Quick-witted dueling pianists to take requests at Red Monkey

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Kirk Garrett, left and Troy Baldwin perform at the Loud American Roadhouse in Sturgis, S.D. They'll play two nights at the Red Monkey Downtown Lounge, 25 W. Alder St., Jan. 20 and 21.

WALLA WALLA - To dueling pianists Kirk Garrett and Troy Baldwin, "Streisand" and "Manilow" are fightin' words.

Those and other equally famous names inevitably have cheering sections at the duo's all-request live shows. But for every "Copacabana" faithful there's a counterpart in the audience just wishing the notes would fall off the planet, and willing to up the ante to momentarily quash their existence.

That's where the fun comes in for the "Dueling Pianos Anywhere" show that will make its way to the Red Monkey Downtown Lounge for two nights this month.

From his home base in Salt Lake City this week, Garrett debunked the notion of the show as a clash between he and Baldwin, both long studied performers who started performing in childhood, began playing together 10 years ago and finesse the keys across from one another.

In the really old days, "dueling pianos" was more of a literal reference to players who would attempt to outplay each other with better and faster songs. But that concept evolved decades ago - even as far back as the 1930s - when dueling pianists would instead have their turns performing songs at the requests of their audience.

It's only gotten spicier since then with quick-witted exchanges between the performers and an ever-expanding repertoire that includes every genre imaginable, from old standards to contemporary pop and even, on occasion, a rap song here or there.

To be clear, the "dueling" portion of the show takes place between audience members vying for their requests.

"It's difficult to explain when you have never seen one before," Garrett schooled. "Our show is tip-driven. If you give me $5 to play a song, someone else can give me $6 to stop playing your song and play their song."

It gets even more lively and entertaining when the songs run the gamut from country tunes to '80s "butt rock."

Guests at the Red Monkey had such a fun time with it last year that lounge owner Juston Watson decided to bring the show back for two nights.

"The shock value in the show is some of the stuff that each of us know," Garrett said. "That I'll pull off a Tenacious D song is pretty unusual. He'll play a Justin Bieber song, which is outstanding. Without giving everything away, that's what it's all about."

A few other details that might surprise you about the performance:

Rather than classic Steinways, Garrett and Baldwin perform with digital Yamaha stage pianos adorned in baby grand piano facades. "That way they're always in tune, always sound perfect," Garrett explained. It also helps reduce weight and size issues that come, say, when the duo are scheduled to perform on the 34th floor of a high rise, where toting a piano may be an impossibility.

No matter what corner of the country - or for that matter what military base or corporation they're visiting - certain songs are so universally requested they've become known as "every-nighters." "Sweet Caroline" and "Brown-Eyed Girl" are a couple such tunes. But don't expect them out of the gate. The audience interacts so well with those songs that they try to spread them throughout the show after, and only after, the crowd is warmed up. "If we're in a more reserved city it may take 10 or 15 minutes for them to get what we're doing. When they do, it's just wildly crazy the rest of the night."

Walla Walla is not one of those aforementioned "reserved" cities. During the performance last year, the crowd demonstrated this is an anything-goes town when it come to music. Hence, you may hear the 60-year-old Garrett sing Sir-Mix-A-Lot's famous song about ample posteriors.

Conversely, you may also hear the younger Baldwin belting a tween heartthrob song, though probably not without a quip about how everyone in the bar is supposed to be older than 21.

Garrett and Baldwin know thousands of songs, but they don't know every song. If they've heard one a few times, they may even try to find it online on the spot in order to see if they can play it. However, if you try to stump them with something obscure you will likely succeed. That would be no fun.

Dueling Pianos Anywhere books about 250 shows per year. Small communities and college towns are among the performers' favorite stops. "I think it's just the energy and the welcomeness," Garrett said." Everybody's there to have fun, and that's what our show's all about. You don't get any negativity."

You also have no idea what the evening's playlist will hold, and that's the funnest part of all for Garrett, the son of a Big Band musician, and Baldwin, who began performing popular music at the tender age of 7.

"You just don't know what to expect, and that's what I love about the Dueling Pianos," Garrett said. "Every night is a different show."

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