The classical music-meets-prog rock & pyro act founded by the late Paul O'Neill tours from mid-November to late December -- and grosses more than most acts do in a year.
The Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is located in an industrial park down the street from the Cresline Plastic Pipe Company, looks from the outside like any other 8,000-capacity arena. Next week, the Council Bluffs Kennel Dog Show will take place there, followed by a charity bubble-soccer face-off between firefighters and cops from the state and neighboring Nebraska. But every year for three weeks or so in late October and early November, Trans-Siberian Orchestra management turns the venue into a high-tech assembly line and launch pad for the act’s perennial tour.
In one room, storage buckets hold portions of the stage; in a larger space stocked with forklifts and work benches, carpenters weld those portions together. A large mixing board sits inexplicably in one of the arena’s bathrooms, and in separate rehearsal suites, two iterations of the 18-piece orchestra -- one that will play dates east of this central U.S. location and one that will head west -- go over, and over, this year’s set.
In the main arena space, two rehearsal stages are set end to end. On a Thursday night, one stage sits dormant while the East group runs through its nearly two-and-a-half-hour set, complete with dozens of fiery explosions, webs of crisscrossing green and red lasers, floating video screens, dueling long-haired metal guitarists and elaborate classical and progressive-rock songs engineered from, among many other things, Beethoven riffs, Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” At one point, a 24-foot metallic contraption on the side of the stage spews out tiny lightning bolts timed to lead guitarist Joel Hoekstra’s solos. It is the show’s latest upgrade: a double-Tesla coil. “Well,” says Al Pitrelli, 57, the tour’s musical director and lead guitarist for the West group, as he stands near the soundboard. "That doesn’t suck.”
For years, the two orchestras played slightly different arrangements of the same songs -- the deviations so fine that they were apparent only to the musicians -- but that proved unnecessarily complicated for such a large undertaking, especially for the backup drummer who had to learn both versions. Now, both follow the same script and sheet music, more or less. “Each band has a different personality,” says longtime drummer Jeff Plate. “So there are some spots that have a different vibe."
Not that there's any kind of East-West rivarly. About 85 percent of the crew worked on the previous TSO tour, as have most of the musicians. "We have an expanded family out here," says Plate of the group that has gathered in Council Bluffs -- not surprising for a group that has spent years celebrating the Christmas holidays on the road. Although most of the cast, crew and musicians return home when the tour breaks briefly for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, on work days they bond over meals catered by topline servers, many customized according to family holiday traditions. For good measure, Pitrelli years ago taught the catering department's head chef the recipe for his grandmother’s “Sunday sauce.” The musicians spend hours after every evening concert -- there are usually two performances a day -- greeting fans. "I wouldn't know what to do without it, honestly," says Joel Hoekstra, who has toured with the orchestra for 10 years and also plays with Cher and Whitesnake.
The tour -- which is slated to hit 66 cities in seven weeks for a total of 109 shows -- kicked off on Wednesday. The West orchestra plays its first show in Council Bluffs, while the East contingent debuts in Green Bay, Wis., ushering in the 20th year of an unlikely live-music concept that, despite such a compact itinerary, consistently ranks among the top live outings of the year. According to Billboard Boxscore data, to date, TSO has grossed $546.1 million and sold 11.5 million tickets over 1,484 shows. It is one of only 32 acts in the history of the database to gross more than $500 million as a solo headliner -- the orchestras do not co-headline with other acts or even use openers -- and one of only 15 solo headliners to sell in excess of 10 million tickets. And for an act that is not a radio staple -- even during the holidays -- TSO has charted nine albums on the Billboard 200, four of them reaching the top 10; sold 10.1 million albums and 4.9 million downloads; and generated 273.5 million on-demand audio and 177.5 million on-demand video streams, according to Nielsen Music.
Green Bay Press Gazettereviewer Kendra Meinert describes the East orchestra's opening night as "a little like a family reunion" making a "warm and welcome return." Noting that the concertgoers in her row included "two teens, a Harley rider and senior citizens talking about their bus trip to Branson, Missouri," she writes: "That's how you get to be a top-grossing touring act year after year by touring only for a few weeks." A loyal fanbase is also a big part of TSO's perennial success: Management says that 60 percent of this year's ticket-holders are repeat customers.
In April 2017, Trans-Siberian Orchestra's extended family was rocked -- and the future of the family business suddenly put in doubt -- when the orchestra's founder Paul O'Neill, a driving, dreaming perfectionist who had once played guitar in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar and later worked as a promoter and a manager for AC/DC and Def Leppard, died unexpectedly at the age of 61 from a reaction to prescription medicine he was taking. O'Neill's family made the decision that the show would go on, and when the touring company hit the road again that November, it quickly dispelled any doubts that Trans-SIberian Orchestra had lost its luster without its creator and chief cheerleader at the helm. In 2017 and 2018, TSO went on to score the two biggest Boxscore grosses of its history: $50.2 million and $56.7 million, respectively. (The latter figure also reflects, in part, the highest ticket prices of the act's history.) The orchestra also finished at No. 20 on Billboard's Money Makers ranking of the top-earning acts of 2018, with $18.5 million in collective sales, streaming, publishing and touring income.
Based on ticketing trends for the act, Billboard estimates that TSO's 2019 box office could approach $60 million this year, thanks, in part, to the decision to revisit in its entirety the orchestra's debut album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories -- and that continued success has the organization already thinking how to top itself next year.
In the early ‘90s, O’Neill began to plot a holiday-themed live spectacle that combined progressive rock, heavy metal and classical music with elaborate stage productions. He had been producing a struggling Tarpon Springs, Fla., metal and prog rock band called Savatage when its label, Atlantic Records, encouraged him to pursue his idea of a holiday-themed rock opera with a Pink Floyd-style light show. The Queens, N.Y., native mined Savatage for talent, including Pitrelli, who has played with Alice Cooper, Blue Oyster Cult and Megadeth and auditioned after O’Neill rejected what the axman calls “great guitar players all over the planet.” O’Neill asked Pitrelli to play excerpts from Mozart's Symphony No. 24, and when the guitarist transposed the complex piece into a different key on the spot, he hired him.
Together, O’Neill, Pitrelli and Savatage composer Jon Oliva -- who remains a constant presence at TSO rehearsals, clapping and snapping from a chair beneath the stage and bantering with the musicians about key changes and fantasy football -- worked out arrangements for original compositions like "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24." The instrumental became the heart of Christmas Eve and Other Stories, which told the story of an angel who responds to a father's prayer to see his daughter for the first time in years. Released in 1996, the album eventually went triple-platinum.
In 1999, O’Neill took his vision on the road, and in 2004, Trans-Siberian Orchestra became the 19th highest-grossing tour of the year, according to Boxscore. It would finish among the top 25 for eight of the next 14 years.
Success did not satisfy O'Neill. "Paul wanted more and more and more," Plate says of TSO's shaggy-haired, bearded founder, who wore a leather jacket and sunglasses pretty much everywhere. “He would be almost unrealistic and so adamant.” O'Neill pushed everybody, from musicians to pyro wizards, and during rehearsals could be found "running around the floor” like a rock 'n' roll Bob Fosse, Plate adds, “stopping the song in the middle because somebody's not in the right spot or the singer didn't have the right inflection on a certain word or the lighting cue was off." Although he died more than two years ago, managers and musicians still speak of O'Neill in the present tense.
O'Neill's brand of ambition did not come cheap then -- and doesn't now. Although touring and production director Elliot Saltzman declines to reveal the cost of putting two touring companies -- consisting of 120 people and 20 trucks each -- on the road (a practice O’Neill initiated in 2000 to meet demand for bookings), he does allow that he budgets $1 million for pyrotechnics alone. ("It's like being in Iwo Jima [onstage],” Pitrelli says. “But it works.") "Our startup costs are more than The Rolling Stones -- and we have to recoup in seven weeks," Saltzman says of the double-tour, which runs through Dec. 30 this year.
When O'Neill was alive, he would demand more pyro, lasers and special effects for each successive tour, while Saltzman, Adam Lind and Kenny Kaplan, who oversee the band as partners of Castle Management, played the budget scolds. Since his death, the trio has reversed roles. “Now we have to push a little,” Lind says. Ten years ago, Pitrelli might have attended rehearsal and thought, “It’s pretty good.” Now he “looks for stuff to fix.” Adds the guitarist: “He was my big brother. I’m keeping myself on my toes now. In the back of my mind, I hear Paul always pushing me, but I’ve learned to do it myself.”
At one point, walking through the arena, Saltzman, Lind and Kaplan encounter pyro specialist Doug Adams, who promises imminent Cryo-Jet fog-machine functionality. Pitrelli says Adams frequently tells him, “Wait till you see what I designed this year!” and, anticipating being barbecued onstage, thinks to himself, “Oh, kill me.” Adds Saltzman, who also manages Joan Jett and consults with other tours: “We have fire coming out of everything. We’ve got a lot of mad scientists here.” Kaplan, though, says the managers are experienced enough to know when a piece requires just 15 explosions rather than, say, the pyro team’s preferred 30. “They’re just thinking ‘big is big,’ but we’re trying to measure where it’s spent best,” he says.
TSO’s first tour in 1999 played seven shows in five cities and drew 12,000 concertgoers. By 2004, its itinerary had expanded to 100 shows -- often two a day -- that attracted 1 million ticket-holders. (From 2010 through 2012, TSO took its only non-holiday album, 2000’s Beethoven’s Last Night, on the road in the spring and reps say the orchestra is considering similar tours in the future.) The shows are family-friendly and celebrity attendees include Eddie Van Halen, Kid Rock, the New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and The Band Perry, who once drove from Nashville to Knoxville to see the show, parents and grandparents in tow.
When the news broke of O’Neill’s death, the organization was stunned. O’Neill’s imagination and drive to innovate had kept TSO evolving for 20 years. "Paul always had a knack for being one step beyond what anybody could envision," says Hoekstra. "He would whip everybody into a frenzy."
“He would come into our dressing room and talk about dreams and mystical ideas and fantasies," recalls Mee Eun Kim, a keyboardist since 2000. "By the time he leaves the room" -- there's the present tense again -- "the girls would all whisper to each other: ‘That's never going to happen.’" But, Mee Eun adds, "After our first arena show, we looked at each other like, ‘Oh my God, he did it.’ From then on, any time he said anything crazy, we said, ‘OK, Paul!’”
With O'Neill gone, the doubts arrived. “There was a moment when I was like, ‘Oh, what's going to happen?’” says Mee Eun. Plate and Hoekstra called each other to discuss what a future without the Trans-SIberian Orchestra would look like. They did not have to wonder for very long. O'Neill's wife, Desiree, and his daughter, Ireland -- who, as a young girl, used to shadow her father during rehearsals -- quickly decided the show would continue. They declined to comment for this story, and while Lind calls the first tour after O’Neill’s death “very difficult,” he adds, “Paul talked long before his passing of TSO outlasting us all.”
For Trans-Siberian Orchestra to remain relevant to future generations, new music will almost certainly have to be composed for coming tours. Conceivably Oliva and Pitrelli, who were there at the beginning, could carry the torch at least part of the way, and Saltzman, Lind and Kaplan say are always thinking ahead -- but right now, they have a tour to do. “That kind of decision comes a little later," says Kaplan. "We get through this one, then we look at how this played out, what we liked about it, how it will change, what we learned along the way."
The O'Neill family’s decision to revisit Christmas Eve and Other Stories for this year’s tour has ratcheted up the emotional quotient again for the musicians who date back to the early days of TSO. Pitrelli, whose shoulder-length mane is streaked with gray, says he has a hard time “keeping it straight” while playing songs from the album.
There’s another reason performing TSO’s first album and its story of a father praying for the safe return of his child resonates with the guitarist. Pitrelli’s oldest son, Jesse, is a Coast Guard sniper and his youngest, Zach, a nuclear-submarine engineer "somewhere under the Indian Ocean." "When I recorded these [songs] for Paul back then, I was in a different head," Pitrelli adds. "Listening to these songs at this point in my life, I've become the older character. I can't help inserting my name into that story: Where are my boys now? I miss them."
O'Neill used to tell the musicians and crew the music should last not decades but for centuries, and, for their part, they are determined to fulfill that prophecy. "I'm fairly positive he's watching it, going, 'You're doing good, guy, keep going'" Pitrelli says. "He used to tell me every tour: 'Just get me through January.' I'm gonna get him through another January."