The symphonic rock spectacle that lights up the holidays every year returns to Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena the day after Christmas. The interview and preview at Local Spins.
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When the Trans-Siberian Orchestra hits the stage at Van Andel Arena on Tuesday (Dec. 26), half of the capacity crowd of fans likely will have seen the touring behemoth before.
Drummer Jeff Plate says that’s because audience veterans –- fans who TSO guitarist Al Pitrelli wryly calls “repeat offenders” – keep coming back, while telling their friends and acquaintances it’s a show not to be missed.
“Where I sit, I can watch the fans and see who’s never seen it before,” Plate says.
While those audience veterans likely know every word and can sing along, the newcomers are listening and watching wide-eyed at the non-stop visuals, from lasers to flames to moving stages. Which leads to more repeat offenders. “The production is so awesome … people who have seen it before want to see it again.”
While the videos, pyrotechnics, lights and antics of the singers and instrumentalists provide the eye candy, the bedrock of it all is the music.
The TSO’s Christmas-themed songs have become staples on radio and in shops. Plate says it all stems from “Dead Winter Dead,” a 1995 recording by the band Savatage. Producer Paul O’Neill co-wrote the tune “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” with keyboardist Robert Kinkel and Jon Oliva.
The song became the springboard for O’Neill’s grandiose vision, a large-scale reimagining of the tune and the band. It expanded to include multiple vocalists and additional instrumentalists, along with a production featuring lights, flares and more — all in service to the Christmas season.
TSO’s first foray was a brief run of eight shows in theaters a quarter-century ago. Plate says he and the band were unsure at first how it would be received. As they walked on stage and prepared to play, there was a sense of foreboding.
“I remember playing that first show in 1999. John Middleton was our first bassist, who also came over from Savatage. We looked out and thought, ‘Oh my god, we’re doomed.’
“There was a mom with a couple kids next to a guy wearing a Metallica T-shirt. In the front row there was a man wearing a tux and woman wearing a dress.”
He figured there was no way that anybody, much less such a diverse everybody, would appreciate the mix of holiday music with crunching guitar, booming bass and thunderous drums.
Boy, was he wrong. “Everybody loved it,” he says with a laugh.
GROSSING HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS AND RAISING MONEY FOR CHARITY
The enthralled crowds have continued to build over the years since. As of July 2022, Pollstar put Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s box office gross at $769 million. Where there was once a single truck hauling gear, now there are upwards of 50 trucks and buses, split between two touring units, TSO West and TSO East.
And the show continues to attract attendees of all ages. “The kids in the audience loved it, and now they’re coming to the show with their kids,” Plate says wonderingly.
For many, it’s become a hallmark of Christmas time. “It’s part of the fabric of the season,” says Plate. Instead of “gathering for dinner and staring at their phones,” he says they bond by attending a concert together.
This year’s show is “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” which follows the journey of a runaway teen on Christmas Eve. It’s a reimagining of the TSO’s popular TV special/album/rock opera. The second set features a cross-section of other TSO favorites.
TSO evolved from Savatage, which included Plate, Pitrelli, Oliva, Middleton and vocalist Zak Stevens, along with engineer/keyboardist Kinkel. O’Neill wrote for and produced the prog metal band. Plate has been with the TSO since its founding, which means he’s played over 1,000 TSO shows.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve played ‘Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24).’ Probably close to 3,000 times,” he estimates, including Savatage and TSO rehearsals, recordings and performances.
One of the hallmarks of the shows is that before each performance, members of the band present a check to a local charity. To date, the band has donated some $18 million to various non-profits across the country.
In Grand Rapids, it has previously supported God’s Kitchen. This year, it is helping fund Boys & Girls Club of Grand Rapids and Idiots for Underdogs. The latter is the charitable arm of the Free Beer & Hot Wings Morning Show, a syndicated radio show broadcast in 26 states, including Michigan.
For Plate, it all goes back to seeing a band perform on TV, though in his case it wasn’t the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“I was a kid living in upstate New York. All I had was ‘American Bandstand’ and AM radio.” That changed in the mid-70s, when NBC began broadcasting a live rock music show on Friday nights after Johnny Carson. “I saw Kiss on ‘The Midnight Special.’ I said I want to do that. Well, I’m doing that,” Plate says.
“I dreamed of doing something in this capacity as a kid, becoming a rock star. I take that (feeling) with me still.” The opportunity to perform in front of an audience and entertain gives him motivation for every show on every tour. “It’s just what we do. Everybody loves it.”
O’Neill oversaw everything, from the compositions to the recordings and the tours. He always wanted to make that year’s tour bigger than the last. He passed away unexpectedly in 2017, due to an accidental reaction to numerous prescription medications used to treat his numerous chronic illnesses (including bone augmentation surgery, complications from spinal fusion surgery, heart disease, and hypertension).
At first, the band was unsure if it would continue. Bolstered by O’Neill’s family, it has continued to tour and thrive.
Plate continues to work outside the band, both teaching and performing. He was a longtime member of Metal Church and now composes, produces and plays with his own band, Alta Reign. It released its second album this past fall.
But he says he’ll never forsake the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. “Paul was my boss, but he was also my friend. I am one of a couple people who have been here since the first note. I feel responsible for carrying on his legacy.
“I miss him,” Plate continues. “One thing I learned from Paul is … do what you love and stick to it. There was no bigger fan of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. He had endless energy. He loved TSO and what it meant.”
“We are a tradition now.”
Tickets — $49.75-$109.75 — remain available for both the 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. shows at ticketmaster.com with links here.
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