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- Jason McEachern
In its nineteen-year history, TSO has played more than 1,600 shows for more than 11 million fans, officially making it one of the world's biggest arena-rock acts. For the past several years, the band's winter tours have consistently ranked in the Top 10 for attendance and grosses; back in 2009, Billboard called it one of the "Top Touring Artists of the Decade." Last year's 2014 Winter Tour grossed more than $51 million in 52 days; it played to nearly 1 million fans.
This year's Ghosts of Christmas Eve production will hit 60 cities across North America to perform 100 shows. Based on TSO's multi-platinum DVD and long-running PBS fundraiser, the concert follows the journey of a young runaway who, on Christmas Eve, breaks into an abandoned vaudeville theater seeking shelter from the cold. She then experiences "ghostly visions" from that concert hall's past. The band will also play past hits such as "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24," "O' Come All Ye Faithful," "Good King Joy," "Christmas Canon," "Music Box Blues," "Promises to Keep" and "This Christmas Day" during the two-hour concert.
"Some of the vocals and instrumentals from the new album are amazing," says Pitrelli. In this new production, "The film from the original TV special is part of the backdrop, and when you see that, you feel like you're in the old 19th-century theater where we filmed that first special."
The current show also features a new high-definition video screen that's about the size of half a football field. The production involves 40 trucks, 20 buses, 240 touring personnel, 276 local stagehands per date, 256 rigging points, 256 one-ton motors, 1,248 intelligent lighting fixtures, 36 full color lasers including audience scanners, 6,352 video panels, 1,552 pyrotechnic effects, 596 flame/fire modules, 112 speaker boxes and four mixing boards (the boards alone cost a million bucks).
As a dress rehearsal of the current show commences, O'Neill arrives onstage, black guitar strapped across his chest. He unleashes one meaty riff after another while a tender Christmas tune featuring children singing plays over the house PA. Huge flames shoot from the rear of the stage as a crew of sound guys hovers over mixing boards and computers, adjusting the sound levels and positioning the tresses near the arena's roof.
"Freebird!" yells one roadie, causing O'Neill to break into a smile. And when the crew cranks up the pyro, O'Neill responds favorably. "Fuck, yeah!" he screams.
As the show begins, a cadre of backing singers belt out the operatic "Time and Distance" as the stage's ginormous video screens project the image of an animated rendition of a castle that looks like it was taken from a video game. It's the kind of trippy imagery that's often only seen in today's EDM concerts.
It's not long before the pyro kicks in, making the stage look like an oversized outdoor fireplace. Soon, crisp blue and white lasers flicker through the arena as the band launches into the power ballad "Lost Christmas Eve." The video screens flicker with old news reports and white noise as the band sinks its teeth into "Christmas Eve Sarajevo," TSO's signature tune that finds the group guitarists standing side-by-side at the front of the stage, guitars hoisted high over their heads for the song's climactic crescendo.
Sitting back in his dressing room, O'Neill describes TSO as "an ideal and an idea." He says he wants to continue to "break down the wall" between band and audience and envisions that, at some point, the show will populate two stages on the arena floor connected by a catwalk for what he calls "end-to-end arena rock." Performers will sing and play in unison — "no matter where you turn, you're surrounded by the music."
He's not sure if that sort of setup will work in venues where the stages can only be situated on one side of the floor, but he comes off as the kind of guy who doesn't take "no" for an answer. You get the sense that he'll find a way to make it work.
Saltzman agrees that the game plan remains to keep getting bigger and better.
"TSO is all about walking out of the show and saying, 'That's the best show I've ever seen,'" he says. "The firepower we have out there is unparalleled. We spend in the millions of dollars for lighting and pyro. For us, it's full blown. It's a risk, though not so much now that we have a dedicated fan base. But these are lighting and pyro effects that people have never seen before. You will never see this many lasers in your life. At one point, it looks like the whole stage is morphing and coming off its tracks and moving toward you. It's an onslaught. It's visual and sensual experiences you've never had before. It's like putting on a new dress."
The fact that TSO has become such a huge production means that it has outlived O'Neill's initial expectations.
"We hoped it would do OK," he admits. "When the first album came out in 1996, it didn't sell, but then Aerosmith wasn't a hit out of the box, either. But I wouldn't ever want to change this, even though it threw off the whole rhythm of our whole lives. Because of how popular the Christmas rock operas are, no matter what we were doing, come October, we have to stop and build these monstrous systems.
"I want people to experience emotions they've never felt before. I realize if I can change a key and make a song one-tenth of one percent better, I will. Simply singing isn't acceptable in TSO. The singers need to become the characters."
Saltzman concurs as he watches a dress rehearsal of the 140-minute show come to an end.
"This passes the shiver test," he says emphatically, pointing at the stage. "If you get the shivers from the singing and then the shivers from watching the production, it's the double shivers. And if you have that, then you have the audience in the palm of your hand."
Trans-Siberian Orchestra: The Ghosts of Christmas Eve
3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, December 27, at the Scottrade Center. Tickets are $36 to $72. Visit www.trans-siberian.com for more information.