Holiday favorite Trans-Siberian Orchestra brings music, lasers and more

By Michael Hamersly, McClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI _ This holiday season, instead of watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” for the 20th time, why not start a new tradition that will stimulate all your senses? Go see the over-the-top musical spectacle Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which is even more grand than its name implies.
The arena-rock act, conceived and created in 1996 by longtime industry vet Paul O’Neill, features 24 singers, four guitarists, two drummers, keyboards and violin, plus enough lights, lasers and pyrotechnics to make Rush and Pink Floyd blush. TSO performs a variety of tracks from its five CDs, which are equally influenced by classical music, progressive rock and Christmas themes. The unique and lucrative mix has made TSO a Top 10 touring act every year over the past decade.
But for O’Neill, who at 55 shows no signs of losing his enthusiasm for his craft, success is never taken for granted.
“I was scared in 2008, and we sold more tickets then than in 2007,” says O’Neill, who worked for the management company Leber-Krebs that represented Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, AC/DC, The Scorpions and many more top bands. “I was petrified in 2009, and we were scared about this year and (management) was like, ‘Paul, do you want to park the aircraft carrier?’ because this year has been the worst year in history for rock touring. But I was like, ‘Nah!’ ‘Do you want to cut back production?’ ‘Nah!’ We’re keeping ticket prices between $25 and $60, so the kid who rakes your leaves or delivers your newspaper can afford tickets not only for himself, but for his girlfriend.”
If you’re a bit skeptical that neighborhood kids would be saving up for tickets to a TSO show, rather than seeing Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, the figures might surprise you.
“About five years ago, one of the promoters did a demographic breakdown,” says O’Neill. “And he said, ‘Paul, you’re not gonna believe your demos. … Your average age is 21.’ And I said that was impossible. And he goes, ‘Nope _ you’re like a “Lord of the Rings” movie.'”
So how does the Trans-Siberian Orchestra attract audiences from 8 to 80?
“Not to be overly philosophical, but humans are entitled to moments of pure joy or perfect nights,” he says. “And if you’re hitting speed bumps in life, when you’re at a TSO show, there are so many special effects, so many songs, that all the brain can do is absorb what’s being thrown at it. And while it’s busy doing that, you can’t worry about anything outside the arena.”
There’s also a certain youthfulness to the TSO mix _ which is in a constant state of flux to keep its members fresh _ that appeals to the teen set.
“One of the new members is a young lady from Great Britain named Georgia who was born in ’92 and who’s got a four-octave range,” O’Neill says, “and the other one is a young lady named Kayla from Texas, who has the best whiskey-dust voice I’ve heard on a female since Janis Joplin. She was born in ’93, and that was when we were putting TSO together, so it’s really weird. I’m busy putting the band together, and she’s busy being born. The kids bring this enthusiasm that’s infectious, and they don’t let the old-timers get jaded. It’s an interesting mixture.”
Sometimes the mixture gets even more interesting, depending on whether certain special guests show up.
“About seven years ago, we decided to bring back a tradition from the ’60s and the ’70s,” O’Neill says. “I grew up in New York City, and I’d go see George Harrison at the Garden, and Eric Clapton would come out unannounced to do the encore; I’d go see the Rolling Stones, and Billy Preston would come out unannounced. So we’ve had people who have inspired us or whom we admire to come out and do an encore. Over the years, we’ve had Roger Daltrey, Steven Tyler, Joan Jett _ it goes on and on.”
But for O’Neill, one of his shining moments was meeting Jon Anderson, singer for Yes.
“My first exposure to that band was (the 1971 album) ‘Fragile.’ It’s like, branded on my synapses. I mean, when the needle touched, and I heard the opening of ‘Roundabout,’ it just blew my mind. Because with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry _ you see how they came out of the blues. The Beatles and Rolling Stones, you see how they came out of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, plus the harmonies from the swing era. Yes was from another planet.”
O’Neill was thrilled when Anderson agreed to sing “Roundabout” at TSO encores over four shows in two days, but he was also stunned to learn that Yes’ first album had failed completely, in 1969.
“(Anderson) told me that he got a call from Atlantic Records: ‘Jon, I have some bad news for you _ America just says no,'” says O’Neill. “And he said, ‘What do we do?’ And they said, ‘What do you think you do? You go back in the studio and make another album.’ If that had been in 2009 as opposed to ’69, that would not have happened.”
O’Neill says he’s lucky Trans-Siberian Orchestra happened when it did, in 1996, before most of the record labels disappeared.
“When I started in the mid-’70s, there were over 45 major labels, and all of them had tons of money and tons of clout,” he says. “In 2009, there were only four. On paper, the whole (TSO) thing’s insane. But Atlantic wrote a blank check, and I feel like Indiana Jones in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when he pulled the hat out right before the door closes. Because I don’t think the label system would support such a wacky idea these days.
“Your average reader out there thinks bands like Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Queen were all hits out of the box. They weren’t,” he continues. “They were nurtured by the labels through artist development, and some of them didn’t hit till their fifth or sixth album.” If there weren’t labels who showed patience, “the hole in the legacy of rock ‘n’ roll would be the size of the Grand Canyon.
“After two albums, Columbia Records wanted to drop Bruce Springsteen. But their guy Tom Hammond said, ‘You drop this guy, you’ll regret it.’ Next album? ‘Born to Run.'”
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