Paul O'Neill didn't sense exactly how mighty the electric splendor of his Trans-Siberian Orchestra was until the lights went down one night.
OK, two nights.
The first came in 2005, when the massive prog-rock, hard-rock, classically inspired ensemble with all its bells, whistles, light shows and pyro technics played the Meadowlands, the fabled arena just outside O'Neill's native New York City. The stage was set, the amped-up metal-esque holiday music was cued, and flames shot into the air with the kind of stupefying vigor that would make Kiss blush. And then the power went out.
"About 15 minutes into the show, the stage goes dark," O'Neill said in a phone interview Tuesday. "The production manager comes running over and goes, 'Paul, we just blew the circuit breaker for the Meadowlands. I thought, 'Really? Cool.' It was one of the high points of my life."
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"After that, we started carrying a tractor-trailer full of generators for the arenas that needed the extra juice. So then we played Jackson, Miss., and someone from the venue goes, 'State-of-the-art building, guys. We don't need your generators.' So, half-hour into the show, the stage goes dark. The production manager comes running up to me. I go, 'I know, I know. We blew the circuit breaker for the building.' He goes, 'No. We blew the circuit breaker for Jackson.' Well, it wasn't for the whole city. Just a quarter of a grid.'
A quarter of a grid? What kind of band is capable of knocking out an entire section of a city's power transmission network? Well, if you have ever seen the Trans-Siberian Orchestra boot up onstage, you would know.
Onstage, TSO, which plays Lexington's Rupp Arena on Thursday, is a truly electric spectacle. The orchestra's charm is rooted in three recordings of platinum-selling, Christmas-themed rock operas, but the music translates during performance into mammoth light shows and an arsenal of lasers and flames illuminating the stage as a legion of rock musicians, string players and two dozen vocalists bring O'Neill's songs to life.
Over the top? Are you kidding? TSO brings new meaning to the term.
"We honestly spend more on pyro than every rock band in the world combined," O'Neill said. "The beams on our lasers are thicker and have a more saturated color than any other rock band because there are only 10 of these kinds of laser machines in the world. And we've got all 10 of them."
As a result, O'Neill has proven that if there is anything a pop/rock/metal/classical/prog audience enjoys better than Christmas, it is Christmas with pomp and flash. During the past decade, the total attendance for TSO's seasonal tours has shot from 15,000, when the band played a short run of theaters, to a 2008 tally of more than 1.2 million.
Similarly, two TSO productions have toured simultaneously every November and December since 2000, with O'Neill traveling between the ensembles in a mostly administrative capacity. He sometimes plays with the TSO troupe that visits New York.
"Never in our wildest imaginations did we ever think we would become as big as this," he said.
TSO began to take shape in 1996, when O'Neill, who handled management and production work for bands including Aerosmith and Scorpions while writing music for the Florida metal band Savatage, outlined a vision for a new kind of Christmas music.
"Warner Bros. first approached me in '96 and said, 'Instead of writing and producing for other bands, why don't you start your own band?' So I said, 'OK, but only if I could do something completely different.' I told them I wanted a full progressive-rock band, a full hard-rock band, a full symphony and 24 lead singers."
The response he received was simple, direct and concise: "Why?"
"I wanted a band that could do anything, a band that could take the best of all the great acts that I worshipped — bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Queen — and have a marriage of classical and rock. I wanted to give a third dimension to the music."
And so came three holiday albums: Christmas Eve and Other Stories (1996), The Christmas Attic (1998) and The Lost Christmas Eve (2004) along with a non- seasonal recording, Beethoven's Last Night (2000). TSO's first new album in five years, another non-seasonally themed recording called Night Castle, was released in October. Night Castle will be featured prominently in the second half of TSO's current touring show.
The new album, along with all of Beethoven's Last Night, will hit the stage again in spring, when TSO takes its non-Christmas music on an international tour.
For now, though, O'Neill is happy to let the Christmas spirit dominate TSO's touring repertoire. It might sport a thunderous, electric profile onstage, but O'Neill's fondness for the season is rooted in an appreciation that only a true New Yorker could summon.
"One of my earliest childhood memories was coming home one Christmas Eve when it was snowing and hearing the screaming of brakes as one Yellow Checker Cab slammed into the back on another. The drivers got out. Being a kid, I thought there was going to be a fight. Instead, the first driver said, 'This is totally my fault. Let me pay for this.' The other driver went, 'Put your money away. Don't worry about it.' They laughed and drove their separate ways.
"Now, I don't know if you've ever been to New York City. But on any other day? Blood on the streets, my friend. So I learned at an early age there was something magic about Christmas Eve."