Thursday, December 14, 2017

Mannheim Steamroller

For anyone who isn't familiar with them, Mannheim Steamroller is perhaps America's premier band for Christmas music. It wasn't always that way.

In the beginning, "Mannheim Steamroller" was simply a pseudonym for Chip Davis, a composer from Hamler, Ohio, who was interested in fusing popular and classical music. Davis founded his own record label in the mid-1970s, and released a series of albums in what would come to be known as the New Age genre, beginning with Fresh Aire in 1975. He had some modest success, and gradually added other musicians to the project. He released a series of niche albums over the next several years. Then in 1984, Mannheim Steamroller released an album under the simple title of Christmas, and it all went kablooey! The album ultimately went 6x Platinum, as did its follow-up, A Fresh Aire Christmas in 1988. Over the years, Mannheim Steamroller ultimately released eight albums in their Fresh Aire series, seven of which went Gold. Not bad. But they also released about twenty-five Christmas albums, eight of which have gone at least Platinum. So you can see where Mr. Davis gets the money for his Christmas presents every year, and why Mannheim Steamroller is predominantly known as a Christmas band.

The band has been doing Christmas tours for 33 years now, and this year was the third time they were invited to play in Washington, D.C. at the lighting ceremony for the National Christmas Tree at the White House. Although actually I should say "bands", because much like The Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Davis has two different versions of Mannheim Steamroller out on the road for Christmas tours this year, and he himself is conducting a third company in Orlando, Florida throughout this holiday season, as they play their version of "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas".

When Denise and I first got together and pooled our music collection, it happened that those first two Mannheim Steamroller Christmas CDs were in both of our collections. (I'm not going to say that overlap in musical tastes is an absolute necessity to any relationship, but it definitely helps). And roughly ten years ago, a few years before our children entered our lives, we spent a glorious weekend in Connecticut seeing Duran Duran and Mannheim Steamroller live at The Mohegan Sun. So now that the kids are older, and we have a little more freedom to get away for a night here and there, we decided to shoot over to Atlantic City for a night and catch Mannheim Steamroller once again at Harrah's.

We braved what our friend Sean Crusher accurately referred to as "The quarter-inch blizzard of 2017" to drive to Atantic City on Saturday morning. Then we grabbed a bite to eat, caught a nap at our hotel, and shot over to Harrah's.

Now I have a few choice words about the venue. The Concert Venue there is a nice enough room that holds 1,200 people, and this show was sold out. It's a typical casino concert venue -- comfortable chairs, and decent acoustics. But it has some drawbacks, and unfortunately, one of them in particular significantly interfered with out enjoyment of the show.

For one thing, in this age of extra security, especially considering the horrible Las Vegas shooting incident of last October, casinos are being extra mindful about security, and I applaud this. Like many concert venues these days, before you enter the venue, you  have to stand in line and get wanded by security workers. Unfortunately, this venue must have been designed before all of these protocols were put into place, because once you're in the arena, if you want to use the restrooms or avail yourself of refreshments such as Harrah's delicious $8 bottles of water, you have to get back in line and get wanded all over again to get back to your seats. Now that's kind of insane, especially for a concert with an older crowd like this -- we geezers aren't exactly noted for our strong bladders. This was a comparatively minor complaint, though.

The bigger problem was our seats. We were sitting in the upstairs part of the arena, in the right-most of three sections. Unfortunately, although our tickets said nothing about being obstructed vision seats, there are two huge, curved speakers that hang down over the stage on both the right and left sides.

Now seeing Mannheim Steamroller is a little bit like seeing a pops orchestra or a classical music show -- this version of the band had what looked to be a 7-piece supporting orchestra seated stage right, with the six musicians who actually constitute Mannheim Steamroller scattered over the rest of the stage. They don't jump around like a rock band -- this is a class act! So we could see most of the musicians OK. But in order to make up for the staid visual picture presented by the band, the show is complimented by a series of interesting lighting effects, a smoke machine, and a large video screen at the back of the stage which shows videos throughout the night that go along with the respective songs the band is playing. The video screen is an important part of the show.

But from where we were seated (and it had to be the same for the people on the other side of the venue), that big curved speaker blocked pretty much our entire view of the screen. So, for example, when the band opened up with "Escape from the Atmosphere," a number from an album of space exploration music called The Music of the Spheres, there was a rocket taking off from and re-entering the atmosphere that looked like it was probably pretty cool. Unfortunately, all we could see of it were the fumes from the rocket's tail.

So on behalf of all of the people seated in the upper left and upper right sections for this show, I'd to say a big, collective, Christmasy, "Bite Us, Harrah's!". (Not to the employees, though. By and large, the ushers, etc. were very nice).

Anyway, the show itself was excellent. We saw what they referred to as the Red Tour Cast (you could tell, because the women were wearing beautiful red gowns), as opposed to the Green Tour Cast, which was playing somewhere in Denver on the same night. The actual band consisted of Becky Kia Mills (the conductor and violinist), and Ron Cooley (the guitarist, bass player) at the front of the stage, with John Blasucci (piano, synthesizer), Bobby Kunkle (harpsicord, synthesizer), Roxanne Layton (percussion, recorder), and Logan Penington (drums) scattered behind them. Now Cooley reminded me a little of Joel Godard, that strange little man who used to be on the  Late Night With Conan O'Brien show (or at least his facial expressions did), and he and Mills played off of one another and flirted shamelessly throughout the night. (Disclaimer: that's mostly my fevered mind's interpretation of what was going on between them. What is it about me and Atlantic City? The last show I saw there, I had Katrina of Katrina and the Waves and Paul Young engaging in torrid lovemaking during the English Beat's set.)

There were two acts, predominantly made up of Christmas music, although there were a few sprinklings from the Fresh Aire and other other non-Christmas albums sprinkled in. Much of Mannheim Steamroller's music is Renaissance-flavored, although some is brassy and in-your-face. They played most of their best-loved arrangements, including their versions of "Deck the Halls", "Joy to the World", "O Holy Night" and "The Carol of the Bells". They also did their version of "Greensleeves", the only non-instrumental song of the night, which was impressively sung by the video version of Davis's 14-year-old daughter Elyse. When Denise first looked at the program, she was disappointed that the one classic that wasn't listed for performance was "Silent Night", a song for which I'd have to say that Mannheim Steamroller does the definitive version. It's a slightly sad, delicate arrangement, that evokes the image of lightly falling snow. Happily, though, although it didn't say so on the program, the band played that as its encore, and it was beautiful.

So in spite of the obstructed vision seats and the quarter-inch-of-snow blizzard, the show was worthwhile. (And Harrah's almost redeemed themselves a little after the show with their Monty Python and the Holy Grail Killer Bunny slot machines, and their delicious 24-hour desert cafe). So Merry Christmas, Mannheim Steamroller, and Merry Christmas Chip Davis. And thanks for all of the great Christmas music.