When Point Street Dueling Pianos opens its doors in the coming weeks, some patrons will recognize the bare brick walls and angled windows as the former home of the Hi-Hat — the respected, if slightly under-attended, jazz club that closed earlier this year. And on a recent tour of the new bar with general manager (and Cranston native) Michael Mourachian, relics of the previous venue were scattered around the room: a stack of CDs topped with the blues guitarist, Kenny Neal's, album, Devil Child; a dusty sound board with dials labeled "GTR" and "HORN MIX."
Dueling Pianos will be a change of key from its predecessor, however, Mourachian explained. For starters, there will be no barstools. "We don't let people sit at the bar because people need to be watching the stage," he says. The show is fueled by song requests and shouts from the crowd about birthdays or recent divorces. "Without them responding to our cues — singing, screaming, whatever — there is no show," he says.
Having spent the last twelve years in piano bars in Denver, Charlotte, Little Rock, and a handful of other cities, Mourachian is a connoisseur of this nighttime art form that began at Pat O'Brien's Bar in New Orleans. One minute he is explaining how a dueling pianos show is part rock concert, part stand-up routine. The next he is discussing how "Piano Man" is the "only true American bar song" or remembering the days when he fielded requests for "Walking In Memphis" every 10 minutes. Then he has moved on to an anthropological discourse on bachelor and bachelorette parties. (The difference, he says, is found in documentation: bachelorettes take pictures of everything, while bachelors take a "this never happened" vow.)
Bringing dueling pianos to his home state was partly a selfish act, Mourachian says. After all those years on the road, he's done roaming. But with business booming at Boston's recently-opened Howl At the Moon dueling piano bar, P.S.D.P. was also an ahead-of-the-curve business decision. In the next few weeks, two custom-rigged pianos will arrive from Las Vegas to take the place of the scattered chairs and cardboard boxes on the club's stage. The final swaths of carpet will be laid down, a new coat of paint will cover the walls, and the kitchen will begin to crank out shrimp cakes with candied jalapeños and other dishes. And shortly after Christmas, Mourachian says, the Providence dueling pianos experiment will begin. He and club owner Ron Shelton, along with a rotating lineup of other dueling pianists, will be taking the stage five nights a week.
The one question that remains, of course, is the play list. Philosophies differ about this, Mourachian says. Some clubs stick to Jackson Browne, Gloria Gaynor and other old-school staples, while other clubs pluck Beyonce tunes from the radio and adapt them for 88 keys. Providence, he says, feels closest to a St. Louis atmosphere, where upscale, blue-collar, and college crowds will all get a taste of something they like. And just in case the energy flags, he'll have a few songs kept in reserve.
There's something about tunes like Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," he says, that inevitably gets eyes closing, hips swaying, drinks sloshing out of glasses, and heads thrusting back in wild song. As a piano player, he doesn't have to do anything fancy, Mourachian says: "That song does it own thing and I just have to be there."