26 June 2008

Musical monstrosities (dueling piano bars, etc.)

I admit it - as a musician I tend to look down my nose on some musical nightlife options perhaps in the same way a scratch golfer might look down on mini golf as an exercise in dumbed-down amateurism.

The Japanese started this but in their culture the aim was to honor their musical idols and do every song justice. In the States it's usually an assault on one's hearing and a frightening exercise in ritual self-humiliation. Most 'singers' must consume vast quantities of Dutch courage before they will dare to take a turn at the microphone...drunken bellowing and unintelligible lyrics (despite being inches away from a monitor displaying the lyrics) invariably follow. You will encounter one or two 'ringers' per night - people who have actual vocal talent and/or have not yet entered a drunken stupor - especially when a cash prize is involved, but the vast majority of karaoke nights and singers makes one worry that tone-deafness might become the next so-called national health crisis.

One other note: Britons are great allies in skewering the showy and self-aggrandizing but they seem to have a giant blind spot where Karaoke is concerned...they seem to universally love it. It doesn't mean they're good at it of course but it is a curious exception to the rule.

Dueling Piano Bars
Remember those school classmates that hung around the music room before or after class? They would congregate around the school's tired, out of tune piano (invariably mounted on caster wheels) and play a two-person rendition of 'Heart and Soul' (C Am F G) until even they couldn't stand it any longer. At other times the music teacher or a piano-playing student would strike up the chords to the likes of 'You Light Up My Life' or 'Keep On Loving You.'

Fast-forward to adulthood and many of those crooning classmates have hit the town looking for a little nightlife. Imagine their joy when they discover the existence of the dueling piano bar (DPB). They come under different guises - Crocodile Rocks (Elton John reference - geddit?), Howl At The Moon Saloon (at least wolves sound good howling) and so forth.

In the 1980s Keyboard Magazine once lauded Bruce Hornsby for making piano players popular and even sexy. Apparently there are pianists/vocalists drawn to these DPBs for the same reasons: mocked and marginalized for so long they are now the centers of attention. No more sideman gigs for these ivory-ticklers!

The theory of 'nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public' has never been more strongly upheld than in a DPB. The usual comments make me laugh and cry simultaneously in frustration: "It's fun!" "They're so talented!" "They know so many songs!" "They played my request!" "They played Happy Birthday for my friend!" "They played [insert state song here] even though we were in [insert tourist destination]!" "We sang Piano Man with them!"

Groan. Here is the reality folks:

1) Many (most?) popular songs were written on guitar using a handful of chords with basic changes in only a few keys (A, E, G, D, C). Many of the song 'writers' couldn't read or write music! For a piano player who learned via traditional lessons using traditional sheet music most popular songs are dead easy to play. Songs written by and for piano (e.g., Elton John & Billy Joel songs) are even easier!

2) But, you say, Paul Piano is a music teacher/orchestra musician/professor of music! Well bully for him! Why is he prostituting himself and his art in front of a drunken mob then? If he loves Chopin and can play difficult classical numbers why is he reducing himself to I-IV-V major chord progressions that he can play in his sleep?

3) They know so many songs! Oh really? As above, most pop music rarely goes beyond three or four chords with timeworn changes borrowed from blues, country and early rock 'n' roll. Slight variations on a theme don't equate to a vast musical vocabulary.

4) They know so many songs pt. 2. Think for a moment about the songs that might be requested at a DBP. 'Piano Man' - dead obvious. 'Crocodile Rock' or any Elton John - dead obvious again. Tear-jerker ballads, cheesy Neil Diamond numbers, maybe the odd singer-songwriter-guitar standard such as 'Margaritaville' or 'Fire And Rain.' The piano players know that there will be few surprises coming from the audience but they'll be happy to accept your $10 bribe to play a song that was coming up anyway.

5) They played Happy Birthday for us! I REALLY don't understand this one. I stopped getting excited about birthdays (my own or others') when I was, oh, 10 years old or so. Of course I buy presents and cards for others now but mandatory celebrations are gladly left in childhood past. Moreover, celebrating in public has always struck me as an extremely lame form of exhibitionism. If you are an adult and enjoy 10 waitresses chanting and clapping at you in a restaurant on your birthday then perhaps you need to examine the level of excitement in your life during the rest of the year.

Requesting a public performance of Happy Birthday ticks all the boxes for cringeworthiness: an over-the-top 'comedy' rendition by cynical musicians who are forced to do it most nights and boredom from strangers who don't know you or your friend.

6) They sang [insert official or adopted state song] for us! I'm a bit less strident on this point because I think West Virginia easily has the best (adopted) state song in 'Take Me Home, Country Roads.' Who knows what WV's state song was prior to 1971? Who even cares?

Back to state songs (or school fight songs). Yes they personalize the evening but again the cynical musical hosts will bleed the customers dry in a 'competition' to see which song will 'win' and be performed. If you're slapping $100 down in order to hear 'The Victors' instead of 'Fight On' or 'Across The Field' then perhaps you should take your iPod along and save a few dollars.

The musicians don't really care if they play 'Old Folks At Home' or 'Sweet Home Alabama' as long as the greenbacks keep flowing in.

Like karaoke, DPBs also perpetuate the curse of the drunken 'singer.' After sufficient rounds of macrobrewed swill the DPB customer, egged on by the tip-jar-obsessed pianists, will finally shed the stage fright and join in a chorus of 'Sweet Caroline' or 'Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys (cowgirls....cowboys....etc.).

Suddenly, mini golf under the lights looks a lot more appealing.

The shame of a neglected blog

Blogs are wonderful things but those date stamps can get one in trouble. My last entry was March 20 and was an insignificant pitiful little moan session. Must do better

20 March 2008

Spring? Please?

The 'net and the world in general doesn't need another post moaning about winter/cold/snow.

I will note, however, that the seasons - all of them - seem to have shifted. March weather is now April weather, October weather is now November weather, etc.

Very strange but very consistent for the last 8-10 years.