It’s hard to imagine this now, but there was a time when Trans-Siberian Orchestra members wondered if their whole holiday touring production idea would really fly with audiences.
The group — helmed by visionary founder Paul O’Neill — had released a trilogy of Christmas-themed albums, which sold well, but taking it to the concert stage was a completely different animal for the fledgling project.
Longtime band members Al Pitrelli (guitars) and Jeff Plate (drums) recalled the opening night of the first TSO tour in 1999 during a recent teleconference call with national music writers.
“I remember when Jeff and I did the first show out in Philly,” said Pitrelli. “We look down, and I kind of looked at him and I had half a heart attack. We didn’t really know who was going to be in the audience. ... And the lights went down in The Tower Theater in Philadelphia, and when I looked down, there was a really attractive older couple in their Sunday go-to-meeting clothes and right next to them was this dude in a Slayer hoodie. And we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This is either going to go really bad or really great.’ And two hours later, we realized that this was the most amazing thing ever.”
“We walked out on that stage with more questions than answers, and nerves,” said Plate, remembering that debut show. “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 and there was dry ice rolling off the front of the stage. This elderly couple who, he was wearing a tuxedo and she had this beautiful red dress on, they were probably 65, 70 years old. And, Johnny and I looked at each other and said, ‘We are doomed.’ And we walked out there and it was just magic.”
Little did they know at the time, but there was something special brewing. It turns out that the diversity of that first audience proved to be a harbinger of the group’s success over time.
“The diversity of that first audience,” Plate said, “carried over into the second, and the third, and the fourth, and 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.”
All these years later, the band’s imprint on the holidays is to the point that for millions across the country, the season would just seem incomplete if it didn’t include an appearance by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
“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,” Plate said. “So for us, it’s a huge responsibility, not just to perform this show, but we also realize that a lot of these people really kind of depend on us to kick this whole thing into gear in terms of the holiday spirit, so it’s very cool.”
Concert-goers in The Beehive State can pretty much set their holiday schedules by TSO’s annual arrival — which seemingly comes the week before Thanksgiving almost every year. This season is no different, as the multi-platinum performance band brings its stunning “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” production to Vivint Smart Home Arena on Wednesday for two shows, a matinee at 3:30 p.m. and another evening performance at 7:30.
With two completely different touring companies criss-crossing the country, TSO kicked off its 2019 schedule on Wednesday in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, and will continue its barrage of shows through Dec. 30 in Toronto and Chicago.
One of the first topics to come up during the teleconference was how attending TSO’s show has become such a holiday tradition for so many people and families, and how the band is able to deliver on that expectation year after year.
“To be completely honest with you, I don’t really know anything different any longer,” Pitrelli said. “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’ 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.”
O’Neill, the mastermind behind TSO, died in 2017. While his death was a shock, it has only served to galvanize everyone else involved in carrying O’Neill’s legacy and the band’s brand forward in the years to come.
“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,” Plate said. “And I think it really put everybody on their toes, myself included, that, hey, we have to be just as good, if not better than ever, to make sure this thing keeps going in the right direction, and 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. And that carried over with all of us and, I think, a lot of us have learned that and carried this on without even thinking about it now. But, it’s quite an amazing show. There’s so many moving parts to it, but every one of them deserves attention, and we’ve all been very good about that.”
The world, obviously, is in a much different place today than it was in 1999, when TSO debuted its live show — also with “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.” (That particular production, which returns this year, was last performed in 2014.) With that in mind, Pitrelli was asked if the turmoil in the outside world had any noticeable affect on audiences.
“I don’t know, Christmas is Christmas, you know?” he said. “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. And 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.
“So 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,” he said. “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.”