Tom Sharpe wth Mannheim Steamroller

Columbus, OH critic calls Sharpe’s drumming “Highlight of the Show.”

Musically, the star of the show was drummer Tom Sharpe, who played with precision and speed.

By Gary Budzak
For The Columbus Dispatch
Originally published December 22, 2014

Mannheim Steamroller’s Red touring cast effectively celebrated two milestones during its annual Palace Theatre concert last night.

First, a bit of explanation for those who aren’t that familiar with Mannheim Steamroller. It has two groups that tour the country during the holidays. For example, while the Red group played in Columbus last night, the Green group (note the use of holiday colors) performed in Wichita, Kan., at the same time.

The other thing is that the brainchild of Mannheim Steamroller, composer/arranger Chip Davis, 67, isn’t in either of the touring groups. However, the pride of Hamler, Ohio, does make an appearance at the beginning of the show on a large video screen above the group. Wearing a Michigan shirt (we’ll explain that later), he gives his annual spiel from his American Gramaphone empire in Omaha, Neb.

If that seems a bit mechanical, you’re right. Everything is pretty calculated, and the performances go like clockwork. However, that’s what makes this group’s shows a holiday tradition, and why they’re marking those two milestones.

The first milestone is 30 years since the release of Davis’ first of many Christmas albums. The second milestone is 40 years since the release of Davis’ first of many Fresh Aire albums. Davis defied convention by following the beat of his own drum (one of the instruments he plays) in both cases, and he has achieved great success as an unlikely musical independent. Mannheim Steamroller claims to be the top-selling Christmas act of all time, and the Fresh Aire series impressed many an audiophile.

So with those anniversaries in mind, it’s not unusual that the latest Mannheim Steamroller album is called 30/40 and includes Christmas and Fresh Aire music. And with Davis’ marketing acumen, it’s not surprising that the recording is available on a single compact disc and a three-disc “Ultimate Edition,” and as a double-disc vinyl record.

The two-hour concert neatly reflected the Mannheim Steamroller dichotomy, with the first half focusing on the Christmas music, and the second half on the Fresh Aire music. Although some folks might have left wanting more holiday music, the variation proved to be a good move.

Musically, the star of the show was drummer Tom Sharpe, who played with precision and speed, and a close second was harpsichordist/synthesizer player Christy Crowl. The Red group was rounded out by pianist Chuck Penington, bassist Glen Smith, violinist Jeff Yang, percussionist Joey Gulizia and an “orchestra” of strings, brass and a wind player.

Although it was all well-played, highlights of the show included Deck the Halls, Pat A Pan, Carol of the Bells and The Steamroller.

Oh, about that Michigan shirt. Davis said he is a graduate of that school up north, and he used its men’s choir to sing on two songs, O Tannenbaum and Auld Lang Syne. The choir could be seen on the video screen while the Red group played.