It’s holiday show season in Lincoln, and, for that matter, everywhere around the country.
Tuesday night, for example, acoustic guitar wizard Tommy Emmanuel will bring his “Classics & Christmas” tour to the Rococo Theatre.
On Wednesday, pianist Lorie Line will take the same stage for her “King of Kings” show.
And on Thursday, it’s Straight No Chaser Christmas, the vocal group's holiday concert at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.
Emmanuel’s show is titled “Classics & Christmas” for a reason. The world’s best fingerstyle guitarist knows that a little Christmas music can go a very long way.
“That’s why we break it up,” Emmanuel said. “The first half of the show I’ll be doing my solo stuff. For the second set, we reset the stage, get out the decorations, put a Christmas tree out there. The second set has Pat Bergeson, John Knowles and Annie Selleck with me.”
And Emmanuel says the Christmas half of the show is more than just running through the holiday standards — something that needs to be done to keep the holiday-themed show fresh and involving for the performers and the audience.
“During the Christmas set, there’s instrumental stuff, original stuff,” he said. “It’s not just ho ho ho, Jingle Bells. Some of us have written songs. There’s a new song in the set that I wrote with a friend, he provided a great lyric. It’s a song that somebody like Michael Bublé could sing.
“Then there’s a song called ‘Christmas Memories,’ where I tell the audience about Christmas in Australia and what it was like when I was a kid. Then I’ll kind of slide into ‘Waltzing Matilda.’”
“Christmas Memories” is the title cut of 2016 seasonal album, the second Christmas album he’s recorded. And this year’s “Classics & Christmas” is his third holiday season tour.
Emmanuel’s not alone in making regular Christmas tours. Some artists, including Line, make the annual holiday shows the anchor of their careers.
Minneapolis-based and classically trained, Line has toured for 28 years. She's been bringing her annual holiday shows to Lincoln for many of those years. This one, with her pop chamber orchestra, is accompanied by a new CD, book and collector's bell.
The annual holiday touring list includes a pair of acts with local connections: Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Mannheim Steamroller, the Omaha neo-classical new age outfit led by Chip Davis, aka “18th century classic rock band,” recorded the first of its 25 Christmas albums, boxed sets or compilations, in 1984.
Now the all-time leader in Christmas records sold — more than 28 million records besting No. 2 Elvis Presley by close to 12 million albums — Mannheim Steamroller tours every year.
“Our first Christmas tour was 33 years ago in 1974 when we played in five cities,” Davis said in the news release announcing the 2017 tour. “Currently, we play an average of 75 cities each year and it’s a real privilege to continue sharing the holiday spirit through our performances.”
Davis, who no longer performs with Mannheim Steamroller, produces the tours, sending out two companies to play one- or two-nighters in cities across the country and putting a third version of Mannheim Steamroller in Orlando, Florida, where it headlines Universal Orlando’s holiday celebration throughout the month of December. Mannheim Steamroller will play Omaha’s Orpheum Theatre Dec. 22 and 23.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra starts its holiday tour every year in Council Bluffs, Iowa. That’s where it comes to rehearse for the annual cross country tours that has made it one of the top ticket-selling acts of the first decade of the 21st century.
Assembled by Paul O’Neill, who died in April, TSO has been taking its holiday-themed, production-rich rock operas on holiday tours for 19 years, with one group heading east from Council Bluffs, the other going west.
“We’re the first band in history to have split in half and got away with it,” O’Neill told the Journal Star in 2013 before TSO played Pinnacle Bank Arena, the only time it’s performed in Lincoln. “We only do it in the winter, only in November and December. We were petrified the first year we did that. But the fans, I think understand why we did it.”
TSO’s shows are filled with original songs in classical music/rock styles that have generated sales of more than 10 million albums. Mannheim Steamroller delivers a mix of originals and standards. So do Straight No Chaser, Line and Emmanuel.
But even when he and his collaborators are playing a holiday standard, Emmanuel said there is plenty of improvisation.
“In every song, absolutely,” Emmanuel said. “It’s fun, everybody takes solos. People are going to love it. You play a song like ‘Let It Snow' and the harmonica takes a solo, it’s just beautiful.”
Regardless of whether the song is hundreds of years old or written this year, there are standards that have to met for it to be part of a satisfying holiday performance, Emmanuel said.
“It still has to be a great arrangement, has to groove, has to swing,” he said. “It’s important it’s played right and we all have a good time.”