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The Piano Men

It’s Friday night at Aussie Rules Foodhouse + Bar, and the “Duelling Pianos” show is about to start. The lights dim as the pianists shout out: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” The response from the audience is immediate: “Oi, oi, oi!”

A table of women in their early 20s step onto their seats and begin to clap and sing along to the chorus of the Beatles’ “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da,” while a young man approaches the pianos with a slip of paper scribbled with a song request. Throughout the night song requests come attached with anywhere from loonies to $20 bills. “We call a loonie a loonie song, a toonie a toonie song and if you bring up a $5 bill we call that song ‘next,’” says Bob Cunningham, entertainment director and pianist.

To Cunningham, and his fellow Aussie Rules pianist Scott Fooks, this is a normal weekend night at the bar. They are called “the duelling pianists,” but to them the title brings a different meaning than the name suggests. “If people don’t know anything about it and they see the name ‘duelling pianos,’ they sometimes think we’re playing against each other,” Cunningham says. “It’s more like, one guy does a song and then the next guy does a song,” he says. “If he rocks out really hard, then I want to make sure I rock too, so that it goes back and forth. The duelling is more about—”

“Keeping the energy level up,” chips in Fooks.

Both agree humour plays an integral part in the duelling experience. “It’s also about the banter,” Cunningham says. “We’ll throw a joke in at the other’s expense, back and forth across the piano. There’s a little duelling in the wit.”

The act has been a part of the Aussie Rules experience since it opened in 2002. Operating partners Janet Cunningham and Doug Stephen of WOW! Hospitality Concepts were inspired to open the piano bar after some of their employees talked about the duelling piano bars in the United States. Six years later Aussie Rules has become so popular that the only way to get a table is with a reservation. Cunningham has been a pianist at Aussie Rules since it opened in 2002 and Fooks joined on as a performer about six months after.

Cunningham and Fooks play a wide-range of music—in the course of an evening songs can go from the pop music of Elton John to rap artist Eminem. There are, of course, songs the pianists expect to play; “Old Time Rock & Roll,” “American Pie” and “Piano Man” always end up on the request sheets. However, each night also brings in new songs choices, keeping the job interesting.

Both Fooks and Cunningham are willing learn the tunes people want to hear. “If people request a song over and over again, then I go home and learn it,” Cunningham says. “I don’t care what it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s rap or heavy metal or whatever. I find a way to make it sound fun on the piano.”

The pianists try to include the audience as part of the show. They give out dance moves, let the crowd fill in words on choruses and even pull people up on stage for special occasions such as birthdays. “It’s improvised, which makes it a lot of fun,” Cunningham says. Fooks says working with another performer also helps make the show spontaneous. The performers feed off each other as they take turns playing. While one pianist plays a song, the other encourages the crowd to join in.

Cunningham says duelling piano bars are something he can slowly see making it into the Canadian entertainment scene with Edmonton, Toronto and Calgary already on the bandwagon. Unlike many themed bars, Aussie Rules appeals to a wide demographic range. Each evening the audience can be filled with different ages: young women who like to sway their hips, 30-something guys celebrating a friend’s birthday and quieter middle aged party goers who tend to stick to the back of the room. Despite generational gaps, everyone seems to know the lyrics to “Browned Eyed Girl” when it’s played.

Whether or not piano bar fever spreads to the rest of the country, it’s clear from the response at Aussie Rules that the concept is catching on in Cowtown. See the “Duelling Pianos” show Thursdays to Saturdays at Aussie Rules, 1002 – 37 St SW. To make a reservation, call 249-7933.—Chloe Jones and Jennifer Hilliker

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