Monday, February 14, 2011

Piano Man-ish

Michael Cavanaugh in Concert: The Music of Billy Joel and More!, with the Akron Symphony Orchestra (Conducted by Christopher Wilkins)
12 February 2011: EJ Thomas Hall, Akron, Ohio

I almost saw Billy Joel in concert once. It was August 1994 and Central Florida was being brutalized by a nasty storm. My buddy John was working, so his then-girlfriend (someday-to-be wife) Jenn and I decided to head over to the Citrus Bowl and see about picking up some scalped tickets for the Billy Joel/Elton John show that night. We circled the stadium in my 1983 Honda Civic for what seemed like hours in sheets of rain. People showing up for this open air show already looked miserable and drowned. I don’t know that Jenn and I ever even ended up getting out of the car that night. We – wisely, I think – abandoned our quest.

I’m not a huge Billy Joel or Elton John fan, but I like both of these artists and still wouldn’t mind seeing either of them live at some point. Born in 1970 and raised a child of the ’80s, there is something familiar and comforting about their music.

I had never heard of Michael Cavanaugh prior to Tracy weaving her contest winning magic. Courtesy of 91.3 The Summit, she came up with a pair of tickets to see Cavanaugh at EJ Thomas Hall, and after some cursory digging about the show, we figured it sounded like a potentially good time.

We discovered Cavanaugh was handpicked by Joel to star in the Broadway production of Movin’ Out and has since continued to cash in on that ticket. I would never begrudge him that, but Tracy and I both came away from the show Saturday night a little disappointed in Cavanaugh probably because of the expectations that path to stardom and endorsement entail.

Cavanaugh is from Northeast Ohio, which is cool. My civic pride swells a bit more every time local people do well. But the link goes deeper than that. Cavanaugh’s first full time musician gig was at the Blazing Pianos bar in Orlando. If I’m reading his biography right, he worked there during the same time I was living there. That means there’s a pretty good chance I saw him perform once or twice back in the day, having spent a few nights in my twenties at the various piano bars around Orlando with friends.

Regardless of any cool connections, it’s hard to get past the execution of Cavanaugh’s symphony orchestra collaboration. It’s a case of the performer being crushed under the expectations set by the hype. Tracy and I anticipated more from Cavanaugh’s voice and stage presence based on what we’d read about him. I thought his saxophone player John Scarpulla had more charisma, and it was impossible not to watch his drummer (another Northeast Ohio native, and who played the drummer in Almost Famous) Johnny Fedevich play.

The selections were interesting, in that many times the band only seemed to play parts of songs and often resorted to medleys of Joel songs. The best Joel song of the night was, by far, “Goodnight Saigon”. Cavanaugh’s cover of Elton John’s cover of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” was also interesting. When he covered Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, Tracy and I both went into full ’80s pop culture overload and could only think of Dennis Quaid, Top Gun, and Back to the Future. Sad, I know.

The two orchestra only pieces from Joel’s 2001 classical album, Fantasies & Delusions – “Opus 2. Waltz #1 (‘Nunley’s Carosel’)” and “Opus 10. Air (‘Dublinesque’)” – were excellent. As was their work during the cover of Joel’s “Pressure”. As a bonus, it was cool to see our son’s drum instructor – second chair percussion with the orchestra – do his thing.

The night struck me as striving to fall somewhere between the artist/orchestra collaboration of Pink Martini and the Cleveland Orchestra we saw a year ago, and the Beatles cover band perfection of RAIN last month. But Cavanaugh never quite succeeded on either front. The Akron Symphony Orchestra deserves a lot of credit for their efforts, but Cavanaugh’s song selection didn’t lend itself well to interpretation. And Cavanaugh wasn’t a close enough approximation of Joel or Elton or any of the others he covered (vocally or from a stage presence perspective) to put him anywhere near the caliber of RAIN.

Regardless, though, I had a nice night out with my wife. And I almost saw Billy Joel in concert once.