SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Nov. 15, 2023 (Gephardt Daily) — Lead guitarist and musical director for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s west coast shows Al Pitrelli isn’t in a hurry to wake up from the dream he’s living every day.
Today, Nov. 15, the multi-platinum rock group known by many just as TSO kicks off its spectacular holiday tour, “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve — the Best of TSO and More.” Two bands, which tour simultaneously on the east and west coast, will hit a total of 62 cities for 104 performances between now and Dec. 30.
Since its touring debut, TSO has played more than 2,000 Winter Tour shows to more than 18 million fans. In just the past 10 years, encompassing nine tours, they’ve performed for more than 8 million fans.
Last Wednesday, the group launched its SiriusXM festive channel, Trans-Siberian Orchestra Radio. Available on the SiriusXM app through Dec. 26, the channel takes listeners to the realm where rock music pushes classical’s boundaries, where holiday classics fuse with powerful electric guitars, and where a diverse lineup of vocalists come together to create storytelling like no other. And last Friday, TSO, which has sold more than 12 million albums and DVDs, digitally released “The Ghosts Of Christmas Eve — The Complete Narrated Version” in Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio and hi-fidelity stereo mixes.
This year’s tour promises a new and larger presentation of the beloved holiday tradition, “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” which has captured the hearts of multiple generations. A product of the imagination of TSO’s late founder Paul O’Neill, and based on the multi-platinum CD and TV special, the show follows the journey of a runaway who breaks into an abandoned vaudeville theater on Christmas Eve. After the performance of the rock opera, 2023’s tour also boasts a rocking, blazing, and laser-lit second set containing greatest hits, fan-favorites, and surprises.
Before Pitrelli and his band hit the road, Gephardt Daily had a chance to speak to him over the phone. Pitrelli has been part of the juggernaut since its inception in 1995 and subsequent first album, 1996’s “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.” Currently, he is the lead guitarist and musical director of TSO West and the co-musical director for studio recordings.
Long before he entered the TSO realm, Pitrelli set the stage for his work in the band thanks to an impressive musical pedigree. After leaving Berklee School of Music in Boston in the early ’80s, his versatility led to recording and touring work with musicians and groups such as Alice Cooper, where he served as the band’s musical director, Asia, Megadeth, and numerous others.
In the mid-’90s, he joined the progressive rock group Savatage where he began working with O’Neill as a producer. O’Neill’s vision of creating a new type of band that would do anything to allow their music to have the maximum impact on the listener led to the eventual formation of TSO.
Pitrelli told us more about what audiences can expect from this year’s show.
“We perform a beautifully rich story,” he said. “The guy that founded this whole thing was Paul O’Neill, and it’s really an interesting story, you’ve got to understand that this man’s story started in 1995, 28 years ago, kind of an accident, right? The song was ‘Christmas Eve/Sarajevo.’ We recorded it in ’95, the DJ’s played it, the rest is history, right? So I’m going to write a record around that song in ’96 and then we recorded that, and it sold 4 or 5 million records. Then a year later, or whatever it was, two years later, we recorded ‘The Christmas Attic’ and that sold a couple of million copies.
“I used to joke with Paul and say, ‘We’re the Steely Dan of Christmas,’ where we just make records, and ain’t nothing wrong with that. But I think in ’98 or ’99, he wanted to film what would be called ‘Ghosts of Christmas Eve,’ so he took a bunch of songs from the original two records, and he wrote an incredible story, and we found this really old Art Deco theater somewhere in New Jersey, and he had this story about a teenage runaway, who makes her way into the theater, and meets the curator, whatever the job title would be of the person that stays there and takes care of it, and the story runs its course and she realizes she didn’t want to run away, she’s scared, she’s tired, she’s lonely, she only wants to get home. And she gets home and her family is reunited on Christmas Eve, and it’s a happy ending.”
The made-for-television special that was filmed at Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Jersey City, was then released and put into heavy rotation for the holiday season.
“When I was a kid, it would have been ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or whatever, and all of a sudden, that movie was becoming a holiday tradition, and I was so proud,” Pitrelli added. “I realized, once we started performing this piece live, I’d look out into the audience and people, sometimes they smile, sometimes they cry, and it’s like, everyone in this building misses somebody. And it was just this incredible epiphany. I read this wonderful biography not too long ago, by Leonard Bernstein, and he had this quote, I think it was referring to Beethoven, but it could apply to any art, he said ‘it has to be accessible but never ordinary.’ So it’s like, this whole story is so accessible, but it’s anything but banal, or ordinary.”
He added: “I always think that everybody, me in particular, I have an empty chair at my dining room table. And it’s magnified around the holiday season. The people that have left this planet, that have passed on, or I haven’t spoken to somebody from my high school for like 40 years. And whatever it is, everybody misses someone, and the tradition, especially with the live show, is that people realize that the other 14,000 people in that building have the same emotion. It doesn’t make yours any less, but at least you realize you’re not alone in that sense.”
Pitrelli also touched upon the COVID-19 pandemic and how it crystalized his goals.
“Everybody’s tomorrow had a big question. Everybody’s lifestyle, like normal life, went out the window. And for me in particular, as I was approaching 60, I was like, I have a lot more yesterdays than I have tomorrows, and I’m not going to waste time anymore.”
We also asked Pitrelli about the logistics of TSO having two touring companies simultaneously.
“It’s a Hail Mary every year,” he joked. “So, ’99, our first tour, seven cities, 10 shows, one box truck. So that was a huge success, people really loved this.” The next year, he added, O’Neill said: “there’s no way to get one band ’round the country with the window of time that we have, so he said he’s going to keep his band, and he said, ‘let’s put together a band and you take the rest of the country,’ so we’re basically covering all of America. And then, in 2003, maybe ’03, ’04, it was Salt Lake as a matter of fact. We have a couple of days off, just having a great time, and I got a phone call from my manager. He goes, ‘listen, it’s sold out.’ So I’m like, ‘awesome.’ And he goes, ‘OK, do you want to do a second show?’ And I’m like, ‘when?’ And he goes, ‘how’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon on the same day of the show?’ And I’m like, ‘who does a rock ‘n’ roll show in the middle of the day?’ And that’s where that started, you’ve got two bands, playing two shows a day, because the communities can’t get enough of this thing.”
He added: “At the top of our conversation you asked what I think about [the success of TSO] and I think about how this little baby was born 28 years ago, and it keeps growing, every year. It’s more relevant every year, and if Paul is its father, I’m its weird uncle, and I love every second of it. It’s just like my children, I watch my older boys grow up and turn into incredible men with careers and lives, and I watch my young daughters grow up, the most precious things in my world. And this thing is like one of my children; you’re terrified, and you want to take care of it, you want to protect it, and help it to grow, and now it’s 28 years old, and it’s like, wow, this is pretty awesome.”
We asked him also what ages the show is suitable for; Pitrelli said it’s for all the family.
“Two to 92,” he said. “And not only age-wise, so going back to the first tour in ’99 right? The opening night was at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. We’d never played a live show before. And I’m standing on stage, guitar ’round my neck, and the house lights go down, curtain comes up, and I look out in the audience and I nearly had a heart attack, because right in front of me, there’s this older couple, I’d say they were in their 60s or 70s, right? And they’re wearing these crocheted reindeer sweaters, right? Right next to them, there’s a dude wearing a Slayer hoodie. Talk about one of the more terrifying moments of my career, because nobody knew what to expect. Maybe the older people thought it was a Russian orchestra, maybe the younger people thought it was a metal concert. And there was a standing ovation. There’s no demographic for us, it’s one huge demographic, if they love classical, if they love theater, if they love rock ‘n’ roll, whatever. And they’re coming in generations, two, three generations, sitting together in the theater having fun. I’m so proud we’ve reached so many different people.”
Keeping with O’Neill’s vision, TSO remains one of rock’s most charitable bands; at least $1 from every ticket sold is donated to charity.
“That is something that Paul O’Neill started going back to the Tower Theater show in Philadelphia, our first show ever,” Pitrelli said. “Paul said, it’s the holidays, people need help, and I want to give back to these communities that have helped put us on the map. So one dollar from every ticket we’ve ever sold has gone back to the community. Now, it doesn’t sound like a lot. But somebody told me we’d sold 18 million tickets in the last 20-some years. And it’s made a difference and I’m so proud of Paul and the O’Neill family. They made the world a little bit better.”
He also spoke about what he does after the TSO tour finishes each year, and what 2024 holds for him.
“Historically, the last show is usually one day before New Year’s Eve, which is a wonderful way to end a run, so they fly us home, and I haven’t seen my wife and my daughters in quite a while; we have our New Year’s Eve celebration,” he said. “We trying to stay up as late as possible, then we celebrate on New Year’s Day, and unpack, and exhale. My daughters are 7 and 12 respectively, the loves of my life. And then I’m back to making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at 6 o’clock in the morning, getting them off to school, my wife goes to work. Kind of whatever, nothing for about a week or two, then in January, we’re back on the phone, and we’re planning and plotting. It takes the entire year to put something together this big.
“So to answer your question, my 2024; I want my daughters to do the best they can in school. Watch them grow up a little bit more. My sons to keep in touch as much as possible; they have great careers and lives. I want to be a little bit better as a musician over the course of the year. I always want to learn more. And I want to put on a bigger show in 2024 than what we’re going to put on for you guys in 2023. ’23 was a bigger show than ’22, so it’s a trajectory, so as that trajectory continues I’ve got a lot of work to do next year.”
We also asked him if the musician gene has passed down to his daughters; one of his sons is also a professional musician, while the other two serve in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard.
“They are, I’ll catch them every so often strumming on my guitars, and the grand piano, I put little animal stickers on the keys, so middle C is a cat, B is a bumblebee, like, cat, dog, elephant, so if they gravitate towards it great, if not, OK,” he said. “My middle son of the three elder ones, he’s a professional musician, incredibly talented bass player, piano player, arranger. He’s just having a wonderful career. But I think if you force it down their throat they kind of get turned off, if it happens organically, enjoy music for what music is. Olivia is my 12-year-old daughter and every so often she’ll want to play a Billy Joel song or whatever, she’ll play it for a couple of days then she won’t touch a piano for six months. And Layla, my youngest daughter, I just keep trying to teach her to play the song Layla, because I named her after that song.”
Finally, Pitrelli reflected on his body of work.
“I’ve been really fortunate and blessed; I don’t think about it too much,” he said. “I very rarely look in the rear view mirror, I’m too busy worrying what’s going on today and tomorrow and the TSO shows and records, but every so often I’ll kind of take a peek over my shoulder and it’s like, wow. I believe it, but it’s the kind of thing that’s like, I hope I don’t wake up from this dream. It’s like, did all this stuff really happen, or is this like a really long dream and I’m going to wake up? But it’s been fun, it really has been fun.”
For more information on Al Pitrelli, TSO, and for tickets, click here.