BWW Review: Phenomenal PIANO GUYS Bring Inspired Musicianship to the Ocean State
Rhode Island music lovers received an early Christmas present this week. The Piano Guys took center stage at the Providence Performing Arts Center on Thursday, dazzling the jam-packed house with an absolutely sensational and unforgettable evening of story and song.
The Piano Guys are best known for their immensely popular YouTube channel, which features an ever-growing playlist of classical and contemporary tunes blended together with ambitious, cinematic videography. Live on stage, pianist Jon Schmidt and cellist/percussionist Steven Sharp Nelson demonstrate the same heart and creativity that underscore each online offering while simultaneously captivating an in-person audience with their extraordinary musicianship.
One piano and one cello? It's true, the men wryly acknowledge from the stage, there is only one piano player in The Piano Guys. Their imprecise moniker predates the start of their smashing national and international successes. Schmidt and Nelson call this story "a miracle," and indeed, the origins of this phenomenally popular musical group seem nothing short of inspired.
Paul Anderson, owner of "The Piano Guys" music store in Saint George, Utah, was fascinated by YouTube and began investigating video production as a means to promote his business. Around the same time, accomplished local pianist Schmidt visited the store and asked Anderson if he could rehearse at "The Piano Guys" prior to an evening performance. Anderson so enjoyed Schmidt's work, he wondered if Schmidt would be willing to play some pieces for "The Piano Guys" YouTube project. Not only did Schmidt agree, but he also brought his long-time musical partner, cello virtuoso Nelson, in for the recording sessions. Songwriter and musical engineer Al van der Beek was a friend and neighbor of Nelson's, and soon he too joined in the collaboration.
What began as a "for-fun" experiment speedily became a glittering success story. In the six years since The Piano Guys formed, the group's captivating videos and sweeping musical arrangements have won hearts and accolades across the globe. The Piano Guys recorded multiple albums and toured internationally to resounding acclaim, all the while continuing to create the much-loved music videos that first cemented their celebrity.
A spark of that cinematic magic transfers over to The Piano Guys' stage show with the aid of an oversized projection screen. Snippets from favorite venues (including a rendition of the "Charlie Brown Medley" played for an enthusiastic crowd of nursing home residents) run alongside amazing footage of Schmidt and Nelson performing "Kung Fu Piano: Cello Ascends" on the Great Wall of China. Clever editing allows Nelson and Schmidt to share the footlights with eighteenth-century doppelgangers of themselves, musically melding the 1770s and the 1970s in the delightful "I Want You Bach."
Snappy on-screen lyrics create a singalong atmosphere when van der Beek takes the stage for the catchy, uplifting "It's Gonna Be Okay." Live camera feeds also allow every audience member to clearly see - and marvel at - the impossible speed and unerring precision of Schmidt's piano playing and Nelson's skillful multitasking as he manages both cello and percussion simultaneously. Overhead angles are used especially well when Anderson and van der Beek join Schmidt and Nelson for a four-man piano cover of "What Makes You Beautiful."
This concert well and truly touches every emotion. Sheer awe and astonishment at the wealth of talent on stage dominate the performance, but joyous laughter follows at a close second. The Piano Guys are natural-born comedians and showmen. Nelson's melodramatic attempts to stay awake while playing the eight-note cello accompaniment in Pachelbel's "Canon in D" and Schmidt's acrobatic interpretative dance when the tempo switches to "Rockelbel" are worth the price of admission. Schmidt literally plays one piece turned upside down on the piano bench - with his hands crossed to boot! - and he never misses a note. This two-man band would hold its own against any full orchestra with the glorious, rich sound created in numbers including "Let It Go/Vivaldi's 'Winter,'" "A Thousand Years," and "Batman Evolution." Providence audience members seemed to spontaneously and collectively hold their breath during the Guys' utterly profound and deeply moving arrangement of "O Come, Emmanuel."
The Piano Guys step back to demonstrate and explain their craft during the concert as well. Both Nelson and Schmidt are strong advocates for musical education and they speak encouragingly to the next generation of young performers in the audience. They also take the time to describe the three different types of cello on stage - with special emphasis on the versatile electric cello Nelson dubbed "Bruce Lee" - and the functions of the talk box used in "I Want You Bach" in a way that both informs and entertains.
Schmidt and Nelson have been playing together for 20 years, long before The Piano Guys made them household names, and the brotherhood that formed between them is clear. They have a wonderfully warm and teasing rapport, a playful piano-vs-cello rivalry, and a mutual respect that spans the footlights. There is a true sense of gratitude and authenticity about these men, and faith and family clearly take first place in their hearts - now more than ever. Schmidt's daughter, Annie, passed away last month after a tragic hiking accident. A brief and uplifting video dedication honored her life at the opening of the Providence performance, and Nelson later choked back tears as he prefaced the Guys' magnificent recital of "Amazing Grace/Fight Song" by acknowledging his respect and love for Schmidt and his family.
The Piano Guys' success isn't due to a passing internet fad or a slickly produced video package; Schmidt and Nelson are the real deal, obvious masters of their craft, with virtuoso skills as musicians and as musical arrangers. Their stage presence is likewise unparalleled. Yes, these men are breathtakingly talented, but there isn't an ounce of conceit in their performance. Schmidt and Nelson have a knack for making every song introduction and story they relate feel personally directed to each individual audience member, and you leave the venue feeling you have just shared wonderful conversation and laughter with two very dear, very accomplished, very zany friends.
The Piano Guys played the Providence Performing Arts Center for one night only, Thursday, December 1, 2016. For information about upcoming tour dates, album releases, and - of course - YouTube videos, please visit www.thepianoguys.com.
Photos courtesy The Piano Guys
Pictured, top photo: Jon Schmidt and Steven Sharp Nelson
Pictured, bottom photo: Al van der Beek, Steven Sharp Nelson, Paul Anderson, Jon Schmidt