A half hour to curtain, Al Pitrelli unwinds on a couch in his spartan dressing quarters, fresh off a loading-dock Marlboro.
He's deep inside an arena in Birmingham, Ala., about to play the 29th show in the 18th city of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's 19th winter on the road. Out in the hall, violinists tune and singers apply mascara and crew members pop in and out of catering – fajita night is always a hit – but Pitrelli is all out of pep talks and rituals.
If Paul O'Neill were here, "we'd be sitting on the couch just like this, just catching up on stuff," said Pitrelli, TSO's lead guitarist and musical director. "He'd have 100 questions and 100 things he couldn't wait to talk about. He'd always be talking about what we're doing in six months."
It has been eight months since O'Neill, founder and eccentric mastermind of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, was found dead from a prescription pill overdose in a hotel room in Tampa, the explosive Christmas roadshow's creative home base.
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But his death has not slowed TSO's grand annual march across the country. Since forming in 1996, TSO has played some 2,000 concerts, sold more than 14 million tickets and grossed more than $600 million at the box office. Judging from this sold-out show in Birmingham, they are more popular than ever. Their two concerts Sunday in Tampa, O'Neill's adopted hometown, are on track to surpass last year's 22,623 tickets sold.
A spectacle this grand, beloved and profitable can't just up and stop. But without the enigmatic, exacting O'Neill at the helm, it's unclear who will lead it forward.
"I've asked that question myself to some of the members that I know fairly well in the band," said Tom Morris, a Tampa recording studio owner and longtime TSO collaborator. "And honestly, I think they're trying to figure that out themselves."
For more on the Trans-Siberian Orchestra after the death of Paul O'Neill, click here for our story.