If you’re not quite sure you know the Trans-Siberian Orchestra but you listen to those nonstop Christmas music radio broadcasts every holiday season, you’ve certainly heard TSO’s “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.” It’s one of the most played popular songs during the Yuletide.
TSO may seem somewhat out on the fringe, but its fan base is growing enormously. When the group, formed in 1996 by Paul O’Neill with his Savatage buddies, Bob Kinkel and Jon Oliva, performed live in 1999, they did seven shows that drew a combined 15,224.
Last year, their holiday spectacular tour drew 409,528 fans in 80 shows, 62 of them selling out, and many in arena settings. This year, estimates are that the 80-city, 90-show tour will draw 650,000 fans.
“The best way our live show is described was by a fan who said the experience of seeing TSO live is like seeing ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ a Who concert and Pink Floyd all at the same time,” composer Kinkel said recently in a telephone interview.
TSO is puling off almost 100 shows in seven weeks now splitting into two groups — Kinkel will be going with one group in Johnson City, Tenn., at the same time TSO guitarist Al Pitrelli is leading the massive undertaking at North Little Rock’s Alltel Arena on Friday, Nov. 19.
Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets range from $35 to $50.
Kinkel describes the stage show as featuring a six-piece rock band, and an eight-piece string section (seven of the musicians have been selected from local talent), six singers whose styles vary from Broadway musical to R&B, a narrator, laser and lights, pyrotechnics, the works.
“The band has gotten so big,” Kinkel said. “For the Christmas tour, there were so many cities who wanted us to come play. We split the band down the middle. All the musicians have played on the record. We’re an expanding family.”
The two-and-a-half-hour show is performed in two parts: “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” the first TSO Christmas album, makes up the first part; the second half is pure rock symphony, with adaptations of Beethoven and five songs from TSO’s newest work, “The Lost Christmas Eve,” the group’s first Christmas release in six years.
The show’s lighting designer Brian Hartley has worked on shows for KISS and Meat Loaf. “He just outdid himself,” Kinkel said. “We let Brian go wild. We make sure everything is a lot of fun, and larger than life.”
Kinkel’s professional career started in the famed Record Plant studio in New York as an engineer in the early 1980s — his first day in the building, he said, Kinkel saw Cyndi Lauper recording her huge debut album, while the J. Geils Band worked on “Freeze Frame.” He also went on the road working on tours for Sting, the Who, the Rolling Stones and others, and it brought him in contact with some of the top producers in music. He joined O’Neill as a session keyboard player, and Savatage was born out of their work along with lead singer Oliva and, later, guitarist Pitrelli.
Kinkel says he grew up with “really mixed musical stuff,” being classically trained on the piano while listening to Led Zepplin, the Beatles and other popular rock acts. “Paul, John, Al, everybody pretty much grew up the same way.”
Their writing sessions morphed into the side project TSO and the first Christmas record in 1996, another in 1998, “The Christmas Attic,” then the live shows.
“It’s a big rock show but it’s accessible to everybody,” Kinkel said. “People started bringing their whole families, from little kids to their grandparents. For lots of people it’s become their family tradition. They say they not only go to ‘the Nutcracker’ but see us. Not only is it rock ’n’ roll but you get the good feeling of Christmas.”
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