Imagine being invited to an annual holiday gala, one that spared no expense in terms of presentation. It would be huge — a spectacle of visual and aural extremes — and every year, it increasingly became part of your seasonal celebrations.
The event would be a production that used the talents of many people, yet its vision would remain the singular concept of the party’s host. But as the celebration played out and invited you in, the host would retreat into the shadows. He would be running the show, but from a distance — content in the knowledge that his designs for the ultimate Christmas pageant were being executed every year with a completeness that didn’t require his physical presence.
Now imagine such a happening taking place with the host suddenly and totally out of the picture. Can a production that had become so synonymous with its designer but accustomed to operating without his direct presence pack the same grandeur and appeal when forced to work solely on its own?
That’s the scenario facing the Trans-Siberian Orchestra this winter. For years, its holiday themed concerts, built around the compositions and stories of founder Paul O’Neill, had become a seasonal touring tradition, not to mention an immense arena-rock enterprise. Such popularity was initiated by TSO’s string of multi-platinum selling albums — 1996’s “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” 1998’s “The Christmas Attic” and 2004’s “The Lost Christmas Eve” among them. When TSO took to the stage, the band’s true sense of spectacle was illuminated in an onslaught of lights, lasers and pyrotechnics.
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We’ll celebrate Paul’s life.
Al Pitrelli, Trans-Siberian Orchestra guitar player
But something — someone — will be missing Thursday when TSO returns to Rupp Arena. O’Neill, the TSO chieftain, who seldom toured with the band, died unexpectedly in April at age 61 from a prescription drug overdose. His absence poses an inevitable question: Can TSO continue without its founder, even though he wasn’t a direct presence in its live shows?
“It’s hard to give you an answer,” guitarist Al Pitrelli said in September during a telephone news conference. “The only thing I could compare it to is going to my first Thanksgiving dinner after my father died. Something’s missing, but the family carries on. We’ll celebrate my dad’s life. We’ll celebrate Paul’s life.
“The only thing I can tell you is that Paul and I and a bunch of other folks, late at night in the studio after we got done working, would say he wants this to live forever. He wants our children and our children’s children to be aware of what we did. People used to compare us to Pink Floyd and ELP (Emerson, Lake and Palmer) and things like that. Paul chose to compare our music to the works of maybe Mozart and Beethoven. He wants people to remember this 200 and 300 years down the road, not just 30 or 40 years.”
Pitrelli, co-guitarist Jon Oliva and keyboardist Robert Kinkel made up the initial team that O’Neill gathered to form Trans-Siberian Orchestra in 1996. Initially a studio creation, TSO became a lavish touring operation in 1999, the same year it released the video project “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve.” The latter is the centerpiece of the ensemble’s tour this year.
“Paul always taught us to chase art; don’t worry about money,” Pitrelli said. “If you create great art, everything will kind of follow later on. But it doesn’t matter what you’re doing if you’re not really paying attention to the art form that you’re part of. He just wanted to make great records. He didn’t care how much the records cost to make. When it came time to touring, he wanted to put on the biggest rock ’n’ roll show ever.”
Life can go upside down on you real quick. The irony of it all is that all of Paul’s stories deal with that one issue.
Al Pitrelli, Trans-Siberian Orchestra guitar player
O’Neill won’t be the only one missing from TSO’s current tour. Longtime bassist David Zablidowsky, who performed as David Z, was killed in a vehicle accident in July. Zablidowsky was touring with Adrenaline Mob at the time.
“We watched him grow up and we watched him mature as an artist, as a person, as a performer,” Pitrelli said. “It was a horrible accident. Life can go upside-down on you real quick. The irony of it all is that all of Paul’s stories deal with that one issue.
“‘Christmas Eve and Other Stories’ right through ‘The Ghost of Christmas Eve,’ it’s all about loss and redemption. Somebody’s run away. There’s a child missing in the middle of the night who just wants to get home. There’s a father who misses his daughter. ‘Why did I yell at her?’ ‘Why did we say the things we said to each other?’ ‘Why couldn’t I have just put her (to) bed because now she’s gone, and when will I ever see her again?’
“Now, obviously, all of Paul’s stories have a happy ending. But in life, they don’t sometimes. It’s funny that even from the other side, Paul is still always going to teach all of us. Tell somebody you love them. Say goodnight to the person you love and if something went upside-down and you’re in a fight with somebody, you’re not guaranteed there’s a tomorrow to fix it, so just take care of everything right now. Every day’s a gift.”