Article :
  An homage to Christopher Michael Oliva
Magazine :
  Aardschok / Netherlands
Published :
  December 2003
Written and pictures by :
  Mike van Rijswijk
Translated by :
  Yvonne Kluitman
Edited by :
  Kathy Tijou

 

There are some concerts of which you know beforehand that something special is about to happen; the first Maiden-concert with the returned Bruce Dickinson, Death Angel in the Effenaar (a small Dutch venue/YK), Metallica with the Berlin symphony orchestra…. When Kathy Tijou, the webmaster of crissoliva.com, organizes a concert to commemorate Christopher 'Criss' Michael Oliva's death ten years ago, it started to itch with the undersigned. I had to be there!

OKTOBER 17 1993
Criss Oliva and his wife Dawn are on their way to the Livestock-festival in Zephyrhill, Florida in their Mazda RX7 when a drunk driver (Garth MacNamee, convicted to 5 years prison of which he only did 18 months) gets on the wrong side of the road and hits Criss' car frontaly. Criss perishes, Dawn is severly injured and it takes a long time for her to fully recover. Savatage looses one of its founders and the world a gifted guitarist; an event that almost means the end of the band, if it wasn't for the perseverance of Criss' brother Jon, main composer and singer/keyboard player of Savatage, who wants to remember his brother by continuing with Savatage.
   

 
OKTOBER 17 2003
After an almost 15 hours journey I'm on Curlew Road in Palm Harbor, at the entrance of the Curlew Memorial Gardens, Criss' last resting place. The lady who manages the burial ground has only worked here since a cople of weeks, but she knows exactly where I have to be. A gardener is busy patching up the grave, and has covered the plaquette on Criss' grave with a cardboard box to protect it from the rain.
Which is not quite necessary, with a clear sky and 28 degrees Celcius it doesn't look that it's going to rain. Before the grave is a tree with a marble memorial stone, given by the Savatage fans. Every now and then a car stops at the grave site. License plates from Virginia, Illinois and North Carolina; fans on their way to the concert in Tampa, paying a visit to Criss before.Because of the great demand for tickets the concert has been moved from the Green Parrot in Largo (for about 200 people), to the 30 kilometers further down the road Masquerade in Ybor City, the entertainment district of Tampa.

But the 1000 tickest for this show are quickly sold out. Fans from all over the world are present in The Masquerade. Six Dutch, some Swiss, Greek, Swedes and Canadians. The specially for this occasion made merchandise is in great demand. Besides T-shirts, stickers and posters, it's mainly the Avatar-DVD that is been sold out fast. On the DVD there's a 47 minutes gig on a parking lot in Clearwater (with songs like "Firestorm", "Sun Thor", "Mind Evasion", "Doctor Surprise"and "He's A Whore"), and a beautiful 25 minutes during ode to Criss, by means of pictures and fitting music an excellent image has been created of the guitarist. All proceeds of this homage will go to the CADD/Alcohol Free Kids Organization out of Criss' name.


THE CONCERT
Opening act of this evening is Streets, a Savatage-coverband. Troy Daniels, the tree-tall, bald frontman at first sight looks ominous, but his throath is impressive. Whenever Jon Oliva searches a successor he will be a good alternative. The venue is half filled at 8PM and response is lukewarm to the well played material. This evening I expect to meet many musicians from the Savatage history in the venue, but except Par Record's label boss Dan Johnson, I don't see them. Where are i.e. Keith Collins, Damond Jinya, Al Pitrelli, Jeff Plate or Jack Frost? Even composer/producer Paul O'Neill isn't to be found anywhere.

At nine Circle II Circle is on stage. Former Savatage singer Zak Stevens has been welcomed as a hero. The set consists of sheer material from their debut album. At the end of the gig the venue is as good as filled. Behind the scenes I meet a nervous Steve Wacholz. He will be on stage with Savatage for the first time in eight years. "Did you see that drumkit? Only two toms, while I normally have five to hit on. Really a minimum kit, like Ringo Star." Steve will regularly be called Ringo by me for the rest of the evening. His hands are covered with blisters. "We have been practicing 3 times a day, the past week",thus the drummer, who was part of it since the very beginning and nowadays has a business that produces hunting knives. Jon Oliva, the 'king' who's 'mountain' has continually taken on larger proportions, shortly before entering the stage makes a nervous expression. "I never practiced so much for a gig as now. You are going to witness a historical show, with songs we never played live before."


I almost walk by Johnny Lee Middleton. Short cut hair and a beard give him a totally different look. "I got sick and tired of the long hair", thus the bassist who will be touring with The Trans Siberian Orchestra West by the time you read this, while Jeff Plate and Al Pitrelli together will be touring with TSO East. Johnny was Criss' neighbour at the time of the accident. "I remember well standing on the look out for his return. When he didn't come home I thought he might have spent the night with friends. When his car still wasn't on the ramp the next day I began to worry. Later that day the police brought me the bad news. After that I could not live their any longer, it just hurt too much to keep looking at that empty ramp."


 

Former Crimson Glory keyboard player John Zahner will be on stage three times this evening. First with his current band Circle II Circle, later on with Savatage and the Jon Oliva Band. The Jon Oliva Band? Yes indeed, Jon in the meantime has recorded 5 songs of his solo project, and 6 songs are demoed roughly. "I did the singing as well as the bass, guitar, keyboard and drums. Only the guitar solo's were done by Matt LaPorte." This Circle II Circle guitarist will be playing tonight along with his band mates Zahner and Christopher Kinder (drums) with the solo project, completed with the, to me the unknown, bassist (with moustache, name me three other metalheads with a moustache!?). Jon hasn't signed a record deal yet, but he should be talking with Atlantic boss Jason Flom.


The Savatage- (read:Oliva-) gig exists of three parts tonight; the solo project, Doctor Butcher and eventually Savatage. Jon's keyboard is in front, in the middle of the stage. The audience attentively listens to the unknown material of the solo project. Jon Oliva introduces every song with a little chat. "My brother and I always played air guitar on our tennis rackets. Criss mainly went crazy when I put on Beatle songs, and jumped up and down the couch like a madmen with his racket. I had to think of that when composing this." And indeed "Hey Bulldog" has a heigh Beatle quality. The rest of the material is in the line of 'Streets'-ballads like "Somewhere In Time/Believe" and "Tonight He Grins Again/Strange Reality". The songs are full of emotion, give many goose flesh, and I haven't heard Jon as good vocal wise since the first Savatage gig in Noorderligt (Dutch venue/YK) on December 12, 1986.


With Chris Caffery as guitarist, and a specially for this night sought out rhytm section, three songs of Doctor Butcher are being played. Besides "Don't Talk To Me" and "Lost In The Dark" we get a medley in which pieces of "The Picture's Wild" and "The Altar" have been worked into. All high notes are being reached by Jon. He's in top form at the right moment. A great, yet much too short performance. An almost 40 minues break follows. In the venue I bump into the, except for the pony tail, bald shaved former Crimson Glory guitarist Ben Jackson. "I will start this month in Morrisound with the recordings of the Ben Jackson Band album. I think you will be stunned about the heaviness of the material." The clock is getting pretty close to midnight already, when the gentlemen Middleton, Wacholz, Oliva, Zahner and Caffery climb the stage. The many rehearsals bear fruit.

This "band for the occasion" plays better as ever before. Jon Oliva is grand, the emotion is dripping off, and Caffery knows to play Criss Oliva's guitar parts in a more than impressive way. As if Criss' spirit wanders around emphaticaly in the venue. The emphasis of the material is on "Streets", Oliva's favorite album. For "Edge Of Thorns" and "Temptation" Zak Stevens is allowed to enter the spotlights. After 90 minutes the party is over. A quick word on Jon's reaction, sitting in the corner of the dressing room. "This absolutely was the hardest show I ever did. I stood on stage for almost 3 hours. Especially during the 40 minutes break I had a hard time.

My vocal cords cooled down, and I absolutely had no idea whether or not I could give myself for the full 100% again after that. Therefore I started a little awkward with "Twisted Little Sister", but soon after things went as of old. I know for sure that we gave my brother a proper homage. What a night!" John Zahner is less tired than the heavy frontman, but this evening hasn't gone past him competely unnoticed either. "When we were playing the 'Streets' material I saw tears running down the face of Criss' widow Dawn in the second row. Well, then I couldn't keep it dry either. Indeed a very emotional night. In any case the best vocal performance I ever saw of Jon."


IMMORTAL IN SONG
The next morning there has been arranged a get together for those interested, in a breakfast restaurant near Criss' resting place. There is a lot of talking about the very special concert of the night before. The only one present of Savatage is John Zahner. After breakfast about 30 fans depart for the burial ground on Curlew. Flowers are being laid, tears are being brushed away, and poetry is being read. Like that of Savafan Peter Ley-Harris, entitled Immortal In Song:
 

Today is a day the Legions gather
To commemorate the birth of a legend.
A man who touched the hearts of many
In songs of now and then.

His music was a reflection
Of the passion that he breathed
He taught us how to rage, to cry.
To join our hands, and to believe.

His fingers danced across
The strings he set ablaze.
A story came to life
In each note that he played.

He carved a realm of mountain kings
And cities laid beneath.
We followed him through dungeons,
Gutters, thorns, and streets.

Yet through all the sonic wizardy,
Only a loyal few took notice
In a world where 'gimmick equals success'
Prevails over emotional ingenious.
.


It's in this dead world of corruption,
Filled with greed and dreams forsaken,
That false prophets roam in triumph
And from us, heroes taken.

That atumn morning night,
God embracde an angel early in the game.
The tears feel from all around
On an orchestra that wasn't the same.

The nightmare still haunts us now,
Questions left unanswered.
A warrior so filled with life,
A fate so undeserved.

Still the Legions they stand proud
For the spirit is immortal in song.
The legacy of Christopher Michael Oliva remains
Where the crowds are never gone


Afterwards I am invited by webmaster Kathy to come see her Criss Oliva collection. Most striking items are the flyers of Metropolis, the non Metropolis, and Tower (from 1977 and 1978, bands in which Criss played before Avatar), a metal pick Criss always used and a beautiful Charvel guitar (with Dawn's image and demon heads). The most beautiful item however is the letter of application that Criss Oliva wrote to Poison. Apparently, when Jon left Savatage after the 'Streets' tour, Criss seriously was thinking about quiting with Savatage. Ironically it is that his death on Oktober 17, 1993 is the main reason Savatage in 2003 still exists, and is even one of the leading metal bands on earth.