Storytellers at the State Theatre with Jon Oliva

By on December 21, 2013



Awe – noun: The rapt attention and deep emotion caused by the sight of something extraordinary.

Jon Oliva is a man with an amazing legacy of music, spanning five bands and nearly 40 years. His gritty, haunting voice and his incorporation of the piano as a dynamic mainstay of the music have set him apart from his contemporaries over the decades, specifically during the years of Savatage.

Jon Oliva (photo by Travis Failey / RSEN)

However, Jon Oliva was only half of the equation.

His younger brother Criss’ songwriting and guitar playing were just as much a part of the unique sound that Savatage developed.


Jon Oliva (photo by Travis Failey / RSEN)

Criss’ skill was not just that of technical brilliance, but of a genuine connection to his instrument and a deep love and passion for what he did.

His tone and phrasing were (and in this listener’s opinion, still are) the best in the genre. Never before had a guitarist so eloquently conveyed all of the feeling and raw emotion that Criss Oliva was able to pack into each and every dynamic solo and blazing riff, with that tone that seemed to sing out more like a voice than a guitar.

That beautiful, glorious, triumphant signature sound didn’t come from some high-end fancy guitar, it didn’t come from a wall of Marshalls, it didn’t come from a bunch of racks full of effects or a giant floorboard of pedals.
It came from his touch, his hands…and it went with him one tragic night, 20 years ago, when a drunk driver took his life.


Sketch by Danae Saree

Criss Oliva’s death was more than just a loss to the music world. It was a devastating tragedy for his family, and one that would profoundly affect Jon Oliva and alter his music from that moment on.

For the past two decades, Jon has faithfully preserved and shared his brother’s music, incorporating songs here and there, keeping Criss’ spirit alive. 2013 would see the last of Criss’ material released in the form of Raise The Curtain, Jon Oliva’s debut solo record. Raise The Curtain showcases what could be considered the most precious of Criss Oliva’s musical contributions, as it comprises the very first riffs and songs that Criss ever wrote, going back to the tender age of fourteen.


On the drums Chris Kidner (photo by Travis Failey / RSEN)

The record was followed by a small tour, appropriately named The Storytellers Tour, and a very lucky group of fans in nine cities were treated to a very intimate window into the past. The shows included humorous anectodes and tales from the early years, and some very interesting history behind some of Savatage’s most beloved songs.


(photo by Travis Failey / RSEN)

Tampa, Florida was the hometown show and the last stop on the tour. With a turnout of nearly 800 people, it was also one of the largest. There was a plethora of who’s-who in the metal world both local and from afar, including “Metal Mike” Van Rijswijk of Aardschok magazine, Jaap Wagemaker of Nuclear Blast Germany, Dustin Hardman of AFM/Frontiers Records, and Ben Jackson of Crimson Glory.


(photo by Travis Failey / RSEN)

Jon Oliva was joined onstage by Chris Kinder on drums and Jason Jennings on bass, and with the exception of Joseph Diaz on guitar for a few songs, Jon himself either played his brother’s parts or left them out completely, creating a haunting “moment of silence” within the music. These moments where Criss’ leads should have been were some of the most emotional; those spaces of silence were some of the loudest I have ever heard.


(L to R) Chris Kinder, Joseph Diaz, Jason Jennings and Jon Oliva  (photo by Travis Failey / RSEN)

The set list comprised songs from Raise The Curtain in addition to various tracks and medleys from Streets, Edge Of Thorns, and Handful Of Rain. All of these were played in a fairly stripped down manner which allowed for a completely different feel. In a sense, the listener was able to “fill in the blanks” while hearing some of this very familiar music in a completely new way.


Chris Kinder (photo by Travis Failey / RSEN)

It was apparent that this tour was a very cathartic experience for Jon Oliva, and the audience were able to share some very emotional moments with him, including this excerpt from the history of Streets:

“…When we were doing this album, we wrote this song called ‘If I Go Away,’ and my brother came up to me and goes, ‘Dude, that’s the best Savatage ballad we ever wrote.’ And after he passed away, the thing that’s weird is that when I do that song, it– even though he was alive when I did the lyrics, it sounds, now that he’s not here, like I’m actually talking to him. It’s really fuckin’ weird, man. Cause he was always like, ‘Man, that song’s fuckin’ cool,’ you know… So anyway, I wanna dedicate this to him and anyone else who’s lost anybody recently.”

(photo by Travis Failey / RSEN)

It was during this song that I witnessed something very special and amazing. As Jon was playing the piano and paying tribute to his brother, he raised his head, and for a brief moment, every line on his face disappeared; he looked like he was 25 again. It was almost as though in that moment, something released within him, something was set free…and it was beautiful.
This show was a rollercoaster of emotion, Jon transitioned back and forth from hilarious stories about being on tour, to very solemn moments of reflection on his brother. There were tears, but there was also laughter, especially from this story:

“[Before the show] I asked the VIPS, ‘Well, what story do you want me to tell you?’ And they couldn’t make up their minds. So I’m gonna tell you real quick, I’m gonna tell you the uh– because it has somewhat to do with the Streets thing, I’m gonna tell you the Duct Tape Airplane story. Alright. We’re in Brazil. Sao Paulo. I’m telling the promoter I will not fly a prop, propeller.

‘No problem, Jon.’

Yeah, yeah…fuckin’ douche. Anyway, so… we get to the airport, and there’s a jet, and then there’s this little thing that they’re loading live chickens onto the back.

And I’m like, ‘No fuckin’ way that THAT’S our plane, right?’

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmmmmm… that’s the plane. So we get on, it’s two seats [per side], Jonny Middleton is sitting on the aisle and I’m on the window. So we’re sitting there, and we’re getting ready to take off, and I’m watching out the window, and this dude with those big ladders on the wheels comes rolling up to the wing where the propeller is, and I’m like, ‘Wow, this…isn’t really very fucking good,’ right?

And there’s another guy behind him. So I’m like, I’m watching out the window, and Middleton– we’re all, we’re all dusted, so I’m like, ‘Dude…what’s going on?’

And I see the one guy climb up under the propeller, and the other guy behind him, and I’m like, “They must be, like, repairing something,” or something very innocent.

The guy behind him hands him a roll of silver duct tape. I swear on the Bible. And the other guy starts ripping off strips about [a foot] long, and starts putting it under the wing. So I’m just like, I’m thinking, like, ‘Wow…I’m gonna die…right now.’

So I hit Middleton…this is great, I hit Johnny and I’m like, ‘Johnny, is this really going on?”

And he looks out and he goes, “BROTHER, WE DON’T GET PAID ENOUGH FOR THIS SHIT, MAN!”

So anyway, the guy does this thing, and he moves back, and it’s too late to get off the plane. So to make matters worse the [pilot] comes on and he goes, “Um, we’re overweight…” On top of everything else, and I’m like, ‘This is it, it’s over.’

So the plane… this is great. The plane starts going down the runway. Now at the end of the runway there’s like a 10,000 foot drop to death. So this plane– I’m telling you guys, this is exactly the sound that this plane made, it goes, ‘MeeeeeeUUUUUUURRRRRRRRR… … …UUUUUUURRRRRR… neeeeeeeeUUUURRRRR…”

You ever seen that Bugs Bunny cartoon where he’s like– [holds a finger to his lips as though sick]? And then to make matters worse, Middleton is like, just as white as these keys, just, ‘AAAAAARGHH!’ And I’m like, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, I’m gonna die…’

And that fucker somehow got that thing up there, but then all of a sudden we’d be flying– and it’s only a 45 minute flight to Rio, and I’m like, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy…’ and we’d be flying and we’d hear like, ‘Neeeeeeeeeee– …… [pause] …. ….. …eeeeeeeeee…”

True fuckin’ story. You can’t make shit like this up, man.”  
Jon Oliva also paid tribute to the late Matt LaPorte, who passed away two years ago. Matt performed with Jon Oliva’s Pain from 2003 until his death in April of 2011 and was heavily influenced by Criss Oliva. (This was a deeply personal moment for me, because Matt was a dear friend of mine as well. I first saw Matt playing Criss’ material in 2007, and it moved me to tears because I had never heard anyone play it so perfectly. His tone and feel were right there, as if he were channeling Criss.) Jon had a recording of Matt’s original guitar parts for a song they wrote together called Someone. It was a very eerie experience to see and hear the song without Matt there to play it, and compounded the overall heaviness of the show.

Bassist Jason Jennings (photo by Travis Failey / RSEN)

(photo by Travis Failey / RSEN)

Jon ended the performance with a very special treat for the Tampa crowd, inviting Joe Diaz up onstage to play Criss’ parts for two very special songs: Gutter Ballet and When The Crowds Are Gone. As the final words of the final song rang out, there is no doubt in my mind that both Matt and Criss were present that night, and very, very proud:

“And the lights… turn them off, my friend.

And the ghosts? We’ll just let them in.

‘Cause in the dark, it’s easier to see.”
Set list:
Father Time
Ten Years
Out on the Streets
Lady in Disguise
Summers Rain

Streets Medley
Edge of Thorns Medley

Look at the World
Walk on Water
Fly Away
Handful of Rain Medley

Can’t get away

Gutter Ballet

(photo by Travis Failey / RSEN)

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