For the Trans-Siberian Orchestra it's been 15 years now that it's been delivering a unique guitar-driven prog rock-infused holiday experience that melds elements of traditional seasonal classics with classical music, classic rock 'n' roll favorites and original material for a show that is truly unique. Lights, lasers and pyro form an essential component of the show and the band's motto is to "fog it, light it, blow it up — just don't let the audience get bored."
Paul O'Neill, the man at the center of the operation, works tirelessly to make sure that boredom never seeps in when Trans-Siberian Orchestra is performing. He calls the 15-year run something that has been "surrealistic" for all involved.
"It honestly doesn't seem like 15 years — it went by in a blink of an eye," he says. "But the evidence is there all around me, because when we first started touring in '99, members who were teenagers are now in their thirties. The teenagers in the band now weren't born when we started the band."
The audience has grown older too in the time that TSO has been on the road. Fans who were teenagers when they first saw the initial tour are now coming back to see the show, bringing their children along for the ride. Each gig offers a unique gateway into the rock 'n' roll world that provides a six string-powered musical education for the kids, and it's specifically engineered that way on purpose. For O'Neill, it's extremely important for the program to resonate with all in attendance, regardless of age.
"Our audience is literally seven to 77 [years old] and you know, the adults, they love a lot of the poignant moments," he says. "But if you're a 10-year-old kid, you want to go right to the action with the pyro and everything else. It's kind of like when I was a kid. You'd go see a John Wayne movie and you don't want to see John kissing Maureen O'Hara; you want to see John Wayne stopping the bank robbers!"
The creatively restless maestro knows a thing or two about putting on a good show, knowledge that he developed at the arena level as a teenage music fan while witnessing some of rock 'n' roll's greatest bands performing live. He recalls growing up in New York City and seeing the Who for the first time — an experience that cost him $5.
Led Zeppelin tickets were a little bit more expensive at $7.50, and O'Neill remembers debating the merits of the ticket price, asking his friends, "How do they justify this?" The members of Zeppelin would answer that question with a show that left a lasting impact. In the years that followed, concert ticket prices would continue to rise, but as O'Neill explains it, there were crucial pieces of the puzzle that had gone missing, which he sought to bring back with TSO.
"It seems that the production has gotten smaller as ticket prices have gotten higher and to me that doesn't make any sense." TSO tickets are strategically priced between $25 and $75 to ensure an entertainment option that will be affordable, and they're not cutting any corners as a result of the discount.
"At this point, the band just goes 365 days a year," he says. "It's 30 tractor-trailers at this point, and god knows how many tour buses and planes. Even as this show is going out, there's a bunch of people working on next spring and next summer's stage sets. Every year, we destroy the sets, which forces us to come up with new ones. Because you don't have it in the back of your mind, 'Well, if push comes to shove, we could just use last year's set.'"
It's something that knocks rock veterans back on their heels a bit when they see the show for the first time. O'Neill recalls welcoming Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake and Palmer for a series of guest appearances and after witnessing the performances each evening, Lake remarked incredulously, "Paul, what are you going to do with the next show to beat these shows?"
It was a question that O'Neill himself didn't have an answer for at that moment, but as you converse with him, you can easily tell that he's always thinking towards the next round, continually envisioning and examining the possibilities.
"We just constantly keep changing and morphing," he says. "I think it's healthy for the band, because it keeps us on our toes. I also think it's great for the audience, because every time that somebody thinks they know what's going to happen, we make a 90-degree turn at 180 miles an hour. But once we make it, you can't imagine going anywhere else."
If O'Neill could change one thing, it would probably be to add a few more hours into each day or perhaps even more weeks in a month. There's that much demand for the TSO experience.
"Our single biggest problem honestly is time," says O'Neill. "Because North America wants its tours, Europe wants its tours. Asia is asking for its tour. The labels want their new albums, and TSO is not [a group with] two guitars, drums, bass and a singer. These albums are complicated productions as are the tours. We're just really lucky — we're the first band to have over 80 members, but in reality we have over 400 members, because there's over 340 people in the crew.
"A lot of people don't appreciate how key they are to us," he continues. "In the band, they are considered band members from multiple levels. Because when kids come on, I always give them the TSO rules: The fans own the band and it's our job to spare no expense, time or money to make the best albums and concerts."
Although the shows this season are being billed as the last opportunity for people to see 2004's The Lost Christmas Eve performed live, the veteran composer drops hints that in the grand tradition of farewell tours, this isn't necessarily goodbye.
"[It] doesn't go away forever, it just goes on the library shelf," he says.
Fans will get the chance to experience one more "lost" Christmas Eve for now, but rest assured, the wheels will continue to turn at full speed when 2014 comes around. European shows will kick off the New Year for TSO beginning in January and another 365 days of nonstop activity will unfold.
It will be December again before he knows it.