By L. Kent Wolgamott
---- — The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is back on the road doing its holiday concerts this fall — with a stop Saturday in at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H.
It’s no surprise that the group is back, considering the tour has been a major success each year ever since the combination rock band/orchestra took its Christmas show on the road in 1999.
But this year’s concert will be a decidedly new experience for fans. After years of making the 1996 album “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” the centerpiece of the show, TSO founder, leader and composer Paul O’Neill knew it was time for a change — not just for freshness, but because of the story he had to tell.
“We decided this year to switch to ‘The Last Christmas Eve’ (the third album in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra trilogy of holiday CDs) because I thought it would resonate better,” said O’Neill. “When I wrote it in 2004, I didn’t know how well it would fit after the crash of 2008.”
The main character in “The Lost Christmas Eve” is a billionaire banker, who 40 years earlier, had abandoned his infant son because the boy wasn’t born healthy. Rich but miserable, he bumps into a small child who asks him if he has kids, triggering waves of regret and starting him on a search for the now-grown baby he had turned over to the state years before.
After interventions by an angel and a search that leads him to a hospital where crack babies are cared for and a single-room occupancy building in the Bronx, the man finds his son and discovers that, while relatively poor, his son was happy and why.
“Little by little, he makes a transition, finds the miracle and the meaning, and there’s a happy ending,” O’Neill said. “Because, like all of my shows, if you want sad, read the newspaper. There’s too much Frank Capra in me.”
“The Lost Christmas Eve” will make up the first set of the evening with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. In the second set, the band will perform a mix of songs from its other albums, with, of course, a Christmas emphasis.
The entire Trans-Siberian Orchestra 80-plus member troupe splits into two groups for the Christmas tour, allowing the production to play two cities a night through the holiday season. The shows, O’Neill says, are identical and top-flight, with elaborate shows that incorporate lights, lasers, fog, pyrotechnics — in O’Neill’s words, “anything that fits.”
While he’s not a big fan of the changes the digital revolution has brought to the record industry, O’Neill admits that TSO’s acclaimed live shows are better because of computers.
“There are 30,000 lighting changes in the show, some of them coming in seconds,” he said. “We couldn’t do that without computers. Sometimes I’m surprised we can do them with computers. But we do. We want to have the top production out there. We spare no expenses to do that.”
That said, O’Neill’s philosophy has always been to keeps its ticket prices low. On the 2012 winter tour, tickets, he said, will range from $25 to $75 to see the lavish production, far less than the going rate for similar concerts.
“What’s the point of having the greatest rock production in the world if only corporations, the wealthy or the insiders are going to see it?,” O’Neill asked. “I want it so the kid that’s raking the leaves has the same chance of getting tickets as Bill Gates.”
Those who buy online tickets for “The Last Christmas Eve” show will also get a digital download of “Dreams of Fireflies (On a Christmas Night),” a five-song EP TSO released on Oct. 30.
“It was our way of saying thank you to the fans,” O’Neill said. “In the stores or online, it’s $5 or less if you buy it. That’s less than the minimum wage. That’s painless. It’s a little gem anybody can afford.”
O’Neill put together Trans-Siberian Orchestra in the mid-’90s. Over the years, dozens of vocalists, guitarists, bassists, drummers, keyboard players and violinists have been part of the group. The group has turned out to be a great training ground for musical talent.
“This is our 14th year of touring,” he said. “One of the rewarding things for me to see is to watch some of these kids — and they’ve been kids — blossom and grow as great musicians. Sometimes they stay for years, sometimes they move on. But we see them grow, we see them come together. That’s what makes this something special, something different than most bands.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra is indeed something different as O’Neill combines elements of classical, orchestral and even a little bit of Broadway into its hard-rock based music. The shorthand label that gets attached to TSO’s music is progressive rock. That’s just fine with O’Neill.
“Progressive rock is the ultimate form of music,” O’Neill said. “Progressive rock has no limits. It’s built into the name. Trans-Siberian Orchestra was built to live and breathe and creatively bring in new members and new sounds. That was back in the ’90s. It’s even more important now. You can’t let it die.”
That said, O’Neill realizes that he’s pulled off a never-to-be repeated success with TSO.
“Trans-Siberian Orchestra had two mind-bogglingly lucky breaks I wasn’t aware of at the time,” he said. “I think we were the last band to have old-fashioned blank check artistic development. We put out our first record in 1996. It didn’t sell in 1997. But we got to put out another record in 1998. In 1999, we started to tour and things started to take off. Today, we’d never get to make that second record. If TSO came out in 2006 rather than 1996, I know we would have been dropped.
“Then we were able to do what we wanted with our live show. We’re the first band never to have an opening and the first band to never be an opening act. That won’t ever happen again either.”
Trans-Siberian Orchestra has now sold millions of albums and even more concert tickets. That’s allowed O’Neill some indulgences, like collecting letters written by historical figures from George Washington and Winston Churchill to his favorite Oscar Wilde and Ludwig van Beethoven.
The latter has provided inspiration for O’Neill in his compositions. “When I’m holding a letter that Beethoven wrote, in a sense I feel connected with him, you kind of feel like he’s in the room,” he said. But O’Neill’s connections are contemporary as well. He’s become friends with Greg Lake, guitarist of King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a man he calls “the father and philosopher of progressive rock,” and been joined on stage by the likes of Jon Anderson (formerly of Yes), The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joan Jett.
“That shows how music brings us together,” he said. “In this time when everything is becoming more isolated, more alone, more spending time the computer or playing World of Warcraft and communicating that way, live music is even more important because it gets people together.
“There’s something about human beings being with other human beings. To hear a great vocal performance, to hear a great guitar solo, it’s inspiring and it connects us,” O’Neill said. “If you’re in a theater or an arena, you’re part of the experience for the person next to you, the person behind you. It’s something we need. We all need a connection to each other, a real connection and you can’t do that on the Internet.”
Trans-Siberian Orchestra : When: Nov. 24, 3 and 8 p.m. : Where: Verizon Wireless Arena, 555 Elm St., Manchester, N.H. : Tickets: $68.50, $58.50, $42.50, $32 : Info: 603-868-7300 (Ticketmaster) or www.verizonwirelessarena.com/