Not every lounge act includes the audience as part of the performance, but the crowd runs the show at the Avi when the dueling pianos come to town.
“It’s the people’s show, not ours. We’re just puppets,” said Dennis West, one of the two pianists in the act.
West and fellow performer Michael Browning both play piano bars in Las Vegas, but have made monthly trips to Laughlin since April to treat guests at the ArrowWeed lounge with their unique entertainment.
Two pianos facing each other grace the center of the bar, where West and Browning fight for the focus. Their main goal is to get the crowd involved, because participation from the whole room makes the night more enjoyable for everyone.
Audience requests fuel the entire show, but not in the typical way. Song request cards with a tip attached will be played first, but if you don’t like the song someone else chose, a bigger tip can stop the players mid-song. This bidding war of sorts creates friendly banter across the room, and the guys love to egg it on.
West likes to warm up the room before he even takes to the keys so first-timers at the show will get the feel for the evening ahead.
“I want everyone to connect,” West said. “So before we get started I’ll go around and butt into people’s conversations, get a few people to chuckle and make them feel comfortable, because I want them to know that’s what I’m going to be doing — getting the audience involved. And most people love it and want to get into it.”
It pays to let loose and join in the fun from the start, because West is likely to pick on tables that aren’t interacting, and make them part of the show regardless. Their cracks at the crowd are all in good fun and the comedy aspect only adds to the musical performance.
The guys also love to make guests’ birthdays, anniversaries or any special occasion part of the show, bringing people up front to sing them a silly song.
West said he likes to start the show with a recognizable song with a good beat to engage the crowd, but every show is different depending on the audience demographic.
“Everywhere you play is different. But you adapt to every situation, change your songs up a little, change your attitude a little, change your clothes a little,” West said.
Browning and West have banked thousands of songs in their catalogue from years of experience and will attempt any genre from pop, country, rock and even songs in different languages. West can sing in Spanish and Greek.
“Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Piano Man” and “Sweet Caroline” are top picks at nearly every show, but West said they also get unusual requests occasionally, such as “The Sound of Silence.”
“You have to kind of like everything,” West said. “You have to keep a wide open mind because you are going to get so many different tastes from people.”
“You have to go from one thing to the next very quickly,” Browning added.
Both pianists can play by ear, which helps them pick up any tune fairly quickly. If they are not familiar with the lyrics, they keep an iPad on the piano and learn them on the fly, never turning down a request.
Experience the show when the guys return to the Avi Friday-Saturday, June 14-15 (9 p.m.-1 a.m.). There is no cover charge at the door and ArrowWeed offers a full bar and great selection of beers on tap.
More on West…
West grew up in New Jersey, but moved to Las Vegas in 1983, where he began his musical career. He was performing as a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator with a theatrical piano act when he scored the chance to pioneer a dueling piano show at New York, New York in Las Vegas in 1997. He was one of the original six players hired for the show, which became a highly-acclaimed act at the hotel and casino.
He continued to play dueling piano bars around the city for the next 35 years, but is now semi-retired, only playing select shows for fun. He said he has enjoyed playing at the Avi as a little break from Vegas.
“It’s kind of a treat coming out here with the beach outside and a different demographic of people,” West said. “It’s nice, it’s calm, and I get out of the Vegas craziness for a bit.”
More on Browning…
Browning grew up in North Carolina, but has lived in Las Vegas on and off for about nine years. He began classical piano training at the age of 6 and can read sheet music and play by ear. He has been performing professionally for 14 years.
“I’ve always been musical,” Browning said. “I heard about dueling pianos and inched my way in the business by meeting guys like this (West) and wound up in Vegas.”
Browning said he enjoys the camaraderie of performing as a duo, particularly with West.
“Not all players become close personal friends like we have,” Browning said. “It makes it a lot easier and more fun to work with someone you like to hangout with outside of work.”