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 that finds two different Mannheim Steamroller ensembles criss-crossing the country to play some 80 cities combined is underway (with a stop in Bakersfield on Thursday). 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 the release of “Exotic Spaces,” the new Mannheim Steamroller album that is planned for release this March.
“We’re kind of, in our press stuff, are 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 with a barbecue attended by nearly 100 of his best friends and family. Far from slowing down, he’s looking at a particularly busy fall and winter.
First there are several Christmas activities. A Mannheim Steamroller ensemble will participate in the National Tree Lighting ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. It will be the third time Davis and his musicians have been part of this White House celebration.
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 enduring career of Mannheim Steamroller didn’t begin with Christmas music, but rather with the release in 1975 of 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.
Between 1975 and 2000, Davis released eight Mannheim Steamroller “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 unique album features songs that were inspired by famous — and exotic — sites, such as the pyramids of Egypt 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.'”