Producer, composer, musician Paul O’Neill was the guiding force behind the wildly popular Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
The band, making its annual holiday stop for two shows at Quicken Loans Arena on Sunday, was O’Neill's quest to fuse all the forms of music he enjoyed into a versatile progressive rock band with symphonic ambitions.
The music with soaring guitars, dramatic vocals and orchestral touches is over the top and O’Neill wanted the visuals at their concerts to be as equally over the top.
Combining all of that with his love of stories, he created a holiday tradition for many folks who likely wouldn’t sit through an Emerson, Lake & Palmer record if you paid them.
The band quickly went multiplatinum with their 1996 debut rock opera “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” part of a trilogy of Christmas themed concept records.
The debut contained the hit “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” which melded an electrified take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with the Ukrainian song Shchedryk, better known as “Carol of the Bells.”
TSO has gone on to release six more albums, most of which have sold more than a million copies, and their annual tours are consistently among the highest grossing tours of the season.
Sadly O’Neill, who had a host of chronic illnesses, died in 2017 at 61 years old.
I interviewed O’Neill once many years ago, and our scheduled standard 15 minute call turned into a fascinating 54 minute conversation about music, American history (he was a big, big history buff), the importance of giving TSO’s loyal fans something bigger and better every year, and his affection for the many musicians and crew members that kept the TSO machine rolling. And roll on TSO shall under the leadership of O’Neill’s wife and daughter, Desiree and Ireland.
Also important to TSO’s continuation are longtime members guitarist and music director Al Pitrelli and drummer Jeff Plate, who have been a part of TSO since the early days.
This year's tour will feature Trans-Siberian Orchestra performing “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” a 1999 televised rock opera in its entirety, along with other TSO hits.
Before the tour, Pitrelli and Plate spoke with media members about losing O’Neill and continuing his dream that TSO outlive him.
Q: Last year obviously had its own emotion to it, remembering Paul and everything, what was that like? And now, this year, is this kind of feeling almost like a new era of Trans-Siberian Orchestra Live?
AL PITRELLI: And Jeff, chime in any time you want, because for both of us I think 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, and we were just privileged and blessed to be along for the ride and to be part of it, and we watched it kind of grow up and we've been there from the jump. And to have the carpet pulled from beneath us so suddenly and tragically last year really just put us all in a different mindset. I think sorrow and the pain that goes along with losing a loved one was prevalent with everybody, but also I think 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 kind of handed that task. And with his family steering the ship and their guidance, we kind of really hunkered down last year, even more so than usual, to make it the best it could possibly be. And 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. And there was a few moments in the show where I really had a difficult time kind of just getting through it because, you know, he was like a big brother, aside from being our boss and our producer and creator of this whole thing. I mean, you know, literally we have spent half of our lives, both Jeff and I, sitting next to the man in studios and on tour buses. And 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.
Q: Are you moving forward as well with any of the recording projects? I know there were several things with Paul, there were always several things in motion, but is anything being actively worked on or developed now?
PITRELLI: I'm in Tampa in our studio right now as we're speaking, I've been down here for a few weeks. And 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 kind of digging into it, and 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, and 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. And it's exciting to see some of these things come to life. I mean, there's 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.
Q: I was wondering if you could talk about the decision to do “Ghosts of Christmas Eve” again.
JEFF PLATE: This will be the third year we've done this show, and, you know, 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. But 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, and it was one of his favorite shows. So the band, I think, 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, you know, 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 I think, when we lost Paul, doing this show again was just a great way to honor Paul.
Q: What are the most valuable lessons the group's learned throughout these last 20 years, and would you change anything if you could?
PITRELLI: Ooh, good question. Well, the most valuable thing that we've all learned is that time is our most precious commodity. Twenty 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 he and I never really thought... you know, 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, you know, time is way too precious to squander. You can never get yesterday back. So I've learned to live in the moment and enjoy every second of this, because there is no guarantee of tomorrow. And not in a morose sense, but more in a realistic sense. You know, 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, because 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. And I was blessed to have a lot of those days with him.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml, and follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.