Orchestrating Success

With a mix of metal and classical music, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra strikes a holiday chord with Cleveland audiences.
It’s been 13 years since 98.5 WNCX program director Bill Louis first discovered Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories in a stack of holiday CDs that had piled up on his desk.

“[I thought], This is the next coming ofGrandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,’ ” Louis recalls.

But after giving the music a listen, he quickly learned that one should not judge a CD by its cover.

“This majestic rocking sound came out,” Louis says. “I listened all the way through, put it on continuous and tried to figure out why I liked it. Then I figured, What the hell, we’ll put it on the air.”

The response to the music from the radio station’s listeners was, and continues to be, overwhelming.

“Every time we play it, the phones go insane,” Louis says. “We hadn’t had that reaction to anything.”

Originally, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, or TSO as it’s commonly called, was a spinoff of the progressive metal band Savatage, which had a couple minor hits in the late 1980s. As grunge pushed hair bands and metal to the side, Savatage began focusing on rock operas.

“Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24,” the band’s signature hit, was on a 1996 Savatage CD named Dead Winter Dead. The instrumental piece was an electrified version of “Carol of the Bells” with electric guitars and pounding drums keeping up with classical violins and cellos.

TSO’s music is now a mix of those metal/classical instrumentals, hard-driving rock songs, jazz, blues, Celtic and just about every other form of music. Most of the instrumentals focus on traditional Christmas music while the other material is, for the most part, original to TSO.

The concerts, meanwhile, directly descend from Pink Floyd. TSO’s traditional — and by traditional, we mean lasers, pyrotechnics, moving stages, falling snow and heavy metal guitarists thrashing along with cellos and violins — Christmas show will be in Cleveland Dec. 19 and 20. There will be four shows, making Cleveland the only city in the country that gets more than the standard two.

This is nothing new, though. On TSO’s first tour in 1999, a short five-city jaunt, Cleveland sold out three shows while New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit hosted one. Not all of those sold out.

There might never have been a tour, though, if it weren’t for Louis. And there definitely wouldn’t have been one as early as 1999.

“He was like, ‘Paul, you have to do a live show,’ ” recalls Paul O’Neill, the founder, lyricist, writer and producer for the behemoth that is TSO.

“TSO would have eventually toured, but I would have procrastinated at least another three years,” he says. “Bill Louis was the instigator of getting TSO out there and into live touring.”

This year, the band will be hitting Cleveland hot on the heels of its Night Castle release, which O’Neill has been promising for the past six years. Night Castle is a double album, with half being a rock opera.

“Basically, we knew we had to get our butts in gear when Guns N Roses turned in Chinese Democracy,” O’Neill jokes. “We’re really happy with the album.”
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