The Piano Men: A Tribute to Billy Joel & Elton John

Symphony Nova Scotia – Symphonic Fusion

Saturday, November 19, 2016 2:00 p.m. Rebecca Cohn Auditorium

Hey Boomers, remember high school? Remember how the music was so much better than now? Remember Gilligan’s Island, Amazing Sea Monkeys and platform shoes?

Jim Witter does. The creator and heart and soul of The Piano Men asked an enthusiastic crowd at the Cohn who a) was old enough to remember the ‘70s; b) wasn’t old enough; or c) lived through them, but can’t remember a thing. Judging by the applause throughout this trip back in time, the 70’s are well remembered by the Boomers and even some Millennials, and we miss them and love their great songs in the days of Rihanna and Bruno Mars. My fellow Boomers wonder, will there be a Justin Bieber tribute show forty some years from now where everyone can sing all the words to his songs like we still can to the theme song from The Brady Bunch?

Witter was front and centre at the concert grand with his band alongside, in front of Symphony Nova Scotia and Maestro Bernhard Gueller, sharing the music he grew up with (he wanted to join the DeFranco Family) and reminding us of the truth that the music we liked in high school is the music that stays with us. Agreed. The boomers were bouncing and boogying at what was one of the most fun concerts I have ever attended.

What is it about these nostalgia Pops concerts that gets people out (thinking of the fantastic SNS Rajaton/ABBA show of a few years ago)? Although the afternoon crowd was definitely into it, the evening show audiences apparently were in full-on rock concert mode. It’s like being given permission to forget what’s going on in the big old bad world for a couple of hours, and just indulge ourselves and groove to these great songs that we loved and still love. As one SNS staffer said, “really, we could just do these kinds of shows every weekend.” Or, as my audience neighbor more or less said, “What’s not to love? You could sing it, you can clap to it, and for sure you could dance to it!”  Anyway, how can you go wrong with Billy Joel and Elton John? Even if you have never seen the Piano Men live, you know these songs, and they stand the test of time. Witter has picked some of the best ones, from John’s Your Song which opened the first half, to Joel’s Piano Man, which closed it.

Very effectively, he’s created a multimedia event, with changing images and texts reminding us of stuff we might have forgotten from the ‘70s. Smiles and nods as we saw headshots of Farrah, Bo, Melanie and Jaclyn while the musicians played Always a Woman, and a clip of Nixon’s resignation introduced Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. There was laughter and a few tears. Elton John’s Candle in the Wind was performed along with images of some of those we lost in the 1970s, like Picasso, Elvis, Bing Crosby, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Chaplin and Janice Joplin. And of course that song never fails to bring to mind Princess Diana’s funeral.

Witter also gave us classic TV commercials from the ‘70s and their songs, begging the question, how many school choirs sang the non-Coke version of I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing?

A really fun segment in the second half had us yelling out our favorite TV theme songs from the ‘70s, and the band responding with Gilligan’s Island, Welcome Back Kotter, Happy Days, Three’s Company, the Jeffersons’ Movin’ on Up, WKRP in Cincinnati, and the very funny Those Were the Days from All in the Family, which ended with an orchestral flourish from SNS and Maestro Gueller.

Gueller has conducted multimedia shows before, his performances of Holst’s The Planets coming to mind as a projected clip of the first moonwalk nicely segued into Rocket Man. But, do the names Bernhard & Elton belong in the same sentence? Hmm. Bernhard & Beethoven, Bernhard & Brahms. But Bernhard & Billy Joel? I have to admit, I was wondering. The answer is: Gueller is Gueller, no matter the score, from the classics, to new Canadian music, to the Nutcracker to hard-driving rock, he’s always impeccable and firmly in the Captain’s chair.

As for Witter, he has the vocal chops and timbre to make him totally credible for a tribute show like this. In fact, if he pushed a bit of a British twang on certain words, he could really pass as Elton (especially on his classic hit, Daniel). He nails the piano playing too, obviously key in a tribute to these two great piano/songwriters (well, let’s not forget the role of lyricist Bernie Taupin in his partnership with Elton – “hunting the horny back toad” not being your typical rock lyric).   And I loved the walking bass in Witter’s left hand that’s essential for songs like My Life.

And what a dream band! Musicians Ian Tanner (bass and vocals), Tony Lind (guitars/vocals) and Jimmy Boudreau on drums are all great players, and Tanner wrote all the orchestral arrangements – bravo! In the TV show segment, the versatile Tanner also did a hilariously pitch perfect Edith Bunker that had the audience screaming and even Maestro Gueller applauding. The musicians are obviously very comfortable together, responding instantly to audience calls for their favorite TV show themes. Halifax sax player Chris Mitchell became a fifth band member, adding a great solo on Just the Way You Are, accompanied by….wait for it….a mirror ball! Far out!

The tricky bit with a show like this is that the audience knows every word and riff, so the players have to deliver musical arrangements that ring true to the fans. But no one can actually be the greats but the greats (who’s going to do the Leonard Cohn orchestra show?). For me, a show that delivers really well played music that is true enough to the originals but has its own original heart, is preferable to Elton and Billy impersonators. Thanks for keeping it real, Jim Witter and band mates!

It was impossible not to sing along. Wisely, Witter didn’t try to stop us, and encouraged the crowd to provide backing vocals, clapping, and our best singing “na, na na na nas” with attitude on Crocodile Rock. Really who can keep quiet on Movin’ Out’s “working too hard can give you a heart att-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack?” Not me! (Sorry, Millennial neighbor!)

It was nice to see the orchestra grooving along too on their break during the band-only version of Crocodile Rock. Because the question is, does a show like this even need the orchestra? I have to admit that sometimes SNS was a bit covered by the amplified band, and felt like background. But, you absolutely need those singing strings on the opening of Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word (weirdly felt like I was at a Barry Manilow show!), the trumpets (dubbed “Halifax’s Mariachi Band”) on Don’t Ask Me Why, and more lovely string playing again on Honesty. Then of course there’s that must have cricket-sounding chirping by the strings on Philadelphia Freedom with the flute part that always reminded me of a loon – Google it if you don’t remember. So this is another great combination of nostalgia programming with a killer back up band – Symphony Nova Scotia scores again!

The show ended with the waltz-like title song, Joel’s Piano Man (1973) with Witter doubling on harmonica, and for an encore, Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. A happy and grinning crowd left the Cohn humming, and for sure the Boomers are dusting off their LPs or CDS (or Googling) the Piano Men’s original hits this weekend. So, Canadian orchestras, take it from me: bring the Boomers into your halls and book this show now!

PS: In case you forgot, here’s some of the good, the bad and the ugly from the ‘70s that Witter flashed before us yesterday: The Partridge Family, waterbeds, Nixon, the floppy disc, the Post It note, the Six Million Dollar Man, Grease opening on Broadway, MASH, the Walkman, Donny & Marie, the Flinstones, Charlie’s Angels, Steve Martin, The Fonz and “Boss, the plane, the plane!”

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