The True Story of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the Tuxedoed Guitar Kings Who Made Christmas Rock

Alex Skolnick, Al Pitrelli, Russell Allan, and more explain how a group of heavy metal veterans created one of the biggest sensations in holiday music

by Clay Marshall
Dec 21 2016, 3:15pm

Seventeen years ago, as they prepared to take the stage at Philadelphia's Tower Theater, drummer Jeff Plate and bassist Johnny Lee Middleton began to panic. The pair had gigged together in Philly the previous year, when their band Savatage headlined the 1,200-capacity Trocadero, but tonight's show was different. Not only was The Tower nearly three times the size of The Troc, but the audience Plate and Middleton saw filing in for this concert—the debut live performance by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra—was far removed from the usual metalhead crowds before whom Savatage normally played.

"Johnny and I are standing on the side of the stage ready to go out, and he is so nervous, his leg won't stop twitching," Plate recalls. "There was this older couple sitting in the front row—they could have been 65, 70 years old. He was in a tuxedo, she was in a nice evening dress, and they're probably expecting to see a symphony or a bunch of Russians. I looked at Johnny and said, 'We're doomed.'"

Just over two hours later, after the show's final notes, Plate walked out from behind his drum kit to join his band mates at center stage. "We took a bow, and that gentleman in the front row stood up and gave me a high-five," he says. "He loved every minute of it. I couldn't believe it. And from there, it was on."

How a long-running heavy metal band morphed into one of the biggest names in holiday music is a story unto itself, but the abridged version is that in 1996, after the surprise success of their song "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)," Savatage and their longtime producer, Paul O'Neill, recorded a holiday album and released it under a different name. A second arrived in 1998, and the following year, the nascent group booked their first live dates—which, to Plate's relief, received rave reviews.

Philadelphia was one of only five markets in which TSO performed during their initial foray into touring. This year, however, they will play a total of 104 concerts during a six-week, Hallmark-sponsored arena tour. Since that first show in 1999, the group has delivered their unique hybrid of rock, classical and musical theater to more than 13 million people, grossing more than half a billion dollars in the process. With a motto of "fog it, light it, blow it up," they've also developed a reputation for having one of the most impressive productions in live music, with transforming stages, levitating pyro pyramids, dazzling lasers and walls of video screens.

Admirably, the band has never forgotten their hard rock and metal roots. Plate and Middleton are still on board, but nowadays, they're technically in different bands, as TSO features two touring companies—one featuring Plate and fellow Savatage alumni Chris Caffery and Zak Stevens, and another with Middleton and Al Pitrelli. In addition, this year's TSO cast includes Joel Hoekstra (Whitesnake, ex-Night Ranger), Russell Allen (Symphony X, Adrenaline Mob), Mats Leven (Candlemass, ex-Therion) and Jeff Scott Soto (Soto, ex-Journey). Notable part participants, meanwhile, include Alex Skolnick (Testament), Kelly Keeling (Michael Schenker Group) and Nathan James (Inglorious).

Considering the success of their annual winter tours and the pedigrees of their most prominent performers, TSO has quietly become one of the biggest groups in modern heavy music—a gateway drug that has introduced unsuspecting audience members like the Philadelphia couple to the power of live rock 'n' roll. According to Allen, TSO's performers get something back in return. "Heavy metal in this day and age isn't what it was back in the 80s," he says. "There's just a handful of metal bands that are playing big stadium shows. TSO provides us heavy metal and rock musicians a chance to get in front of those big audiences that are so rare these days for bands in our genre."

One TSO member who knows the value of big-stage experience is Pitrelli. Prior to joining Savatage in 1995, the guitarist—who later spent two years in Megadeth—performed with the likes of Stephen Pearcy, Asia and Dee Snider. In addition, he served as musical director of Alice Cooper's band during the singer's world tour in support of the platinum 1989 album Trash, which he credits for helping to prepare him for the similar role he now plays with TSO. "That was my first introduction to playing arena and stadium rock 'n' roll, yet it was still a production, and it was still theatrical in its presentation," he says.

While a TSO tour is a two-month commitment for most of its members, Pitrelli is involved with the group on a year-round basis, during which he splits his time between his native New York and Tampa, where the band has their own recording studio—the former Morrisound, which itself has deep connections to heavy metal. Accordingly, he doesn't moonlight to the extent of tour mates such as Plate, who also plays with Metal Church. "TSO hasn't really done much in the spring and summer months, which is when Metal Church is doing most of their business, so it's been working out great for me," Plate says.

Hoekstra, however, had to skip last year's TSO tour due to commitments with Whitesnake. "When I found out it was going to overlap, it put me in a really tough position," he says. "I was forced to choose eight or nine months of touring with Whitesnake or two months with TSO, so I begged for a year off. Thankfully, I'm back in the mix this year."

Since joining TSO in 2010, Hoekstra says he's evolved as a performer due in part to the family-friendly nature of the group's live shows. "When I started doing TSO, I was a little bit more in 'hard rock mode' when I took the stage, and that actually isn't who I am in a lot of ways," he says. "As the years went by, I did a lot more relaxing and smiling and just having a good time with everybody, and I feel like I've brought that back into other gigs—I feel like I'm a lot more smiley on stage than other people have been in Whitesnake, and that comes from TSO."

Similarly, Skolnick believes his years of touring with TSO have helped make Testament a better live band. "I give full credit to TSO for helping me tap into a stage presence I'd never known I had." he says. "When you're on stage in front of 10,000 people—sometimes twice in a day—it's a serious confidence builder. In fact, when Testament got resurrected and we found ourselves playing giant festivals and touring with arena and large theater acts, I think some were shocked at the intensity and focus of my performance, which by then just came naturally."

Pitrelli also feels that touring with TSO has affected his style of playing. "The bands I loved in the 70s were bands like the Allman Brothers, Zeppelin and Mountain, and a lot of them were kind of improvisational-based, so my entire career before TSO was going out and winging it—I'd stand on stage and never play the same solo twice, kind of go with the moment," he says. "What I've learned in TSO is that people in the audience love these records, and I've learned to respect that and become much more mature and disciplined as a player and give them what they're used to."

Inglorious vocalist James, who has also toured with Uli Jon Roth, believes the lessons gained by playing arenas with TSO from 2012-2015 were invaluable. "I learned so much about filling a stage with personality, voice and, of course, hair," he says. "Because the TSO schedule is pretty crazy, I also developed great vocal stamina, which has really helped me this year with the touring my band has done."

Even accomplished, well-traveled front men say they've grown from the TSO experience. Soto, a prolific melodic rock singer best known for his work with Yngwie Malmsteen and Journey, is in the midst of his 11th tour with the group, but he says he nearly didn't come back for seconds. "It was an absolutely massive adjustment," he says of joining TSO's cast of vocalists. "You go from having to carry a show to being just another cog in the machine. It takes a while to step back from [thinking that] you're the focal point of the show and just kind of blend in and make sure you're as important as the lights or lasers above you. You have to remove the ego side.

"On the other hand, I found I was getting more out of it than I initially aspired to, and that's one of the reasons I'm still here," he continues. "Everything from the clarity of connecting with an audience as far as making sure the lyrics are understood, to honing it down and letting other aspects of the show breathe. You realize you can actually have pockets of drawing it back and sending it forward as opposed to everything having to be full-speed-ahead. That's something I took from all the years of working with TSO into what I'm doing now with Soto."

Allen, who joined TSO in 2013 after being recommended by Caffery, also feels that touring with the group has made him a better performer. "TSO really does broaden the horizons of anybody who gets involved," he says. "It's a lot of fun for me to do things that I've never gotten to do before, like the characters I play in the show. For me, that gives me a chance to explore other sides of my voice and other sides of my ability to perform. When you're in front of your own fans, like with Symphony X or Adrenaline Mob, they know you—they know what they're getting, and there's a comfort level there. When I first got into TSO, that was all gone—I was singing in front of all these people who'd never heard me before. It was exhilarating, but also it was very stressful in a lot of ways, and I learned how to deal with that and rise above it."

If there's an easy criticism of TSO, it's that the group hasn't yet yielded a breakout star—someone who can fill arenas during the other 10 months of the year. Soto believes that misses the point, and that the show itself is the star. "I was actually having this conversation with Russell the other day," he says. "We look at TSO as a blessing in disguise because we get to fly under the radar. We're happy that they're not emphasizing our names and our successes, and that we can just come in and do this as equals. There's nobody bigger or better than anybody else—it's all about what's best for the show."

According to Pitrelli, that attitude extends to the group's wardrobe, which is more in line with the evening wear sported by the elderly Philadelphia couple than your typical rock show apparel. He disputes the notion, however, that TSO's formal attire is a visual sanitizer that makes the group's bombastic soundtrack and long-haired cast more palatable for "civilian" audiences. "The tuxedos aren't to camouflage us—they give it a little bit more elegance and class," he says. "It's a very formal presentation of a rock show. If we went out there in cutoff shirts, there's nothing special about that. As soon as I put that tuxedo jacket on, I feel different. It's funny—I've done one show in the last 15 years out of a tuxedo, when Savatage played Wacken last year, and it was really awkward for me. I felt naked!"

Illustration by John Garrison

Clay Marshall may or may not be on Twitter.