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Video: Inside The Piano Show That Thrives In Wrigleyville's Douche Vortex

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 30, 2016 3:28PM

Slugger's exterior in Wrigleyville (photo via Facebook)

By Zach Blumenfeld

Normally, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the cultural tundra that is Wrigleyville. But Metro aside, there’s been a surprising haven for skilled musicianship thriving in the neighborhood’s heart for over a decade. It’s Sluggers’ dueling pianos show, which runs Thursday through Saturday every week. I took a Friday evening to find out how, exactly, piano music had managed to make it in Chicago’s beloved douche vortex.

Sluggers, to its credit, has differentiated itself from its neighbors on Clark, with its batting cages, arcade and pianos. I ascended the stairs to its second floor and settled down at a table, surrounded by the people dressed in the typical neo-fratty Wrigleyville garb: some J. Crew here, some Brooks Brothers there. On a makeshift stage at one end of the room, Dave Allen and Cassandra Kaczor, the night’s players, set up their keyboards and plugged in their mics. Over the next couple of hours, they traded off playing and singing in a sort of hybrid music-comedy act, making the increasingly inebriated crowd laugh and sing and clap along and—maybe most importantly—tip them.

In a way, calling the show a "dueling" pianos show is a misnomer. It implies two players trying to upstage one another; before I knew how the show worked, I pictured it as a sort of musical cockfight, drunken patrons betting on the opposing pianists and going nuts for their selection. The event is really more like “dual” pianos, with both players on the same team, working together to put on a kickass show for an audience that thrives on alcohol and a hodgepodge of pop music, new and old.

Kaczor performs a song at Sluggers

Audience members pay to request songs, and Kaczor in particular encourages them to do so. “I need this to afford a masters degree and to get blackout drunk,” she declared. The crowd whooped its approval of her second goal—she is excellent at coaxing out anyone’s inner bro, and similarly excellent at piano. Kaczor studies music composition at Roosevelt University and has trained in classical piano for eighteen years.

Allen, meanwhile, has never taken a piano lesson. “I taught myself to play the piano when I was, like three and a half years old, and I’ve been playing ever since,” he told Chicagoist. He’s been a dueling pianist at Sluggers since the bar started hosting the program in 2005, and in that time he’s developed a massive repertoire of songs. His go-to on this particular night seems to be Ozzy Osbourne, at the behest of what he calls the “metal table” sitting behind him. At times, he’s definitely straining to hit some high notes—he sounds sort of like John C. Reilly in Step Brothers when he sings—but he makes up for it with his sheer joy, near-flawless playing, and a dry, raunchy sense of humor.

Sometimes, his humor veers into questionable territory. As Kaczor launched into “Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly, Allen told the crowd, “If the person next to you is not bouncing, pinch their nipples.” To me, it’s creepy crowdwork—but it’s Wrigleyville, and Allen knows his audience. A handful of laughing girls immediately attempted to follow his order. The rest of the room was bouncing as Kaczor plays.

Kaczor (left) and Allen (photos courtesy of the artists)

When Kaczor first started playing dueling pianos shows four years ago, she was terrified.

“I had really bad anxiety when I started,” she said. “I couldn't even look at my partner, let alone the crowd. I would stumble over my words and say awkward things.”

But as with all things, experience smoothed out the bumps. She brings a brash energy to the stage, bantering vociferously with the crowd and doing the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to raising funds for the duo. I watched her coax more money from a smattering of patrons who wanted to hear her play Justin Bieber's “Sorry,” delaying their gratification with Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” and “Ice Ice Baby” until the Beliebers coughed up enough cash to convince her. And when the time came, she dominated the song.

At one point, she also solicited tips by telling the crowd, “If you give us a $20, your song gets played first. If you give us more, Dave’ll suck your dick.”

“What?” Allen replied. The bros in the crowd, coming out of their shells now that they’re a few drinks in, gave a couple loud hoots.

Allen performs Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" at Sluggers while patrons poledance

Kaczor and Allen have played together for about two years now, which has given them plenty of time to get a firm grasp of what the other can bring to a performance. “You develop the act by playing to [each other’s] strengths,” Allen said.

I asked them each to describe the other’s strengths, and Kaczor immediately pointed to Allen’s comedic sensibilities. “Dave is one of the funniest guys on our team,” she said. “His dry sense of humor and amazing voice impressions keep a show moving and keep people having fun in such an original and cool way.” So do his beatboxing abilities, which he demonstrates on songs when Kaczor takes the lead.

Meanwhile, Allen praised his partner’s sheer instrumental talent.

“Cassandra's strengths are her undeniable musicality, with a great sense of comedic timing,” he said. “She's very relatable as well. She's great at connecting with her crowd.”

Most importantly, the two players check their egos at the door; regardless of who fields the request, the person who can play the song better is going to play the song.

“I hear her do songs and I’m like, ‘Could I do them if she wasn’t leading, yeah,’” Allen said. “‘Cause you hear them enough times where it’s like, ‘Yeah, I could play that.’ But I think it’s a constant learning process on how to work with each other, what works, what doesn’t work, how to work together and not step on each other’s toes, give that person room but also support them."

Kaczor sings Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" at Sluggers

So Kaczor focuses on learning recently released songs, because that’s how she can best complement Allen’s vast mental encyclopedia of music. And over the course of an evening, the discerning eye picks up a rich stream of nonverbal communication between the two, passing each other requests across their pianos and freshening up on lyrics while the other person is playing. I noticed Kaczor send a request she’s received for Mumford & Sons over to Allen, who proceeds to play “Little Lion Man” with tremendous verve and swagger. A snapback-wearing bro’s eyes widened, and he scampered off to tell his buddies to come watch. Within seconds, they were standing front and center and dishing out cash to the pianists. The money’s began to pile up on top of the pianos.

When all's said and done, Kaczor and Allen each make between $100 and $250 on a typical Friday or Saturday night. In return, they give Wrigleyville the rarest gift of all: a live piano show even the most hardcore baseball bro can enjoy.