Paul O’Neill knows that times are tough.
The leader and founder of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra does not take for granted that his enormously successful rock ’n’ roll franchise will make the short list of fans’ expenditures in these difficult economic times. But O’Neill still ratchets up the spending and production for the troupe’s annual holiday tours, and he still keeps ticket prices at a level his managers and accountants deem ... let’s just say less than they should be.
“Y’know, we’re not bread, butter, heating oil ... ,” acknowledges O’Neill, 53, who put TSO together in the mid-’90s as an outgrowth of his work with the hard/progressive rock band Savatage. “But human beings, besides food, shelter, warmth, need moments of joy, and if not moments of joy, then just moments without stress.
And the TSO concert is just so over-the-top. I don’t care what’s going on in your personal life, for those three hours, with all the pyro effects, the lighting effects, your brain won’t be able to think of anything else, and the stress chemicals will stop running through your body.
“So it’s a chance to recharge the mind and the body, and I’ve always made sure we’ve kept it priced so that anybody and any family could afford to come see these shows.”
There’s no question that it works. Over nearly 15 years, TSO has established itself not only as a musical act but also as a brand and a mark of a certain kind of quality in the popular music world, selling more than seven million copies of its first four albums — including the holiday-themed rock operas “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” (1996), “The Christmas Attic” (1998) and “The Lost Christmas Eve” (2004) — and operating a live performance machine that supports two touring companies.
In 2008, TSO drew more than 1.2 million fans who bought more than $47.3 million worth of tickets in a little over two months. During the past decade, TSO ranked 25th among all acts, playing 728 shows for more than 5 million fans, netting $203.6 million at the box office.
And then there was that crazy beer ad with the insanely decorated Christmas house in Carson, Ohio, whose lights were synced to TSO’s “Wizards in Winter.”
“I always wanted to do something that was greater than just another rock band that puts out an album every year and then goes on tour,” explains the New York-born O’Neill, who’s also a veteran of Broadway pit bands for “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair.” “I looked at the bands that made an impact on me — the Who, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Beatles, too, of course — and there was a grandiosity and a greatness to them that went beyond just their music.
“And I wanted to do something that created a sense of ... community, that people made part of their lives. That sounds a little pompous, I know, but I wanted this to be important.”
TSO has also launched a number of philanthropic initiatives, donating thousands of dollars to organizations such as Toys For Tots, the Salvation Army and Little Kids Rock. This week the troupe pledged $10,000 to help four people displaced by a fire at their apartment complex in Greensboro, N.C.
O’Neill does not want TSO to survive by Christmas alone, however. This year the group released “Night Castle,” another rock opera that, like “Beethoven’s Last Night” in 2000, sidesteps the holiday thematics in favor of a broad-ranging parable about war, peace and compassion that starts in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and winds up at a California beach house, with stops in Europe and Cambodia in-between.
The album was five years in the making, and O’Neill — who distributed the “Night Castle” track “Night Enchanted” via Amazon.com “just to show people that we really did have something new coming” — confesses that he labored over the collection “for so long it’s embarrassing.” But he says the effort was worth it.
“We were dedicated to making something really special,” he explains. “And each time we thought we were finished, it just wasn’t good enough, so we’d go back and tweak and re-write and re-record. The longer that took, the more pressure we felt to get it right. It just kind of snowballed ... ”
“We finally got it right, I think,” says O’Neill. “We’re very proud of it. We just hope everyone thinks it was worth the wait.”
“Night Castle,” which also features a version of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tchaikovsky-inspired “Nutrocker” with the group’s Greg Lake on bass, signals the next phase of TSO. O’Neill rattles off a list of multimedia projects ranging from a “Night Castle” tour to a series of Broadway shows and films, both live-action and animated, that he hopes to start rolling out in short order — even if his perfectionist pace makes some skeptical.
“We spend a lot of time planning,” O’Neill notes with a laugh, “and people are always telling me, ‘Paul, stop writing and start recording!’ It’s working out great, though. I feel lucky that it’s gone this long and that we get to do what we love for a living.
“The arts have incredible power, and with that comes incredible responsibility. Someone once said that if you want to change the world, don’t become a politician — write a book, write a great song. I believe in that, and that’s what Trans-Siberian Orchestra is about.”
Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 27) at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $25-$59.50. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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