If you like dueling piano bars, then by all means, go and enjoy yourself. Don’t let anyone else’s opinions or experiences with these forms of live entertainment sway you from going to Louie Louie’s — the first dueling piano bar and newest musical venue to open its doors to the public on Elm Street in Deep Ellum — or any other similar venue if you truly want to go.
The new piano bar occupies a space along one of Dallas’ main musical arteries as of last Thursday, December 31. They opened their doors for the first time for a New Year’s Eve celebration after some licensing and permitting problems prevented them from opening before Christmas, according to their Facebook page.
The news of their pending arrival first surfaced back in July and I expressed some apprehension about it based on my own opinions and experiences with piano bars. I earned a fair amount of criticism for my assertions, too. So it felt only fair to go to Deep Ellum’s newest musical tenant, once my alcohol coma wore off, on New Year's Day and see for myself what it could provide Dallas’ live music scene, which we hold so dear in our hearts.
For starters, the new Louie Louie’s has taken over a 6,000-square-foot space that’s been vacant for some time and made at least one part of Deep Ellum seem less than welcoming. Instead of an empty building with a “for lease” sign greeting visitors to Elm Street near the Good Latimer Expressway intersection, just across the street from 7-Eleven, there is now a friendly and lively neon sign depicting piano keys.
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It also brings more people to a community that’s still fighting for its reputation as a safe place for live entertainment. That includes customers just searching for a good time who might not otherwise be here because other venues like Trees or Three Links do not cater to their tastes. It’s also another place for the musically talented who just want another place to play in public, even if it’s an endless string of Def Leppard covers.
The rotating lineup of Louie Louie’s music makers who I saw on that night put on a good show. Piano bar musicians are a strange mix of jukeboxes with a limited memory capacity and nightclub comedians. Louie Louie’s key pounders are bubbly, energetic and can play more than just piano. They respond to crowds rather than demand something from them. They aren’t above playing with them rather than for them but they also aren't afraid to roast them. They are genuinely concerned about entertaining them and making sure they walk out with a smile no matter how many drinks they’ve consumed that are roughly the same volume as their own heads.
It’s really the concept of a dueling piano bar show that makes it a struggle to watch if you aren’t there to sing along or just want to hear live music. The set list is up to the crowd and that’s usually middle-aged suburban types or groups who may or may not be having a bachelor or bachelorette party and who request the same songs every time. This may be different depending on the crowd or the people playing from show to show or venue to venue, but the songs at most piano bar shows I've seen have been the same and Friday’s crowd fit that stereotypical mold like water in an ice cube tray. I’ve heard Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” more in piano bars than I have (or would care to) anywhere else in my life.
Once the musicians got to a song that I liked, they were forced to interrupt it to keep the crowd loud and engaged. They stopped to perform a rehearsed chant with the crowd or get them to sing louder and make sure they were at prime awakeness. I started to get into a playful rendition of The Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup,” but I felt like a passenger in the backseat of a car driven by someone who kept slamming on the brakes because they had to get everyone around me doing the “Ooo-oooooo’s” before we could move forward again.
Their memory also limits what they can play. Someone in the audience wanted to hear a Lou Rawls song but neither knew how to play any and that’s not a strike against the musicians or any cover band who takes requests from a crowd. No one with any sense should expect them to be human jukeboxes but it can be a letdown if you’re participating and tired of hearing the same mix station or strip club DJ lineups.
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Other shows with a sing-along hook like the Mumbles’ semi-regular Punk Rock Karaoke give the people joining in a list of songs they know and it makes for a tighter show. That might not be a technical possibility for a piano bar that likes to do things a little looser and keep the spontaneity dangling over the crowd like raw chicken over an alligator pit. I was tempted to throw out a request for a Ramones song or something by Neutral Milk Hotel but I crumpled up the napkins because I didn’t want to be THAT guy.
If there is a list of available songs, there are some songs that just shouldn’t be on it or even played in public ever again like “I’m a Believer,” a Monkees original that Smash Mouth drove into the ground just when people were done flushing “All Star” earworms out of their ear canals with DDT. I gathered up my coat after they started a rendition of Bobby McFarrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” but I did stand up and cheer in my heart when one of the musicians called it the “shittiest song ever written” and the other compromised by singing new lyrics to the melody that roasted customers in the crowd. However, the damage had already been done to my sanity.
So again, if you want to go to Louie Louie’s or any other dueling piano establishment, don’t let anyone stop you, especially me. Order drinks served in large receptacles designed for the conservation of aquatic life. Belt out the lyrics to your favorite soft rock or ‘80s tunes until the cuneiform cartilage in your throat is more porous than a kitchen sponge. Make it rain in the musicians' tip jars.
Anyone who can play “Margaritaville” for the umpteenth time and still manage to slap a smile on his face deserves more than just adequate compensation.