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Published: Friday, 11/23/2007

Trans-Siberian Orchestra rocks on

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

When the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was just starting out, playing concerts in nightclubs and small theaters, founder Paul O'Neill brought enough lights and sound equipment on tour to fill concert halls 10 times as large.

'I was in on everything with the band from the beginning,' guitarist Chris Caffery said in a recent interview. 'Before we even released the first record, Paul was saying, When the Trans-Siberian Orchestra plays arenas. ' He was talking not if,' but when' the TSO plays arenas. That's the kind of vision and insight he had and where he wanted this thing to go.'

Caffery said O'Neill told everyone involved that 'we're probably going to lose a gazillion dollars on the first couple of tours,' but insisted on staging a full-scale show from the start.

The group, which will be in concert in Toledo Wednesday and Thursday at SeaGate Centre, released its first album, 'Christmas Eve & Other Stories,' in 1996, and its broad-ranging musical style, combined with elaborate stage productions, made O'Neill's ambitious vision a reality within a few years.

The TSO's entertaining blend of Broadway theatrics, classical music, progressive rock, heavy metal, and holiday narratives have led to sales of more 5 million CDs, including 900,000 in 2006 alone, and one of the largest grossing shows each year, with more than a million tickets sold in 2006.

Last year, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's two-month holiday tour was No. 17 on Pollstar's overall concert chart for the year, and it ranked first on the magazine's holiday tour list.

'That's Paul's vision and insight. That's where he wanted this thing to go,' said Caffery, speaking from a tour stop in Maine while walking the streets in search of a cup of clam chowder.

A guitar virtuoso with a love for heavy-metal and a magnetic stage presence, Caffery met O'Neill 22 years ago when the writer-producer was working with a New York metal band called Heaven.

That group hired Caffery, along with his brother, Phil, who plays drums, only to split up a short time later. But it began a longtime association between O'Neill and Caffery, including an invitation from the producer in 1987 for the guitarist to try out for a new Florida band he was working with called Savatage.

Caffery heard a few of Savatage's discs and was pumped.

'I learned all the songs and I just loved the music so much,' he said.

Then, two weeks before the scheduled audition, Caffery got a call from Savatage's management telling him not to bother coming down, the group had already found a guitar player.

'I said, No they didn't.' He said, Yes, they did,'?' Caffery recalled. 'I said, No they didn't! I guarantee you, whoever they got is not going to play like I do.

'So I said, Here's what I'll do. I'll pay my own way to Florida and if the band likes me, they can buy my ticket. If they don't, it won't cost them a dime.' So I flew down and played for five minutes and I got the gig.'

It was, as Caffery predicted, a perfect fit, and Savatage's complex rock arrangements, thematic presentations, and its emphasis on visuals eventually gave rise to the musically eclectic sounds and full-tilt theatrics of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

O'Neill, who does most of the song-writing, arranging, and stage production, sees the wide musical array as a natural fit. He said, for example, the thunderous, dramatic strains of Beethoven's 'Fifth Symphony' 'would sit perfectly in a song by Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath.'

For Caffery, who started playing guitar at age 5, it's also a natural progression to zip along the frets of his trademark 'Flying V' electric guitars as the TSO shifts from hard rock to classical to Christmas carols.

'For me, I'm more ear-trained than a lot of people in the band with musical schooling, so my ears were able to pick up things very easily,' he said. 'As far playing classical music, it's challenging but I like playing things that are challenging. And the way we play it with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is natural because we're using the same guitars and amplifier.

'But if you threw a classical, nylon-stringed guitar at me and asked me to do some finger-picking, it would sound like somebody stepped on my hands,' he said.

The TSO throws just about everything under the sun at audiences, including waves of fireballs that change colors as they shoot toward the ceiling, rack upon rack of lights flooding the stage in bursts of color, laser lights weaving intricate images overhead, and even fake-snow flurries swirling down from the rafters.

But O'Neill constantly pushes the show to a higher level each year.

'Paul wants us to go out and outdo ourselves. He doesn't want anybody else trying to come in and try to do what we're doing,' Caffery said. 'It's difficult because it's such a massive show, but I think it makes everybody work harder. And every time we do it, it just keeps getting better and better.'

O'Neill doubled TSO's holiday tour capacity by adding a second group to take the same show to a different region of the country. The two groups will play a total of 80 concerts in less than two months this year.

So far, O'Neill has not been able to make a big break out of the holiday season market, achieving only limited success with the TSO's 2000 rock opera 'Beethoven's Last Night.'

But Caffery said O'Neill should not be counted out.

'We're working on another non-holiday record, and once there's a second non-holiday record you can tour with the two albums. Throw in an old Savatage record that never got that kind of attention, and Beethoven's Last Night' is almost a double CD, time-wise, and you've got four records' worth of material. Then it's just a matter of playing it and doing what we do with the Christmas thing,' he said.

'Paul's going to make it happen. And I've heard him use the word stadiums.' Let's just say he's focused,' Caffery said.

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra will be in concert at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the SeaGate Convention Centre, 401 Jefferson Ave. Tickets are $37 and $47, available from the box office, 419-321-5007, and from all Ticketmaster outlets.?

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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