Earlier this year, the prog rock act Trans-Siberian Orchestra suffered a major loss when charismatic founder Paul O’Neill died. But in the wake of that tragedy, the group has returned to the road for its Winter Tour 2017.
The tour will present “a completely updated presentation” of the DVD The Ghosts of Christmas Eve
. It comes to Quicken Loans Arena
on Friday, Dec. 29, for shows that take place at 3 and 8 p.m.
O’Neill may no longer be physically present, but his original vision continues to guide the group.
“He just wanted to make great records,” says the tour's musical director Al Pitrelli in a conference call with reporters. “He didn’t care how much the records cost to make and when it came time to touring he wanted to put on the biggest rock 'n’ roll show ever. All of us grew up in New York City going to see bands at Madison Square Garden. When a band would come through the Garden, not only would they do their normal show, but they’d always bring extra production because they wanted to show off in front of the record companies, the radio stations, whatever it was. Paul, Paul’s family, everybody in the band always kept that paramount. We think, ‘Let’s put on the biggest show we possibly can and then we’ll figure it all out later on.’ I mean we’ve been doing this for 22, I guess almost 23 years now. The plan seems to have worked.”
Originally, the prog band Savatage recorded “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24” in 1995. The song would reappear on TSO’s debut, 1996’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories
, and launch the band into the behemoth that it is today.
The first-ever TSO show took place in 1996 at a New York hospital. New York DJ Scott Shannon invited the band to play Blythedale Children’s Hospital just north of New York City. O’Neill initially didn’t want to play the show, but once he visited the hospital, a place that helps critically hurt children, he couldn’t resist. Then, in 1998, the band recorded a TV show before it had ever toured. Filmed in an old Jersey City theater, the show features Ossie Davis, Jewel and Michael Crawford, and at the urging of Cleveland disc jockey Bill Louis, the group took its 1996 Christmas rock opera Christmas Eve and Other Stories
, the first part of a trilogy of prog rock-influenced Christmas albums, on the road in 1999.
Louis had been playing the album’s single, "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24,” on WNCX and had gotten great feedback from fans. Cleveland-based Belkin Productions also booked gigs in Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. With the exception of Chicago, each show exceeded expectations. TSO would subsequently hit the road each November, and the tours became bigger and bigger.
“In ’99, we had performed Christmas Eve and Other Stories
in its entirety and we kind of surrounded it with a few songs in the front as an introduction, some different things in the second half of the show from different records we had done,” says Pitrelli. “But we’ve been pretty much every year staying true to that formula where if the show is very well received and the folks are enjoying it, we’re hearing great feedback then we’ll do the same rock opera again the following year which is a familiarity that they’ve grown accustomed to. Again, it’s always been a matter of keeping [fans] on the edge of their seats.”
That said, this year’s show will feature some significant changes.
“The look of the stage will be different, the lighting, the pyro, the lasers, the moving trusses, the video content,” says Pitrelli. “We’ll always try to upgrade that from year-to-year because we never really want to repeat ourselves. But we do want to have the familiarity of the rock opera that the people have really fallen in love with. Now the front of the show being the front of the show, we want to introduce people to maybe some material that maybe we haven’t done in a few years and, of course, the back of the show, we have about 45 minutes to an hour to explore some of our catalog. There’s always a song that we’ll try to change up at least.”
Pitrelli says he's cognizant of the way that show has become something like a long-running Broadway musical, albeit with a Christmas theme to it. Fans keep returning even though the story remains essentially the same.
“We’ve become such a tradition,” says Pitrelli. “We’ve become to people what It’s a Wonderful Life
or Miracle on 34th Street
was to me when I was kid. This is something that people who have latched onto and made part of their holidays. Their families enjoy it, and there are multi-generations of families just coming out and watching it. It’s a lot of fun. Most of the folks in the audience have the entire catalog. We always keep that in mind. What’s their favorite songs? What are the songs that people always requesting? When you’re doing The Ghost of Christmas Eve
like we are again this year, it’s almost the greatest hits collection anywhere, so everybody will hear their favorites.”