Lovers Lane
In The Flesh

Cover Story: Trans-Siberian Orchestra • A Quarter Century of Christmas

| November 30, 2023

 

Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Bob Carey)

If you still haven’t experienced the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s annual winter holiday show, you should seriously consider adding it to your bucket list.

The TSO traveling holiday rock opera is a multimillion-dollar act that has grown exponentially since the band’s inception, making it one of the biggest-grossing concert bands in the US. In true holiday-giving fashion, $1 of each concert ticket sold goes to local and national charities. To date, the band has donated a total of $12 million.  TSO germinated into the dynamic act that it is today out of the progressive/power metal band Savatage’s song, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” which appeared on the band’s 1995 Dead Winter Dead album. 

According to then Savatage guitarist and current TSO guitarist/musical director Al Pitrelli, none of the band members could predict how much a single song, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” would take off. “Paul (O’Neill) explained to me that it’s a story about a cellist playing classical music in the town of Sarajevo protesting the bombing raids in the (Bosnian) War that was going on,” Pitrelli explained during a recent phone interview during a break from production rehearsals for the upcoming The Ghosts of Christmas Eve: The Best of TSO and More tour 2023. “I felt the story was so special and so deep that I just started noodling with that opening ostinato that we put “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” over the top of it and then played through the song. To be honest with you, I thought that was going to be the end of it; who’s gonna listen to a heavy metal Christmas song? But in November of ’95, it got in the hands of a couple of DJs in America who played it accidentally, and the phone lines lit up, and it was the number one song in America right until the end of the holiday season.”

The instrumental track got everyone’s attention and ignited the spark that led to the late producer/composer/writer O’Neill (R.I.P. 2017), Savatage vocalist Jon Oliva, Pitrelli, and keyboardist/producer Robert Kinkel to form the creative core of TSO in 1996 after the Savatage album was released. “Paul said he was going to write an entire record around this long piece of music, and he was going to call it the Trans-Siberian Orchestra,” Pitrelli remembers. “Twenty-eight years later, we are still talking about it. It’s bigger than it was. It’s more relevant than it was. It’s more important, and people have fallen in love with it and made it part of their holiday tradition.” 

The demographics of a TSO audience are one of the most diversified of any band in recent times, as generations of fans of different ages and tastes in music show up consistently to TSO shows every year. TSO’s popularity rapidly exploded during its first four years of formation; by 2000, the band split into two camps with an East and a West lineup, enabling the musicians to perform simultaneously in two cities, sometimes two shows daily.

TSO’s 1996 debut album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories was an immediate success and became one of the biggest-selling Christmas albums in the US. “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” also appeared on this album. “(There was) no preconceived idea or anything,” Pitrelli says about the debut album’s creation. “Paul just knew exactly what he wanted, and the four of us would be sitting in the room, and we’d just toss ideas around, being musicians. We recorded the record, and the next thing you know, it sold 4 million copies. We did another record and that sold a couple million copies, and then we did the movie that Hallmark picked up.”

Both TSO and Savatage coexisted together for a few more years, with Savatage releasing its last full-length album, Poets and Madmen, in 2001. However, due to the increasing popularity of TSO and his own solo project—Jon Oliva’s Pain—Oliva decided to put Savatage on hiatus in 2002. “I think it just became an overwhelming situation to maintain both bands,” Pitrelli states. “In the beginning, we were doing TSO records, and there was no tour. I used to joke with Paul, saying, ‘I feel like we’ve become the Steely Dan of Christmas.’ We were making records and selling millions of them, but we never played a live show. So, we could do the record, put it out, do a Savatage record, do a Savatage tour. It made sense. But by the time this thing started kicking in — I’d say by 2001 or ’02 — it became so overwhelmingly full-time. It wasn’t a conscious thought. It was like, ‘This thing’s really exploding, so let’s focus on this right now.’” 

Also during this time in the early 2000s, Pitrelli took a break from Savatage and joined heavy thrashers Megadeth, recording his only full-length album, The World Needs A Hero, with the band. After the disappointment of the band’s previous album Risk, The World Needs A Hero steered Megadeth back into a heavier musical direction. With two recently reunited appearances by former guitarist Marty Friedman joining Megadeth on stage for a few songs, Pitrelli doesn’t see that invitation being extended to him. “When Dave (Mustaine) and I parted company, it was pretty amicable; he’s said some nice things in the press over the last 20 years,” Pitrelli admits. “Although we haven’t really spoken—for no real reason other than that life kicks in on both sides — if he ever reached out… First, it’d be great to hear his voice and chat about the old days. But I don’t think anything like (reuniting) would occur; Marty was the guitar player in that band. That was the era when Megadeth was at its height. It’s almost like (Mike) Portnoy rejoining Dream Theater (Marty doing those shows) was good for Megadeth fans.”

Although there have been many rumors circulating over the past decade about Savatage reuniting again and recording a new album, it hasn’t come to fruition yet. However, in 2015, Savatage reunited at the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany by playing on one stage, while TSO simultaneously played on an adjoining stage. Then, both played together on both stages, separated by a catwalk. The Wacken show set a world record as it was the first time in history that two bands played simultaneously on two separate stages. It was an amazing performance that presented Savatage in a way that deserves to be presented and also introduced TSO to many people in Germany. 

Fast forward to 2023, TSO will perform 104 shows in 45 cities in 50-plus days, including its annual stop at Allstate Arena on Thursday, Dec. 28, for two shows. “Once a year, I get to have Chicago deep-dish pizza after the show,” Pitrelli gleefully exclaims. “The community has really embraced us as part of their holiday tradition. That’s a huge compliment and a massive responsibility to know that. People come up to me and say, ’It’s not the holidays unless you guys run through our town or we play your music from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.’ I didn’t see this on the radar, Kelley. I just knew we were making great music, and Paul had a great art form. But to become to so many families where the **Charlie Brown Christmas special was to me when I was a kid or **Miracle on 34th Street it’s really special, and I’m so proud of what this is and what it has become.”

TSO’s last studio album was 2015’s Letters from The Labyrinth, which was also O’Neill’s last album he was involved in. Thankfully, O’Neill left a large body of unfinished material consisting of various melodies, lyrics, and harmonies that the current band is slowly gathering ideas for to record a new full-length TSO album. “We all are still not over losing him six years ago, and just maintaining the winter tour has obviously been a priority,” Pitrelli proclaims. “Over the last few years, I’ve been going back to the studio with Oliva, kicking the tires on some of the things that he and Paul worked on or just what Paul left us on cassette tapes. There will be new music… we had a new song (“Carousels of Christmas”) that we did in the set last year that was something that Paul and Jon had worked on (before Paul’s death). Completing a record without Paul is extremely difficult, but we’re going to try our best to do so.”

Twenty-eight years later, with 10 million records sold from six full-length albums, more than 100 members passing through both lineups since its inception, and a massive crew of over 300, TSO’s legacy continues to expand. “I’d like another 28 years,” Pitrelli optimistically says. “I’d like another generation or two of people to fall in love with it the way I fell in love with it so many decades ago. I’d like to know that Paul’s work will always move forward because that was his biggest wish, is that (“Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)”) lives long past all of us.”

Appearing 12/28 at Allstate Arena, Rosemont.

–Kelley Simms

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