Dueling Pianos entertains Friday night crowd

  • Jim Tyrrell (left) and Gardner Berry give a Dueling Pianos performance at Patrick’s Pub & Eatery in Gilford on July 28. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Jim Tyrrell sings and plays during a Dueling Pianos performance at Patrick's Pub & Eatery in Gilford on July 28.

  • Gardner Berry sings and plays during a dueling pianos performance at Patrick's Pub & Eatery in Gilford on July 28, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Jim Tyrrell and Gardner Berry give a dueling pianos performance at Patrick's Pub & Eatery in Gilford on July 28, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Gardner Berry plays during a dueling pianos performance at Patrick’s Pub & Eatery in Gilford on July 28.

For the Monitor
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Two guys walk into a bar.

In a niche just big enough to hold the instruments, they set up their keyboards and put out tip jars, a pile of paper napkins and pens. The crowd in the pub mostly ignores them. But at 9 p.m. on the dot, it’s showtime.

They urge patrons to come up and write out requests on the napkins, threatening to play some “really horrible music” otherwise.

It doesn’t take long. They hook the crowd with Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” Bob Seger’s “Still the Same” and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” The first request comes in, and the fun begins.

They call themselves “Dueling Pianos of New Hampshire,” but the name is misleading.

Traditional dueling pianos performances are ticketed events in which two piano players fiercely compete to out-do each other in fulfilling the patrons’ requests and get the most tips.

Jim Tyrrell, of the New Hampshire group, has performed in the more formal dueling piano events for about a decade, and said that audience participation is always intense.

Dueling Pianos of New Hampshire is much more collaborative, there are no tickets, and there’s no guarantee that the audience will be receptive. Two of the group’s four musicians (Gardner Berry, Matt Langley, Jon Lorenz and Jim Tyrrell) pair up every Friday night at Patrick’s Pub and Eatery in Gilford and work as a team to engage the patrons, who may or may not have come for the music.

“It’s a trick to be in a room like that because the room can be very passive,” Tyrrell said. “If they’re just there to watch the game and eat chicken wings, they could care less what we’re doing.

“It’s a combination of skill and luck. We have to earn a core of attentive people.”

Dueling Pianos of New Hampshire was born in May 2016, when Lorenz worked with Alan Beetle, the pub’s owner, to decide what type of music the pub would offer, and how it should be presented.

“One of the grand challenges for restaurants and bars,” Lorenz said, “is figuring out how to make music a part of the experience without overdoing it – trying to find that sweet spot that works for whatever the format of the venue is.”

They came up with the idea of dueling pianos, he said, because people in bars usually prefer covers to original music and because it’s all requests.

The music in most restaurants will start at 6 p.m. and be done at 9, he said. At Patrick’s, the show doesn’t start until 9 p.m.

“This allows us to be more boisterous, louder, more entertaining,” Lorenz said, “to not step on diners’ toes but to really capture the after-dinner crowd. It helps to keep people around. They want to see something that grabs their ear, gets their attention and is interesting.

“It’s very informal. It’s not like a seated concert or even a seated night club. It goes really well with the format of a pub.”

There is a bit of friendly competition, though, but it only enhances the performance.

“We’ll jump in on each other’s songs,” Lorenz said. “If Gardner’s playing a Van Morrison tune, I might take up my saxophone and play a solo on it. I’ve brought in an accordion a few times, too.

“One of us might pick up a harmonica while the other is doing a country song, or even do pianos solos over each other’s groove. Sometimes it’s about trading phrases and that’s like a duel, in its own right. That’s the fun of it, that we can mix it up.”

Langley adds his guitar to some pieces, and Tyrrell plays a melodica, a small handheld keyboard with a blow tube that sounds like a harmonica.

“That’s the beauty of having multiple guys in the rotation,” Langley said. “You’ll have people who are coming to see a couple of pianos and then all of a sudden you have a guitar and a saxophone.”

Friday night, Tyrrell sang “Piano Man” as both he and Langley played. Then Langley continued playing while Tyrrell picked up the melodica for the instrumental refrain.

And the pair turned out some serious blues with Tyrrell on melodica and Langley singing and playing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “The Sky is Cryin’.”

It’s impossible for any musician to know every song that might be requested, but it helps to be prepared.

During their first six months, Lorenz saved all of the napkins on which requests had been written, compiled some statistics, and discovered that there were certain songs and certain artists that people requested more than others.

“It does help to have them prepared and under our belt ahead of time,” he said, “and none of us will look surprised if someone requests Billy Joel, or Elton John or Neil Diamond. Our top requests by far are ‘Piano Man’ and ‘Sweet Caroline,’ which are requested 600 percent more often than other songs.”

Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” are also frequent favorites, he said.

Also, each of the four has his own expertise.

Berry describes himself as a classic rock/oldies guy.

“When an older song comes in, they usually toss it to me,” Berry said. “I’ve been playing for 53 years – it’s my specialty. When it comes to the old stuff, that’s where I shine – step aside, I’ve got it.”

Still, it’s a challenge.

“While everybody has their hundreds and hundreds of songs that they’re ready to perform,” Lorenz said, “the actual requests that come in are more like tens of thousands of songs that people are drawing from.”

All four admit that they have been stumped. What then?

“If I don’t know it, I make Matt play it,” Tyrrell quipped.

But there is a strategy.

“You have to do some research on the fly,” Tyrrell said. “If you know you can get through the gist of it, very often you can encourage the crowd to sing along and sometimes they end up leading the song.

“If they’re familiar with it because they requested it, sometimes they’re giving you what you need and get the rest of the puzzle put together.”

Sometimes, though, there’s not even that assistance.

Last Friday, a request came in for Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

“I’d heard it before,” Langley said, “but I didn’t really know it.”

While Tyrrell played “Wagon Wheel,” Langley listened to the requested song on his iPad. By the time Tyrrell finished playing, Langley was ready to roll.

There are no guarantees of success, though.

“Maybe I’ll stumble my way through it,” Lorenz said. “Maybe I’ll do a respectable version of it, maybe I’ll fall on my face. It’s all about attempting to do it. There are times when you just won’t be able to get it together, even by the end of the night because the song is too complex or whatever. It’s about trying to get as many requests as possible and doing your darndest to get through the night.

“It’s intense. It’s a two-hour set with no breaks. It’s rapid-fire, back and forth. We try to keep the energy up, keep the confidence up, to get through a song that you’ve maybe never even tried to play before, let alone in front of people.

“But between the two of us, we usually make it through the night unscathed,” he said.