We interviewed Al Pitrelli, guitarist and music director for progressive rock band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, prior to their December 29 performances at the Bradley Center.
For the past two decades, guitarist Al Pitrelli and Trans-Siberian Orchestra have been entertaining audiences with the band’s story-rich and rock heavy songs and visually stunning theatrical stage show. That includes their critically acclaimed annual holiday tours, which feature a heavy dose of their much-lauded Christmas and holiday songs like “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.”
On Friday, Dec. 29, Pitrelli and TSO will return to Milwaukee as part of their 2017 winter tour for two shows at the Bradley Center. The shows will feature an all-new theatrical stage production with a setlist featuring songs from The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, the band’s multi-platinum DVD and long-running PBS fundraiser production, as well as many other greatest hits and fan favorites.
This will be the band’s first time in Milwaukee without founder and songwriter Paul O’Neill and longtime bassist David Zablidowsky, who died unexpectedly earlier this year. We caught up with Pitrelli by phone prior to the shows to find out what keeps the band going, even though that recent adversity.
Can you talk about the impact of the loss and what kept the band moving forward?
On a personal level, it’s a tragedy. I can only imagine how Paul’s wife and daughter feels with the loss of a father and husband, and how David’s family must feel with the loss of a brother and son. You never know what tomorrow’s going to bring. I’ve gone through this many times in my life, starting with the loss of my father years ago. You cherish every day. Because you don’t know if you’re going to get another one. It’s funny because all of Paul O’Neill’s songs say just that. Tell someone you love them. Pick up the phone and call them if you haven’t spoken to them in a long time.
As far as the band, Paul’s family has been at the helm of the ship from the jump. One of Paul’s dreams was always for this thing to live long past all of us. I’m pretty confident that it’s going to.
I definitely agree with you about cherishing each day. I lost my dad unexpectedly a year and a half ago.
I’m so sorry to hear that. Yeah, there’s empty seats open at the dinner table that will always remain empty. That can be a metaphor for the hole in your heart or whatever. But we hold those people in reverence and miss them and we love them and cherish their memory and carry them in our hearts forever.
What’s one of your favorite memories playing Milwaukee?
Well, the first time I was through Milwaukee was 1989 with Alice Cooper. So, I’ve toured there almost 30 years now. I really enjoy my time there. It’s a lot colder than I’d like but what are you going to do?
I think the Bradley Center was one of the first arenas we played. Walking out there I was like “This is the biggest building I’ve played in my life.”
This might be the band’s last time playing at the Bradley Center as the new Bucks stadium will be finished sometime next year.
Ah. Well, we’ll just have to make it that more of a special show then.
Speaking of Alice Cooper, how does your experience as music director with Alice compare with this band?
Alice is an incredible frontman and great singer. And man, I would turn around and, all of a sudden, he would put the straightjacket on and he would become one of the characters in one of his songs. So, when we were doing the “Ballad of Dwight Fry,” I would look over and see him curled up on the ground and he became Dwight Fry. And he was no longer a singer in a rock band. He was a character in the song.
[It’s] not very different from what TSO has accomplished with multiple singers and the storyline that runs throughout the show. The singer’s job isn’t necessarily to sing the song. The singer’s job is to become the character in the song. And the audience will take that song or character and turn it to themselves because everyone at Christmas misses somebody. When people have inserted their name or situation in one of Paul’s works, that’s where the connection really started to grow. That’s what I’m most proud of.
Why do you think Christmas, rock music and electric guitar fit so well together for this band?
Because I don’t think it’s ever been done before. It’s like the first time I heard Led Zeppelin. It got my attention because it was something new. I think the way that these records were written and produced by Paul was just different enough that people globally heard it and were like “Wow, what is that? That sounds cool.”
And it’s not for any particular age group either. When you come to the shows you’ll see two-year-olds in the audience with their 92-year-old grandparents. Everyone loves a good rock and roll show.