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Trans-Siberian Orchestra Likes Things Bigger, Better

Of the Oakland Press

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Most people have to wait until Christmas Day — or perhaps Christmas Eve — to play with their toys. But for Paul O’Neill and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, it’s a yearlong occupation.

The symphonic rock group, whose annual winter tours are the most successful holiday attractions in the country, enthusiastically subscribes to the philosophy that more is better — more lights, more sound, more pyrotechnics, more lasers, more special effects. And also more people. Last year, TSO — which has two companies criss-crossing North America for more than 10 weeks — played to more than a million fans, a 29 percent increase from 2005, and selling more than $40 million worth of tickets. O’Neill says this year’s target is between 1.3 million and 1.5 million.

And he’s confident TSO has added enough to its show to lure the additional holiday revelers.

“I think one of the reason the fans keep coming back year after year after year is to see what the new toys are, and we don’t want to let them down,” explains O’Neill, 51, a New York native who was the guitarist in the house band for “Hair” on Broadway 20 years ago and went on to produce two albums for Aerosmith and lead the band Savatage before launching TSO in the mid-’90s.

He fully acknowledges the influence of opulent ’70s productions by Pink Floyd, Queen, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and others on the TSO concept.

“We keep building the show bigger and big- ger and bigger and pushing the limits,” says O’Neill, who likes to refer to the stage as “the flight deck.” “It’s all cutting edge. We do things that a year ago were physically impossible.”

Among this year’s enhancements, O’Neill says, are more (and quieter) motors for the moving parts of the lighting rig, as well as stages at either end of the arena floor for “dueling pyro and laser” effects.

To achieve all this, TSO employs a squadron of technical experts in its New York offices, “engineers and science students who had planned to go into regular jobs, and we’re cutting them lose in the rock world,” O’Neill explains. “I tell them, ‘Don’t think one or two years ahead. Think decades ahead. I don’t want to hear about rockets and jets; I want to be hearing about transporter beams and warp drives.”

O’Neill speaks with pride about TSO shows blowing out the power at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., and taking down an entire section of Jackson, Miss., because of the electricity drain there. He also laughs about his production directors complaining that his stage ambitions are too big to fit in standard hockey and basketball arenas.

“They’re like, ‘Paul, it won’t fit through the loading ramp,’ ” O’Neill says. “I said, ‘Get an arc welder and cut it into pieces that will fit, and we’ll put it together on the other side ...’

“And then I get a call from the accountants; ‘Paul, you’re killing seats! You’re killing more seats.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, but it looks really cool ...’ ”

There’s a method to the madness behind the constant escalation of the TSO visual spectacle, however.

“The whole idea every year is to just give the audience more,” O’Neill notes. “I just think the band is slowly building a reputation of not letting the fans down. I don’t want to let them down — ever.

“I look at so many other shows, and as I see the ticket prices get higher and higher and higher, it seems like you see less money on the flight deck. The people that we’re ultimately answerable to, the people that really own the band, are the audience. The minute you forget that is when I think a band starts to decline.”

TSO has also given its fans more on the musical tip, too. It’s begun introducing special surprise guests at select shows, including veteran artists such as Joan Jett, Yes singer Jon Anderson and ELP’s Greg Lake. Their appearances are closely kept secrets, though — partly, O’Neill says, out of fear that winter travel logistics can interfere.

His primary goal now is to give fans more TSO music. The group has sold more than 5 million copies of its three holiday rock operas — 1996’s opera “Christmas Eve & Other Stories” (which spawned the hit single “Christmas Eve/ Sarajevo 12/24”), 1998’s “The Christmas Attic,” 2004’s “The Lost Christmas Eve” — and its lone secular outing, 2000’s “Beethoven’s Last Night.”

O’Neill has been talking about another non-Christmas album, “The Night Castle,” for several years. He’s cleared his schedule following this year’s TSO tour and says he’s “damned and determined” to finish and release it in 2008.

“The unfortunate thing is nobody believes me,” O’Neill says with a laugh. “Even my own manager doesn’t believe me. But I do want to turn it in this spring and have it out this summer.”

Once the album — a two-CD set that includes a rock opera about the Bolshevik Revolution — is finished, O’Neill says TSO will add a summer world tour to its annual schedule.

“We’re just so psyched about that, especially since eventually we’ll get outside, in the baseball stadiums,” O’Neill gushes. “I just feel like the show is so constrained by the pesky roofs, which limits the amount of pyro and special effects. Once we get outside, the sky’s the limit ... literally.”

Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs at 3 and 8 p.m. Wednesday (Dec. 26) at The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $49.50 and $39.50. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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