Revisiting the Ghosts of Christmas Eve
by Jay S. Jacobs
2017 was a very difficult year for Trans-Siberian Orchestra. In April of last year, the popular band which mixes rock, theater, classical and holiday music into a stunning and popular stage show, lost its leader. Paul O’Neill died suddenly in April of 2017, due to an accidental prescription drug overdose, early on in the planning for the band’s annual holiday tour.
O’Neill had his hands on pretty much everything TSO – he wrote or co-wrote most of their music, produced and arranged their music, and was very hands-on in planning their spectacular lighting and stage show.
Not only that, long time TSO bassist David Z was killed in a tragic traffic accident in July, in which a tractor trailer hit a band RV. Vocalist Russell Allen was also injured.
The group soldiered on through the year’s tour, dedicating the tour to O’Neill and David Z, determined to give the band’s faithful audience the kind of great performance that O’Neill took such pride in offering.
This year will be the first time that the band hits the road without any new input from O’Neill, but they have huddled together with O’Neill’s family to continue offering the spectacle that TSO is known for. A few weeks before the annual tour kicked off, we were able to take part in a conference call with long-time members Al Pitrelli (guitarist and the band’s musical director) and Jeff Plate (drums) to discuss the band’s history and path forward, and their upcoming tour revisiting O’Neill’s classic musical story “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve.”
Last year obviously had its own emotion to it, with the death of TSO leader Paul O’Neill. What was that like touring without him? And now, this year, is this kind of feeling almost like a new era of Trans-Siberian Orchestra live?
Al Pitrelli: It was probably one of the hardest years of our professional careers. Both Jeff and I and some of the other guys have been with Paul since 1993, ’94. I got started with him in ’95. He had this idea of creating Trans-Siberian Orchestra. We were just privileged and blessed to be along for the ride and to be part of it. We watched it grow up. We’ve been there from the jump. To have the carpet pulled from beneath us so suddenly and tragically last year really just put us all in a different mindset.
The sorrow and the pain that goes along with losing a loved one was prevalent with everybody. But also, the task at hand was to say okay, well Paul had always said “We want this thing to live long past all of us.” I don’t think any of us were prepared for that to occur so soon, but we were handed that task. With his family steering the ship and their guidance, we really hunkered down last year, even more so than usual, to make it the best it could possibly be. The fact that folks in communities around the country and globally reacted so well to it, and here we are this year exceeding last year’s ticket sales, the excitement building towards it, just means that again Paul was right as usual. This will live past all of us.
It was really hard to deal with it last year. I mean, everything on that stage, every note we played, and every pyro hit, was his creation, so he was there with us at all times. There were a few moments in the show where I really had a difficult time just getting through it. He was like a big brother, aside from being our boss and our producer and creator of this whole thing. Literally we have spent half of our lives, both Jeff and I, sitting next to the man in studios and on tour buses. Then to be out there, and you can’t get it out of your head that he’s gone because everything around you he created. Jeff, if you want to add onto that…
Jeff Plate: I agree 100%. To echo the fact that we’ve been with Paul for all these years, it isn’t just musicians and singers but the management company, and of course Paul’s wife and daughter have been along with us from the very beginning too. We’ve all been on this ride together. We’ve done this for a lot of years. This is our 20th tour so we’ve been through this a number of times. Getting out there and running through the music and going over parts and stuff was one thing, but to get into the main room with the production, that’s where Paul always shined. Paul was the guy running around the floor of the arena pointing out a certain light wasn’t the right color or wasn’t in the right place, or somebody wasn’t properly positioned on stage, or a vocalist wasn’t exuding enough emotion, or whatever. All these little things that sometimes you just thought, “God, what’s he doing?”
He was fine-tuning his vision. As Al said, Paul was always right. Every time that we scratched our heads and looked around at some of the things that he was talking about doing, then you see the final product and go, “Oh my God. He’s right on the money.” To do this without Paul, obviously it’s difficult, but he prepared us for this. He talked about this time and time again, how Trans-Siberian Orchestra was going to outlive all of us. It was going to be something for the ages. To think that we would be carrying on without him, it wasn’t in the plans, but here we are. And to his credit and for us to honor Paul, we’ve got to go out and be the best we can be every time.
Al mentioned that last year there was pressure, and there was emotion. Going out there and proving that we can do this. Paul taught us all a lot. Now it was time for us to actually put this thing in motion. Go out and do it. Make the man proud, make his family proud, and make our audience proud because they’ve been with us for over 20 years.
Are you moving forward with any of the recording projects? I know with Paul there were always several things in motion, but is anything being actively worked on or developed now?
Al Pitrelli: Yeah. I’m in Tampa in our studio right now as we’re speaking. I’ve been down here for a few weeks. There was a lot of material that Paul had written with his partner Jon Oliva, also stuff that Paul had written by himself and things that he had written with his daughter. There’s just so much material that hasn’t been recorded yet. We actually started digging into it. I’m going to say tape’s been rolling, but I’m just showing how old I am. We’ve been doing a lot of demos, a lot of maps, having some singers down. There’s plenty of stuff taking shape. No releases in mind yet, nothing like that. I think the process, just to get back and start recording and start working on some of this material, I’m really glad that it’s starting to happen. It’s exciting to see some of these things come to life. There’re songs that we’ve been talking about for 15 years that now it’s like: okay, now they’re going to see the light of day.
I was wondering if you could talk about the decision to do Ghosts of Christmas Eve again. I think this is probably… is it the third year in a row, or the second year in a row? I’m not sure.
Jeff Plate: This will be the third year we’ve done this show. We had pretty much covered the trilogy, the first three Christmas CDs and the stories. God, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, which is our first CD, I think we toured that one for 12 years. Anyhow, when it came time to do a new show, The Ghosts of Christmas Eve was not part of the trilogy, but it was also part of the Christmas story and part of the success of TSO and everything. It really brought us into the living rooms of a lot of people with the television show that we did. So, when Paul put this show together, he absolutely loved it. It was one of his favorite shows. The band agreed with that, along with the vocalists, and the audience really responded well. When we got done doing this show the first year, back in 2016, Paul was extremely excited about it. The response to the show, and everything just seemed to have gone according to plan. It couldn’t have gone better. So, when we lost Paul, doing this show again was just a great way to honor Paul.
We’ve also realized that a lot of audience sees us for the first time every year. So, we may go out with a particular show, but we also know that a lot of people are going to see it for the first time. If you’ve ever seen TSO, you know every year we go out there with different production. The show itself is always going to be different, but the show has just gone over extremely well.
What about the production for this year’s tour. It seems like every year you outdo yourselves. Generally, what do you have planned for this year?
Al Pitrelli: To be honest with you, we’d have to make something up to tell you because we absolutely have no idea. We don’t get to see it until we roll into Omaha for production rehearsals in about a week or two. Our production heads, our department heads, and the crew, they’ve been probably tweaking this on computer generated drawings and stuff like that for the better part of eight or nine months now. But, they keep it so under lock and key because every year, everybody’s dying to see what TSO production-wise. Then other bands touring the planet adopt some of the things or the technology that we’ve been involved with creating.
So, I don’t know. All I can tell you is that last year we had 18 tractor trailers, and seven buses just for the crew. I heard that we’re up to 20 semis and a couple more buses, so that just means more stuff. If you look at the trajectory over the past 20 years we’ve been doing this – in ’99 we started out with one 24-foot box truck and five machines and a couple lights, to where we were last year with 18 trucks – it’s just gotten bigger and better and crazier every year. Technology’s gotten so fast and the computers and the control centers are so much smaller than they’ve been in years past, that we are able to actually do more things in these arenas than you could even fathom 10 years ago.
I’d be lying if I said I knew what it’s going to look [like]. That’s my favorite thing to do: show up in Omaha for the first day of rehearsal, walk into the arena, and go “Oh my God. Really?” You turn into a 16-year-old at your first rock concert all over again every time. If Jeff and I and the rest of folks in the organization feel that way, we just can’t wait to see the expressions on the audience’s faces change.
Like you say, the production is always new. You haven’t really seen it yet, so I’m not sure you can really say what’s different about it from last year, but musically I’m curious what’s different in terms of what’s getting played? Obviously, the anchor of the show is the rock opera, but are there songs you want to mention that are new to the show this year?
Al Pitrelli: Nothing’s etched in stone yet. What we can tell you is that the fun of the show, musically, is different year in and year out. Like what we come out of the gate with will be different again this year. Like you had just mentioned the center of the show is The Ghosts of Christmas Eve. That’s performed in its entirety. And like as Jeff had said earlier in a conversation, the look of it will be completely different, but those songs will remain intact because that’s the underscoring for Paul O’Neill’s beautifully written story. Now the back of the set, or the second half if you will, there’s probably six or seven new songs that we’re looking at to insert into that.
There’s a bunch of people that have been coming to see us since 1999. We affectionately refer to them as our “repeat offenders.” They have fallen in love with the familiarity of Paul’s story, you know? The Ghosts of Christmas Eve is just timeless and classic, and they love the fact that they’re going to come see that. But they all know, and we owe it to them and all the other 900,000 people that came to see us last year, we owe them at least something different each year. We want to keep everybody on the edge of their seats, and everybody has their favorite songs.
You have a lot of folks that may lean towards some of the classical pieces that we do, and we haven’t done them in a couple years. So, we’re always cognizant of like, “Hey, let’s bring a couple of those back out.” Maybe it’ll be a Beethoven symphony, maybe it’ll be one of the songs we had written, a crazy instrumental that people say, “Hey, you haven’t done that in a couple years.” We always pay attention to what’s said, and we try to implement it as much as possible. But we do like to mix it up year after year.
For the audience I think it’s a lot of fun. Certainly, for everybody on the stage and beneath the stage and behind the stage it’s a lot of fun. Doing the same exact set year after year? Eh, I don’t know about that. We have too much great material to perform, and we try to hit it as often as we can.
The last show of the entire season is going to be in Cleveland. I know it’s difficult to project that far when you haven’t even begun rehearsals, but the last show of any tour is always special. Can you talk a little about years past when you’ve gotten to that last show and what your thought processes are, what kind of sense there is backstage, and then when you finally take the stage and the first flash spot goes off?
Jeff Plate: We have to approach every show like it’s our first show. Whether it’s beginning, middle, or end of the tour, there’s always somebody in that audience who’s never seen us before. So, you’ve got to go out there and give it your all and really, really play this like you mean it. I’ve had the pleasure of being in Cleveland every year I’ve done this winter tour. Two years ago, at the end of the 2016 tour, our last show was actually in Cleveland also, on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, that was the last show that we were onstage with Paul. So, Cleveland has always had a special place in the band’s heart. It really was crucial in launching the success of this band, especially the live part of it.
Every year we go there, we’re treated like kings. It just feels great to come back. It feels like our second home. Honestly, when you get to that last note is when you can take a breath and really feel a sense of pride. Just acknowledge that you have actually survived this tour, because if you’ve seen our schedule and you’ve talked to any of us, you know that it’s a real grind. None the less, Cleveland is always a great place to play, and I mean, the tour anywhere is always fantastic.
I’ve long been intrigued with the stamina and preparation necessary to endure an intensely concentrated tour like this, sometimes two full shows a day. How do you approach this, staying healthy, staying in shape, staying awake?
Al Pitrelli: I’m sure Jeff, being a drummer, probably has his own answer for this. For me it’s just a lifestyle that’s year-round. I don’t necessarily prepare physically for the tour. First of all, I’m old, you know? So, I try to slow that clock down anyway, and mentally there’s a lot of prep-work to be done. But, to be honest with you, two shows a day I enjoy a lot more than single show days because there’s not a lot of down time. The worst thing for me is to sit around with nothing to do. I get bored, I get tired, and I get lazy. To get up in the morning, have some coffee, work out, and then have a down beat for 3:00 and then another down beat for 8:00 is my favorite day ever, because the energy and the excitement never really stops. I mean, from the jump you’re just going. I was never good at waiting around all day.
Isn’t it physically exhausting, though?
Al Pitrelli: No. I’ll tell you who it’s physically exhausting for. Jeff playing on drums, and the entire road crew. Those guys are the ones loading in at 5:30 in the morning, unloading 18 tractor trailers, and getting it ready for 3:00. And then packing the thing up by midnight and driving 400 miles to the next city. How they do it, I’ll never understand. God bless every one of them. We’d be dead in the water without them. I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid, you know? The wonderful thing about dreams is that, if you keep having the same dream over and over again, then your life becomes that dream. I live in this kind of crazy microcosm where I get to do what I love more than anything for a living. You never get tired of that. It’s like getting tired of breathing or getting tired of telling my children I love them. I’ll never get tired of it.
Jeff Plate: Al just nailed it on the head, all those points. But the one point about the crew, I mean, if any of us onstage are ever feeling sluggish and dragging their feet or feeling sorry for themselves or whatever, yeah, just look at the crew. Because more than likely they’ve had maybe two or three hours of sleep, and they’re going to do that same routine that following night and then the following night after that. It’s so rewarding just to know that we can go into a city and play a major arena twice a day and fill it up. If you can’t get up for playing in front of 10,000 people, you probably should be doing something else.
But I get asked this question a lot just because of the instrument that I play. Drums are obviously quite physical. Everybody in each band is moving around the stage all the time, so there’s a lot of miles’ being covered by everybody. In all honesty, the show is close to two and a half hours long, but it’s not constant. There are segments of the show where there could be five to ten minutes of music coming at you. Then there’s a break, or there’s an acoustic song, or when we do the story segment of the show we have narration. In my case, and for most everybody on the stage, you get a chance to take a breath, get a drink of water. You learn how to pace yourself when doing this.
Here again, we’ve been doing this for 20 years. I can remember the first time we started doing doubles in theaters, that was pretty impressive. When we started doing doubles in arenas, it was like holy cow, something’s really going on here. That in itself was just so exciting to be a part of. To think that we’ve gotten this far with this band, with this project, with Paul’s vision, and the thing is just growing year after year, every show is just a high in itself. It’s a grind. I usually feel it a couple days after I get done with the tour, but while I’m doing it I feel great and it doesn’t even phase me.
Al Pitrelli: Just adding to what Jeff said, everybody in that audience deserves a perfect first show. If it’s opening night for me in Omaha, or Jeff in Erie I think he’s starting off this year, or if it’s the last show of tour, or if it’s like, the sixth double on a weekend, maybe you’re tired, maybe you don’t feel well, maybe you’ve got the flu, whatever. But as soon as the house lights go down, the stage lights up, and you hear the roar of that audience, it doesn’t matter what you feel like. That’s it, it’s their first show, and it’s my first show at that moment as well. There’s nothing cooler on the planet than that energy that is handed back and forth between the folks on the stage and the folks in the audience. As Jeff said, if that doesn’t wake you up, then you don’t deserve to be there.
TSO’s known for its live performances. As musicians and a fan, what acts have you guys seen live through the years that left the most lasting impressions on you and made you want to better them?
Al Pitrelli: Ooh, good question. Jeff, what do you think?
Jeff Plate: Boy, it’s tough. When you’re part of a tour and a production like this, it’s a real badge of honor. And hey, let’s face it, we’re all competing with each other, right? I mean we’re all trying to sell tickets. We’re all trying to survive out there in this world. But man, it’s really difficult. Firstly, to go to a show without really looking at the lights and listening to the sound and seeing everybody’s performance, because I know how much work we put into what we do. A particular band though, man that’s tough. I just saw Ozzy Osbourne, and I thought the production was great. I was completely blown away. A lot of times I see these bands, bands like Styx, Whitesnake, Foreigner, you go down the list of the classic rock bands. These bands that are still out there playing, it’s like, my God, these guys still sound fantastic. They look good, they sing good, they play well, and that in itself is pretty inspiring.
Boy, that’s a tough question. That’s an interesting question. There are so many good shows out there now. I’ve enjoyed a lot of them over the past few years, but hey, watching TSO West. Honestly, when we do our rehearsals, to me that just really gets me going because it’s easy to look at that band and go wow, that’s what I’m actually doing up there, too, so that’s very cool.
How about you, Al?
Al Pitrelli: Now the question, you’re asking me if I’ve seen anybody recently, and what did I think? Or something that inspired me? Jeff had said he’d gone to a bunch of shows. I went to see Jeff Beck and Paul Rodgers this summer, and it was electrifying. I mean, Jeff Beck, still to this day, can stop time as soon as he plays his guitar. As a guitar player, I’m really focused on that musically. To me, I wasn’t watching the lights, I wasn’t watching anything else, I was staring at this man, saying it would take me the rest of my life just to be a tenth as good he is. And to hear Paul Rodgers sing, again, the man stops time. So, I don’t really have an answer for you regarding production values in shows, because when I go to a show I want to go see somebody that meant something to me growing up. These two men were basically the soundtrack of my childhood. And like Jeff said, there’s people out there who are just still crushing it. It’s so good to see that in their 60’s and 70’s, at that age, to go out there and better than they were 40 years ago.
But yeah. Absolutely Jeff Beck and Paul Rodgers. Ann Wilson was on that tour as well, I think. They’re just better than they were years ago. I hope to try to be half as good as them one day.
What are the most valuable lessons the group’s learned throughout these last 20 years, and would you change anything if you could?
Al Pitrelli: Ooh, good question. The most valuable thing that we’ve all learned is that time is our most precious commodity. 20 years of touring and 24, 25 years of recording have gone by in the blink of an eye. You know, Jeff Plate and I have been part of this thing from the jump. We watched it grow up. We watched it from infancy to adulthood now, become something that we didn’t see this on the radar. I’m sure Paul O’Neill, our creator, and his family probably knew it. But to somebody like Jeff and I, we were just happy to make good music back then and be part of a good art form. But as we learned tragically over the last couple years, time is way too precious to squander. You can never get yesterday back.
I’ve learned to live in the moment and enjoy every second of this, because there is no guarantee of tomorrow. Not in a morose sense, but more in a realistic sense. There’s a good chance that I will wake up tomorrow, but in case I don’t I want to make sure today was the best day I could have made it. That could be musically, or emotionally, or being a good dad, a good husband, all those kind of things. I learned that from Paul O’Neill. Every day was an event with Paul. Whether we were going out to dinner, whether we were recording in the studio, whether we were just talking about stuff, it was the best day of our lives spent together. I was blessed to have a lot of those days with him. Jeff, what do you got?
Jeff Plate: I agree with that 100%. Here again, you just never know when your last show might be, so you’ve got to approach every one like it could be your last. We’ve mentioned the audience several times now, we wouldn’t be here without them. A lot of these people are seeing us for the first time, and you have to go out there and you’ve got to put it on the line every minute of the show. Because your audience, for the most part, is really paying attention. Those that aren’t, they’re just being overwhelmed by the production. But for those that are, they’re really going to notice if you’re slipping or not. That’s why we’ve been able to maintain the audience, the fan base that we have is because, you’re again under Paul’s direction.
People can’t understand how insanely dedicated Paul was to this and how much he really just put every ounce of energy into every little detail that goes on the stage. Once this thing really started happening, then for me it was like, I have to go out there and be perfect every night. This is my goal and just carrying that on. Just treat this thing like this is gold. We’ve got to be very careful with it, but we’ve also got to be aggressive at the same time. Go out there and be very positive, be very confident about we’re doing. This has worked this well for this long because of these attributes, and this has all started with Paul. I mentioned earlier, we had to compete with a lot of different touring groups. All the elements of this show and all the things that surround this show, it really adds up to the success that we’ve had. You can’t try to shortchange anybody, that’s the thing, I think the audience will pick up on that. It’s something TSO has not done from the first show up till now.
Paul was very much the perfectionist, watching every little thing, stopping rehearsal, running over, telling the lights to change. Is there anybody that’s taken that role?
Al Pitrelli: Yeah. Paul taught us that the devil’s in the details. The audience will not know why they’re not enjoying the show. Doesn’t matter if there’s a guitar out of tune or the keyboards aren’t triggered correctly, they’re not going to pick up on the detail of what’s wrong. They’re just going know that this isn’t exciting or they’re not enjoying it. The same thing is if they’re having the time of their lives. They’re not going to know why, they’re just going to know that everything coming off of that stage is crushing. We’ve all been trained by Paul for 20 years of touring now, so we all know how to do this.
His family definitely is steering that ship now as far as quality control. Nobody knows this stuff better than his wife and his daughter. It was Paul, Desiree, and Ireland, and we were just grateful to be part of it. By doing the same thing for so many years, we don’t know how to do it differently, and we wouldn’t want to do it differently because this all works. Our dedication to Paul for 20 years was unwavering, as it will be for the next 20 years. Whether he’s physically in the building or not, his spirit and his creation is there and alive and breathing. We would never do anything other than what we know to do, which is make him proud.
Jeff Plate: Yeah, I’d like to add to that Paul’s management team, Night Castle Management, has been with him from the very beginning of this. As much as certain members of each group can watch the other band rehearsing and stuff and you see things, having that management group with Paul that long knowing exactly what he’s thinking and what he’s looking for, over all these years and all these shows it really kind of sunk into everybody. We just need to do what Paul would have done, try to make it better, try not to overthink this, but what would Paul do?
Al Pitrelli: Yeah, what would Paul do?
Jeff Plate: I mean, that was the big question last year without Paul being there was, what would Paul do? His daughter was with him every minute of every rehearsal that last year he was with us, so he was out there talking in her ear about everything. So I’m sure, besides seeing the show from the floor, which you can’t compare that to a video, or for Al and I standing on the stage and rehearsing, we have no idea how this is really coming across out on the floor. For the people, and especially Paul’s daughter, who were out there for every moment and listening to Paul talk and watching him operate, I really think that’s where the… As Al said, devil’s in the details and you just cannot be too lax about anything. Last year we just really tried to pick up where Paul left off. It’s a group effort, but still, Paul’s family is at the head of the ship now, so we rely on them.
When you’re up on stage, is there a certain look or reaction that you’re striving to see from the stage to know that your audience is truly connected to the music and the spectacle?
Al Pitrelli: A lot of smiles. A lot of smiles, and a lot of grand-daughters hugging their grandpas. And a lot of fists in the air, and a lot of people singing along with the songs. There’s a lot of tells in the audience, but I spend most of the show watching what’s going on with the band. If it sounds really good in my ears and the production’s firing, then I know that the audience is going to be okay. Jeff Plate has a much different vantage point than I do, he’s behind the drums and he gets to see the entire arena at all times.
Jeff Plate: Yeah, and that’s interesting. We’ve been through this for all these years. It’s pretty obvious now who has seen the show before and who hasn’t just by at times the dumbfounded surprised look on certain people’s face. They have no idea, really, what’s coming next. A lot of the audience that’s been coming to see us over the years, they may have an idea of what’s around the corner or whatever, but I think the real test or the real answer to that is, are there any empty seats at the end of the show? We’ve been fortunate that we fill these arenas up and people stay to the very last note. That’s the biggest rush of all, just to know that everybody has been connected with us for over two hours, and they don’t want to leave. If you’re getting a standing ovation at the end of the show and you know these people are going to come back and see you the following year, that’s what it’s all about.
My question is sort of a practical one. Given the amount of production on stage, the sensory overload that’s going on around you at all times, has it ever kind of gotten in your way as musicians? Like have you ever been distracted by the explosions and lasers that you had to kind of catch yourself and remember what you were doing?
Al Pitrelli: Jeff, you want to grab that?
Jeff Plate: Yeah. This is what the rehearsals are all about. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being at our rehearsals, it’s a drill. I mean, we approach all of this like it’s a show day. For the two weeks that we’re out there rehearsing, all of these details are really gone over with a fine-tooth comb. I know personally, I am sitting in the drum chair. I have a lot of pyro around me. We go through a number of tests just to make sure that nothing is too close, too hot, too intrusive on what I’m doing. Do I feel comfortable, is everything fine? Okay, looks good, let’s sign off on that and let’s go. But, when we get on the main stage for the production rehearsals, this is what that is all about. There are a lot of moving parts, there’s a lot of things going on, everything imaginable is on that stage. If Paul was here, he would be trying to put more on it at any given time.
Really the whole thing is part of what we do. More is not enough. Everything needs to be run in sync. For everything that is actually going on in these shows, 99.9% of the time it goes off without a hitch. Which is pretty remarkable considering the workload our crew has and the tight schedule that we have, doing eight shows in five days every week. It’s pretty remarkable. Honestly there are times I think when people look around and maybe they get a little caught up in what’s going on above them or behind them, but other than that distraction there really isn’t any problems.
In particular “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” has become a real holiday standard. As a musician, how does it feel to know that you’re going to hear your song on the radio every holiday season mixed in the company of classics like “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” and stuff like that?
Jeff Plate: Awesome.
Al Pitrelli: Yeah, awesome. You know, never in a million years…, I think I can speak to Jeff and myself both on this one, that you never even think of that as a musician. You just want to be in a band and make some good records and do a few good tours, you know? But to be part of something so special that so many people around the planet have adopted as the soundtrack to their holidays, I’d never seen that on the radar. I can’t even say I look forward to hearing it on the radio because I’m always surprised that it’s on the radio. Or if I turn my TV on and there’s a car commercial with that playing, I don’t even say “That’s me” anymore. That’s just something that’s been part of me for like 24 years. Paul came up with the idea, had us play on it, bring his creation to life, and 20… Jeff, when did we do that? ’95, right?
Jeff Plate: 1995.
Al Pitrelli: 1995, so we’re going on 24 years that that’s been… It’s about almost half of my life. I don’t remember life before it. It’s like having a 24-year-old child that’s grown up to do amazing things, just like my actual children have done. It’s Paul’s child. I’m just like, the weird uncle, you know? I’m real proud to be part of it. My daughter Olivia, who’s seven years old, that’s one of the songs that they play in their music class now, and she just smiles ear to ear knowing that’s Daddy’s music too.
Jeff Plate: Yeah, we were scratching our heads in the studio in ’95 when Paul wanted to do this song and wanted to record it. Lo and behold, here again, we said it earlier, Paul was right again. The genius of this is that he was able to take these classical themes that we’ve all heard since we were kids, since we can remember anything, we recognize all of these holiday themes. He was brilliant enough to put this together with some original music and add the rock element to it, and lo and behold, that song is still the song that drives this whole operation. It’s unbelievable.
I’ve been asked many times what my favorite song of the show is, and it is still “Sarajevo 12/24” because it is so powerful. The production during that song in our show is way over the top, everything is going on at the same time. But it is the song that everybody recognizes. You’ve got people air drumming out there, you’ve got fists in the air. At the end of that song, every time we perform it, it’s a standing ovation. It’s just such an honor. It’s a thrill, it’s a rush, however you want to put it. Just to know that that song is really what catapulted this whole thing to where we are right now is amazing.
First of all, does it feel like you’re in the middle of the Super Bowl concert every night? And then, can you get in the weeds a little bit, like what is it that really is going on or making it work for the audience? Is it the escapism, the emotion, that bombast?
Al Pitrelli: Well for me, my take on it is it’s like a great film, you know? There’s so many dynamics. Paul always said that if you get into a high-performance sports car and you do 200 miles an hour for an hour, after a while you become anesthetized to it, right? It’s like eh, whatever, I’m doing 200 miles an hour, this is boring now. But 0 to 60, 60 to 100, so on and so forth and back down, that’s what a TSO show is. It’s a rollercoaster dynamically. Visually, sonically, every which way you can look at it. If we came out and it was just like non-stop from the jump, by the fourth song everybody would be like “Enough of this already.” So just like a great film, there’s got to be a beginning, a journey, and then a finale.
The other thing that I didn’t realize until recently, and Jeff’s touched upon this earlier with the story of The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, that everybody in the audience relates to that story because everybody misses somebody. The short of it is, in Paul’s very Frank Capra-esque tale, there’s a teenage runaway. She’s scared, she’s tired, she’s homeless, she wants to go home. She doesn’t remember what she got in a fight with her parents about. Her parents don’t remember either, they just want their baby girl home, right? Of course, at the end of all Paul’s stories there’s a happy ending.
Everybody in that audience misses somebody, especially around Christmas, so when we share that commonality together. Obviously, we miss Paul. I lost my dad thirty years ago. Jeff has suffered the same loss. It’s not just people onstage relating to that, there’s a lot of tears in the audience. Whether people have left this planet, whether you just haven’t spoken to somebody because life got in the way, whether you got in a fight, whatever it is, everybody misses somebody. When you share that emotion and you wrap it up in TSO production – both visually and musically – that’s what this is really all about. For two hours and fifteen minutes, it’s hard to get a pulse on anything because you have the beginning, you have the end, and this incredible journey we all have in common.
Jeff Plate: Yeah, also, too, there’s literally something in this show for everybody. This is part of the thing that Paul wanted to create. Trans-Siberian Orchestra, it’s something for everyone. Every musical genre, you name it; Christmas, classical, hard rock, blues, jazz. It’s all in there. If you are a young person, you’re going to be wowed by the brilliance of the whole thing. If you’re a classic rock guy, you’re going to dig the musicianship. If you’re a production guy, you’re going to dig everything that’s going on on the stage at the same time. The production is literally second to none. It’s amazing to be a part of this. And for myself to sit in the middle of it and watch it all going on around me is just unbelievable.
But a big part of this, too, is we’ve been doing this for a long time. We have gone through a lot of people. If you’re not on the stage and if you don’t believe in what you’re doing up there we will probably move on. Especially with the singers. Paul’s words and Paul’s story was the most important thing to him, and honestly to the show, because this is what really connected to the people like Al just said. These stories and these words mean something to everybody, and if you’re not up there giving it your all and saying it like you mean it, it’s not going to work.
All of the above. We could go on for hours about this. Really, it’s something that we never saw coming, but when it did finally happen you kind of realize why. To this day you’ve got to out there and give it your all. You’ve got to go out there and do it like you mean it. I know I speak for myself and Al and the other guys that have been here for the longest time. We love this. We love what we do. We love the music we play. I love the fact that this is really something special for people. They cannot function during the holidays without this show in many cases, so it’s an important show. I’m just thrilled that the audience comes back every year and they tell people and they bring new people every year. It just keeps building like that.
You’ve both spent time in Savatage, Al, you in Megadeth and Alice Cooper, and Jeff in Metal Church. Aside from what I have to assume is better catering, can you talk a little bit about how a TSO tour feels versus a traditional metal tour?
Al Pitrelli: Well, we’re much better dressed.
Al Pitrelli: For me, musically, TSO is a culmination. Like Jeff had just said early, all different styles, genres. As a musician it’s challenging for me every time I put that guitar around my neck because it’s either playing a Mozart symphony, a Beethoven symphony, as everybody knows “Christmas Eve 12/24,” or an acoustic guitar ballad. It basically taps into every part of my musicality as a guitar player and as a musician. So I enjoy it.
Playing with Cooper was awesome because that was my first exposure to theatrical presentations of rock and roll. When Alice would put the straight jacket on and he became Dwight Fry, where he sang the “Ballad of Dwight Fry,” I looked down and was like, this ain’t Alice anymore, this is like some nut in an insane asylum. That was foreshadowing what was to come with Paul, because every one of those singers on that stage becomes the character in the story. For two hours and fifteen minutes on stage, and for the 24 years we’ve been recording, I never know what’s going to be thrown my way next musically. That’s really challenging and really I enjoy that the most.
Jeff Plate: Another big difference is just the schedule of the days. When we’re doing double shows it’s like, you’re up at noon, you shower, you get to the venue, you’re sound-checking at 2:00 or somewhere in that area, and then you’re onstage playing a show at 3:00 or 4:00. You get off the stage, you do it again. You go back out there. Every night after every night show we do a meet and greet, we do an autograph line. It’s a long day. I know from my experience with Metal Church and also with Savatage, there’s a lot of time of the day that you really have nothing to do. That is not the case in TSO. Al touched on this earlier, and I completely agree, when we do these double show days I enjoy that more because the day is just moving. The day is moving along and everything is happening for a good 12 hours straight.
Your comment about the catering is absolutely spot on, but playing great music and getting a great response from the audience is always going to be awesome, whether it’s in a club or a large venue like we play in. But hey, TSO is the best of the best and they take care of us well.
It’s a little bit unique that you get to come back to so many of the same venues almost annually, and Al, I’ve seen you sort of recognize folks in the audience. Can you talk a little bit about the personal aspect of the relationships with some of those venues and fans and the charities that you work with year after year?
Al Pitrelli: Well put. Jeff had said earlier we started in 1999, okay? We did, I don’t know, seven or eight shows, whatever it was back then. At the first show, at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, we were petrified the whole show because we had no idea who was going to be in the audience. Who’s coming to see this thing? Who bought all these records? We sold a couple million records between ’96 and ’99. We did our first show, it’s like, the show is sold out. Who’s going to be there? We were so taken aback by the reaction at the end the end of the night that a bunch of us literally walked off the front of the stage into the audience to say thank you.
That sentiment has really never gone away. Every time I stand downstage center and I look into the audience, I cannot believe what I see. You’ve got 15 or 16 thousand people that have fallen in love with Paul O’Neill’s work. I’ve been privileged enough to be part of it and to witness it. Over the last 20 years of touring there’s a lot of people – and I had said earlier we call them our “repeat offenders” – they come back not only year after year. I got one guy who just celebrated his 500th show with us. And we didn’t comp tickets to him; he has bought 500 tickets over the last 20 years. You see these people in the audience and of course we’ve become friendly. Some of them have become friends.
One of the things that nobody understands about what Paul O’Neill and his family created is, not only did he create an art form that didn’t exist and this touring entity and the recording, he created relationships because of this. There isn’t a city on God’s Earth that we don’t go to that you don’t know a lot of the people there, because, like you said, we’ve developed these relationships over 20 years.
The only time we get to see certain people is around the holidays. When I go into Dallas, when we go into Green Bay, when Jeff gets into Pittsburgh or New York, a lot of the people at the venues have been working these shows for 20 years, you know? I mean the security, the people in the concessions, and the people in the parking. Then you have the folks from the audience who come to see us, and you look down and it just makes you smile. It’s just like seeing a distant relative that you haven’t seen all year. That’s the one thing that I hope everybody who reads this understands, that the relationships that have been developed and nurtured because of what Paul O’Neill and his family created are what’s most valuable to me.
Jeff Plate: Another big part of this is the autograph line that we do at the end of every show. We’ve been doing this since 1999, so for 20 years you see the same people come through the line every year. But, that person that came through in 1999 with their son or their daughter, well that son and daughter is now grown up and they’re coming through with their family. So, it’s a really unique thing because this is free of charge. We will sit there and sign and shake your hand and say hello for as long as it takes. This is one of the things that I think has really connected a lot of people with us – they get to see us up close and personal. They get to talk to us for a second, and if there’s time afterwards we can do a photo and chat a little bit.
To actually be face to face. For me to sit there and see these people come through that you’ve literally watched grow up from a child to a teenager to an adult to now being a parent. Then their friends bringing their friends and their family and so on and so forth. It’s just been a very, very cool experience to be part of this connection with this audience. To think that there’s anything else out there like this, I challenge you to tell me what it is because this is just something that’s really very unique for all of us. The band, the crew, whoever. We go to these venues and everybody loves the fact that we’re there. They treat us well, we treat them well, and this is what has kept this thing going.
I’ve become fascinated by how “Wizards in Winter” has become the go-to song for people who synchronize their Christmas lights at their house. I was wondering how it feels to have a song that enters people’s lives in such a tangible way? Also, what it is about that song that you think loans itself to becoming a massive Christmas extravaganza in people’s front yards?
Al Pitrelli: Yeah, Jeff, why don’t you grab this?
Jeff Plate: This all started with, I can’t remember this gentleman’s name, but it was a man in Cincinnati who was part of one of these Christmas light clubs. “Wizards in Winter” was the song that he used for his light show on his house. It gained local attention. It gained national attention. He came to see us. We all met him, I know Paul talked to him. Then this was picked up by Miller Lite for their ad campaign for… I believe it was 2005 through 2007. Miller Lite was sponsoring NFL Primetime on ESPN, so every half hour this commercial was running. There’s “Wizards in Winter” playing and there’s the light show, and that just became so ingrained with people during that time of the year. I think that’s the obvious connection to it all, when people saw that production, saw the light show along with that song. It just kind of took off from there.
“Wizards in Winter” is a really cool, up-tempo, fun song to begin with, but just seeing what people were doing with the light show along with it… Hey, that’s so cool that that’s part of Christmas culture now; to have our music involved in these things.
Al Pitrelli: My wife had shown me something a week or two ago. There was an interview with Elon Musk. He was talking about the new Tesla, about how he inserted a chip into the car that makes the lights, the blinkers, everything, flash to “Wizards in Winter.” This isn’t something that you could script. Again, Paul O’Neill told us a long time ago that all you do is concentrate on making great art and hopefully everything else will fall into place. When that song was born, like Jeff said, there was something really special about it. You can’t help but listen to it and just smile. It’s a mischievous piece, you know? Everybody latched on to it because it’s so much fun. For some guy in Cleveland to program his house lights to it, to the head of one of the biggest corporations in America now installing that into his car; you can’t force feed this to somebody. They have to like it organically on their own, and that song and so many others that we have have done just that.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
Jeff Plate: The one thing we always like to talk about is the charity work that we do. This is something we’ve done from the very first show. This was something Paul instilled in us; it’s just the right thing to do to help somebody that needs some help. We have donated $1 or more for every ticket sold to a local charity in every one of the cities that we play in around the country. Today we’ve donated over $15 million dollars, so this is something that’s very important to us. It was very important to Paul. It helps the community and some people who really need some help at the time.
Al Pitrelli: Yeah, Paul and his family wanted to change the world, be it a dollar at a time or a song at a time. I think that they’re accomplishing that. We just like to tap everybody on the shoulder and say “Hey, it is the holidays, and there’s people that are much less fortunate.” Let’s be better Americans, let’s be better citizens, let’s be better humans, and just become selfless for that moment and help somebody out. Change the trajectory of their life.
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 27, 2018.
Photos ©2018 David Rudd, Jason McEachern, Bob Carey and Mark Weiss. Courtesy of TSO and Scoop Marketing. All rights reserved.