Billy Joel tribute show coming to Pleasanton's Firehouse
By Lou Fancher
"When I was 6 years old, I knew one song and played it over and over. My parents signed me up for piano lessons, just to get some variety," the Sacramento area-based musician says.
Martin, 38, returns Jan. 9 to Pleasanton's Firehouse Arts Center, bringing his show, "Joel! A Tribute to the Songs of Billy Joel," in a follow-up visit after his sold-out appearance at the venue in 2013. Publicist Jane Onojafe says Martin is "an absolute hit" with Firehouse audiences who "eat up his charisma and high-energy stage presence."
Along with Martin, band members Larry Hart, Tony Providence, Jerry White and Jeff Teczon perform repertoire from the Tony Award-winning Billy Joel/Twyla Tharp musical, "Movin' Out," including "Only the Good Die Young," "An Innocent Man," "New York State of Mind" and other songs.
" 'New York State of Mind' is by far the one that requires the most rehearsal," Martin says. "There's so much dimension."
Martin should know. After two years starring as the "Piano Man" in the rock ballet that features Tharp's highly physical dance, Joel's music, and what Martin calls the legendary star's "aggressive, going-to-war" performance style, Martin is intimately familiar with the apex of sound Joel's songs demand. "Going from a gentler feel to a full chest voice to hit a high A takes a lot of work. And bringing the emotion that I feel to the crowd -- the thing that makes an audience cry or miss people they haven't seen in 25 years -- that's hard to do."
Add to that effort the complex transitions and balanced interplay required of the band, switching off a native Californian's soft "r's" to pound out consonant heavy, New York pronunciations loaded with lingering "s's" and "o's," or pitching into his natural, bold baritone while abandoning his classical training to "go for the gusto," and it's a challenge. "I had to break every rule of the pedagogy to do this material," Martin says.
Even so, the hardest part of touring more than 100 cities from 2007-09 wasn't the music; it was being separated from family: his wife, Sue Martin, and three children who are now teenagers.
"I had my kids at home and it was super-difficult to leave them," he says. Second greatest difficulty? "Fitting my 6-foot-4-inch frame into those small performance spaces and onto the tour bus," Martin says.
But the rewards of performing music he'd admired ever since his piano sensibilities were intrigued by "My Life" as the theme song for the TV show "Bosom Buddies" were plentiful enough to make it all worthwhile. "Plus, the cast was like family. You have each other's backs. We're friends to this day," he says.
Improbably, Martin recalls that his audition was one of the least intentional acts he's ever performed. A demo tape sent out by his voice teacher somehow landed on the desk of the casting company in charge of "Movin' Out."
"I got a phone call to come to New York. I had no idea what I was trying out for. I mean I knew it was Billy Joel and 'Movin' Out,' but it could have been the Movin' Out Dinner Theater or Movin' Out on Ice or something."
Choosing to sing the hardest of the arrangements he'd been sent, Martin says he "felt at home, like the band and I were jibing." Even so, he was speechless when the orchestrator explained that the job was with the national touring show and asked him, "Is this something you'd like to do?" Stunned and considering if he wanted "to completely transform my life in five seconds," he couldn't answer -- until he was asked, "So do you want this job or not?" The memory of his answer, "Yeah, I guess so," makes him chuckle.
But hard work followed and Martin continues to study Joel's massive energy for the show he will bring to the Firehouse. Most recently, he attended the legendary star's return to San Francisco in September after 40 years. "He did about 15 songs that were specific to the city, but weren't his own. The band had no idea where he was going, but they just caught on and were jamming."
Martin says he's incorporating the same idea with his band. "We've been together long enough that if we go off-book, we can read each other's signals."
Asked if he'll venture into the music of other piano men and women when he "goes off-book," Martin won't give any spoilers away but admits to a certain fondness for Janis Joplin and Elton John and says surprises are likely.