The big three musical acts are all part of New Orleans’ Christmas this year. Mannheim Steamroller and the Brian Setzer Orchestra have already played, but Thursday night Trans-Siberian Orchestra will play at the Smoothie King Center.
Of the three, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is the most improbable seasonal favorite. Mannheim Steamroller adapts the pop orchestra tradition to modern technology, and Setzer takes his blueprint straight from Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock.” But who started decking the halls and thought, “You know what tonight needs? Prog-metal”?
Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s emergence as a holiday favorite is a surprise to lead guitarist and musical director Al Pitrelli, too. The group emerged from the bones of the rock band Savatage, which released the song “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” on its 1995 album, “Dead Winter Dead.” The song merges “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells” in grand, theatrical style with heavy rock guitars matched with resonant bells. Pitrelli was in Savatage and didn’t envision the song taking on the life that it did.
“That was an accident. That was lightning striking,” Pitrelli said. “When the song got radio play, the band’s producer, Paul O’Neill suggested, ‘Hey, let’s write a record around this song,’ ” Pitrelli remembered. “Before you knew it, we had sold a pile of records and decided to start touring in ’98 or ’99.”
That album was Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s 1996 debut album, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” and its first show was at The Tower Theater in Philadelphia. “It sold out,” he said. “It was 1,400, 1,500 people, but we were like, ‘Oh my god, we sold out a theater! We rule! Now here we are, we did a million tickets last year in seven weeks.’ ”
Trans-Siberian Orchestra isn’t solely a Christmas band and recently released “Letters From the Labyrinth,” which isn’t a Christmas album. Still, Christmas is central to its identity and tours each Christmas season.
The shows start before Thanksgiving and finish in early January. As odd as it seems to play Christmas music that early and that late, the crowds are there for those shows and the band gives them the same show.
“Every night we play, it’s Christmas Eve,” Pitrelli said. “As soon as you walk into that arena, you are on Christmas Eve in an abandoned theater. Whether it’s Nov. 18 or Jan. 6, the show is the show, the spirit is the spirit.”
That show looks as if it were designed by filmmaker Michael Bay and has become an important part of Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s appeal. It includes pyrotechnics, lasers, video, hydraulic lifts and a light show on a series of movable banks that hover over the performance — like a Transformer, threatening everybody below. It’s not obvious how such broad spectacle connects to the intimate nature of Christmas, and that’s not a question Pitrelli thinks much about.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Half of the show is built around a story that takes place on Christmas, but at the end of the day, it’s a rock show. I think the intimacy is in the emotion. The intimacy is when a father is baring his heart because his son is missing.”
Instead, his concerns are how to make the show bigger and more outrageous each year and how not to get killed playing it. When we talked, he was in the middle of production rehearsals, making sure that he and the band knew where to be at all times so that nobody gets too close to a pyro hit before it goes off or casually ventures into trouble.
“You don’t want to be standing in a place where the piece of the stage that was there five minutes ago is no longer there,” Pitrelli said.