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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Piano Men

Sad, smoky stories are few and far between at lively local piano bars.



At the Tavernacle, it is a pretty good crowd for a Saturday. Except that it’s Friday. The regular crowd has, in fact, shuffled in, a good four or five drinks already downed. And yes, they sit at the bar (well, mostly at tables, but some people stand at the bar) and they do put bread in the jar (actually an enormous margarita glass that would make José Cuervo hang his sombrero in shame) ... OK. It’s obvious the Billy Joel parallel doesn’t fly. The fact is, in Salt Lake City, “Piano Man” parallels are few and far between.

Take the Tavernacle’s Kirk Garrett and Eric Mangum for example. Far from the “Man, what’re you doin’ here?” query, Garrett and Mangum’s Friday and Saturday Dueling Pianos performances prove they know just what they’re doing. “The whole thing—the concept is entertainment value,” said Mangum. There is no velvet fog in the air or the songs, and ending a number to a smattering of booze-soaked applause is not a concern for these madcap musicians. “I call this place a piano bar on acid,” said Mangum.

“This is a sing-along show,” Garrett chimes in. He admits that, “during the week it can be a little dead, but on the weekends, people come for this.”

Case in point: One weekend warrior starts things off by mounting Garrett’s piano and running a hot pink feather boa back and forth between her legs to the sweet strains of the piano classic “I Touch Myself.” Also, prior to my visit to the bar, I was not aware that Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” included the shouted refrain “Suck my balls!” after each repetition of the titular line (though everyone else in the bar seemed to know perfectly well).

A few blocks away, at the Cabana Club, the atmosphere is more consistent with the stereotype: dim, smoky, with a low ceiling and Best Western-Colonial furniture of man-made materials built to withstand years of whisky and ash buildup. But Spencer Nielsen fits the Piano Man image like a cigarette fits in on Main Street Plaza. A well-built guy in jeans and a backwards ball cap covering a crop of sandy curls, he could just as easily be shouting “Chug! Chug!” at a frat party as wailing out “Every Rose Has its Thorn,” as he is when I enter.

Like his counterparts at the Tavernacle, Spencer’s selections tend to steer clear of Barry Manilow or Elton John—though they are available upon request. “There’s the people who want me to play all the Frank Sinatras, and all the Billy Joels ... But I’m kinda trying to get out of that, play a little more modern stuff.” A playlist including his own songs—as well as selections ranging from “Blowin’ in the Wind” to Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice”—helps liven up Spencer’s regular Thursday gig, the Cabana’s College Night.

So there’s no one tinkling away with innumerable glisses and overkill sustain pedal, and no rocks glass of cheap whisky close at hand. Maybe the difference is geography and culture: the Sodom of the Big Apple’s cold concrete corners versus the holy wonder of the Wasatch. Both Mangum and Nielsen were raised Mormon, and Primary songs are not uncommon at the Tavernacle (though Mangum asserts “there are certain hymns I just won’t play because it crosses a line I’ve decided to set for myself”). For Nielsen, his interaction with Mormon culture creeps into his personal songwriting—though at some point, a big ol’ Jäegermeister stain crept on to his playlist.

So where’s the sad Edward Hopper painting-escapee image now? Kirk Garrett plays at the Tavernacle full time, spending his days hiking or skiing, and fairly beams when he said, “This is all I ever wanted to do, since I was 10 years old.” And though Mangum and Nielsen hold down day jobs—Mangum runs the marketing department of a local company; Nielsen is a construction foreman—they too are anything but the jaded tintype. “I’ve felt that playing in bands,” Mangum said, “but not here.”

Garrett finally breaks and smudges the Pollyanna image with some priceless anecdotal dirt: “I used to play years ago on a dinner train in California. ... And this guy was killed, murdered, right in front of me. The guy fell backward and landed [on top of the piano] with his head right in my face. And the manager was right off stage, like this,”—he makes the international one-finger-in-a-circle signal for “keep it rolling”—“They wanted us to keep playing, to not draw attention to what had happened. So I just ... pushed him off the piano and kept on playing.” That’s the “man, what’re you doin’ here” you’d expect.

But if a waitress can practice politics, and Paul can make a living as a real estate novelist, why can’t piano bar players gash their ring finger open while playing hockey during the day, as Eric Mangum had earlier? Why can’t a 26-year-old construction foreman write his own heartfelt songs and bang out Nirvana’s “No Apologies” by night? In the end, the important thing is that when we’re all in the mood for a melody, they’ve got us feeling all right.

TAVERNACLE, 201 E. 300 S., 519-8900. CABANA CLUB, 31 E. 400 S., 355-9538