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John Lamb, Published November 13 2012

Mannheim Steamroller, which gets few breaks during the year, brings Christmas show to Fargodome

FARGO – Every year, the Christmas season creeps in earlier and earlier on the consumer.

But imagine what it’s like for the producers of holiday cheer who have to keep Christmas ideas percolating all through the year.

Like Chip Davis, the man behind the new age “Jingle Bells” juggernaut Mannheim Steamroller.

The composer/editor/promoter/all-round-businessman generally takes a few weeks off in January. Then he’s back at thinking of new tweaks to Mannheim’s annual Christmas spectacle.

The tour sets up at the Gate City Bank Theatre at the Fargodome on Sunday night, the third date of a six-week tour.

“I hope people can come see us to help kick off their holiday season because I hear it over and over, but it’ll definitely get you in the holiday spirit,” Davis says.

It seems just a little early to hear that since he is calling from his home in Omaha, Neb., on a warm Halloween day.

Actually, Davis says if he had to pick his favorite time of the year, it would be autumn, with the changing colors and sunny warmth.

In fact, while Mannheim is best known for its modern, often-synthesized pop Christmas cannon, the group has released two Halloween albums. But Davis says that’s it for a while, that he’ll keep promoting those discs rather than a new Hallow-release.

“Halloween is only a six-to-eight-day retail window,” he says. “You can’t saturate a marketplace in that period of time. It takes years before you hit any real numbers.”

And Mannheim is rolling in the numbers come this time of the year. There are two touring Christmas groups hitting the road, with the Red Tour hitting the East Coast and the Green Tour here in the Midwest.

Davis isn’t on either tour and hasn’t toured since having neck surgery in 2008.

“Back in the old days when it was just me and the original band, we’d do six or eight cities and play multiple concerts in each city. Now we’re doing 94 cities and it’s crazy,” he says.

And it gets crazier. Davis is adding two other ensembles. On Tuesday he starts a seven-days-a-week show at the Venetian in Las Vegas. True to its setting, Davis is giving that production the full Mannheim.

“With that show we have everything from acrobats to dancers,” he says. “All kinds of trick visual effects that you can only do with a touring company. You could only do when you’re parked in one spot where you can use all the benefits of a theater.”

Then every weekend in December, Davis will be in residence at the Universal Studios in Orlando conducting “The Grinch that Stole Christmas,” mixing Mannheim takes on the popular songs as well as some originals.

“I’ve been doing it the last couple of years, and it’s gone so well they made it an eight-show contract,” he says.

Add to the mix an ice skating special being taped this week to be broadcast Nov. 25 on NBC, and a spot in the Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving morning for third year in a row. Throw in a QVC appearance before heading to Orlando, and you’d think the Steamroller would be running out of batteries.

“You can imagine with having all of the events going on, I can’t be involved in every part of this anymore,” he says. “The part I do is create all the music and the multimedia for the shows.”

And every year he has to add and subtract from the show so that audiences don’t see the same exact show year after year.

Mannheim last played Fargo in December 2010.

This time around Davis is most excited about high-definition screens and digital footage of the Northern Lights.

“It’s a different show, a different feel, but it’s still going to be Mannheim,” Davis says. “I’ve explained so many times in interviews, it is a fine line because there are certain favorites that people expect. There are certain ones you’ve got to play.”

He says Mannheim’s takes on “Deck the Halls,” “Silent Night” and “Little Drummer Boy” are set standards, but there are up to 150 other orchestrations to pick from for the tour.

But there are some tunes he initially refused to tackle.

Always interested in feedback, a few years ago he opened it up to fans to pick which songs they wanted to hear. Of all the suggestions that came pouring in, one just kept rattling around his head: “Carol of the Bells.”

“It’s the same thing over and over,” Davis says, sounding out the melody. “What am I going to do with this? Of all the pieces that got all of these votes, I’ve got to do ‘Carol of the Bells.’ ”

“At first it was like pulling teeth, and then I got this really cool groove happening with it and it ended up being one of my most favorite pieces and one of the fans’ all-time favorites,” he says.

Now the number is staged to synchronized red lights

“It’s just a hot-looking piece, and it totally rocks out,” he says.

“Rocks out” is an interesting choice of words for someone with a classical background who found himself labeled with the new-age tag.

“It’s better than old age.” Davis says when asked what he thinks about the label. “I preferred at the time (of Mannheim’s inception in the mid-1970s) to call it eclectic. I was mixing classical technique with modern day rock ’n roll rhythms.”

“I’m really enjoying this part of my career from the standpoint that we have such tremendous visibility that I would have never guessed 30 years ago that this would be going on.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533