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Need spectacle? Try Trans-Siberian Orchestra

“The only way to describe Trans-Siberian Orchestra is ‘Phantom of the Opera’ meets the Who, with Pink Floyd’s light show,” says lyricist/composer/producer Paul O’Neill.
/ Source: Billboard

It’s easy to spot Trans-Siberian Orchestra musical director/guitarist Al Pitrelli backstage after the band’s late-November concert at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. He’s the one wearing a bulky knee brace and hopping around on metal crutches.

Earlier in the evening, Pitrelli — a seasoned guitarist who has also toured with Alice Cooper and Megadeth — had to sit onstage during the symphonic rock band’s nearly three-hour Christmas-themed show. Dressed in a black coat, a white-collared shirt and black slacks, the long-haired musician was “a little overconfident” during the band’s tour-opening concert Nov. 1, according to Paul O’Neill, the wizard behind the curtain of TSO’s rock operas and effects-filled shows.

“He took a huge jump from stage left onto the main deck, locked his knees and tore his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) right off,” O’Neill says.

Pitrelli remembers it differently. “The true story is that I didn’t want to do one of O’Neill’s arrangements, so he came up and kneecapped me,” he jokes.

O’Neill attempted to hire a temporary replacement guitarist, but Pitrelli wouldn’t have it. “He said, ‘Paul, I’ll leave the tour when I’m dead,’” O’Neill says.

Avid following
Pitrelli and O’Neill have been friends for 25 years. During the past decade, they’ve watched TSO grow from theater gigs to a reliable fixture on Billboard’s yearly list of the 25 highest-grossing tours. In 2007, the act ranked 15th among Billboard’s most profitable tours, grossing $49.3 million and drawing more than 1.1 million people to 128 concerts reported to Billboard Boxscore. This year, the group will rank 12th with $47.3 million in grosses from 120 shows.

TSO’s albums have collectively sold 6.7 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The act has charted five albums on the Billboard 200, and it has racked up three top 10 sets on the Top Pop Catalog list, with two of those hitting No. 1 (“Christmas Eve and Other Stories” and “The Lost Christmas Eve”).

This success is all the more impressive considering that TSO defies categorization.

“The only way to describe Trans-Siberian Orchestra is ‘Phantom of the Opera’ meets the Who, with Pink Floyd’s light show,” says lyricist/composer/producer O’Neill, who founded the group more than 10 years ago with creative partners Robert Kinkel and Jon Oliva. “This thing has grown so fast and taken off beyond our wildest expectations.”

Before they joined forces in TSO, the three musicians were involved with the heavy metal group Savatage, which signed with Atlantic Records in 1983 and released such albums as “Hall of the Mountain King” and “Streets: A Rock Opera.” (O’Neill wasn’t an official member of Savatage, but he produced and wrote much of the music and lyrics.) It was an obscure cut from the band’s 1995 album “Dead Winter Dead” — a rock opera about the Balkan War — that led to the creation of TSO.

Former Atlantic executive Jason Flom (now president of Lava Records) says that Savatage was on its last legs at the label when the band delivered “Dead Winter Dead.”

The album received little notice. But the band’s situation changed in December 1996 when Flom received a phone call from the band’s attorney, who told him that the influential radio station WPLJ New York was going to add an obscure instrumental cut from the album called “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24).”

After WPLJ program director Scott Shannon read part of the album’s liner notes on-air, “the phones melted down and every store in New York sold out of the record,” Flom says. By January, other stations around the country had caught wind of the song, and “we had sold an additional 45,000 units,” he says.

After thinking about the success of traditional Christmas act Mannheim Steamroller, Flom asked O’Neill if he would be interested in writing a whole album of symphonic rock songs about Christmas.

“People loved the song, but they hated Savatage,” Flom says. A couple of weeks after Flom’s suggestions, O’Neill came back and said, “What do you think about the name Trans-Siberian Orchestra?” Flom recalls. “I said, ‘What do I know? I’m Jewish.’”

Pulling out all the stopsTSO’s live shows have won lifelong fans. The act’s over-the-top stage production features a string section, a rock band with more than 20 members, multiple vocalists, a narrator, pyrotechnics, a laser/light show and snowfall in the course of a two-hour-and-45-minute show. Past concerts have featured guest vocals from Roger Daltrey, Paul Rodgers, Greg Lake and Jon Anderson.

To help keep concertgoers coming back each year, the group prices its tickets from $20 to $60 and never sells seats with obstructed views of the stage.

The band’s forthcoming non-Christmas album, “Nightcastle,” will be its first new studio material since 2004’s “The Lost Christmas Eve.” With a minimum of two studio recording sessions going simultaneously, O’Neill has been working on “Nightcastle” for several years now. He promises that “it will be out next year, no matter what.” The crucial question is whether it will be a “single CD, a double-CD or a triple-CD,” he says, “but we want to keep it at a single-CD price.”

O’Neill declines to reveal details about the album’s storyline, but he says that “it will be half rock opera and half a regular record, with a booklet of poetry and illustrations” by artist Greg Hildebrandt. Pitrelli says “Nightcastle” would have been completed a year sooner if the album’s writing team hadn’t recently discovered singers Jeff Scott Soto and Tim Hockenberry.

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“We couldn’t have this record coming out without these guys on it,” Pitrelli says, noting that many of the songs had to be rewritten for their vocal parts. “Paul is the kind of person that will take as long as is needed to finish a record.”

O’Neill plans to keep touring TSO during future holiday seasons, but he says, “The Christmas albums are done ... for the immediate future.” In 2010, after the release of “Nightcastle,” the band will tour 60 theaters in North America.

For the Christmas spectaculars, however, O’Neill has a dream of touring baseball stadiums. “The reason I love baseball stadiums is because there’s no limit on the production,” he says. “The fans don’t care if you have a new Maserati or a new house in Tahiti, but the fans do care if there are new toys on the flight deck.”