WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING...
PIANO MEN HIT ALL THE RIGHT KEYS
BY JOE HALL
As a rule, Tuesday nights are not thought of as a time to rock out with an evening on the town. But this past Tuesday was an exception to the rule; kicking off the Philips County Arts Council's 2015-2016 concert season, Jim Witter's Piano Men shook the walls of Holyoke High school auditorium with the music of Billy Joel and Elton John. An enthusiastic audience of 200-plus were taken on a wild, two-hour ride through music and nostalgia that had them singing, laughing and clapping along with Witter's high-powered trip back in time. Accompanying all the great music was a multi-media presentation projected on the wall behind the band with images of memorabilia including toys, TV shows, and fun facts from the 1970s.
After a short video welcoming the audience to the world of the 70s, the stage lights came up revealing Jim Witter seated at the grand piano as he played the familiar introductory notes of Elton John's classic love song, "Your Song." The nostalgic tone of the evening was set. As the last notes of the opening song faded, Witter's four-piece band joined him on stage and launched into Billy Joel's rocker "Movin' Out." The first set continued with spot on versions of "Rocket Man," John's classic about a future spaceman working his 9-5 job and Joel's well known hit, "Just the Way You Are," complete with a tasty alto saxophone solo by reedman and keyboardist, Turner King.
As Witter and the band alternated between the two legendary singers' repertoire it was amazing how close the vocals and instrumental backup sounded to the actual recordings. A testament to their collective musicianship.
On John's "Crocodile Rock," a fifties-style piano-rock song, Witter invited six audience members to the stage to provide the ubiquitous "la la la la la's" on the song's chorus. The group, Penny Dawkins, Whitney Powell, Jill Norman, Troy Stewart, Drew Stuart and Jair Jiminez, took to the stage like seasoned pros. Penny Dockins even led the singers in some old-time dance moves. The impromptu back ground vocalists received a huge ovation for their performance.
After intermission, the audience was welcomed back to the fun with Joel's "Don't Ask Me Why" and John's gospel-tinged "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me;" the latter song building to a huge finish showing off the power of the grand piano, soaring lead lines from guitarist Tony Lind's mighty Stratocaster and drummer Jimmy Boudreau's dynamic drum fills bringing the song to a emphatic final chord.
At this point in the performance Witter invited the audience to shout out a favorite TV show theme song from the 1970s. The crowd obliged by requesting such classics as "Gilligan's Island," "The Brady Bunch," "Dukes of Hazard," "The Beverly Hillbilly's," "The Monkees" and "WKRP in Cincinnati." The highlight of the TV show theme segment was, "Those Were the Days" from "All in the Family." Bassist and vocalist Ian Tanner provided a spot-on impersonation of Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) complete with a raspy high-pitched Brooklyn accent. The audience showed their approval with thunderous applause.
During John's poignant "Candle in the Wind," a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, images of well-known personalities who passed away during the 1970s were shown on the multi-media projection. The band exited the stage for Witter's moving solo performance of Joel's touching song, "Honesty." The goal of a performer is to "sell" a song to an audience. When a performance is reduced to its simplest form, in this case, a singer, a piano and a well-crafted song, and the performer is able to convey the meaning and emotion of the song, the audience knows it is witnessing a true artist. Jim Witter proved he is that and more.
Following another standing ovation, Witter returned to the piano for a solo encore of a song that was Billy Joel's closer for many years, "Souvenir," reminding us to hold on to our memories "for every year's a souvenir that slowly fades away." Jim Witter's Piano Men will surely be a long-lasting souvenir in the memories of all those in attendance on a rockin' Tuesday night in Holyoke.