POP QUIZ, HOTSHOT: Which group has played to more people in North America over the past decade than any other rock act? Most music business observers would likely answer U2 or Metallica, maybe the Stones or the Dave Matthews Band. According to industry trade publication Pollstar, however, the top rock draw in the U.S. during the second decade of the 21st century is a band that tours just seven weeks each year. From every mid-November through late December, though, TransSiberian Orchestra (TSO) perform to approximately a million fans, selling out arenas from coast to coast with a Yuletide-themed show that mixes rock, classical and theater with a state-of-the-art production featuring dazzling lasers, extensive pyrotechnics and a stage that literally transforms before your eyes.
Two-thousand-nineteen marks the 20th anniversary of the group’s first winter tour, and once again, guitarists Chris Caffery and Al Pitrelli will lead the charge. Pitrelli — who has toured with TSO for all but one of the past 20 years — boasts an impressive résumé, as in addition to a brief stint in Megadeth (which caused him to miss TSO’s winter tour in 2000), the Long Island native has toured or recorded with the likes of Alice Cooper, Asia and Blue Oyster Cult. Fellow New Yorker Caffery — who, along with drummer Jeff Plate, is the only musician to take part in every TSO tour over the past two decades — has performed with artists ranging from German metal queen Doro Pesch to Polka king Jimmy Sturr on top of releasing six solo albums. He’s best known, though, for his work with cult favorites Savatage, whose ambitious and theatrical metallic hard rock — think Queen meets Queensrÿche — laid the groundwork for TSO.
Savatage’s 1995 rock opera Dead Winter Dead was the first album on which the two guitarists played together. At the time, Caffery had just rejoined the band — founded in Florida by brothers Jon and Criss Oliva during the early Eighties — after a nearly five-year sabbatical, while Pitrelli was a new recruit who had been recommended to the group’s producer, Paul O’Neill. The album featured a symphonic instrumental, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” that became a modest hit — but when the song was re-released the following year under the TSO moniker, a star was born.
Three years later, the nascent group embarked on their first tour; since then, TSO has performed before more than 15 million people, selling more than half a billion dollars’ worth of tickets along the way.
Each holiday season, TSO splits into two touring troupes. Pitrelli anchors and serves as musical director for “TSO West” (in which he’s been flanked for the past 18 years by guitarist Angus Clark), while Caffery acts as the unofficial master of ceremonies for “TSO East,” in which he shares guitar duties with Joel Hoekstra (Whitesnake, Cher and frequent Guitar World columnist). Both troupes typically play live five days a week, more often than not performing two concerts a day. Considering that a TSO concert typically lasts two-and-a-half hours, each guitarist spends around five hours on stage on double-show days.
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