Trans-Siberian Orchestra not what it may seem
A couple of years ago, Billboard magazine released a list of the 25 most successful touring artists of the last decade. Among a list that included the usual suspects, such as Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews Band and Cher, was one curious addition: Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
For the uninitiated, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) might sound like a classical outfit from Russia that tours the U.S. as some sort of cultural exchange.
Even when one learns the true identity of the band, a New York City-based progressive rock/metal group that has released more Christmas-themed material than anything else, many still are left wondering how this act has managed to rake in more than $200 million between 2000 and 2009.
Those who are wondering have obviously never seen TSO live.
If you fall within that unfortunate group, then consider Tuesday your shot at redemption as TSO comes to the Lowcountry for a performance of "Beethoven's Last Night" at the North Charleston Coliseum.
TSO is a tough act to categorize. You have elements of progressive rock and metal, as well as classical parts, especially in this show, one of only two by the band that is not Christmas-themed. TSO also incorporates healthy doses of Broadway and opera.
A TSO concert features plenty of rock music, but it isn't a straight-on rock concert. There is storytelling, emoting and acting by the performers, as well as plenty of stage fog, spectacular lighting and enough laser beams to make Dr. Evil jealous.
TSO was founded by New York native Paul O'Neill in 1993. In a phone interview with O'Neill last week, the musician, who also has worked in producing, promoting and songwriting, talked about his life, the ins and outs of TSO and what lies in store for TSO fans in the future.
One thing about O'Neill, the guy can talk. The moment we were connected, he was off and running, talking about the opening show of the "Beethoven's Last Night Tour 2012," which would kick off mere hours after our conversation.
"It's basically the third year of touring 'Beethoven's Last Night,' " O'Neill said, "but this is probably going to be the last year we tour this show. We're going to switch rock operas next year."
O'Neill also revealed that TSO is readying two new studio albums, "Gutter Ballet" and "Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper."
"Romanov" was supposed to be the first release by TSO in 1994, but the project was put on the back burner while the band instead released "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" in 1996, followed by four other well- received albums between 1998 and 2009.
Now it appears that "Romanov," a rock opera about the Bolshevik Revolution, will be the next TSO project, with the album finally seeing the light of day and a live tour to follow.
O'Neill got into music early on, playing in several bands before landing a job with Leber-Krebs Inc., a management company that helped launch the careers of acts such as Aerosmith, AC/DC and Joan Jett. Later he worked as a promoter, working with Madonna, Sting and Bon Jovi.
O'Neill eventually returned to his first love, this time producing and writing for the metal group Savatage.
It was O'Neill's work with Savatage that led to Atlantic giving him the means to create TSO.
"When the William Morris Agency heard the demos for 'Romanov,' they were talking Broadway rather than a rock album," O'Neill said.
"I said that I would need $20 million to produce the project. Owen (Laster, O'Neill's agent) got me $30 million, but he also got me something I really shouldn't have been able to get: total artistic control over everything," he said.
At that time, O'Neill had grand plans for staging live TSO shows, but he quickly found out that sometimes his vision overpowered even the biggest venues.
"I remember one time we were playing the Meadowlands outside of Manhattan," he recalled. "A few minutes into the show, the stage goes dark. A guy comes running over and says, 'Paul, don't freak, but we just tripped the main circuit breaker for the Meadowlands.'
"After that we carried two giant generators with us to give us the extra power. Later on, we were playing in Jackson, Mississippi, and a few minutes into the show, the stage goes dark. A guy comes running over, and I say, 'I know, I know, we tripped the main circuit breaker to the building. 'The guy said, 'Uh, Paul, you just tripped the circuit breaker for Jackson!' "
The prospect of touring Europe with TSO presented new challenges.
"Here in America and Canada we're really lucky because every city, no matter how small, has a great arena because hockey and basketball are national institutions," O'Neill said. "Europe is soccer-oriented, which is mostly outdoors. There were only about 10 venues that could support a full-on production of a TSO production."
O'Neill said that because of that, he learned to make the production adjustable to whatever size venue it might be playing.
"I was told that we could either concentrate on the 10 or so cities that could support the full production, or we could design the production system to breathe so it could shrink or grow to fit the venue, so we wouldn't have to bypass little cities in Europe that no one had ever heard of, like Rome," O'Neill said with a chuckle.
Indeed, once people have seen a TSO performance firsthand, they understand the need for those backup generators.
All of the amplifiers, speakers, lights, lasers and other equipment are almost overpowering, in a good way of course. It's a wonder that a TSO show doesn't cause at least a brownout in every market the band plays.
O'Neill's philosophy about producing the albums and shows and setting ticket prices is refreshing.
"I say spare no expense and time when recording the album, and spare no expense when planning the show, but then offer the lowest possible ticket price you can," he said.
"I grew up in New York City," O'Neill said. "I went to see The Who at Madison Square Garden (in the '70s), and it was $5. I went to see Led Zeppelin and it was $7.50.
"The last show I saw at the Garden, the floor seats were $3,000, the nosebleed seats were $300, and as I was watching the show I was wondering where the money was, because it sure wasn't on the stage."
O'Neill also was quick to acknowledge that money is tight these days for everyone, and that he tries to keep that in mind when setting ticket prices.
The highest price for tickets to Tuesday's show is $59.
With all that thought and care, it should come as no surprise that a lot went into creating the album and show of "Beethoven's Last Night."
"While Beethoven and Mozart were composers of what we call classical music, in their day they were rock stars," O'Neill said. "Mozart was the world's first rock star, but I was always in awe of Beethoven, because he was born to a poor family in Germany. And through his own perseverance by the time he was 21, he was recognized as the greatest piano player that had ever lived by the likes of Mozart.
"Back then, if Mozart tells you that you're the world's greatest piano player, that's it."
O'Neill went on to talk about the sadness and challenges that Beethoven struggled through in his life, including going deaf in his 20s.
"Beethoven's Last Night" tells the fictional story of Beethoven's last night on Earth, as the devil comes to collect his soul.
The devil, Mephistopheles, makes the composer an offer. He will allow Beethoven to keep his soul if the composer agrees to have the memory of his life's work erased from the minds of all mankind.
The show plays out Beethoven's thought process during the hour he is given to think it over.
O'Neill also was very excited about the release of "Beethoven's Last Night: The Complete Narrated Version."
"They're rereleasing 'Beethoven's Last Night' as I originally envisioned it, with all the poetry, and the narration by Bryan Hicks," O'Neill said.
The new version of the album, a two-CD set, arrives in stores the same day TSO plays in town.
O'Neill also advised that at the conclusion of "Beethoven's Last Night," TSO will play additional material from other albums for the second half of the show.
For those who don't know TSO, or don't think they do, they may be familiar with the choreographed Christmas light videos set up in a suburban front yard.
Well, one of them features TSO's "Wizards of Winter."
That clip (http://tinyurl.com/gst5r) has been viewed more than 10 million times, and certainly has been responsible for turning more than a few people on to the group's music.
"That took everyone, including me, by surprise," said O'Neill, who said he loves trying to pick out the folks in the audience who are experiencing TSO live for the first time.
"Honestly, it's my favorite part of the show. You can always tell who the rookies are, especially as the show has gotten bigger and bigger."