Their music is like none other. And that is what keeps fans coming back to hear it anew every year, especially when it comes to their ultra-popular Christmas tours.
Whether it is the sound of the tin whistle, the synthesizers or the electronic drums, audiences continue to pack arenas for the chance to hear Mannheim Steamroller perform their holiday tunes. That was definitely true at the sold-out show Monday night at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, where the crowd seemed to revel in each song, particularly the more well-known and up tempo songs like "Little Drummer Boy," "Joy to the World" and "Hallelujah."
From the moment they stepped onto the stage to the moment they finished a two-song encore, the audience was enraptured, as was this writer. The two-hour show kept the audience members tapping their toes and patting their thighs as the band played more than 20 songs — holiday melodies — with one intermission splitting those in half.
It didn't take long to bear witness to the talent of the musicians. The band, made up of five main members backed by a 10-piece "Florida orchestra" that was touring with the group just within the state, sounded just as precise and polished as the recordings on their many compact discs.
But first, a quick history lesson.
The band didn't just come by its success with ease, or even after their first album hit the shelves. Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis composed new age, mostly instrumental pieces, starting with four albums tied around the four seasons, titled "Fresh Aire I" through "Fresh Aire IV." All of them came out between the mid-70s and the early 80s.
But it wasn't until nearly a decade later that Davis and his fellow Steamroller members decided to give holiday music a go. Before the band knew it, they realized they were onto something; in fact, something very big. The band released its first holiday album, "Mannheim Steamroller Christmas" in 1984.
Ever since, the band has continued to be one of the top Christmas album artists, moving into the upper reaches of the holiday music charts with each album. The band just came out with its 13th addition, titled "Winter in Venice," and which was only available for purchase at the show.
But here is what is possibly the most interesting fact about Mannheim. Once you've heard their music and become a fan — like this author — or even a casual listener, it is easy to distinguish them from any other.
While the Christmas melodies they play are familiar to the ear, the subtle changes that Davis makes to them turns them into what many consider masterpieces. It is often something as simple as adding instruments like recorders, electronic violins and lutes, and then bumping the tempo up a bit on classic hits such as "O Holy Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," two songs that kept the mostly retired-age crowd at the Phil quite pleased, based on their reactions.
The band's five main members included two who have been with the group almost since its onset. One of those, Chuck Penington, who served as the conductor, pianist and keyboardist, shared that he has been in Mannheim for 27 years and loves working with Davis, who no longer performs but arranges the music for all of the band's shows.
"Chip is a really great composer, don't you think?" Penington asked the audience during one of the few times any of the members spoke throughout the night. The crowd's response was instantaneous and loud with approval.
Naples was just the fourth stop on the band's long tour this holiday season. But that is just this group. Mannheim has two different bands that tour separate sides of the country. The group that visited Naples is mainly touring eastern states, while the other group is mostly in the Midwest and western states.
In all, both groups will make 90 stops, not counting the fact that they will also play at Universal Studios in Orlando almost every weekend in December.
While the audience especially seemed to enjoy the more recognizable tunes, this writer fell in love with some of the more solemn, sublime songs such as "Faeries" and "Above the Northern Lights." One could easily hear snatches of the band's Fresh Aire days in those melodies.
Stop by any big-box store, and you can find a slew of holiday music on the shelves, especially this time of year. But if you get the chance, pick up one by Mannheim Steamroller.
As you'll find out, they do things just a bit differently, and that's what will keep bringing fans back for more. Including this one.