Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Revisiting the Ghosts of Christmas Eve
Updated: Mar 5, 2020
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.