Oct. 27: Stadium Bar, 1419 Monroe St., 8 p.m.
Oct. 28: Brink Lounge, 701 E. Washington Ave., 8:30 p.m.
Nov. 2: Madison's, 119 King St., 9 p.m.mark Sibley
Something of a national cottage industry has emerged around the dueling-pianos format, whereby two performers entertain nightclub audiences in belting out songs and tickling the ivories of two grand pianos. To be certain, the spectacle turns certain expectations on their head. For one, if you think 'piano bar' automatically means moody torch crooning, think again. The watchword is 'Lady Marmalade,' not Edith Piaf.
I first encountered the phenomenon last summer in a Little Rock nightlife district, where dueling dueling-piano shows operate across the street from one another. And now dueling pianos have arrived in Madison, where the team of Chris Lange and Josh Dupont practice the craft as Piano Fondue.
A busy schedule and rapt audiences suggest that the two have hit on something. When they performed on a recent Thursday at Madison's, 119 King St., the bar was full by 10 p.m., and patrons were merrily dancing in the aisles as they sang along to the likes of 'Sweet Caroline' and a New Orleans-inflected 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.'
The pianos were set up in the big windows that look out onto King Street. (Manufactured by the Slam Grand Piano Company of Nevada, the instruments are designed to be light and to stay in tune, which makes them a favorite of itinerant piano duelers everywhere.) At the piano on the right sat Lange, a tenor singer who has shaggy blond hair and is the more outspoken of the pair. Before the show began, he explained the format: A request accompanied by a tip would be played -- but it could be interrupted at any moment by a request accompanied by a larger tip. 'We don't do the dueling, you do,' he told the audience members, who were well dressed, most of them, and ranged in age from twentyish to sixtyish.
At the left-hand keyboard was bespectacled baritone Dupont, who has shaggy brown hair and a quieter presence, if belters can be said to have a quieter presence. Amid all the pop excess, he at one point betrayed his training when he teasingly threatened the crowd, 'We'll just play classical all night,' then chorded a few meditative bars of Johann Pachelbel's 'Canon in D.'
That was one of the evening's only serene moments. True to their backgrounds in musical theater, Dupont and Lange subscribe to the more-is-more theory of entertainment, and almost every number was a showstopper. The set began with an amphetamine-speed version of Blood, Sweat & Tears' 'Spinning Wheel,' followed by a rendition of 'Proud Mary' that began at Creedence Clearwater Revival's stately tempo, then exploded into Ike and Tina Turner's arrangement.
These selections were a template for much of what followed: raucous versions of familiar songs from classic rock's golden age, including tunes by Steve Miller and Eric Clapton. There was also more recent fare, like Justin Timberlake's 'SexyBack' and Ben Folds' 'Song for the Dumped,' as well as a performance of Rascall Flatts' 'Bless the Broken Road' that was so somber it threatened to make the assembled revelers cry in their rum and Cokes.
But as anyone who has ever visited a karaoke bar knows, nothing revives a crowd like Sir Mix-A-Lot's 'Baby Got Back,' and the sad moment was soon forgotten when Dupont began to perform the hip-hop chestnut with gusto. 'I like big butts, and I cannot lie,' he rapped, and the crowd laughed and rapped with him.