Wizards Whipping Up Some Winter Tunes

November 23, 2017
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By Mary Ann Bourbeau |

RED BANK – Scott Kelly works in the software business most of the year. Like many people, he takes on a second job at the holidays, but his is a little different than most. Kelly heads up the group Wizards of Winter, a cross between Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Mannheim Steamroller. This year, the New Jersey-based group will go on its first nationwide holiday tour, traveling from Florida to Washington state, with a stop at the Count Basie Theatre on Nov. 25.

“We consider that our home show,” Kelly said. “Most of the band members are from New Jersey.”

Kelly, a keyboardist, hails from Alexandria Township, which is where the band got its start. He put music aside for 20 years while raising his family, but got a few friends together in 2009 for a performance that raised money for the food pantry in nearby Frenchtown.

As a longtime fan of the symphonic rock band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, he enlisted his wife Sharon, a singer and flute player, and bassist Steve Ratchen. Together, they gathered a team of stellar musicians to put together a TSO tribute group. Kelly’s daughter, Shawna Marie, sings with the band and his other daughter, Briana, is now the tour manager.

“That first year, we did four or five shows in the high school and in a church,” said Kelly. “The audience liked the music so much, they wanted to buy our album, which didn’t exist. Who could have known it would grow to be what it is today?”

Wizards of Winter, a progressive rock holiday music band, will be at Count Basie Theatre Nov. 25. – Courtesy Wizards of Winter

In response to their newfound popularity, they started writing their own holiday rock opera, “Tales Beneath a Northern Star.” Today they have two albums out and a third on the way.

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“For many, Christmas rock music is associated with TSO or even Mannheim Steamroller,” he said. “There is room for something in between the extravagant production of TSO and the more reserved presentation of Mannheim. It is here that I see the Wizards fit.”

Through their music and continued charity work, the Wizards of Winter gained a reputation locally and Kelly was fortunate enough to meet members of TSO, a group he long admired.

“The music itself is a combination of classical and rock,” he said. “As a keyboard player, I grew up on that kind of music. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was a fan of Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd and Genesis – all the bands who were doing that kind of thing. When my wife and I were at our first ever TSO show, we fell in love with it. I never dreamed I’d be in a band like that.”

In 2013, Kelly met original TSO member Tommy Farese, who introduced him to several other former members of that ensemble. They listened to Wizards of Winter’s original material and liked what they heard, so they joined forces that holiday season. Today, the 12-member yuletide holiday rock ensemble entertains with their blend of classical and progressive-influenced rock music woven throughout a theatrical holiday-themed show. Their audiences appeal to everyone from 8 to 80.

“Our music encompasses the vast range of feelings people experience during the holidays,” said Kelly. “We take you on a two-and-a-half hour emotional roller coaster, from ballads to prog-metal (progressive metal).”

Kelly said he is friendly with current TSO members and that the groups are different enough so there is no competition between them.

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“They play arenas and have a big light show,” he said. “Their show is more about the special effects. We play in much more intimate environments, where you really get in touch with the audience. I get such a feeling of satisfaction and pride when I look out at a packed house and see people singing along to music we created.”

The members of Wizards of Winter, who have played not only with TSO but with Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent, are happy to be spreading Christmas joy to so many.

“For me, there is probably no better feeling that I get from the fans as when they tell me that we are their new yearly tradition,” said lead guitarist Fred Gorhau. “That shows me we earned a fan for life.”

The Wizards of Winter will perform at the Count Basie Theatre at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25. Tickets are $25 to $59 and are available at thebasie.org.

Arts and entertainment writer Mary Ann Bourbeau can be reached at mbourbeau@tworivertimes.com.

This article was first published in the Nov. 16-23, 2017 print edition of the Two River Times.

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