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Folk-Punk Piano Players of the World Unite! [Part I]

16 May 2006

A specter is haunting the acoustic music scene (no, it’s not PHIL SPECTOR); it is the specter of folk-punk piano players! Okay, enough riffing on KARL MARX’s Communist Manifesto for today, but hopefully that hammer and sickle reference will hook you like would an oh-so-chic CHE GUEVARA t-shirt worn at very trendy wine and cheese literary parties like DAVID LEHMAN used to host at the KGB BAR in the East Village. For me, any manifesto is also a question, so here’s my question for readers of this column: is there a prejudice against piano players in the acoustic music scene?

Before you answer, bear with me with while I explore some prejudices, however unintentional, that I’ve encountered against the piano, and in the process explain what I mean by folk-punk pianist (three words that usually don’t go together). Last summer, after PETER NOCHISAKI and BOB GUMBRECHT, guitarist and bassist, respectively, for CONTINUOUS PEASANT, moved to different cities, leaving the future of the band uncertain, I contemplated going solo and performing at acoustic nights at local venues. This seemed like a promising new direction as well as a return to my roots. After all, my first public piano playing gigs were in college lounges and coffeehouses. Yet, while attending many of the folk and/or acoustic music venues in the Bay-area, I quickly became aware that functioning upright pianos are almost as rare as a parking space just before a San Francisco Giants game in which BARRY BONDS only needs one homerun to break BABE RUTH’s record.

Sure, there’s a club here and there that has a piano, but often there’s a “Do Not Play” sign on it. Sometimes, the piano is horribly out of tune, or even missing a few keys. Finally, I found a club with a working piano—but it faced the wall! This may be acceptable if the piano player is backing up another musician, but it certainly isolates the performer from the audience. Another venue invited me to play for its acoustic night, but when I asked the management if they had a piano, they wrote back saying “No,” that the only option would be to play an electric piano, but that they only book acoustic music. But that didn’t even bother me so much because there are other venues that will let me play the electric piano on their acoustic nights. For me (if not necessarily for the late, great WESLEY WILLIS), playing a Casio on acoustic nights is like playing a guitar with at least one string missing. When I played with the band, the lack of weighted keys on the electric piano didn’t matter so much because the drummer and other instruments could add some of the percussive and melodic subtlety that I lost in going electric. But, solo, it’s a different story.

I decided to try to take matters into my own hand. I convinced two local young piano players, MICHAEL ZAPRUDER and DAVID BUUCK to donate extra pianos they had in storage to two downtown Oakland venues which have acoustic nights. Ultimately, however, both of these venues rejected the idea—even when offered free delivery of the pianos and community support for a benefit concert that would raise the necessary funds to have them tuned. One claimed it didn’t have enough room while the other claimed zoning laws could be a problem. For the time being, I’ve decided that the fight isn’t worth it; there are other battles worth fighting and at least I can be content that I tried.

Besides, there’s always the option of recording, or reforming the band, both of which have their advantages, especially if one wants to ‘make it’ as a professional. Even so, it’s still frustrating that I can no longer go to a local coffee house in the afternoon (let alone for the more standard evening slot) and sit at the piano, as I did in college and when I worked coffeehouses such as The Center For Disabled in Albany, NY, or at Caravan of Dreams in NYC, and play informally in public, for free, without being the center of attention—I was more than happy for the opportunity to perform benignly, like background music played on the stereo.

This anecdote relates to larger assumptions about what piano players are or should be. One of these assumptions is that folk music generally involves guitars or other stringed or portable instruments. One can be called a ‘freak folk’ artist, for instance, if one plays the harp, but there’s not enough novelty for a pianist to warrant this currently fashionable designation. Because the piano was originally associated with classical music, it often lacks folk credibility. Furthermore, since many acoustic guitarists double on, or dabble in, the piano, there’s an assumption in ‘indie’ music circles that if you play the piano that, of course, you also can play the guitar.

[Part II to follow]