As a kid, Jeff Plate had a mean fastball and dreamed of a professional baseball career. Maybe he could become a pitcher for the New York Yankees, he thought.
But the farm boy from upstate New York eventually lost sight of this dream. At age 13, his hip popped out of joint. He underwent surgery and used crutches for months. And he was told to avoid sports for a while.
It was during this recovery period that the life-changing moment happened.
“I saw the band Kiss on television, and then sports didn’t matter anymore,” Plate recently told the Deseret News. “It just blew me into another orbit. They led the way and I followed.”
Now, Plate has been touring as the drummer for Trans-Siberian Orchestra for two decades.
From his seat on stage, he’s watched the arsenal of laser lights and pyrotechnics grow larger each year. He’s seen the bewildered looks on newcomers’ faces as they take it all in (it’s fairly easy for him to tell the longtime fans from the first-timers).
But no matter the reaction, by the time TSO gets to “Christmas Eve Sarajevo (12/24)” — the band’s signature song — Plate knows they’ve gained a new fan.
“That song gets people out of their chairs,” Plate said. “They applaud and next thing you know, we’ve got ’em.”
For years, Plate has marveled at how TSO’s fan base grows each year — to the extent that there’s separate East Coast and West Coast tours that cram eight shows into five days each week.
“We are a touring group like no other,” he said with a laugh.
In fact, since the band started touring in 1999, Plate — who typically takes part in the East Coast tour — recalls only one show that ever had to be rescheduled. A few years ago, a snowstorm in the Carolinas pushed back a performance. But nothing’s ever been canceled.
When the pandemic hit, Plate recalls telling his wife: “Expect me to be around this year, ’cause I don’t see this going away.”
Over the following months, the musician roamed around his 85-acre farm in upstate New York. He shifted to teaching the drums to local kids virtually. He revived an original project, having more time to write, arrange and engineer music for his band Alta Reign, which has an album coming out in January.
But all the while, the possibility of a TSO tour lingered in his mind, however faint.
TSO held out as long as it could, hoping for a miracle.
“We were hoping to the last minute that something was going to break — be it a vaccine or be it COVID was just going to calm down for a little bit — and we were going to be able to at least do a tour of some respect,” Plate said. “This is the first time that anything has come along to really put a stop to our tour.”
So when push came to shove, TSO moved on to Plan B.
The band is putting together a 90-minute production of “Christmas Eve & Other Stories,” to be livestreamed from a soundstage in Nashville Dec. 18. Plate didn’t give too much away in terms of what the show will look like — although he did say incorporating fire and snow likely wouldn’t have the same effect as it does in person.
“If Paul was here, he would try to outfit everybody with a snow machine and a flame thrower of some sort,” the drummer said with a laugh.
Finding a way to keep the beloved tradition going in some form during a troubled year is a tribute to Paul O’Neill, the band’s creator who died unexpectedly in 2017. O’Neill’s dedication to the diverse music, stories, themes, special effects and energy of the shows lives on in all the TSO performers who strive to make every note count — even virtually.
“Everybody’s gonna really give it their all,” Plate said. “I mean, I would much rather be on tour, but I know this show is going to be great. Because in the spirit of what we do — in the spirit of Paul O’Neill — it has to be. We’re going to make it as big and as bright as we possibly can. And we’ll be right in your living room. You’ll have the best seat in the house.”