Lots of talk, little warmth in Mannheim Steamroller show

By A Contributor

Last Tuesday one of the acts touring as Mannheim Steamroller rolled into K-State’s McCain Auditorium to do a Christmas music show. Backed by some local string and wind instrument players, the six musicians from Omaha gave us just over twenty songs, familiar carols and hymns, standard seasonal tunes, and a couple of less familiar ballads.

Christmas is a business for the Nebraskans. Arranger and drummer Chip Davis, who was not with this company, was introduced to us via the slide and movie projection screen up-stage and above the band. Right after the show-opening “Hark the Herald Angels,” surrounded audially by phase-shifted white noise, Mark Cooley, the electric bassist and, later, lute player, introduced the band members, told us CDs would be on sale in the lobby after the concert, and turned things over to Davis, recorded and projected, who told us about Orlando M.S. concerts.

Much of the sound of Mannheim Steamroller depends on electronic sound generation and alteration—ring modulation, electronic drums, synthesizers, and so on—that were introduced in rock music around the time Davis and “C.W. McCall” had a hit with “Convoy.” Well, if the 2011 McCain show had been a 1972 rock concert, the audience would have been yelling “Play music!” during the talking time from the end of the first song to the opening of the second.

But eventually the band did get back to their instruments. I believe Cooley introduced the group’s recorder player as Roxanne Layton. Different recorders were prominent in a number of the M.S. songs, and often they were paired with Cooley’s lute. On three or four occasions the songs featuring those instruments played while the projected movies were of a banquet apparently at a Renaissance Fair(e).

Sometimes the movies were abstract. Sometimes they showed ice skaters or animated characters, or natural settings (through which the apparently air(e) borne camera moved quickly). During “Pat-a-pan,” one of the best known songs in the band’s repertoire, the movie showed the little boy being given a drum, courting and marrying, leaving his pregnant wife so that he could drum in battle, and being brought home in a coffin.

The music of the first set included a slow “Greensleeves” (during which one of the band’s motorized spotlights, this one yellow, kept hitting me full in the eye), “White Christmas” (with what must have been pre-recorded female backing voices), “Little Drummer Boy,” Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” and “O Holy Night” with the melody played on Becky Kia’s electric violin.

The second set was a little more lively than the first, though it still felt a little as if it had been rehearsed for twenty-six years. Kia and the drummer each kidded their companions a little, as they played “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” “Good King Wenceslaus,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” and so on. “And he shall reign forever and ever!”

The digitized sounds contributed to the relative coldness of the performance, which never became atmospheric—one didn’t leave McCain, expecting snow, to hurry home for a cup of eggnog in front of a roaring fire or anything like that. But the show pleased the audience enough that they asked for an encore and got one—“Silent Night” played slowly on the piano, and then on the violin, with each line answered by a local musician. And then we were off to another carol as clips and snapshots from the band’s and from Davis’s TV appearances were projected onto the screen.

That done, the curtain came down on the fall semester of this year’s McCain Series. And the touring musicians hurried around to sign autographs in the lobby.

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