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Aug 01, 2014
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Jive & Wail delivers sublime entertainment to a discriminating crowd
By Sean Hixson • Photo by Jamie DeVillez
Posted On: 11/01/2007   

When one of the piano players at The Jive & Wail told me that the audience in St. Louis was different than in other cities he’s hit, I can’t say I was surprised. I assumed “different” meant we requested Van Halen’s Right Now more than Elton John’s Bennie and the Jets. When he said that STL’s piano tune requests were discriminating, again, I wasn’t surprised. I assumed “discriminating” meant we requested Guns N’ Roses’ November Rain more than Mötley Crüe’s Home Sweet Home. Well St. Louis, I may have lived and loved here my entire life, but you surprised me, and I have “Piano” Matt Nichols to thank for the explanation.

Unbeknownst to me until that conversation with Nichols – and this is slightly empowering for those droll St. Louis-versus-another city arguments – St. Louis loves more obscure Stevie Wonder songs like Living for the City or Boogie On Reggae Woman. And we love more complex piano pieces like Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. According to Nichols, sometimes the St. Louis audience just sits back and takes in the intricate piano work. “We don’t always have to do a bunch of dirty jokes to entertain,” he said.

Well St. Louis, it looks like you and The Jive & Wail may work (and, more importantly, looks like you have musical sophistication beyond KSHE 95).

If you are unfamiliar with a “dueling piano” bar, like I was, my first paragraph gave some clues. Helmed by skilled showman musicians taking audience requests, two pianos face one another atop a stage. Now, while dueling pianos is the common parlance for bars like The Jive & Wail, the piano players don’t really try to top one another with faster and faster trills, but play off one another with musical harmonies and witty banter.

Because all the songs are audience requests (by monetary tip), and all songs are known by anyone with even a semblance of interest in popular music of the last four decades, audience participation is high and essential. It will be very suprising if you do not know a song. Think of the pianists as live jukeboxes for bar-wide, everyone-sings karaoke. People sing, hoot, dance, holler, clap, “Whoooo!” and try like hell to remember the words to the song. Sure you know the melody to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, but do you really know all the words? I doubt it.

The piano players do know all the words, though. In fact, that’s one of the most impressive aspects of the entertainment – the players use no sheet music, rarely rehearse (according to Nichols) and just kill it (that’s good) on vocals, piano and banter. It can be sublime entertainment. Unlike many dueling piano bars, The Jive & Wail rotates its players, so new entertainers from around the country will hit St. Louis every few weeks to keep it fresh. Check the Web site for the latest lineup (www.jiveandwail.com).

Since its September debut, The Jive & Wail has been a colossal hit. Patrons love this place. While there’s seating for more than 200 people, on a weekend, all tables are gone by 7 p.m. After 8 p.m., it’s like the inside of a clown car – many people, little space. If you have a table, it’s almost comical to see people continue to file in. But if you’re standing, it’s not funny at all – you have to steadfastly hold your ground like it’s 1917 and you’re an American doughboy on the western front, refusing to allow one more couple in your 24 inches of bar rail or floor space. Still, the space and look of The Jive & Wail are irrelevent (although ownership did a good job with much black and dark blue paint and many mirrors), as you’ll only pay attention to your company and the musical entertainment. So arrive early and grab a table.

Crowds are diverse in age, but the couples and groups of females contingents are well represented. It’s a great date spot if you have no shame when loudly singing. I saw some dating/married pairs in their early 20s and some in their late 70s, many couples in their 40s and 50s, and many bachelorette/birthday parties. Expect some beards and bald heads from the suburbs, some potentially here-for-irony twentysomething Maplewood scenesters and some people on their second date after their third marriage.

The Jive & Wail offers a relatively significant food menu for a music venue – potato skins, t-ravs, nachos, small pizzas, burgers, some entrées like steak and ribs. Given the expected on-a-date and female clientele, though, the dessert list is much too short at three choices.

The 16-selection cocktail list references famous musicians and, as expected, comes gaudy and saccharine; pink cocktails seem incredibly popular. The wine list is short – five reds, five whites, two sparklings – but makes up for it by offering everything by the glass and bottle. The draft craft beer selection is good, dominated by Schlafly products; choose from Hefeweizen, No. 15, APA, Pale Ale and the seasonal brew. The bottled beer is typical but will satisfy an itch for a bucket of Bud Light bottles.

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