Al Pitrelli can be found onstage at the Spokane Arena every Black Friday night performing with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The tradition turns 15 Friday.
Every Thanksgiving evening, Pitrelli settles into a corner table at Spencer’s for Steaks & Chops and raises a glass of 25-year-old Macallan to his father and his musical mentor Paul O’Neill, who formed Trans-Siberian Orchestra 28 years ago.
“I celebrate my time with my dad and Paul and have a conversation with them at Spencer’s every year,” Pitrelli said. “That’s part of what I do when I come back for my annual visit to Spokane.”
O’Neill, who died suddenly in 2017 at 61, has been on Pitrelli’s mind more than usual lately. Pitrelli believes divine intervention is the reason he recently picked up “The Joy of Music: Leonard Bernstein.”
“I think Paul led me to the book,” Pitrelli said while calling from his suburban Philadelphia home. “Paul was a huge fan of theater and Bernstein. What really hit me in the Bernstein book was when Leonard Bernstein wrote that art needs to be accessible to the audience, but it can never be ordinary. That applies to Paul.
“His stories are accessible, but they’re never ordinary. Paul wanted to make great art, but he was never about making banal art.”
Until O’Neill put together TSO, rock and Christmas shows were kind of separate, like church and state. Sure, rockers and Christmas albums go way back. But there was no rock band on a Christmas tour with a show driven by a holiday story until TSO.
“There has been a reluctance for rockers to touch Christmas and I understand why,” O’Neill said in a December 2016 interview with The Spokesman-Review. “When you think of Christmas music, you’re dealing with history. There’s Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Irving Berlin.”
Trans-Siberian Orchestra is on that list, thanks to O’Neill, who was a history buff and a reverent collector of historical artifacts.
“I have every letter from Thomas Edison to his tool and die guy about how to build the first record player,” O’Neill said. “I have a lot of letters from Lincoln, from Churchill, from Oscar Wilde. I tell my daughter that we don’t own these. We’re just caretakers for the next generation. It’s inspirational.
“History inspires these albums. History is a powerful thing, which inspires powerful music and amazing shows.”
O’Neill is part of musical history thanks to Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The common denominator has always been “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve” segment of the show.
“We have to have the ‘Ghosts of Christmas Eve’ each year for the repeat offenders, who come out to our shows every year,” Pitrelli said. “But the rest of the show is always different. We never want people to say, ‘It’s the same show as last year,’ or say, ‘Last year’s show was better.’ We’re digging deep into our deep catalog.
“We love to find songs we never played or haven’t played in 15 years and breathe new life into them. We love doing it and it’s an amazing thing since we never imagined this to still be going on all of these years after TSO formed.”
TSO formed in 1996 out of the ashes of Savatage, a metal band that featured Pitrelli. TSO released a series of rock operas. There’s 1996’s “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” 1998’s “The Christmas Attic” and 2004’s “The Lost Christmas Eve.”
Also, 2009’s “Night Castle,” 2012’s “Dreams of Fireflies” and 2015’s “Letters of the Labyrinth” have been released. More than 10 million TSO albums have been sold.
“It blows my mind that we’ve been this successful,” Pitrelli said. “We never expected anything like this.”
Expect fan favorites such as “This Christmas Day,” “Good King Joy,” “Ornament,” “Old City Bar” and the smash “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.”
“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.”
There is nothing quite like TSO with its spectacle and larger-than-life performance.
“We don’t want to lose that,” Pitrelli said. “This show brings me back to the style of music I enjoyed so much when I was a kid. People miss all of the bells and whistles that were part of live shows from yesteryear. But we always bring that little something extra.”
Pitrelli, 61, and many of his bandmates are in their 60s but age doesn’t matter to the members of TSO.
“Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney are still going strong and they’re 20 years older than us,” Pitrelli said. “Jeff Beck toward the end of his life was a better guitar player than he was 50 years ago. We’re all physically fit and just as excited about performing as we ever were.
“You can be up there in age and still deliver an amazing show.”
During the summer, Pitrelli surprised his wife and daughters with tickets for a Billy Joel show at Madison Square Garden. The Piano Man blew away the Pitrelli family.
“My wife had a birthday this summer and I took her and our kids to see Billy’s residency at the Garden and he absolutely crushed it and he’s in his 70s,” Pitrelli said.
“Billy’s music was the soundtrack of my childhood and his show at the Garden was one of the greatest things I’ve ever witnessed. My daughters are 7 and 12 and don’t know Billy’s music that well, but they stood there along with 17,000 people singing with an energy that turns you into a teenager instantly, no matter how old you are. Billy Joel is a great lyricist and storyteller and the same can be said for Paul O’Neill.
“What Billy Joel’s music and the music Paul wrote for Trans Siberian Orchestra have in common is that they will never go out of style, since they weren’t written to be in style.”