From Fans to Frontmen: The Piano Men at The Sutler

From Fans to Frontmen: The Piano Men at The Sutler

When I was 12 years old, my dad took Young Casey and a friend to see a Van Halen tribute act called The Atomic Punks. It was one of the very first rock shows I remember attending and the memory has stuck with me since then. My friend and I were both quickly ushered to the front of the crowd at the behest of the local fans who had packed in to hear the music they loved and grew alongside with. At the time, Van Halen’s 1984 had not left my red Sony Discman for the majority of 7th grade. The true Van Halen had been on hiatus since the late 90s, but nevertheless, here they were. Right in front of us. To be fair, it wasn’t really Michael Anthony who handed me his pick at the end of the show. Eddie Van Halen did not rip through his solo during “Top Jimmy” while wearing leopard print spandex at a venue in Scottsdale that night. The mic stand may have been a little less graceful as it wove through the air. But for a young, impressionable music dork, I was able to experience the music that I held in such high regard.

None of the musicians in The Piano Men: The Music of Elton John and Billy Joel wear oversized glitter glasses. They have never played a sold-out concert in Russia at the height of the Cold War. What they offer are the songs of two musical geniuses played with the esteem and reverence that exists only among fans.

Bandleaders Micah Snow and Chris Smallwood are fans, first and foremost--and they each took similar paths down roads that eventually lead to piano rock.

Smallwood, a Kentucky native, first experienced piano as a third grader, and it wasn’t exactly his favorite thing.

“I had a few lessons in third grade, and then quit because I was bored,” he explains.

However, Smallwood and the piano were reconnected a few years later. He broke his leg during his freshman year of high school. It was a bad break, and where any other kid might wallow in being confined indoors, Smallwood focused on music.

“I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t go outside all summer,” he said, “so I found myself spending hours with a Billy Joel songbook playing ‘Piano Man’... It just sucked me in.”

The piano continued to be his focus long after that summer, as he pursued a degree in classical music.

Snow was taught piano from, in his words, “a country church pianist” in Big Sandy, Tennessee. He received an Elton John album as a Christmas gift and fell down the hole of fandom, listening to everything he could get his hands on.  

“I would buy every album that I saw. I did bootlegs. Serious stuff,” he says. Serious stuff, indeed.

Snow also pursued a degree in classical music, and both went on to earn master’s degrees, as well. For Smallwood, Billy Joel even followed him directly into his academic work-- his presentation of Joel’s classical piece “Air (Dublinesque)” from 2001’s Fantasies & Delusions was met with derision from professors.

They each moved to Nashville and met at an audition. In Nashville, a city saturated with musicians of all types, Smallwood explains that you “rarely meet people who play the same instrument [as you].” Not only were they both piano players, but they were classically trained players with an ear towards pop music.

“Micah and I are freakishly similar, which is what makes this project so fun,” Smallwood said.

Snow noticed that there was a market for the dueling pianos-style band, so the two put met at J & J’s Market and shared their vision for an Elton John and Billy Joel cover band show. Soon after they put together the band, formulated the setlist, and got a show booked at The Sutler Saloon in Berry Hill.

The Piano Men, as they are called, became a passion project for these two full-time musicians in between other gigs. It has now flourished into a residency at The Sutler and become a focus among their other work in music.

“We each have six different small jobs that add up to one great full time music gig,” Smallwood said, “and this one is still in the early stages, but it’s our most fun.”

The fun is especially evident when Smallwood tears into the intro to Billy Joel’s standard opening number, “Prelude / Angry Young Man.” Like Smallwood, I lean more to the side of Joel in the debate between the troubadours, so seeing him replicate the tricky piano riff-- my dad once told me that Joel would spread Vaseline on the keys every night to make it easier, but this may be an urban legend-- was a special treat.

For now, The Piano Men’s setlists mostly stick to to the tried-and-true hits-- there’s certainly no shortage of them-- but Snow and Smallwood have reserved slots to rotate in deeper album tracks. Currently, those two slots are filled with Billy Joel’s “Summer, Highland Falls” and Elton John’s “Grey Seal.”

“We’ve hardly scratched the surface,” said Snow.

The driving riffs of the Billy Joel hits are matched beautifully by Snow’s tender delivery of Elton John’s “Your Song.” The range of both Billy Joel and Elton John are represented by the talented investment in the artistry of the songs by Snow and Smallwood.

Snow and Smallwood exude the sort of passion for music that all fans have--but not every fan learns the instrument, the songs, and puts together a cover band.

“We really just wanted to pay tribute to the music. Especially music that doesn’t get heard here in Nashville very often at all,” Snow explains.

The Piano Men field a lineup of some of the most tasteful Nashville musicians I’ve ever heard. Kevin Gatzke, who also plays with local Nashville funk group Dynamo, pulls double duty on both saxophone and clarinet. It’s a tall order to replicate solos that fans know so well, but he nailed both “New York State of Mind” and “The Bitch is Back.” Guitarist Jesse Isley recently released an EP of his own songs and lends his playing to the broad range of styles needed for The Piano Men’s setlist. Guitarist Tyler Warren was handpicked by Roger Taylor to play drums for the official Queen tribute act, Queen Extravaganza. These guys are no slouches.

“I’m a little more of a Billy, he’s a little more of an Elton,” Smallwood said, “but I’m still a huge Elton fan, he’s still a huge Billy fan. But he’s shown me Elton songs that I never knew existed. Like ‘Grey Seal.’ He brought that up and I was like ‘Where has this been all my life?”

I think that’s where my fondness for cover bands comes from. It doesn’t really have to be David Lee Roth on stage singing “Runnin’ with the Devil” to get you on your feet. The music being played in front of you was selected, practiced, and performed by fans who are sharing this love with each other and the audience. The audience gets to hear songs that they’ve listened to for their entire lives in the cozy confines of their local bar. Maybe I’m just sentimental, but there’s something very special about so much adoration existing in such a familiar place so close to home.

The Piano Men: The Music of Elton John and Billy Joel begin a two month residency at The Sutler Saloon this Tuesday, October 13th at 8:30pm. They continue on October 20th, November 10th, and November 24th. Admission is free and drink specials are plentiful.