It was a strange Thanksgiving for Al Pitrelli in 2020. Pitrelli, like most Americans, was hunkered down at home while feasting on turkey. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra guitarist normally breaks bread each Thanksgiving at the Historic Davenport downtown. For 20 years, TSO has performed every Black Friday at the Spokane Arena.
“But there was nothing we could do about the pandemic,” Pitrelli said while calling from Omaha, Nebraska. “It wasn’t awful to be at home with my family (in northeastern Pennsylvania), but I work in November and December. It’s just what I do. I love coming to Spokane for Thanksgiving. There are certain things I’ve done for years in Spokane.”
Pitrelli, 59, likes to box when he comes to town and catch a film at the AMC River Park Square 20. “I love going to the movies and getting a big tub of popcorn and a Dr Pepper,” Pitrelli said.
After the flick, Pitrelli works off the junk food by sparring with local mixed-martial artist Daniel Spitz. The professional MMA competitor, who is 31, is twice Pitrelli’s size at 6-foot-7 and half his age.
“I get the snot beat out of me,” Pitrelli said. “I have no chance of winning, but it’s fun. I got into boxing about 12 years ago. When I think of Spokane, I think about facing Daniel and catching a movie like ‘Creed,’ which I saw in Spokane. That’s funny since it’s a boxing movie. You can see where my head is at.”
Thanks to the pandemic, Pitrelli will not box Spitz or catch a film at the AMC. “Unfortunately, this year it’s a tight bubble,” Pitrelli said. “I’ll bet the farm when I come to town that I’ll be on my laptop at the hotel FaceTiming my family. I’ll wear a Hazmat suit. That’s the way it has to be since no one can get sick or the show will not go on.”
Pitrelli and TSO will take considerable precaution to avoid COVID-19, but the theatrical rock band will perform Friday at the Spokane Arena.
“Coming back to tour means everything to me,” Pitrelli said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the faces of thousands of fans in person.”
The progressive rock group had to settle for one virtual show in 2020.
“I’m just glad we had at least the virtual show,” Pitrelli said. “What could we do? The whole tour got canceled. We never canceled a show. We had one swing at the plate, but it meant everything to me. But now we’re back in business. Just wait until you see us this year. We’re all very excited. It’s not that we ever took this for granted, but we can’t wait to perform this show. It’s a special year.”
It’s the 25th anniversary of Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s debut album, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.” The rock opera, which includes fan favorites such as “This Christmas Day,” “Good King Joy,” “Ornament,” “Old City Bar” and the smash “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” will be played in its entirety.
“The songs from ‘Christmas Eve’ mean more and more to me every year,” Pitrelli said. “I was 35 when I recorded those songs. My children were babies, and the characters from the songs have taken on a deeper meaning to me. When I play a song like ‘Ornament,’ I get emotional. I still can’t believe the songs and the album have such mass appeal. We didn’t expect that.”
“Christmas Eve and Other Stories” has sold more than 3 million copies.
“The success we have had is amazing,” Pitrelli said. “We never dreamed it would turn out like this. This was an extra project when we started Trans-Siberian Orchestra.”
In 1995, while playing guitar for hard rockers Savatage, the band’s producer Paul O’Neill asked Pitrelli if he would like to join his fledgling project, TSO. Pitrelli agreed to join the group, which went from a side project to became a cottage industry.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra sells out arenas throughout the country every November and December courtesy of its mix of melodic rock, classical chops, keen storytelling and flamboyant showmanship. Lasers, pyrotechnics and flames complement the baroque sonic attack.
Unlike most high-profile acts, TSO keeps tickets under triple digits. That’s a considerable feat considering the show’s high production values.
“The cost of living is so high, and people need to escape,” Pitrelli said. “We try our best to be reasonable so people can see us.”
Pitrelli dedicates each show to O’Neill, who died four years ago.
“Paul was one of a kind,” Pitrelli said. “He was such a talented person who was one of the nicest people I ever met. You just don’t meet people like Paul. There’s a hole in my heart that will never be filled since he’s gone. I miss him every day and will miss him for the rest of my life. Paul is impossible to forget.”
On Thanksgiving Eve, Pitrelli drinks to O’Neill and his late father at the Davenport.
“I’ll have a 25-year-old Macallan. My dad was a teacher, and he thought Johnny Walker Red was a good scotch, but I like Macallan. He and Paul were very similar. I have a quiet conversation with Paul and my dad when I come to Spokane.”
It’ll be anything but quiet when Trans-Siberian Orchestra hits the Spokane Arena stage. “Those shows are what we live for,” Pitrelli said. “We love everything about it, the sounds and the sights. We might not be able to do what we normally do in Spokane, but at least we can do what we love most, which is perform.
“Hopefully, things will be more normal next year, but at least we can play live in front of an audience, which we couldn’t do last year. We’re taking a step forward. We’re on the right track.”