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A&E >  Music

Mannheim Steamroller adding fresh take to holiday concerts

By Alan Sculley For The Spokesman-Review

Fans of Mannheim Steamroller and its career-making series of “Fresh Aire” albums figure to have a pretty merry next few months.

First off, the annual holiday tour sending two different Mannheim Steamroller ensembles crisscrossing the country to play around 80 cities combined is underway. In addition to Christmas music from the half dozen Mannheim holiday albums, the group’s founder and songwriter Chip Davis said there will be a little extra something special for “Fresh Aire” fans.

“I’ve added in some more ‘Fresh Aire,’ ” Davis said of the holiday show during a late-October phone interview. “We’re getting a lot of requests from the fans because we don’t do ‘Fresh Aire’ tours. And they’ve been saying could you add some to the Christmas show

“I don’t know total volume-wise, but maybe a third of the show is probably ‘Fresh Aire’ sprinkled around throughout different parts,” he said.

The same fans will also want to keep an eye out for “Exotic Spaces,” the new Mannheim Steamroller album that is set for release in March.

“We’re kind of, in our press stuff, sort of alluding to it as if there was a ‘Fresh Aire 9,’ this would be it because it’s in the psyche of the way I’ve constructed ‘Fresh Aire’ albums,” Davis said.

“ ‘Exotic Spaces,’ I didn’t call it ‘Fresh Aire 9’ because most composers, when they’ve written a ninth symphony, usually die right after that,” he added with a chuckle. “Like Beethoven, the guy’s like ‘Nine symphonies, bye.’ ”

Davis, obviously, is very much alive and well. He celebrated his 70th birthday in September. Far from slowing down, he’s looking at a particularly busy fall and winter.

First, there are several Christmas activities. On Nov. 30, Mannheim Steamroller will participate in the National Tree Lighting ceremony in Washington, D.C. It will be the third time Davis and his ensemble have been part of this White House celebration, having accepted previous invitations from the administrations of President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush.

“We were kind of schooled in the (thought of) yeah, you get to do this once and that’s it,” Davis said. “Then we got a second time, and we were like ‘Whoa, a second time.’ So yeah, the third time is seriously, ‘Wow!’ ”

Davis will also spend time at Universal Studios in Orlando, where Mannheim Steamroller will perform on a half dozen weekends leading up to Christmas – the latest in what has become an annual booking.

And of course, there is the Christmas tour that continues to grow in popularity despite what has become an increasingly crowded market of holiday tours. This year’s list of acts doing Christmas tours includes regulars like Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Dave Koz and the Brian Setzer Orchestra, as well as such notable artists as Melissa Etheridge, LeAnn Rimes, Jewel, Michael Martin Murphy and 98 Degrees. The growing competition doesn’t seem to have hurt Mannheim Steamroller’s tour.

“We’ve become, I think, such a tradition, that we’re tried and true, take the family. If you’re going to go see a Christmas show, it’s probably going to be ours,” Davis said. “So I think that probably helps hedge against all the other Christmas acts that are out there.”

The way Davis schedules the holiday tours also helps keep fans – especially families – coming out to see Mannheim Steamroller year after year. The show was last in Spokane in 2015.

“We go to the markets every other or every third year,” he said. “So then that gives them time to (think about) ‘Oh, you know, the kids are a little older. We should take them this year.’ I think that has a lot to do with the longevity.”

The enduring career of Mannheim Steamroller began in 1975 – not with a Christmas album, but with the first “Fresh Aire” album. Combining classical music and pop, and using orchestral instruments and synthesizers and other synthetic tones, “Fresh Aire” helped usher in the new age music genre.

Davis created Mannheim Steamroller during the period when he was writing music with friend Bill Fries, who adopted the stage name and CB radio toting character of C.W. McCall and became a country music star in 1976 with their hit song “Convoy” (which inspired the 1978 movie of the same name, starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw).

Davis, though, was soon focusing on Mannheim Steamroller and what grew to a series of eight “Fresh Aire” albums, which enjoyed major popularity considering they were marketed in a niche genre.

But today Davis and Mannheim Steamroller are best known for Christmas music. Davis entered the holiday fray with the 1984 album “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas,” at a time when such seasonal albums were largely seen as something artists released when they were on the downside of their careers.

Instead, that first Christmas album became a huge hit, selling 5 million copies, and Mannheim Steamroller has become the best-selling Christmas act of all time, with combined sales of more than 28 million albums.

After this year’s holiday season, Davis will return Mannheim Steamroller to its “Fresh Aire” roots with “Exotic Spaces.” The album features songs that were inspired by famous – and exotic – sites, such as Egypt’s pyramids and the Taj Mahal. Modern technology played a key role in helping Davis realize his vision for “Exotic Spaces.”

“Really it would almost have been impossible or extremely difficult to do if it were not for today’s virtual instruments,” he said. “Like some of the crazy instruments, ancient Egyptian instruments, I have access to this stuff now through, there are different programs. So ‘Exotic Spaces,’ when I’m doing (the song) ‘Pyramids,’ I’m using a lot of (computer-created) ancient Egyptian instruments, then part way through Steamroller kicks in and starts driving it. The same deal with ‘Taj Mahal,’ I’m using like sitars and things for ‘Taj Mahal’ and once again Mannheim it.”

The use of ancient instrumental sounds is a new twist for the “Fresh Aire” series, but Davis said every album in the series has been defined in part by what made it different from its predecessors.

“Each album has had a technology and an instrument change,” Davis said. “I like to change the colors, so that each album is different and has a little different hook. I hear people put them in their (CD) changers and put one back to back. Well, you can play them kind of all day and each thing is just different enough that it doesn’t sound the same.”

In addition to his musical projects, Davis has also co-authored, with writer Mark Valenti, a book trilogy aimed toward kids and young adults inspired by a timber wolf and horse he has on his 150-acre property near Omaha, Nebraska. Davis, who has written several children’s books, hopes the trilogy will hit stores sometime next year.

“The thing that inspired it was watching them play together, and they’re not supposed to do that. But they grew up together, since they were 8 weeks old,” Davis said. “They race back and forth. It got me thinking, because I can see them from my sitting room, I was like ‘I wonder what’s going through their minds?’ So we started making up stories of what we thought was going through their minds. That was the inspiration for it.”

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