Sarah Garofalo spoke with Rob Stringer and Alex Dee of Celebrating Billy Joel about their favorite songs, the show, starting a band during the pandemic and more! Read on for highlights from the interview, or listen to the full interview below. Tune in to Talk of the Commonwealth with Hank Stolz on WCRN 830AM Fridays at 9 AM and Saturdays at 1 PM for more behind-the-scenes interviews.
Sarah: Thank you for joining us on Behind the Scenes at The Hanover Theatre. My name is Sarah Garofalo. Today I’m joined by two wonderful guests that have been on the show before, so we’re excited to welcome them back and welcome them back to the theatre. I’m talking to Rob Stringer and Alex Dee from Celebrating Billy Joel: America’s Piano Man, which is coming to The Hanover Theatre on June 4 at 7:30 PM. Welcome to the show!
Rob: Hi. It’s good to be here.
Alex: Thank you very much. Good to be here.
Sarah: Thank you for joining us today. I’m super excited to welcome you back. Like I said, you’re actually coming almost a year to the day from when you were here last year. How did it go last time you were here?
Rob: Yes. Like a Billy Joel Christmas, we come once a year. We had a great show, didn’t we Alex? It was a good night at The Hanover.
Alex: Beautiful theatre. Really cool town. Really looking forward to coming back.
Rob: Yeah, lovely venue staff. Lovely audience.
Sarah: We were talking a little bit before the interview here. You’ve got a good memory your you remembered every one that you saw last year. Your next tour starts in May, right?
Rob: Yeah, we’ve got three weeks of shows mainly in the Northeast. This year, we’re focusing more on the Piano Man album, because it’s the 50th anniversary.
Sarah: Oh, that’s super exciting. I want to talk a little bit about the setlist. If people happen to have come to the show last year, can they expect any differences in the setlist this year?
Alex: Sure. What we’re trying to do is to strike a balance between playing all of the huge hits that people would expect to see. We’re conscious that we’ll be coming back to play for some people that saw the show last year. As Rob said, we’re going to focus this year’s show on celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “Piano Man” album, which was one of Billy Joel’s early albums. Obviously, it spawned the huge hit “Piano Man,” which wasn’t a huge hit in 1973. When it came out, it was more of a radio sleeper hit. Obviously, it’s the ubiquitous record that everybody knows today. There’s a bunch of other really great material on that album that we’re going to explore, as well as playing a load of the big hits that you’d expect to hear.
Sarah: Very cool. I’d be remiss not to follow up on this question that Ashleigh asked you last year when you guys were on Behind the Scenes. She asked you what your favorite Billy Joel song was to perform, and your favorite song to listen to. You guys said that your answers change all the time, so I’d love to see if it’s changed since last year.
Rob: Oh God, I don’t know what we said last time. Have you got our answers from the previous question?
Sarah: Yeah, I can pull it up while you’re thinking.
Alex: Blimey, I can’t remember what I said. I would say that my favorite song to play at the moment? We, oh, we’ve been opening the show with “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Down on Broadway.)” I think just because I associated that now with the start of the show, it’s really exciting. I think that still is my favorite to play. I don’t know if that would have been my answer last time. I think that I would have to say my favorite to listen to would be “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” because you get three songs in one.
Rob: That’s good, good answer. My favorite to play would be “Angry Young Man,” which is really fun to play. I mean, it’s actually hard to play. It’s technically difficult, but I guess rewarding. To listen to, probably “And So It Goes.” I still love that so much.
Sarah: Okay, now this is interesting. I just pulled up your interview from last year. Alex, your answer for your favorite song to play last year was “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” You did say that it was a cheat because it was three songs in one.
Alex: I’m very consistent.
Sarah: Rob, you said the same thing. You said that you like to play “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” But, you said your favorite song to listen to was “She’s Always a Woman,” but you also said, “And So It Goes.”
Rob: The thing is, since I said “She’s Always a Woman” to listen to, I must have played it, like 100 times. So, it’s slightly a less favorite to listen to having played and listened to it too many times. I still absolutely love it. It’s an absolutely brilliant song.
Sarah: Well, when you’re back here again for a third time, we’ll circle around to the question again. Have you guys met Billy Joel yet?
Alex: Unfortunately, we have not. We haven’t had the opportunity. We’ve tried to reach out because we were conscious when we wanted to start doing this, that we wanted to make sure that we were entering into doing a tribute to an artist in the right way. We wanted to inquire as to whether even the concept of tribute acts was something he was cool with. We’ve sort of tried to reach out and try to make his people aware of the fact that we were doing this. It seems they were really cool. They’re really cool.
Rob: They were nice about us. We haven’t spoken to him. I mean, I think it would be great to meet him. It would be amazing.
Alex: Have you got an in, Sarah?
Sarah: I wish. If he reaches out, we’ll save him a front row seat here at The Hanover Theatre.
Alex: Oh, bless you.
Sarah: I want to talk a little bit about you two individually and how you got your start in performing and music. Do you remember the first instrument you learned or the first song you learned?
Alex: I don’t know about first song, but I picked up the guitar first. I think I really liked the idea of singing and playing. Eventually, at some point, that translated to playing the piano, kind of for the same reason: to sing and play. I’ve always been fascinated by that that play and sing.
Rob: Sarah, I actually performed in Worcester, Massachusetts when I was nine years old. I performed at the church that’s just up the road from the venue with my Cathedral Choir because I was a chorister. Interesting little bit of information. I started on piano when I was about six and I used to play a lot of old-times ragtime like Scott Joplin and kind of jazz stuff, really. I still can’t really understand why I liked it, but I just did. That was my first thing.
Sarah: Interesting. Who do you consider your inspirations, besides Billy Joel?
Rob: My inspirations musically would be probably The Beatles is the top of the heap. Different piano players like Ray Charles and Oscar Peterson and Billy Joel. Even if you don’t like something sometimes that kind of inspires you in a sense, because you just learn from anything. You’re like a sponge and you just listen and learn from everything, really. What about you, Al?
Alex: Yeah, I guess everything comes back to The Beatles, doesn’t it? Certainly in pop music, and the part of the world that we’re from, Rob and I both live near Liverpool in the UK, so it’s obviously a big part of the culture everywhere, but certainly where we’re from. For me, weirdly, as someone from the UK who grew up in the 90s, a lot of my favorite artists are sort of American 70s singer-songwriters. James Taylor, obviously Billy Joel, Springsteen, the Eagles, these kinds of people, I don’t know why. Carole King, for some reason just really speaks to me. I think those people that were all inspired by The Beatles and soul music. It’s just my favorite music.
Sarah: Very cool. Funny enough, you guys are coming just a few weeks after RAIN: A Beatles Tribute.
Alex: I’ve never seen it, but it’s meant to be amazing.
Sarah: Oh, they were fantastic. They were just great.
Rob: We won’t be wearing any Sergeant Pepper costumes or anything. It’ll just be plain old tweed jackets and 70s sneakers.
Sarah: Yeah, you don’t have any of those rooftop concert, big John Lennon jackets, right?
Rob: No mop tops or anything like that.
Sarah: I actually do like your set a lot. You’ve got that nice city backdrop behind you. It’s got a nice pink and purple hue to it. I just think it’s gorgeous. I like your pictures a lot.
Rob: Yeah, it’s really all about the music. In our show, we let the songs do the talking because it’s so powerful and strong. People come along and want to sing along to the music and enjoy it. There’s some nice little production bits. Some nice video and some nice lights and stuff like that.
Sarah: Alex, would you mind talking about your podcast, “Everyone’s An Expert?”
Alex: Wow. It’s quite a niche podcast, Sarah. You’ve really done your research there. I have a podcast. What I try to do is speak to interesting people in music or interesting people about music. It sort of started when I was doing quite a lot of education online during COVID and was hosting quite a lot of seminars. I just really enjoyed the process of interviewing people and speaking to them about what they do. There’s so many different and interesting people you come across in the world of music and in the world of performance. So particularly, I just wanted to speak to people that, that maybe listenership wouldn’t have considered what they do for a job. I’ve spoken to some people who are journalists about their favorite music and how they see music. I’ve also spoken to, for instance, some tour manager. I spoke recently to John who’s the sax player in The 1975. A really interesting range of people. I really enjoy doing it.
Sarah: Very cool. Well, if you ever want to interview someone that’s coming through to The Hanover Theatre, just hit my line. I can help you.
Alex: That’s great. I would love to do that. Thank you.
Sarah: Yeah, no problem. You guys talked a little bit when you were on the show last time about starting the band during COVID. What has it been like trying to get your start during a pandemic?
Rob: It is a very odd experience for everyone, wasn’t it? In so many different ways. While it was hard at the time, it was kind of rewarding. I mean, I remember being on stage actually, last year, we did some summer shows in California and we were playing at this mountain winery. It just sort of hit me that we’d managed to go through this pretty laborious task of putting this thing together against all the odds and just to be there and it to be actually happening was very gratifying. I remember feeling really satisfied with the fact that we’ve made it happen, even though the challenges were multiple what they are now.
Alex: Yeah. Considerable. It’s funny, actually, because we were here last year, but that was really in the first couple of months of things being back open and happening again. I feel like the shadow of it was still sort of still sort of there this time last year, wasn’t it?
Rob: Yeah, it was pretty large, wasn’t it?
Alex: Yeah, it’s great to feel like that’s hopefully behind us. You don’t take it for granted now, playing in a room full of people and playing music for people, as trite as that sounds. That period of time that we all had where we couldn’t go and do that, getting together and listening to some favorite songs and being fortunate to play songs for people that have loved them for a long time. It’s a real privilege.
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. The show last year was absolutely phenomenal. I can’t wait for you guys to come back.
Rob: Oh, thank you. We absolutely love coming to tour in the USA. The music is just so fun to play. We’re really very excited about returning and getting back on stage and playing the songs again. It’s going to be great.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s going to be an amazing evening. Once again, that is on June 4 at 7:30 PM. Tickets start at just $19 so you can grab those at TheHanoverTheatre.org. Do you guys have any parting words before we wrap up?
Alex: Just that we’d love to see you. Yeah, we’re really excited to come back to The Hanover.
Rob: We don’t take any credit for any of this. We realize it’s not our music and we’re just like the audience. We’re just glad to be there and to enjoy hearing the songs and to perform them and everyone to be there together to enjoy the music of Billy Joel. We look forward to it next month.
Sarah: Totally. Well, I look forward to seeing you both, and thank you for joining me today.