“This is something that Paul had actually been talking about doing before we lost him a couple years ago,” says Plate in a conference call with musical director Al Pitrelli. TSO performs at 3 and 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 27, at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse
. “He realized that this story was probably the most significant one in our catalog. You know, Christmas Eve and Other Stories was released in 1996, and that is really the CD that put us on the map. It has sold the best. We toured that story for the first 12 years of our touring existence, so this is what really made a mark with the fans all across the country. And it has always been a fan favorite and a band favorite; I can personally say it’s my favorite story that we’ve done.”
First recorded by the prog band Savatage in 1995, “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24” 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, who O’Neill has described as “the most powerful DJ in America at the time,” 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, 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. O’Neill has said the band, though still in the early stages, captured a certain “magic,” as the special features some of the best songs from the band’s catalog at the time.
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. Lewis had been playing the album’s single, “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24,” on WNCX and had gotten great feedback from fans.
The show has evolved over the years to become a visually intense production, complete with lasers and pyro. This year’s production will be no exception.
“The last time we did Christmas Eve and Other Stories was in 2011, and we had a massive production at that point,” says Plate. “But, now it literally fills up the whole arena. You know, we have a stage that expands the width of the arena, plus there’s production all the way out past the front of the house. The video content that we’ve been using the past several years has become so brilliant and fantastic, it just completely changes the dynamic of the show. Plus, the team that designs the video has really just stepped it up over the past couple years. Two years ago, when we were doing The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, the design that Bryan Hartley came out with was just fantastic, and it took several steps beyond the year before, and it’s kind of improved in those increments ever since.”
Plate promises that even though TSO is revisiting music from its past, the current production will put a new spin on the old material.
“This time, when you see Christmas Eve and Other Stories, it’s going to be a completely different show,” he says.
Pitrelli maintains that the story remains relevant even though it dates back to the ’90s.
“At the center of it all is Paul’s characters and this beautifully written story that he came up with,” he says. “These characters and this story, Jeff [Plate] and I and everybody else in the organization, we’ve grown up with these. Twenty-five years ago, I was 32; this meant something different to me then than it does now. Now, as a 57-year-old father of five, when ‘Ornament’ or ‘This Christmas Day’ or any of these songs is presented live, I have children that I don’t get to see that often, it resonates with me, just like it resonates with everybody in the audience.”
Pitrelli still remembers not knowing what to expect after the group played one of its first shows in Philadelphia.
“I remember we looked down and I kind of looked at Jeff and I had half a heart attack,” he says. “We didn’t really know who was going to be in the audience. We knew that we sold a couple million records from ’96 to ’99, but we did our first show in ’99. 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.”
After 21 years of touring with TSO, Pitrelli still gets a charge out of hitting the road at the end of the year.
“To go out and, first of all, bring this to life night after night, year after year, it’s an honor and a privilege, not only as a musician, but just as a part of the story-telling team,” he says. “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 [means] we get to have Christmas from Nov. 13 [when the tour starts] until the last show in December.”
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When asked why Trans-Siberian Orchestra decided to bring back Christmas Eve and Other Stories for its current tour, drummer Jeff Plate says it was something that the late Paul O’Neill, the creator of TSO, had always wanted to do.