If there isn’t snow on the ground, the next best barometer that winter’s begun is when Trans-Siberian Orchestra kicks off its annual holiday extravaganza. Now 20 years into the touring tradition, the steadily-expanding show is attracting multiple generations of music lovers, from those in touch with the symphonic troupe’s hard rock/heavy metal origins to those simply seeking the warm and fuzzy feelings that only this specific season can bring. Lean more from Chicago Concert Reviews’ teleconference time with music director/lead guitarist Al Pitrelli and longtime drummer Jeff Plate about the significant anniversary and what’s in store for a revamped “The Ghosts Of Christmas Eve – The Best Of TSO And More” at the Allstate Arena in both the afternoon and evening of December 28.
Last year obviously had its own emotion to it, remembering Paul. What was that like? And now, this year, is this almost like a new era of Trans-Siberian Orchestra live?
Al Pitrelli: For both of us, I think it was probably one of the hardest years of our professional careers…He had this idea of creating Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and we were just privileged and blessed to be along for the ride and we watched it kind of grow up. To have the carpet pulled from beneath us so suddenly and tragically last year really just put us all in a different mindset.
I think sorrow and the pain that goes along with losing a loved one was prevalent with everybody, but also I think 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 kind of 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 kind of just getting through it because, you know, he was like a big brother, aside from being our boss and our producer and creator of this whole thing. I mean, literally we have spent half of our lives, both Jeff and I, sitting next to the man in studios and on tour buses. And then to be out there, you can’t get it out of your head that he’s gone because everything around you he created.
Jeff Plate: Well, I agree 100%. And 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, so we’ve all been on this ride together. This is our 20th tour, so we’ve been through this a number of times. [In rehearsal], 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, you know 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. You know, all these little things that sometimes you just thought “God, what’s he doing?” But he was fine-tuning his vision, and as Al said, Paul was always right.
So to do this without Paul, obviously it’s difficult, but he prepared us for this and 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. Carrying on without him wasn’t in the plans, but here we are. For us to honor Paul, we’ve got to go out and be the best we can be every time.
I was wondering if you could talk about the decision to do “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve” again.
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. “Christmas Eve And Other Stories,” which is our first CD, I think we toured that one for 12 years. But 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. When Paul put this show together, he absolutely loved it, and it was one of his favorite shows. So the band, I think, 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 I think, when we lost Paul, doing this show again was just a great way to honor Paul.
We’ve also realized too 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. And if you’ve ever seen TSO, you know every year we go out there with different production and the show itself is always going to be different.
What are the most valuable lessons the group’s learned throughout these last 20 years, and would you change anything if you could?
Pitrelli: Ooh, good question. Well, the most valuable thing that we’ve all learned is that time is our most precious commodity. Twenty years of touring and 24, 25 years of recording have gone by in the blink of an eye. Jeff 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 he and I never really thought…I’m sure Paul 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.
So 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, because 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 and I was blessed to have a lot of those days with him.
Plate:You just never know when your last show might be, so you’ve got to approach every one like it could be your last. And we’ve mentioned the audience several times now. We wouldn’t be here without them. So 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, and for 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. I think 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. I mean 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. So we’ve got to be very careful with it, but we’ve also got to be aggressive at the same time and go out there and be very positive, be very confident about we’re doing…We had to compete with a lot of different touring groups, and 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. So you can’t try to shortchange anybody, that’s the thing, and I think the audience will pick up on that. It’s something TSO has not done from the first show up till now.