It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like TSO Tour Season
by Jay S. Jacobs
There is a nip in the air, it’s getting dark earlier, the leaves are falling from the trees. You know what that means – it’s almost time for the annual Trans-Siberian Orchestra winter tour. A spectacle of sights, sounds, twinkling lights and Christmas Spirit, TSO takes to the road annually – a pilgrimage for fans of theatrical rock and holiday cheer.
The too-soon death of TSO mastermind Paul O’Neill in 2017 has not slowed the train down, in fact the members of the band have committed themselves to the show with a stronger allegiance so that they can pay tribute to O’Neill’s vision.
A couple of weeks before they started practicing for their annual winter jaunt, Trans-Siberian Orchestra music director Al Pitrelli and drummer Jeff Plate took the time to get on the phone with us and many other journalists about the band’s legacy and the upcoming all new Christmas Eve and Other Stories Tour.
Bringing back Christmas Eve and Other Stories to do again, what was behind that decision? And what’s it going to be like to play it?
Jeff Plate: This is something that Paul had actually been talking about doing before we lost Paul a couple years ago. He realized that this story was probably the most significant one in our catalog. Christmas Eve and Other Stories was released in 1996. That is really the CD that put us on the map. It has sold the best. We toured that story for the first 12 years of our touring existence. This is what really made a mark with the fans all across the country. It has always been a fan favorite, and a band favorite, I can personally say it’s my favorite story that we’ve done.
But, like I said, Paul had talked about doing this before we lost him and, over the past couple years, things have been tough. Management and Paul and their family decided that this was a very good time to bring this show back out. The popularity of the show in the first place is one thing, but over the past several years, our production has just grown tremendously and improved tremendously. So, this time when you see Christmas Eve and Other Stories, it’s going to be a completely different show.
As you mentioned, the last couple years has been adjusting to a new world order. There were several projects that were not completed, in various degrees of progress. What’s going on with some of these things that Paul left behind?
Al Pitrelli: I’ll grab this one. The first thing was everybody – starting with Paul’s wife and his daughter – a loss like that so unexpected, they had to catch their breath and just deal with that. All the projects that were being talked about, being looked at, being demoed up and worked towards, over the last six to eight months or so, the family has definitely started the machine back up and running. We’ve been spending a lot of time back down in Tampa in the studio. We’re looking at all these things and we’ve been recording a bunch of stuff, you know?
When you deal with a tragedy such as this, you’ve got to take care of the immediate business at hand. The creative side of it, everybody just feels like there’s a huge hole still in our hearts. His family said, “Okay, well you know what? Paul wanted this to live forever, it’s going to live forever. Let’s continue working on the ideas for that to exist and just move forward.”
I don’t have a date. I don’t know exactly when anything will be released. I’m just thrilled to death to be recording and to be working, and then just seeing like these news pieces come to life little by little.
How much of the stage and the lighting, the special effects are presented as different? What went into designing the new show for Christmas Eve and Other Stories?
Jeff Plate: I would say Christmas Eve and Other Stories, this show was probably in the works sometime last year as every one of these tours. The planning for these and the designs are started way in advance. I think the last time we did Christmas Eve and Other Stories was in 2011, and we had a massive production at that point. Now it certainly, it literally fills up the whole arena. We have a stage that expands the width of the arena, plus there’s production all the way out past the front of the house.
The main differences, I would say, are the video. The video content that we’ve been using the past several years is really just… it’s become so brilliant and fantastic; it just completely changes the dynamic of the show. Plus, the team that designs the… Bryan Hartley, Elliot Saltzman, you know, all the people in video; have really just stepped it up over the past couple years. Literally, two years ago when we were doing The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, the design that Bryan Hartley came out with was just fantastic. It took several steps beyond the year before. It’s improved in those increments ever since.
This year, like I said, with the improvement of everything – and plus the staff just really realizes we have to be as good as ever on this tour – everybody’s just really stepped up their game.
It’s been eight years since Christmas Eve and Other Stories was brought out, I’m curious how the rehearsal process with the musicians and putting the music together is different from when you have a show that you’ve done the previous year? It seems like there’d be a changeover in some of the musicians and a good deal of re-learning going on.
Al Pitrelli: There hasn’t really been any change in musicians. We’re kind of creatures of habit. You get a chemistry like we have; you don’t really want to mess with it too much. Everybody who’s on that stage has been in the band for quite a while. They all know what’s expected of them. When the set lists went out a while back, everybody’s home diligently working on their parts to come in and represent the records exactly how they were.
The singers, they work with Danielle Sample and Paul’s family, his wife and his daughter, when it comes to the vocals. They’re not just singing songs; they’re bringing these characters to life. One of the things that Paul always said was, “If you do your job, the audience will hear the song and understand the story; but, if you really excel at your job, the audience will look at you as the character in the story.” That’s what’s paramount to these shows that we do.
We’re not just a rock band or a classical orchestra or a theatrical presentation of Paul’s work. We’re bringing these characters to life. Everybody’s been digging in for a while, doing their homework, learning the parts and examining the characters involved. We work a couple months individually and in small ensemble groups musically. Like Jeff had said earlier, the crew has been working on this with the family for probably the better part of a year and a half.
We’ll all get together in about three weeks or so with production rehearsals. That’s when it really comes to life. We’ll run the show about 40 or 50 times before the down beat of our first show on November 13th. Because what’s paramount, or was paramount to Paul, and is paramount to his family and everybody involved, is that every show is a perfect first show. We’re not going to kick the tires on just two or three shows and say, “Ah, that didn’t work.” We’re going to know from the jump exactly what it’s going to look like, how it’s going to be presented production wise and musically.
Again, at the center of it all is Paul’s characters and this beautifully written story that he came up with, like Jeff said, we recorded in 1996. These characters and this story, Jeff and I and everybody else in the organization, we’ve grown up with these. Twenty-five years ago, I was 32, this meant something different to me then than it does now. Now, as a 57 year old father of five, when “Ornament” or “This Christmas Day” or any of these songs is presented live, I have children that I don’t get to see that often, it resonates with me, just like it resonates with everybody in the audience.
TSO for many fans is a holiday tradition and you guys are on the road during the holidays. What do you guys like personally about being able to experience the holiday spirit across America?
Jeff Plate: Al, you want to take that?
Al Pitrelli: That’s a really interesting question. This will be our 21st year touring so, to be completely honest with you, I don’t really know anything different any longer. To go out and, first of all, bring this to life night after night, year after year, it’s an honor and a privilege as, not only a musician, but just as a part of the story-telling team.
To go from El Paso to Seattle to Boston to Providence to Chicago, and every city in between, once you close the doors on the arena and the lights go down, you really don’t realize, or I don’t remember, necessarily, that we’re in a particular part of the country. I just know that we’re having like 18,000 of our closest friends get together to celebrate a genius’s work. To watch it night after night, matinee show after matinee show, year after year, to watch people’s expressions change in the audience and to celebrate these works; we get to have Christmas from November 13th until the last show which I think is December 30th, give or take.
We’ve made a lot of friends over the years. I think Jeff and I; I can speak for him in this regard, we’ve become friends with probably 30%, 40% of the people in these arenas. They’re what we essentially refer to as our “repeat offenders.” Some of them been coming since, I don’t know, Jeff, ’99 in Philly at The Tower? The first show we ever did right?
Jeff Plate: Since the very beginning.
Al Pitrelli: The very beginning. Sometimes you look out there and it is an extended family of sorts. Where the first four or five songs, you’re looking out acknowledging each other, from the audience to the stage and the stage to the audience. It is a very different way to spend the holidays, but it’s the most wonderful way I could have ever dreamed of doing it because it’s just Christmas twice a day for about six weeks. Then our respective families, they come out and they visit us. My wife and my daughters and my sons will visit me a couple times, and we have Christmas in a different city every year. Then when we get home on December 30th, New Year’s Eve then becomes our home or our family traditional Christmas, even though New Year’s Day becomes Christmas Day for us.
From the outside looking in, they’re like well, how can you do that? But us from looking out, it’s like, well, we don’t really know any different. We love this and this is what we do.
Jeff Plate: I’d like to add, too, like Al just said a couple times, that we don’t know any different. This is our 21st year of doing these tours and I think, for a lot of our fans, they don’t know any different either. It’s come to a point where a lot of these people, they can’t celebrate Christmas or get into the spirit until they see our show.
For us going up there and doing this, it’s like, sure, we’re going up and doing a show but it’s spectacular, first of all. It is the celebration. You really see the looks on the faces of these people, how it just affects them. Being away from home can be a drag at times but, at the same time, we have this extended family of about a million people a year. Probably over half of them come to see us every single year, if not more than once a year. The ones that are seeing us for the first time, we’ve got them. Once they come into that arena, we’re going to turn them into fans by the time they leave.
For us, it’s a huge responsibility. Not just to perform this show, but we also realize that a lot of these people really depend on us to kick this whole thing into gear in terms of the holiday spirit, so it’s very cool.
As you noted, you recorded this in ’96, and you’ve been traveling since ’99. How do you continue to appeal to and attract audiences who’ve probably seen several incarnations of it, and now are probably bringing their own kids to see it?
Al Pitrelli: It’s like any great rock band over the years. There’s countless number of bands who came out in whatever year they came out in and, obviously, they did great touring business and great record sales; and then, 10 or 15 years will go by and then those fans or the people in the audience will be bringing their children, and then so on and so forth.
It all stems from the quality of the work and the quality of the songs that Paul O’Neill had written all those years ago; timeless stories, timeless lyrics and timeless characters. I remember when Jeff and I did the first show out in Philly, we look down and I looked at him and I had half a heart attack.
We didn’t really know who was going to be in the audience. We knew that we sold a couple million records from ’96 to ’99, but we did our first show in ’99. The lights went down in The Tower Theater in Philadelphia. When I looked down there was a really attractive older couple in their Sunday go-to-meeting clothes. Right next to them was this dude in a Slayer hoodie. We looked at each other and said, “This is either going to go really bad or really great.” Two hours later, we realized that this was the most amazing thing ever.
When you’re talking about no specific demographic, these kinds of people come see us. Everybody comes to see this thing, everybody buys these records, everybody has fallen in love with Paul O’Neill’s words, and his stories, and his songs, and his characters. Mainly, because everything in the story is relatable to somebody in the audience. If you insert your name or situation or circumstance into Paul’s work, the entire show becomes about you. I think between that and just the complete and utter adoration from a lot of the folks in the audience, it’s going to perpetuate from generation to generation. If you look at the age difference with the people on stage, it’s kind of the same thing as the people in the audience, if that answers your question.
That first tour in 1999, what do you remember the most about it? Did you realize right away that you were on to something?
Jeff Plate: Al touched on this a second ago. We walked out on that stage with more questions than answers, and nerves. I remember standing on the side of the stage with our bassist, Johnny Middleton. I had a knot in my stomach. Johnny was twitching from head to toe. There was dry ice rolling off the front of the stage into the lap of this elderly couple who, he was wearing a tuxedo and she had this beautiful red dress on, they were probably 65, 70 years old. Johnny and I looked at each other and said, “We are doomed.” We walked out there, and it was just magic.
Little did we know what we were doing. Honestly, up to that point we knew, musically, there was something really special going on. The first two CDs had sold really well. Christmas Eve and Other Stories was a huge hit. Plus, the why thing was, this is where we were going to make or break this thing. I know Paul was. He was probably as nervous as any of us, although he hid it well. Nonetheless, Al mentioned the diversity of that first audience, and it carried over into the second, and the third, and the fourth. Here we are, 21 years later, and it really is about the same percentage of age groups, musical genres, you name it; everybody’s in that audience.
Yeah, we were much younger. We were excited. We were nervous and, boy, it was a whole new ballgame when we walked on that age. But you know what? We pulled it off and we’re here to talk about it, so all is good.
Al Pitrelli: I just want to add to what Jeff had said. One of the first things that Paul taught us way back when, when we were recording is, he said, “Listen, just try to make great art, okay? Just try to make the best of this as what you can and everything, with a little bit of luck, will fall into place.” Now, those words meant a lot when he said it because we all looked at each other and said, “All right, fine, let’s just concentrate on doing something artistic and it’s never been done before.” But, boy, those words came true every time we hit the stage in that first down beat because with that, his integrity, his work ethic way back when, has carried us; 21 years of touring, 25 years of recording.
With his family at the helm and with everybody’s dedication to this, there’s really no end in sight.
You guys have the second set with all the greatest hits, the fan-pleasers, things like that. For you guys, what is your fan favorite? What is the number that you want to play the most, that it’s not a TSO show for you if that number is not played?
Al Pitrelli: Oh gosh. For me, to be completely honest with you, it kind of changes night to night. All these songs have a different meaning to everybody on the stage and everybody in the audience. Even the men and women underneath and above the stage on our crew. If I had to pick one, I would say “Ornament” or “This Christmas Day.”
Again, going back to our previous conversation a couple minutes ago, two of my five children are in the Armed Forces, okay? I’m so proud of them. At the same time, they’re my little babies and I’m terrified every moment of every day because of what they do for a living. When our singers sing “Ornament,” which is a song about a father pleading for the safe return of his daughter. He hasn’t seen her; she ran away from home on Christmas Eve. It resonates just so deep in my heart and my soul because in the back of my mind, again, having five children, three of them are home safe and two of them are not.
Like I had said earlier in this interview, if you insert your name and situation into Paul’s work, it hits you much harder and cuts much deeper than anything else. Then by the time we get to “This Christmas Day,” when the father and daughter are kind of back together, very Paul O’Neill, everything has a happy ending, I get a lump in my throat because I know real soon that I’ll be with my kids and my family and all that.
So those two on a personal level for me. On a musical level, I don’t know, there’s so many great songs in the catalog that I enjoy all of it all the time.
Jeff Plate: You touched on something when you posed this question, [someone] who loved “Christmas Canon.” It’s interesting how everybody in the audience really has their own favorite song. It could be a ballad. It could be an instrumental. It could be whatever. A to Z, everything in between; but everybody seems to have a favorite song.
Myself, personally, Al touched on “Ornament” which is just a heavy, beautiful, emotional song. The instrumentals are always fun to play because it’s just such really cool energy in that. But a lot of these songs have some lyrics that just really touch home, not for us personally, but you see it across the audience and how that really affects people.
I think the one song, without doubt, for me that I love to play and, honestly, we would not be here without it, is “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.” Because that is the song that when we jump into that tune and behind the drum kit and start that drum pattern, the audience just lights up, the room lights up and it’s a standing ovation every time we play that song. That’s the one for me that really gets me going during the show.
Al Pitrelli: Let me just touch base. The “Christmas Canon,” one of the more comical moments in my 21 years of doing this is, no matter what, once or twice a tour, we’ll start the “Canon” and the girls will be out there. They’ll be shaking their hair and everybody’s just about ready for the lyrics to start. And some dude will grab his girlfriend and kneel down stage center in the audience and propose to her. Now, we’re playing, and you’ve got 17,000 people there that’s watching this guy propose so it’s like, she better say yes, otherwise it’s going to be a long six minutes.
You obviously had worked with Paul for a long time, had a great respect for him as a composer, as a producer. Since his passing and as you guys have kind of had to step up and maybe handle more of the behind-the-scenes elements? Is there an aspect of Paul’s work that you’ve developed a greater respect for since his death?
Al Pitrelli: Nothing has really changed with our respective responsibilities and jobs. Paul and his family have been behind the scenes from the jump. I think, individually, speaking for Jeff and I, if anything, we just work that much harder at the jobs that we’ve had for 20 something years.
I’m trying to become a better musical director every year because Paul insisted that I become better every year. Jeff’s become a better drummer every year and a better band leader in his own way because that’s what Paul wanted from us. He would push us harder. Even in the studio, there would be stuff that he’d say, “I want you to record this part,” and I would say, “Dude, I cannot play this, this is just too crazy.” He goes, “Yes, you can. Exhale, do your thing, breathe, take a moment, and let’s work it up together.” To the point where I would be able to do stuff that I normally don’t think I would’ve ever been able to do without his tutelage and his guidance, and his unbelievable work ethic.
What I respect the most is the honesty in which he just approached the song. He just wanted to make great music. He didn’t really necessarily care what was popular on the radio, what was in fashion, out of fashion. He just knew that with the amount of instrumentation and voices he had available to him, he could write and create the most incredible stories. It was our job to see his dream fulfilled. That work ethic will stay with me for the rest of my life and, subsequently, with my children, and so on and so forth. Another way that he will live forever.
Jeff Plate: Al touched on it before. The cast members that we have, have been with us for quite a number of years. Both of our touring groups have been actually quite solid for the past 10 years. Everybody knew Paul and respected Paul and what was involved in this tour, but losing Paul also reminded us all just how fragile everything is. It really put everybody on their toes, myself included. We have to be just as good, if not better than ever, to make sure this thing keeps going in the right direction. It was a real wake-up call.
It was, obviously, heartbreaking like you can’t even imagine, but it really became aware to all of us that we needed to be as good as possible to keep this thing going. Because we’ve all had a big hand in the success of it. But, Paul’s attention to detail and… Where I miss Paul is in rehearsal, watching him run around, pointing at a light that might be the wrong color or out of focus, or somebody’s in the wrong position on stage. He had this insane energy to make the thing perfect. That carried over with all of us and a lot of us have learned that and carried this on without even thinking about it now.
It’s quite an amazing show. There are so many moving parts to it, but every one of them deserves attention and we’ve all been very good about that.
Al Pitrelli: The devil’s in the details, we always say.
It’s great that you’re doing this Christmas Eve and Other Stories this year; do you see this as something that you’ll do again next year? Or you’ve not thought that far in advance? I mean 20 years is a long time in rock ‘n’ roll, what do see as the future of Trans-Siberian Orchestra? Another 20 years?
Al Pitrelli: For your first question, let us get through this tour before we worry about next year. I know that Paul’s family, our management team, production heads, they’re always looking a year or two down the road. Jeff had said earlier, Paul had five or ten years mapped out in his mind and on paper, where he wanted to see this thing go. Our task at hand right now is to put on the best tour ever. That’s quite an undertaking considering what we’ve done in the last 21 years, you know?
This show, for 1,000 reasons, is going to be an emotional roller coaster for all of us. Like Jeff had said earlier, Christmas Eve and Other Stories put us on the map. It’s the first thing we recorded as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It’s the first thing we ever toured in ’99. To come back out and play it and like Jeff said, not have Paul running around the arena pointing out the details that none of us really see, it’s going to be different without him being there physically. Although, spiritually and every other which way, he’s always with every one of us.
Again, his family, they’re just pointing in the right direction. That trajectory is continuing on 45 degrees angled up at all times. The future of Trans-Siberian Orchestra? I don’t know. I’m worried about tomorrow. Long-term, the family, management, all them, there’s no end in sight. Just I have no particular script in front of me, so I’m just going to follow what they tell me to do, plug in and play and have a great time.
Jeff Plate: I don’t have a whole lot to add to that, but when we came out with The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, this was the last of the stories that we needed to perform live. It was so well-received, and that’s why we did it I believe for four years, three or four years, whatever it was. But Christmas Eve and Other Stories has been already tested, it’s a proven favorite. It was hugely successful when we did it before. To Al’s point, we take this tour by tour now. I touched on it earlier, losing Paul just makes you realize how fragile all of this is. We’re very, very lucky to be able to do any of these tours, let alone this being the 21st. Let’s just hope everything goes well and the audience stays with us, and we’ll be fine.
A follow-up to an earlier question; the unfinished projects that may be in the works right now, are they Christmas oriented? Or are they part of the non-Christmas stuff that Paul had been doing?
Jeff Plate: Go ahead, Al.
Al Pitrelli: Both, actually. Paul was such an incredible writer, had such an incredible mind, that he would just write. We’ve been working on some different Christmas things over the past five or six months with his family down in the studio in Tampa. There were some unfinished rock operas that were non-holiday. Yet, there was enough of everything to keep all of us busy for a long, long time and never repeating ourselves, musically. That was one thing Paul was pretty adamant about, he never wanted to go back on yesterday’s music, fall back on yesterday’s accomplishments.
He always looked it as like a Super Bowl team; a team wins the Super Bowl in January and that’s awesome and they celebrate, and there’s great jubilation in the town and all that stuff, but as soon as that is over it’s back to the drawing board. How do we get better next year? How do we win another Super Bowl? Or, in our case, how do we do a better tour and a better record, and so on and so forth?
Paul was always way ahead of [things]… If we’re set up in Council Bluffs rehearsing, his mind was two years down the road on a record or on a tour. So, the short answer would’ve been yes, but the long answer is what I just gave you. There’s enough non-holiday and holiday material to last us a long time.
In the past you’ve been joined by some guest artists. Are there any plans to bring things like that back in the future?
Al Pitrelli: Go ahead, Jeff.
Jeff Plate: Well, geez, right now I’m really not aware of it. I guess anything is possible down the road. That was something that Paul did. I mean, just what a present for all of us to be able to be on stage with some of these artists that we’ve had. Like Jon Anderson from Yes, I had the pleasure of playing with Roger Daltrey from The Who and Steven Tyler, Aerosmith, I mean those were just such magical moments; and I think, not just for us, but for the audience.
I don’t know if this is something that we will bring back. I guess this is probably more of a question for Paul’s family, how do they want to carry this thing forward in the future but, boy, it would be nice. Before, when we did have these artists, TSO was still kind of on the up. We were still growing. Now TSO is probably much more recognizable and some of these artists, who knows, maybe they’ll put in a call that they would like to be on stage with us. That would be great, let’s hope that happens.
Al Pitrelli: Just to throw this one in, the shows are amazing, everything that we do up there is awesome. But, like Jeff had just said, he had the privilege to work with some of the biggest names and greatest singers of all time. Personally, I just remember a couple years ago on New Year’s Eve, standing on stage with Paul Rodgers in Seattle and kind of looking over my shoulder. I said, “Never in a million years did I ever think I’d be touring for 21 years and be part of something so incredible, never did I think I’d be playing ‘Can’t Get Enough’ with Paul Rodgers.” I remember hearing that song in 1975 for the first time, which was like the soundtrack of my life, you know?
Paul has given us so many gifts over the years, musically, professionally, everything, but every so often there’s this little thing that pops up as you just go, “God, this is the most amazing thing ever.” And yes, like Jeff said, hopefully there will be more in the future but, right now, the special guest is Christmas Eve and Other Stories. This is what everybody is looking forward to hearing and seeing and watching unfurl.
You just touched on what I was about to ask you. But, the non-holiday albums, Beethoven’s Last Night, Night Castle, and Letters from the Labyrinth, do you think the band’s ever going to revisit any of that music and those stories?
Al Pitrelli: Yeah, touring for Beethoven and touring non-holiday stuff is always great. Touring in the springtime, going over to Europe, traveling the planet bringing Paul’s work to life, It’s amazing playing in this band and playing yearlong is even more amazing.
Whether or not we’ll pursue that in the future, again, the task at hand is to make the 2019 winter tour the biggest, best one ever. I don’t have enough capacity to even concern myself with anything down the road. I know that they’re great works. I know that the family wants to see them come to life on the stage again. Again, not to give you a short answer but I think one step ahead at a time. We have a huge task in front of us that we’re all looking forward to, so I can’t worry too much about the future just yet.
Jeff Plate: Another point with that is, if you’ve seen TSO, you understand how big this show is. Paul insisted on going out with the biggest show possible, the biggest show that management would let him go on the road with. The Christmas tour, as successful as it is right now, I don’t think Paul actually broke even for probably the first four, or five, or six years of touring; that’s how much money he invested into it.
The spring tours, these were a huge investment, too. Logistically, it is no small task to move this group around, and especially when we went over to Europe. This was amazing but think of this whole entourage with an army of people. The production that Paul insisted on using, traveling to Europe and the expense of that. We would love to do it and, honestly, there are some fans who think that the Beethoven tour is one of their favorite tours. I’m sure for me, personally, there was moments where I would agree.
But, as Al mentioned, the winter tour is really the first thing at hand right now, so the task is to carry this on and, hopefully, these other things fall into place.
Speaking of moving things around, the last time I spoke with Paul, he was interested in trying to make a Broadway musical; obviously, that’s, again, in the future. But, have you heard anything about whether they’re still trying to bring that dream to fruition?
Al Pitrelli: Yeah, absolutely. This is Al again. Yeah, all of these things are talked about. Paul would tell us all the time, there’s just not enough time to accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished. He would say that he wants this to live forever, long past all of us, albeit live or recording. When I say live, I mean in the arena setting, in the theater setting, on Broadway, whatever it is, on film; everything is talked about, everybody wants to move forward. His family is putting pen to paper to how to make this all happen. But, again, like they said, like a good prize fighter in the boxing ring, you got one step at a time, one punch at a time, one round at a time; you have to win each fight at hand and then worry about the next one.
Do you pay attention to social media and what fans are saying there, as far as songs they want to hear in the second set?
Al Pitrelli: I’ve learned to take a back seat in that decision-making process because sometimes, you know the old saying, there’s too many chefs. Paul, his family and management, they’ve got their finger on the pulse… Like, on social media. I don’t really kind of get too involved with that, so I really don’t know; yet, they’re on that one. They’re like clocks looking at that all the time, feedback from the audiences and all that stuff.
Me, personally, I’d be lying to you if I said yeah. I don’t. My stance is tell us what to get the band ready to play. You tell me. If they ask my opinion, I’ll say, “Oh, this would be a fun song to play.” If they agree to it, great; if they don’t agree to it, that’s fine too. They see the bigger picture, you know? There are so many songs in the catalog that people love, it’s hard to do all of them each night.
We’re doing two shows a day. We were clocking it at 2 hours and 20 minutes for each show. Now, for the folks on stage, we live for this stuff; for the folks underneath the stage, they don’t share that same sentiment. They got to pack the trucks at midnight, haul it 500 miles and get it in at 6:00 in the morning and be ready for a 3:00 downbeat the next day. With that in mind, again, tell me where to plug in and play, let me know what songs are on the list and I’ll make sure, on my side, that the band is just killing it perfectly.
So many times we hear from artists that perform songs on material, maybe, in their mid-20s and then come back to it years later, and the very same songs just resonate differently. Have you noticed over time and, especially since losing Paul, are these songs resonating differently with you? Are you hearing different things in them? Are you seeing any different reactions from the audience over time?
Jeff Plate: I want to touch on this because I know he’s got some personal comments on it. But, in my thoughts, and I think this goes with everybody, when we first started doing these tours, we realized that these lyrics and these stories that Paul wrote really meant a lot to a lot of people.
As you get older, you start going through adversity. You lose family members, and you lose friends, and all this and that. His lyrics really just come around and hit home. You never really realize what that song meant until you’ve lived through some of this stuff. The more we’re going to do this, the more we’re going to go through these adversities and these changes.
For me, personally, Christmas Eve and Other Stories was just something that helped me get through a very difficult time for the first several years that we did that tour, so that meant a lot to me. Over the years, every one of these songs, lyrically, once you really start paying attention to what the lyrics are saying and what they mean in the end of the song, it really affects all of us, I think.
Al Pitrelli: Yeah, exactly what Jeff said. With the audience and myself on stage and the rest of the band, the lyrics are so important. They’re so pertinent today from right when we first heard Paul read these to us 25, 26 years ago, you know? But it’s like anything else, I miss him every moment of every day. I can only imagine what his wife and his daughter feel like, and the rest of his immediate family. Playing these songs, standing on stage, sitting in rehearsal and re-learning them, in my bedroom when I’m getting ready to go to work, I could tell you every moment of the recording process. I could tell you what he was wearing, what we were eating, what we were laughing about, what we were arguing about, what the studio looked like, smelled like, everything about it; so, it immediately takes me back to the origins of this whole thing.
That’s really bittersweet. A lot of times I’ll smile because it was some of the greatest times in my life. Other times, I can’t help but tear up because when you miss somebody, there’s no negotiating with that. What I do have, is I have those memories and his smile, and those big blue eyes of his that are in my heart and soul for the rest of my life. My two baby girls never had the privilege of meeting Paul, but they will know everything about the man, and he will live forever through them, as well. In my definition of heaven, that’s eternal right there.
Wow, it just sounds like something you’re going to treasure forever that’s got a personal aspect as well as a professional one.
Al Pitrelli: Yeah, and I think that comes across during the show because we’re not just up there playing a bunch of songs and going through the motions. We’ve all lived through them. We’re living it personally with his family and a large portion of us were there from the jump. This is our lives unfurling on stage in front of the audience members as well. Even some of the guys on the crew, they’ve been with us for 15, 20 years. We’ve all grown up together under this heading of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the stories that Paul wrote and that we had the privilege of helping him bring to life.
So, it does hit home on stage. That’s something if we went through the motions, the audience would read it as fraudulent; the audience knows that we’re rejoicing in his work at all times. That’s something that I’m so proud of because I get to go to work every day saying, “You know what, I’m going to play these songs like it’s the first time.” Because for me, every night is the first time.
Is there anything musically different that’s going to be in this show versus previous shows? And how do you keep your energy with this intense tour? Some of these states, you’re playing, like you said, two shows a day. How do you do that?
Al Pitrelli: Go ahead, Jeff.
Jeff Plate: Musically, there is something different every year and, like we’ve talked about, we’re doing a different show this year, Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Although we perform a lot of these songs throughout the other stories that we’ve been doing for the past couple years, there’s always some songs that we have to leave out because they don’t fit the previous show.
So, this year, sure, they’ll be some new things musically, lyrically, obviously. But every year we try to do this, you have to present a different show to the fans. Not only a better show, but you have to change stuff musically. When we do these stories, that part of the show is kind of locked in, as far as the set list.
Somebody earlier was talking about the second half of the show. There really is so much material that we would love to play but we can’t play because we don’t have enough time. Every year we try to bring something a little bit different to the back half of the show. Usually the intro of the show, too, is changed up quite often. Every year it needs to be something better, obviously, but different, too. Because we do have a lot of people in the audience who come to see us every single year and, I mentioned before, there’s a lot of them that come more than once a year, so you really need to keep it fresh for them.
Now, getting back to “Christmas Eve and Other Stories”, again, the record came out in ’96; you toured it for the first 10 or 11 years as a band; a lot of the performers that were on that record or in the band at the beginning, have changed over the past decade or so since it played. So, is there a sense of excitement and freshness playing something that, really, a lot of the singers especially have never been a part of?
Al Pitrelli: That’s a really good question. It is exciting because there are some new singers that are with us now that were not with us 20 something years ago when we recorded, and when we first started touring it.
I know that I’ve been working with some of the singers on just digging into the characters, again, along with our vocal coach, Danielle Sample, and Paul’s family, and, watching these songs come back to life again, it’s really just a lot of fun.
But what I want everybody to understand is, yes, there may be a new singer, there may be, let’s just say, a new piano player on stage, whatever it is; but, the character in the song is what’s coming back to life. That character has never gone away, it’s exactly the same character that it was 25 years ago, okay?
Like we just talked about earlier, if the singer is doing their job, the audience will understand the lyric. If the singer excels at their job, which Paul was always adamant about and his family insists on now, the audience will now know that it’s not the singer; the character just came to life on stage, and the story is being told as the truth at that moment. For me, I’m more excited about seeing these characters come back to life and these songs being played once again because it’s been way too long, if that makes any sense to you?
In the second half, you guys have always paid tribute to your Savatage beginnings, whether it’s “Believe,” or last year adding in “Chance.” Were you surprised at the tremendous reaction to bringing that in last year? Are there any plans to throw in anymore Savatage projects?
Jeff Plate: As far as plans throwing anymore in the show, I think we’ll find out when we get to Omaha. Here, again, somebody was asking earlier about the second half and how that all lays out, but that takes some trial and error. We need to hear the songs performed and feel out how they’re going to fit into the set.
To your question about the Savatage material I think, when we first started touring in 1999, there was a lot of people in the audience who did not realize the connection between Savatage and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. That has changed over the past 20 something years because we’ve brought a couple songs in, like you had mentioned “Believe,” last year was “Chance.” But the audience has access to information now and a lot of people have done their research and realize that Savatage, and Paul O’Neill, Jon Oliva, they were kind of leaning towards this for a number of years before TSO became a reality.
Last year when we played “Chance,” I was surprised every night at how many people reacted, you know? Just when they heard those first piano notes, it was like, wow, there are more people in this room that know what this song is than I realize, and it went over great every night. It’s always good to pay tribute to where this music came from in the first place and it’d be nice to have some more of it in the show.
Al Pitrelli: I just wanted to add to what Jeff said. At the end of the day, a great song is a great song; Paul O’Neill’s writing is Paul O’Neill’s writing. To play “Chance,” or to play “Mozart” and “Memories,” or to play “12/24” and “Mad Russians,” they’re all just great pieces of music. Our audience is so diverse that they’re going to sit back and listen to whatever we present. The reaction at the end of something like “Chance” last year was over the top because at the center of it, it’s a great piece of music.
When TSO started out there was nothing like it. It was just all new concepts and it was so big. 20 years later now, I can see the influence of TSO on some other projects. I’m just curious if you guys ever catch that and catch that tip of the hat and how does that make you feel, when you see other bands and know that TSO has inspired other artists?
Al Pitrelli: You can’t help but smile, you know? Because history just keeps repeating itself. We’re, as musicians, we’re products of our influences; it’s a culmination of everything we grew up listening to. When I put a guitar around my neck, parts of my playing come from the guys that I learned from and just couldn’t help but try to emulate. There’s a lot of Jeff Beck in my playing. There’s a lot of Gary Moore. There’s a lot of everybody across the board. So that’s the greatest compliment you can give to the people you grew up listening to.
The fact that, as approaching the elder statesman status, when there’s younger artists or other artists who were influenced by what Paul O’Neill created and watching what his family is perpetuating, you can’t help but just have a sense of pride. It’s like watching your children grow up and having certain characteristics that you instilled in them, nothing wrong with it and I take pride it in every second. The opposite would be terrible, if everybody just kind of turned their head and went, ugh, that would be no good.
Jeff Plate: Yeah, and I think on the other end of that, too, we cannot escape our influences and our heroes and what not; but it’s very interesting that over all these years, how many children have come through the autograph line that their eyes are wide open, they’re star struck and now they’re looking at us saying they want to do that. I have people every year that come through the line and say, “You know what, my son is drumming now because he watched you. You’ve just been such a big influence on him.” I’ve also had a number of grown men who, maybe, their drums have been collecting dust in the garage, or this was just something on their bucket list, they always wanted to learn how to play the drums; that are now picking up the instrument and doing it, just because they’ve seen the show.
It’s not just me, it’s guitar players, it’s singers, it’s all of the above. The people that TSO has influenced, not just other bands and our peers, but just the next generation of musicians. I think that’s one of the coolest things about it.
Al Pitrelli: Yeah, I agree.
This is a different political and societal landscape than 1999 when you began this whole journey. We’ve seen 9/11, the Gulf War, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the mass shootings, the current divisiveness in the country. Logistically, how does that impact how you must run this? But, more to the point, do all those things make it even more important to continue this tour?
Al Pitrelli: I don’t know, Christmas is Christmas, you know? I mean at the center of this whole thing, when we’re touring for the holidays, people get to celebrate something that’s wonderful and positive, and again celebrate Paul’s work and these songs. One of the things that he was completely adamant about, and most of us really kind of followed his lead, is that we don’t involve ourselves in politics when it comes to our art form. This is just going out there and playing great music to great audiences in great cities, globally. We’re very fortunate to have a job like this. We’re very fortunate that it was created. A good portion of it is centered around the holiday season.
Whatever your political, religious, social overviews are, everybody that walks into that arena is leaving all that stuff outside, and just celebrating 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’s like going to a good movie and just getting away from the world. Whether you agree with what’s going on, whether you disagree with what’s going on, if the climate isn’t right; that’s all well and fine, but it’s all left in the parking lot at the arena.
People walk in and they’re there for one reason and one reason only, just to celebrate this magical night that we’re going to have 2 hours and 20 minutes of some of the greatest music ever by an incredibly gifted rock band.
Jeff Plate: The only thing I’ll say to that is Paul always said that TSO was something that he wanted people to walk into that room and escape for two and a half hours. He wanted that TSO show to be something to just take you away from a lot of this. A lot of the stress of life, and society and news, and all of the above.
But I want to touch again on the lyrics and the stories that he’s written because they’re really all are so well-meaning. Paul was so passionate about what he was doing, and this is really what’s carried a lot of what we do. I think people come to our shows and realize, not only is it an escape from the rigors of life and all that, but there’s such a good meaning behind all this.
We’re just very lucky, we’re very humble, and very proud, all of the above, to carry the man’s torch and continue doing this.
Before we conclude, I wanted to ask you two if you have anything else you would like to add?
Al Pitrelli: No, I think those are great questions and a great bunch of people, and we always appreciate it and thank you for doing a great job. That’s it, we’re good.
Jeff Plate: I wanted to mention there’s something that we usually always talk about in interviews is the charity that we’ve done across the country over all these years. This is part of Paul’s thing about being generous and doing the right thing, and caring for other people, was just that. He insisted on at least $1.00 per ticket sold from the very beginning go to a local charity. And up to date, we’ve donated over $60M across the country, which is quite significant. And we are very proud we’re able to help some people get through, you know? That’s a really tough time of the year, and it’s really good for a lot of us and not so much for others. So that’s something that’s really important with TSO.
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 8, 2019.
Photos by Nick Bergmann © 2019