When the glorified Muzak backing tracks of typical karaoke joints just don’t pass muster, there is a better way: Hounding a piano player to perform your favorite anthems live while you and your friends lead an audience of drunk amateurs in a rousing sing-along. Such is the allure of the typical piano bar, though really, there is no single, signature kind. There are dueling piano bars, piano bars specializing in show tunes, piano bars that go subterranean and mine punk and indie classics, not to mention piano bars with distinctly Eastern European flavor.
Naturally, New York City boasts a sampler platter of every variety. That’s why we spoke with representatives from three exemplary establishments across the spectrum of ivory-tickling Manhattan pubs and lounges to find out what makes a night of improvised musical collaboration tick, plus the dos and don’ts when it comes to belting out piano-bar bangers and ballads.
Sid Gold’s Request Room
Joe McGinty has been performing other peoples’ music for decades, as the founding principal of ongoing tribute troupe, Loser’s Lounge; as resident pianist at bygone hip New York spots like The Lucky Cat and Manhattan Inn; and during a brief stint as the keyboardist for the Psychedelic Furs. In 2015, he and Beauty Bar impresario Paul Devitt opened Sid Gold’s, a piano bar where—as McGinty puts it—“no matter what the age is, there’s something in there you can sing.”
Range of Genres: McGinty and Devitt try and differentiate themselves by keeping loosely within the parameters of rock, soul, punk and indie (i.e. they typically leave the show tunes to their competitors), but McGinty acknowledges, “My songbook has some Katy Perry and Britney Spears as well as Burt Bacharach and Sinatra” alongside a few songs by the Pixies and Pavement.
Most Requested: “I personally don’t have ‘Piano Man’ on the list,” laughs McGinty, who cites Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” as inevitabilities. “If somebody can really deliver it, it can be really good,” he says, “but if it’s five drunk bachelorettes, something bad can happen.”
Most Memorable Performance: While offering the caveat that you never really know who’s secreting away stellar talent, McGinty recalls one young, unsuspecting woman who brought the house down with Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World.” Another moment that stands out for McGinty was actor David Cross dueling out David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” with a regular patron. “Wacky moments are often the most memorable,” he says.
Ultimate Don’t: Leave the piano playing to the pianists. “It’s an overall policy with the bar,” says McGinty. “The piano is provided by Baldwin and we can’t have anybody messing with it. It’s like you can’t go behind the bar and mix your own drink.” Sitting beside Joe while you croon? “It doesn’t happen that often,” he says, “but it’s generally fine.” Also, don’t hijack other participants’ performances (something that apparently happens often during George Michael’s “Freedom! ‘90”). “You’re not invited,” he emphasizes. “Some people just have no shame.”
Ultimate Do: “Please tip the pianist,” McGinty says. Besides, it’s in your best interest: “If you want to be called sooner or more often, take care of me.”
A Night at Sid Gold's
An old-school joint of the sort that rarely survives in Manhattan these days, Russian Samovar has been around since 1986, when founder Roman Kaplan roped in Mikhail Baryshnikov and famed poet Joseph Brodsky as partners. Samovar is the kind of place where Liza Minnelli used to open her pipes after lapping up a bowl of borscht. Today, early evening diners eat as instrumental pianists do their thing, but after 8 p.m.—and especially on weekends—the scene becomes far more festive and interactive. “The audience is always engaged,” boasts manager (and Kaplan’s daughter) Vlada Von Shats. “We have people clapping and singing along, breaking out in dance. The goal is to make everyone feel welcome.”
Range of Genres: An eclectic stew spanning blues, jazz, classical, opera, traditional Russian numbers and what Von Shats characterizes as “Euro funk.”
Most Requested: Epitomizing Samovar’s cross-continental appeal, Von Shats points to Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “New York, New York” and David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s “Dancing in the Street,” the latter of which she says is popular “especially for the line, ‘Back in the USSR.’” (Russian folk songs are popular as well, and Von Shats recommends people “come and learn and sing along.”)
Most Memorable Performance: “The best ones are always spontaneous,” says Von Shats, highlighting one instance when an opera company from Milan came straight from the Met and sang their hearts out until 4 a.m. “It was really amazing,” she remembers. “After performing on one of the greatest stages in the world, coming in to dine, serenading our diners. It’s just that kind of vibe.”
Ultimate Don’t: Von Shats describes Samovar as “a little different than any other establishment” in that there really are no proscribed no-nos. She adds, “We want our patrons to have fun, tell their friends and come back.”
Ultimate Do: Piggybacking off the above, Von Shats once again says to get out of your seat. “The energy exchange between the audience and the performer is what makes a great show,” she encourages. “The give and take and informality is what makes the performance.”
Shake Rattle & Roll Dueling Pianos at Rattle N Hum West
Most nights of the week, this West Chelsea outpost of craft-beer emporium Rattle N Hum does what that set-up suggests: serves lots of drinks to lots of people. But on Saturday nights, the place transforms into something altogether more spectacular under the direction of Mark “Piano Whore” (his words) Weiser. His success on network game show “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” helped him launch a touring dueling-piano powerhouse, which has been a fixture in New York at various locations for nearly a decade.
Though the dueling-piano tradition has roots in cities like New Orleans and parts of Texas, Weiser explains that—as one might suspect—their New York residency gets “more amped up and more energetic.” Plus, Shake Rattle & Roll does mash-ups. Just bear in mind that while audiences are welcome and whipped up to sing along, Weiser does differentiate that “our show isn’t karaoke.”
Range of Genres: “You’re as likely to hear Bruno Mars and Britney Spears and AC/DC as you are Billy Joel,” says Weiser, offering a similar defensive posture about the Long Island-bred songwriter as Sid Gold’s McGinty. He continues that Cardi B or Jay-Z might make the menu as well. Perhaps the best way to put a bow on it is when Weiser quips, “We play The Killers as much as “The Killer” Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Most Requested: Parents, beware—Weiser says they’ve been getting deluged of late with asks for ubiquitous kiddie ditty “Baby Shark.” The only thing they won’t play is “something we haven’t learned yet, he concedes,” though his players know upwards of 5,000 songs.
Most Memorable Performance: Almost 200 people packed Rattle N Hum for Shake Rattle & Roll’s St. Patrick Day’s party this past March, which peaked when a bagpipe outfit spontaneously came in off the street and led everyone in a chorus of “Oh, Danny Boy.” Though even more recently, an impromptu, inter-gender dance-off to NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” made its case as an all-time Shake Rattle & Roll classic.
Ultimate Don’t: “Anyone who’s married to their iPhones,” Weiser answers without hesitation. “You can’t be entertained staring at a screen.” They won’t put them in a Yondr, but they will implore folks to leave cellular devices in their pockets. “This is the real social network,” Weiser insists.
Ultimate Do: Apart from antisocial screen engagement, not much is off-limits. Weiser rattles (pun intended) off anecdotes of, for example, people dancing on furniture or flashing the crowd. “Anything that’s fun and interactive, we always enjoy.”