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Leif Zurmuhlen

And You’ve Got Us Feelin’ All Right
Piano man Nate Buccieri loves his work
By Stephen Leon

A hush falls over the 30-or-so people seated at tables in the upstairs room at the Larkin as they hear the first piano chords of a very, very familiar song. It’s a moment that, most likely, has reproduced itself thousands of times at piano bars everywhere since the song’s release in 1973; and the song itself was written about this very experience of playing familiar songs to familiar faces at a weekly bar gig. “It’s 11 o’clock on a Wednesday,” begins Nate Buccieri, making an appropriate adjustment to the first line of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

But Buccieri—who himself must have played this song a hundred times—doesn’t stop there. Every verse contains goof lyrics—mostly made up on the spot (Buccieri says he does work out pairs of rhyming words, and perhaps a punchline or two, ahead of time)—poking good-natured fun at his friends and family (on this night, his mother is here) in the audience. And he doesn’t spare the Metroland writer and photographer in attendance: “Never mind that guy with the notebook/Never mind that guy with the flash/They say they’re here to do a story/But they’re really just a pain in my ass.”

A goof version of “Piano Man” is pretty much a staple now of Piano Bar, Buccieri’s weekly Wednesday-night gig at the Larkin Lounge in Albany. Though the evening is largely devoted to audience members taking turns at the microphone to Buccieri’s accompaniment, he also performs on his own, cheerfully taking requests. And “Piano Man”—well, let’s face it—it’s one of the most overplayed songs of all time. “At first I would just do the song,” Buccieri says. “[But] the song by itself is such a cliché, and I’m probably less than enthusiastic to do it, [so] I would keep myself interested by putting in a few extra words here and there. Then I kind of ran with it.”

The evolution of Buccieri’s butchered “Piano Man” reflects, in a way, the evolution of Piano Bar from the quiet Tuesday evenings of its beginnings in fall 2001 to the more sizeable, often quite lively gatherings he attracts now—and to the way in which the evening has taken on a very distinct vibe reflecting the personalities of Buccieri and his regulars, and the little rituals they’ve established. Indeed, Piano Bar’s core clientele is so attached to the weekly event that they often feel guilty when they can’t make it. “Actually,” Buccieri says, “it was cute, a couple of times, when people called [and said], ‘Oh, I’m sorry we can’t come down.’ ”

Buccieri, 27, had been doing a piano-bar gig at the Fuze Box when Adrian Cohen, a fellow pianist and then the music booker at the Larkin, suggested he try doing a similar evening there. One immediate benefit was that Buccieri got to play a much nicer piano, as the upright at the Fuze Box is in disrepair, while the grand at the Larkin is usually in good tune and has beautiful, rich tones. But even more important to Buccieri than the quality of the piano is the quality of the crowd he has attracted.

“I love it,” he says, almost sheepish as his sentimental sincerity shows through. “I can’t say enough good things about it. I don’t think it would be as much fun if there weren’t such great, eclectic people that came. That’s what makes it fun—always a good vibe. It’s a nice crowd, and it’s a warm crowd, they all get along.”

As the regular crowd shuffles in, Buccieri, in his good-natured, up-for-anything manner, begins fielding requests from people who want to get up and sing. Some want to do favorites that they’ve done there over and over; some query Buccieri on whether he knows something they haven’t tried there before; and still others, especially newcomers, flip through the trunkful of songbooks he brings to the gig, looking for something they’d like to try. The songs run the gamut from show tunes to piano-pop classics by the likes of the Beatles, Elton John and Billy Joel (being bored by “Piano Man” is no dis to this obvious influence of Buccieri’s; two of his favorites to perform are “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “Until the Night”), to more contemporary artists such as Oasis (and I have a hunch he’d play Erasure if you asked—just a hunch).

An accomplished sight reader, Buccieri occasionally is stumped if he doesn’t know the song well and doesn’t have the sheet music—and that’s his first answer to the question of whether anything that happens at Piano Bar is “annoying.”

“Probably, honestly, the most annoying thing—and it’s not really annoying because of anyone else, it’s all completely internal—is just when there’s some songs that I don’t know, or someone [asks for] all songs from the ’40s, and just don’t have any of it. If I have something and I don’t know it, I’m totally willing to do it, and it usually works out fine.”

Buccieri is then reminded of a certain audience member who, one night, probably had exceeded his limit and, for several songs in succession, supplied loud “harmony” from his chair halfway back in the room. A smile creeping across his face, Buccieri gets up, goes over to the piano, and begins playing “Piano Man”—this time imitating the painful-sounding moan that had been offered that night as harmony.

“But he’s a nice guy,” Buccieri quickly adds. “These people don’t really annoy me, because they mean well and they’re just having a good time, so it’s more funny than it is annoying. What annoys me the most is that I know they’re annoying other people.”

He does recall a couple of serious jerks. “They just don’t know how to behave. . . . If you interrupt the vibe, that’s what upsets me. People are very in tune to what’s going on here, so it’s not just that they’re annoying me—they’re annoying everybody. And they just throw a wrench into the whole works. But that happens really, really infrequently.”

And although Buccieri works all day Wednesday—teaching, and rehearsing for his gigs as a church pianist/organist and as an accompanist-on-demand—he claims it’s never a chore to work four more hours at Piano Bar. “I always look forward to it,” he says. “It’s really not a frustrating experience at all. It took a couple of months to get into and to get used to, and to get the whole feeling going, but I just look forward to it now, because I know it’s going to be a fun time.”

Nate Buccieri’s love affair with the piano began when he was 7, living with his family in the Buffalo area, and his grandmother bought a Steinway. It wasn’t the Steinway he fell in love with, but the piano it replaced, which came to live at his house. “I don’t even think I knew we were getting it,” he recalls. “But I still remember the day we got it, walking into the living room, and it was over there by the window, and I was just like . . .”

Like he knew he wanted to play piano?

“I think I did as soon as I saw it.”

Soon he was taking lessons from a neighbor, and loving it. “My mom says that she never had to ask me to practice,” he says.

“I used to come home from middle school,” he says, “and . . . nobody was home. I could just sit down and play the piano and sing. . . . I was still really shy, like I wouldn’t do it necessarily in front of other people, but I enjoyed it tremendously.”

He joined a heavy-metal band when he was in 8th grade; in high school, he played cello in the school orchestra, saxophone in the band. He also plays—not as well, he insists—guitar, clarinet and bassoon. He attended SUNY Geneseo as an elementary-education major, but transferred to UAlbany and became a music major, getting his degree in 1998, then going on to the College of St. Rose to do courses for teaching certification. With all the work he gets now teaching lessons and accompanying (he does recitals and concerts for individuals, choral groups, etc.), he is phasing himself out of his other job waiting tables.

The accomplishment Buccieri is most proud of these days is his just-released solo CD, Waiting (The Gorda Records), featuring 11 original songs in the singer-songwriter mode, many (but not all) piano-based. Among the musician and background-vocal credits on the disc are five friends who also are regulars at Piano Bar.

In fact, Buccieri’s Piano Bar—unlike some karaoke nights—seems to draw people who can actually carry a tune. “And have improved over time,” he adds.

He explains that when people first start coming, it usually takes a few times before they get comfortable enough to get up and sing. And he mentions one woman in particular who started showing up regularly, but was very quiet; and he’d ask her, teasingly, when she was going to come up and sing, knowing she probably wouldn’t. Then one Wednesday evening, he coaxed her up to the mike.

“And she got up and turned it. And clearly impressed everybody—everybody was like, woooo—I like moments like those.”

And in spite of the fact that Piano Bar does at times feel a bit like a family reunion, and for all of the inside jokes he tosses off in his weekly rendition of “Piano Man,” Buccieri takes pains to make sure the vibe isn’t exclusive. “That’s the most wonderful thing,” he says. “Anybody can just walk in here and fit in. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you want to sing, or what you like or what you dislike.”

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