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Trans-Siberian Orchestra Keeps Christmas Spirit On The Road

Of the Oakland Press

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Count Paul O’Neill among those who can’t get too much of Christmas. Of course, he has a vested interest second only, perhaps, to Santa Claus.

O’Neill is the founder and chief creative force of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a rock ensemble that’s ridden the double-platinum success of the 1996 rock opera “Christmas Eve & Other Stories” into perhaps the most formidable holiday entertainment franchise, on record and on the road.

And as far as O’Neill is concerned, it only gets bigger and better each year.

“Yeah, we’ve added another four tractor-trailers of lights and special effects,” says O’Neill, 50, 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. “We blatantly have the biggest rock show in the world on tour. Last year we spent $1.2 million on explosives alone in just seven weeks; this year we’re obviously going to beat that.

“There’s a lot of bands that have as many trucks as we do, but they’ll have living rooms in them, basketball courts. TSO trucks are packed top-to-bottom with nothing but pure firepower — no amenities. It’s a rock ’n’ roll fi ghting ship.”

And it’s one with a winning record. With two companies on the road in different parts of the country, TSO’s 2005 tour drew 775,000 people — up 40 percent from 2004 and the No. 1 holiday tour in the United States, according to the trade magazine PollStar. This year’s goal, O’Neill says, is 900,000.

Since 1999, meanwhile, the troupe has played for more than two million fans, grossing more than $80 million (with $1 from each ticket donated to charity).

TSO has been similarly successful on record, selling more than 4.5 million copies of “Christmas Eve ...” and its successors — 1998’s “The Christmas Attic,” 2004’s “The Lost Christmas Eve” and “The Ghost of Christmas Eve” DVD.

TSO received an extra boost last year when Carson Williams, an electrical engineer in Mason, Ohio, set up a fantastical Christmas light display at his home that was sequenced to “Wizards in Winter” from “The Lost Christmas Eve.” The Miller Brewing Company used footage of the spectacle in a commercial, and O’Neill wholly embraced these uses of his music.

“He thought we would send him a cease and desist order,” O’Neill says with a laugh. “I just said, ‘I think it’s amazing. I’m going to send you $5,000 to buy more lights so you can make it even cooler next year’.”

TSO’s own plans for the future are actually outside of the Christmas domain. O’Neill and company have done one nonholiday album, “Beethoven’s Last Night” in 2000, and they’re overdue with their next — “The Night Castle,” another rock opera that’s taking longer to complete than O’Neill would like.

“I feel massive guilt that ‘The Night Castle’ is so late,” he acknowledges. “We just want it to be perfect. I’d rather be late and as good as we can get it than on time and saying, ‘Damn, we should’ve done this better and that better ...’”

Nevertheless, O’Neill — who’s building a studio in Orlando, Fla., to fi nish the album — says TSO fans may well hear some of the new songs in this year’s holiday shows.

“Absolutely, we can’t help it,” he explains. “I think it annoys the record company a little bit, but we’ve got these new songs and we’ve gotta try ’em out.”

Once “The Night Castle” is out, O’Neill envisions a TSO summer tour to complement the well-established holiday trek. But he promises that, too, will adhere to the bombastic standards TSO operates under all year long.

“We’re trying to build a Pink Floydlike reputation and give the audience an experience they won’t forget,” O’Neill says. “It’s harder to do than when I was younger and you had four, maybe fi ve TV stations and Monopoly and the pinball machine at the local pizza parlor to entertain you. Now, with computers and everything, people demand more input per 60 seconds to get a rush.

“So that’s our challenge. We want anybody who comes to the show, no matter how old or young they are, to leave thinking that they got more than their money’s worth and had the time of their lives.”

Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs at 8 p.m. Friday (December 8th) at The Palace, Lapeer Road at Interstate 75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $39.50-$49.50. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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