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A merry metal Christmas with Trans-Siberian Orchestra

For rock promoter Paul O’Neill, the enduring holiday spectacle that is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is evolving. “Every year,” he says, “we try to make the band bigger and better.”

Photo by James Minchen

For rock promoter Paul O’Neill, the enduring holiday spectacle that is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is evolving. “Every year,” he says, “we try to make the band bigger and better.”

Take a light show worthy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, mix in the drama of a Broadway production and score it to the thrashing guitars of an AC/DC head-banging fest. Then wrap it all up in a big Christmas bow.

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra doesn't just play a concert; it stages a hellzapoppin' conglomeration.

TSO got its start in 1996, when rock promoter and manager Paul O'Neill approached Tampa Bay area heavy metal band Savatage with the idea of creating a sound that would bridge the divide between progressive rock and classic symphony.

"Basically, it's my fantasy band," O'Neill says.

TSO's debut release, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, sold more than 2-million albums and helped it carve out an unexpected niche as a holiday act that packs in fans from age 7 to 70.

Equal parts The Who and Charles Dickens, TSO tours nowadays as two separate bands — each charged with hitting half the country to meet the demand of playing 90-plus cities in only 10 weeks.

Now making a part-time home in the Orlando suburbs, O'Neill returns to the bay area with TSO, playing Friday at the St. Pete Times Forum. Still the composer and lyricist behind the band, O'Neill chatted this week with tampabay.com about the band's local origins, its unexpected fame on YouTube and the long-awaited arrival of a new album.

TSO got started when you recruited the members of a local rock group. What attracted you to them?

"Savatage was a super hard heavy metal band, borderline thrash. I flew down and saw them at the Ritz Theatre in Ybor City. Jon Oliva's voice blew me away. I knew they were better than thrash metal, and I wanted to take them into the world of progressive rock. More of the band has come from a 50-mile radius around Tampa than we ever could have imagined. Florida has become the band's second home."

You have such a huge contingent of musicians and singers with the band. How do you go about picking them?

"Every year, we audition over 2,000 people, which then gets narrowed down to about 200 DVDs that I look at and 20 singers that I see personally. The cast never turns over — we just add. Bringing in the new blood is just great. Every year, we try to make the band bigger and better."

For those who have seen TSO before, how does this year's tour compare?

"It's twice as big this year. Last year, we were spending $1-million every four weeks on explosives; this year we're spending $2-million every four weeks. You take the next five biggest bands — U2, Springsteen, etc. — you combine their shows together and we're still way bigger with way more firepower on the flight deck."

You've been working on your next album Nightcastle for a few years now. Will we see it in 2009?

"It should be out next summer. . . . At this point it looks like it's going to be a double CD, one-half rock opera, one-half regular album, with a 50- to 100-page booklet. We'd rather it be late and done to the best of our ability."

Where did the idea come to break the band in two for touring?

"The first year we toured in 1999, it sold out so quickly. Our agent wanted us to start in October and end in February. It just didn't feel right to me. It's a Wonderful Life is a great movie whenever you see it, but if you see it in November or December, it has more magic. We realized that since the band had 70 members, you could cut the band in half and still be five times bigger than your average band, and everyone could see us in the optimal time."

TSO has really gravitated toward Christmas themes over the years. Why is that?

"When you have a band with four guitarists and 24 singers and two drummers, you need subjects larger than life. You write a regular album, you're competing with the best of your generation. You write anything about Christmas, you're competing with the best of the last 2,000 years."

YouTube.com is full of videos now of homeowners synchronizing their holiday lights to TSO songs. Was that a shock?

"That blind sided us. We didn't see that coming. God bless them. They're out of their minds, and I love them all."

If You Go

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Friday, 8 p.m., St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa. Tickets $37.75 and $47.75.

A merry metal Christmas with Trans-Siberian Orchestra 11/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 13, 2008 10:57am]
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