“There is a Christmas spirit and it overcomes people,” Scott continues. “People are friendlier to each other; they are will open up their wallets to donate to charities. Once January rolls around, however, it seems to end. Why? Are people cheerier and more relaxed until they have to go back to work? Is that why the attitude changes?
“It is a time for family and friends and there is nothing [comparable] to it,” adds the latest addition to the Wizards’ family, lead guitarist Steve Brown. “We’re out their spreading this magical Christmas music, but it only happens [one season] of the year, which is sad. What would happen if we could do this year-round?
The Christmas Dream tour, the band’s most ambitious to date, begins at the furthermost tip of Florida—Key West—then heads West before arriving home for a trio of performances: the Patchogue Theatre on Long Island on November 29, Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre on November 30, and Englewood’s Bergen PAC on December 1st. Fred is amazed by how the band has grown.
“From playing local shows and carrying our own staging and setting up our own equipment to growing into this national touring band…. It has happened organically. We do not have a record label [supporting] us. We do not receive major radio airplay. And yet, we are attracting a lot of attention.”
The Wizards of Winter are proud that they attract a mixed audience of children and adults. They are also ecstatic when they recognize returning families who have made experiencing the band’s shows a yearly tradition.
Scott smiles, “It’s incredible watching people aged eight to 80, singing along with our Christmas songs. It is a cool, often surreal feeling. We end the show with our own arrangement of ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sings.’ The lights go up [in the theater], people stand and start to sing. It’s an emotional moment even for us and we have been doing this forever. It hits you right in the throat.”
“We have a lot of repeat offenders,” laughs Fred. “They tell us that The Wizards of Winter show is their new Christmas tradition. I’m a huge Kiss fan, but I don’t go to see them every time they tour.”
It is this growing bond between the band and their loyal fans that continues to energize them during a time of the year when it is easy to get homesick and miss your family.
“When you are thousands of miles from home and you look out onto the audience and see people who know your music—your songs—and they are anxious to see you perform and then meet you, it is an amazing feeling,” explains Fred. “And, as a musician, it is a feeling you long for when it stops.”
It is not a surprise that though the band is looking forward to their entire tour, they are most excited for their three hometown shows. It is a chance for their friends and family to see them perform. Their Paramount Theatre appearance on November 30th coincides with Asbury Park’s Christmas festival and tree lighting.
“Asbury Park has made a remarkable comeback,” says Fred. “They’ve built up the boardwalk and there is a small shopping mall in the middle of the Convention Center. There was a time when it looked abandoned. It was a great place for metal bands to do photoshoots. Today, it is beautiful again.”
Unlike Trans-Siberian Orchestra, to which they are most compared, The Wizards of Winter do not have multiple touring companies and they do not hold any annual auditions for new members.
“Yes, we have had members who have come in and out of the band,” admits Scott. “That is often because it is hard to be away from home during the Christmas season. We’ve had members who had young kids and began to miss them too much. One vocalist who had been with us for six years, said, ‘I am missing Christmas with my kids, and they are getting older, so I need to bow out.’
“Also, we’ve grown as a band and the musical demands have grown. Some people are just not willing to make the investment; to play at the level that is now required. It’s one thing if your band is just knocking around and playing high schools and churches. With what the promoters are now charging for our tickets, we better be on our game! Thus, this iteration of the band is, by far, the strongest.”
The current line-up boasts an impressive pedigree. Gaynor and drummer John O’Reilly were both Trans-Siberian Orchestra members. Bassist Greg Smith played with Ted Nugent. Singer Karl Scully performed with Irish Tenors. And Steve Brown, in addition to playing with Trixter, has toured with Def Leppard. But their shows are more intimate than those performed by TSO, Manheim Steamroller, and other holiday-themed ensembles. Steve believes this is partly the result of playing in small, historic theaters and not large arenas.
“We are playing at some classic, ornate theaters,” he explains. “Having played everywhere from large arenas to small clubs, I can say that at these venues, there will be awesome acoustics. You will hear this great musicianship and great vocals. You will experience a real, 100 percent, warts and all rock band.
“This is my first tour with the Wizards. The New Jersey mentality, the family aspect, the friendships: we are like brothers and sisters. We share the same sense of humor, which is super important, especially when you are on the road for long periods of time.”
Says Scott, “The Wizards of Winter are the little New Jersey band that could. We are completely organic. We grew this because we are passionate about it. We don’t have a record label; we don’t have management; we don’t have sponsors.
“It has been a family business since its inception. My wife and I started it and we’ve had one of our daughters singing and playing saxophone in the band, while our other daughter ran our merchandizing and was our tour manager for several years. Some of the members even bring their wives and kids on tour. We are like the Partridge Family on steroids.”
Be sure to catch The Wizards of Winter at the Patchogue Theatre on Long Island on November 29, Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre on November 30, and Englewood’s Bergen PAC on December 1!