As the story goes, the prog band Savatage originally recorded “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24” in 1995. The song would suddenly become a hit and then reappear on Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s debut, 1996’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories, and launch the band into the major seasonal touring franchise that it is today.
Drummer Jeff Plate, a member of Savatage who segued into TSO, has been there from the start. When his former Wicked Witch bandmate, Zak Stevens, got a gig singing in Savatage, he recruited Plate to join the group. That was in 1994.
“I began working with Paul O’Neill, who was the manager [of Savatage]," says Plate in a recent phone interview from his upstate New York home. TSO performs at 3 and 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 19 at the Heritage Bank Center in Cincinnati. "I did a live record and toured with the band. We went in the studio in 1995 to record the album Dead Winter Dead, which was a concept record that Paul had written about the war in Bosnia. He had this idea for this instrumental Christmas song. We were all kind of scratching our heads. Paul had this concept, and there was an element to the story that centered on this cellist who played in all this rubble to pay tribute to the people dying. Paul connected with this. The idea of this Christmas song was kind of strange, but Paul was adamant about this song. When we heard the final version, there was no denying that it was great, but we did not know how it fit into the context of Savatage. It took off like a rocket."
After TSO re-released the track, it would become "the driving force behind TSO," as Plate puts it.
At the urging of Cleveland disc jockey Bill Louis, TSO took its 1996 Christmas rock opera Christmas Eve and Other Stories, the first part of a trilogy of prog rock-influenced Christmas albums, on the road in 1999. Louis had been playing "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24” on WNCX and had gotten great feedback from fans.
The Cleveland shows were huge hits.
“Bill’s audience was very aware of Trans-Siberian Orchestra,” says Plate. “I think the first show we played there was sold out. There was a buzz, and it was fun and exciting. Once we got to Cleveland — and we circled back around after they added another show at a different venue — we knew it was really going to work. That audience was awesome and gave us a lot of confidence.”
Tragically, Paul O’Neill passed away in 2017. In the wake of his death, TSO has continued to be a juggernaut.
“Paul was everything,” says Plate. “He signed off on every single thing we did. He was the producer, songwriter, lyricist and storywriter. He did tour production. All of it was Paul. He was a very, very smart man, and he surrounded himself with some very good people. The management team we have has been here from the beginning and the production staff has been here for years and years. There have been a lot of people through these doors. We have hired a lot of great people. It takes a certain type of person to do the tours we do. Paul set us up very, very well. He would always tell us that TSO would outlive us all and become generational. We bought into what he was telling us because we could see it happening right before us. To think we would be doing it without Paul wasn’t expected. We miss him dearly, but he left us in a good spot.”
Given the regularity with which TSO hits the road every year, Plate admits that it was “surreal” to spend Christmas at home in 2020 when the pandemic grounded touring.
“I knew in the spring of 2020 that we wouldn’t be touring,” he says. “I was mentally prepared when it didn’t happen. I’ll be honest. It was very nice to be home for the holidays. I went crazy decorating my house and had fun with it. At the same time, at any given time during the day, I would think, ‘I should be in Dayton or in Cleveland right now.’ It was weird, but we did the livestream. It was the most successful livestream to date. Hats off to the management team for making that happen.”
When TSO went back on the road last year, Plate and the other members were thrilled.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” he says. “You get so used to it and then something like this comes out of nowhere. You really have to appreciate things more. Last year, when we got back on the road, everybody had a new appreciation for it.”
This year’s show will feature an updated presentation of Ghosts of Christmas Eve.
“It’s the story based on the film we did in 1999,” says Plate. “I love the story and the film. The band loves performing the show. The audience loves it. We’re excited to come back out with it. If you’ve never seen us, you know that every year the show is different, whether it’s lighting or production or video or a change in the setlist. Paul O’Neill made a very strong case for this. He said no year would be the same as the previous year.”
The second set will feature an assortment of other TSO hits.
“This is where the show changes the most every year, and we can shuffle up a number of songs in our catalog,” says Plate. “Sometimes, it’s something we haven’t done. This is always in flux, and there are times when this doesn’t get settled until the last day of rehearsal.”
Plate says that since he’s been with the band from the first note, he carries a strong sense of pride in his contributions to it, and that keeps him coming back to the group each year.
“It’s interesting to think back on everything we’ve done and all the obstacles we’ve overcome,” he says. “TSO had more questions than answers when we started. Now, it’s unbelievable. Every year, it’s getting bigger and better. I remember being a kid and dreaming of doing what I’m doing. The arena is jam-packed. I have production surrounding me left and right and above and below. It really is mind-blowing. It’s one of these productions I think most people dream of being a part of.”
TSO performs Nov. 19 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Heritage Bank Center, 100 Broadway, Downtown. More info: heritagebankcenter.com.
This story was originally published by CityBeat sister paper Cleveland Scene.
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