“It was riddled with anxiety, to say the least, because every morning you’d wake up and it’s like ‘OK, is somebody sick? Did somebody test positive? What are we going to do? Is the crew there? Are the folks in the audience OK?’,” said Al Pitrelli, who is musical director for the western U.S. unit of TSO. “So it was definitely the most stressful tour we’ve ever been on.”
It’s not as though TSO didn’t take precautions for COVID-19 or have contingencies in place in case any of the performers came down with the virus. As Pitrelli noted, the job is to deliver the memorable concert spectacle fans have come to expect and make sure any issues aren’t apparent to audiences.
“The audience just wants their show. Whatever hoops we’ve got to jump through to make that happen, that’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “So yeah, we had a couple of people in the bullpen. On a moment’s notice, they could fly out to a show or we would cover each other’s parts on stage. If one of the singers was sick, one of the other singers that was there would cover the song. Again, the show must go on.”
Pitrelli and Plate, obviously, are hoping this year’s TSO tour will be more like the pre-pandemic outings.
Credit: Robb Cohen Photography & Video/
Credit: Robb Cohen Photography & Video/
Over its first two decades, TSO’s shows have become easily the biggest and most elaborate of the holiday tours. It was all the vision of the group’s founder, Paul O’Neill, who sadly, passed away in 2017.
O’Neill’s idea was TSO would combine a rock band with an orchestra playing concept albums/rock operas with cohesive story lines. Instead of building an image around a singer, guitarist or conductor, the ensemble would use multiple singers and a range of instrumentalists, who would remain largely anonymous to listeners.
Plenty of industry people questioned whether TSO could be viable financially. Taking such a large musical group on the road would be expensive. To accommodate the visual production, TSO had to play arenas from the start — something no music act had done.
Nevertheless, Atlantic Records got on board with O’Neill’s vision and signed TSO. The label has been rewarded, as the trilogy of lyrically themed Christmas albums all became hits and continue to rack up top-10 sales among holiday albums each Christmas season.
The first release was 1996′s “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.” Spurred by the hit single “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24,” it has sold three million copies and set the stage for the other two holiday rock operas that make up TSO’s Christmas trilogy — “The Christmas Attic” (1998) and “The Lost Christmas Eve” (2004) — which have each topped two million copies sold. In addition, the group has released a Christmas EP, 2012′s “Dreams of Fireflies (On A Christmas Night),” and three full-length non-holiday rock operas — “Beethoven’s Last Night” (2000), “Night Castle” (2009) and “Letters from the Labyrinth” (2015). In all, the group’s CDs and DVDs have sold more than 12 million copies and generated 180 million streams in 2021 alone.
Since the first holiday tour in 1999, TSO has played to about 18 million fans and grossed $725 million.
This year’s show finds TSO performing “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” which is the 2001 concert DVD that combined the most popular songs from “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” and “The Christmas Attic.” With the DVD initially being aired on PBS stations, it has become one of TSO’s most popular releases.
“The Ghosts of Christmas Eve” will take up most of the first half of the show, followed by a second part that draws on selections from across the TSO catalog. Because many of the most popular songs will be performed as part of “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” Pitrelli, Plate and the musicians had room for some songs this year that haven’t often been performed on past tours.
One thing Pitrelli and Plate couldn’t speak to is how this year’s visual effects and stage set will be bigger and different from last year.
This interview was conducted in October, a short time before Pitrelli and Plate joined the band for production rehearsals. It’s only then that they see the full stage production for the first time.
“You look up, and I always feel like a 15 year old walking into that arena for the first time,” Pitrelli said. “It really turns you back into a teenager. But this time I’m not getting chased out by security or the police, so it’s lot more fun standing there looking up and going ‘This is awesome.’”
2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 11. $29-$119.50. Gas South Arena, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth. 770-626-2464, gassouthdistrict.com.