Moving out

88 keys, 2 songwriters, 1 grand plan
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  May 4, 2011

THE WHOLE PACKAGE Piano, rock band, symphony orchestra.

At the heart of the cover-band craze that's recently swept Portland is a very simple concept: musicians getting paid. If, at the end of the night, local musicians are walking away with a few bucks in their pockets, it's hard to find too much fault with the successful "Clash of the Titans" and "Cover to Cover" series.

Familiarity breeds success in the music-consuming world.

It would be hard to find two songwriters with more familiar songs between them than Elton John and Billy Joel. And, hey, they both play the piano!

Rather than pit them in a Clash, however, Joe Boucher, former frontman of the pop-rock Frotus Caper, has grander plans. The "Piano Men" show that he'll put on with partner Christopher Eastburn at the State Theatre this weekend will serve as the pilot for what they hope will be a traveling show that participates in the "Pops" programming favored by so many orchestras around the country.

Have you noticed that next year the Portland Symphony will present "One Vision: Music of Queen"? Well, probably not. But this is something like that.

For "Piano Men: The Music of Elton and Billy," Boucher will play piano and sing as part of a four-piece rock band, accompanied by the 52-piece Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Rob Lehmann (who sometimes plays violin with the PSO), playing scores created by Eastburn, who'll also be playing bass.

"It's the '70s hey-day," Boucher says, "leaning heavily on Yellow Brick Road and The Stranger and 52nd Street." They've even signed on long-time Joel touring drummer Liberty DeVitto to play drums at the State. Boucher found him through his MySpace page: "He doesn't tour anymore, but he thought the idea was great. It's an opportunity to revisit the music in a different context."

If all goes well, this "Piano Men" show will join the likes of "Classical Mystery Tour" (the Beatles — duh), "Elvis Lives" (came to the PSO a couple weeks ago), and Neil Sedaka (he actually does it himself), as groups of musicians that travel the country helping symphony orchestras fill out their seat-filling pops series.

"I've got a database of about 200 orchestras in the US and Canada that have all hosted the pop shows that the PSO has hosted," says Boucher, whose day job is as the PSO's concert manager. "It is something you can make a living at." There's opportunity for secondary income, too, should orchestras decide to perform their original scores without actually hiring the four-piece band to come and accompany them.

Boucher notes that he's no impressionist. While those Beatles guys go all-in, with the accents and the stage banter taken right from the Fab Four themselves, Boucher is really just playing the music and singing, all while wearing a suit. He will not be coming out for the second set dressed as Captain Fantastic.

And while Eastburn is certainly capable of complicated and intricate original scores, this show is the not the place to find them. In some cases, he's working from the original string parts on the record; in others he's making stuff up out of whole cloth, but as a whole the parts are straightforward enough that a competent symphony can have them down pat after a single rehearsal (maybe two).

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