Singing out on the town

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January 24, 2005 // UPDATED 1:51 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Britt Johnsen
Britt Johnsen

Piano bars lure new patrons with old songs

Everyone wants to be a star, but since few of us ever get a chance to strut our stuff in the spotlight, we have to settle for more minor moments of fame. One way to get a glimpse of what it must feel like to be star belting out your latest hit is to go to a piano bar and let loose.

The crowds there tend to be affable (liquid social lubricants are served, after all) and not very judgmental. It's likely that a good number of the patrons are there to sing some of their favorites songs accompanied by the house piano player, too.

Dan Lessard, manager of the Times Bar and Cafe, 201 E. Hennepin Ave., said too often people assume that the piano bar crowd is "pigeonholed as being for the 40 and older crowd, but it isn't that way at all."

He said it's sometimes surprising to see the mix of ages enjoying the music at a piano bar - crowds include people in their 20s and on up.

With those kinds of expansive demographics, the piano bar phenomenon continues to spread across the city.

Not so grand

According to Joe Stouffer, general manager of Nye's Polonaise Room, 112 E. Hennepin Ave., the piano bar craze began at Nye's way back in 1969.

But places such as Marysburg Coffee Emporium and Wine Bar, 304 Washington Ave. N., are adding the feature to lure new customers.

In one corner of Marysburg sits an authentic-looking piano, which, on most Thursdays becomes the focus of attention among patrons.

Much like other piano bars, people set their drinks on top of the mock baby grand piano as they sit next to it, singing lyrics from a songbook as the piano player performs a tune of their choice.

[The mock baby grand is actually an electronic keyboard hidden by a lightweight, easily transported shell designed to look like a baby grand.]

The first time Marysburg hosted their Thursday night piano bar, it was so popular that they stayed open until 1 a.m. - two hours past the time it was supposed to end, said co-owner Teri Peppe.

She said the bar has developed a great daytime business since it opened but that they're trying to develop a nighttime clientele as well. She's hoping that the special dynamic offered by a piano bar will increase Maryburg's business.

"There's people who love to sing, love the ambiance," she said. "It's not passive, it's active, without being a truly huge performing issue. I think people like that."

People seem to like the new piano bar at U Otter Stop Inn, 617 Central Ave. NE, said owner Denise Freeman. U Otter, which has karaoke six nights a week, is trying "something different" on Monday nights.

"It does give people a place on a Monday to go," Freeman said.

Aficionados of karaoke and piano bars note important differences between the two styles of performance. Michele Campion, who sang at Marysburg on a recent Thursday night, said in karaoke, a person typically sings a song like the artist who originally made it popular. But at a piano bar, you can alter songs to suit your singing style, said Campion. Her favorite song to sing is "You Made Me Love You," by Judy Garland (it was also performed by Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Bobby Darin, Doris Day, Patsy Cline and Liberace, among many others).

If you're searching for a place to show off your style, check out happy hours on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the Times Bar and Cafe, which has hosted their piano bar since June.

Lessard said the piano bar phenomenon is about more than music and camaraderie - it's also about the sophisticated atmosphere kept loose by Manhattans and martinis.

The man behind the mock baby grand piano at Times is Jon de Vaal. He said he's got steady work tinkling the keys at Marysburg, U Otter Stop Inn and the Times.

He said an important part of being a piano bar player is having the ability to discern in which keys and at what tempos different people are able to sing.

He said singing can be a therapeutic, emotional release for people.

"Some people like to golf it doesn't really accomplish anything, but something about it is satisfying," he said. "It's an escape."

The real deal

David Benda is a Northeast Minneapolis resident who enjoys the escape of a piano bar more than the similar escape provided by karaoke.

"It takes more brains," said Benda, who plays piano.

He said he used to go to Nye's often until U Otter Stop Inn started its own piano bar. He said he prefers U Otter because it's not nearly as crowded.

Of course, you'll rarely hear the manager of a bar complain that crowds are too large. Stouffer is proud that the bar he runs is packed and that it set the piano bar precedent in town.

"Anyone that's doing it now has come around in the last 10 years. We're authentic; we're the real deal," said Stouffer, who has worked for Nye's for more than two years. "It's sort of one of those things - if something works, people copy it."

Rather than copying, The Shout!House, 600 Hennepin Ave. S., is doing something different. It's not the same ol' piano bar atmosphere because they have a live band playing when people sing.

"Our goal and our mission is to be a combination of the best live music venue, the best comedy club, the best karaoke club and best sports bar," said Joe Woods, managing partner of Shout!House.

Unlike the rollicking Shout!House, piano bars popping up in Minneapolis tend to be smaller and have calmer atmospheres, but there appears to be room for all sorts of styles in the burgeoning scene.

Said Peppe, "I really think after having done this now for several months, it really kind of fosters a sense of community. It brings really nice alternatives to a traditional bar and other things that people tend to do with friends."