December 2010

THE ELECTRIC PIANO BAR: Oh, la, la, di, di, da, da

Author: David Tobias | Photographer: Photography by Anne

Well, actually, it’s a Thursday. And it’s only about 8 o’clock, but it’s dark and the time change makes it seem a lot later. Which may be why the “regular crowd” is gathering at the door of The Electric Piano, peering in through the glass, hesitant, maybe, because lights are on inside, which is not very bar-like; Reid Richmond, tonight’s backup to piano man Christian Young, is tuning up on a guitar.

It’s that awkward time, before the magic happens, before a bar is transformed—with just the right mix of low lighting, background music and the tinkling of ice in a glass—into a vibrant night spot, with all the requisite rhythms, moods and anticipation.

A few minutes after 8:00, a cautious couple does shuffle in to ask if there’s piano music tonight. The gentleman wears a Boston Red Sox cap and says he and his wife are from Buffalo. They’re here for the week and plan to have a drink—just one drink each—while they wait for the music. The music starts at 9:00.

This Buffalo reference is all owner Adam Nemetz needs to start the conversation. It’s sports talk at first—the Bills and the Bosox, of course—and then a reference to the weather. By then, Adam’s wife Kelly’s picked up on the Boston connection—after all, Boston is her hometown—and suddenly they’re all well down the path to a beautiful bar-based friendship, and The Electric Piano is well on its way to a couple of long-term customers.

It’s a remarkable skill, really, being able to greet strangers in a way that allows them, in a matter of seconds, to feel comfortable in foreign surroundings.

By the time new customers from Indiana, Georgia and Paris, France come through the door, followed by a local couple and two girlfriends, the lighting is lower still, the background music a little louder now, and as soon as Christian and Reid take the stage, this sleepy corner bar turns into a truly energized nightclub that promises a good time for the rest of the evening.

The couple from Buffalo are smiling and working on drink number two.

The Electric Piano has had a reputation for guaranteed good times since it began as locally famous Scott Morlock’s vision more than five years ago. It opened two days before South Carolina bid adios to mini-bottles and waved howdy to free pour—December 30, 2005—which is a good way to remember a birthday.

Morlock, known for his love of dueling pianos, tried to make that concept work, but for some reason it just didn’t quite take. Hilton Head Island is apparently a one-piano piano bar town. The whole get-drunk-and-sing-along thing that works in places like Austin, Nashville and Atlanta just doesn’t resonate.

What does resonate is a night club with options, including a request list printed on both sides of a laminated sheet containing more than 160 songs, a bar creatively painted with way more than 88 piano keys (the Nemetzes call it their “finger bar”), a serpentine sitting area back from the bar that sort of imposes cozy on the patrons (not that they mind), and a dance floor up front for those who just can’t sit still. It’s kind of like Cheers, with Sam, Diane, a dance floor and no Norm.

Adam and Kelly’s seamless work behind the bar is nothing less than an elegant dance all speeded up. They prepare drinks separately and together (Kelly claims she can remember more than 100 patrons’ particular drink favorites and wouldn’t mind being tested on it). They play straight person to the piano man patter. They handle their own marketing, book the entertainment, stock the bar, pay the bills; and Adam is plumber, electrician, HVAC engineer and sound check supervisor.

Kelly sets the schedule and checks their EP (Electric Piano) social marketing presence on Facebook first thing in the morning, every morning. She calls it the best free advertising out there—1,700+ devoted fans who follow the site daily, keep up with play dates, plan vacations to coincide with favorite artists and drive distances to get the party started.

TOP IMAGE: The Vincent Ruby Trio
BOTTOM IMAGE: The Groovetones, whose rising popularity has been spilling out of Charleston down this way for quite a while.

Adam likes to say “a crowd draws a crowd and a party follows a party,” comparing EP style to the old “Rat Pack” days of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, greeting all customers with a handshake and a smile. This crowd certainly follows a crowd, even on this Thursday night in November. By 9:30, it’s heating up and Christian has a raft of requests—in season the EP is usually packed by 9:30.

Consider that all this might be influenced by the fact that Adam grew up in Las Vegas, while Kelly comes to Hilton Head from Boston by way of New York City.

“Where I grew up, 10 people were competing for your job if you weren’t way out ahead of things,” said Kelly. I think that’s what still drives me.”

Kelly is certainly driven when it comes to planning a reliably consistent entertainment schedule for the rest of 2010 and all of 2011. She says Morlock can be counted on to make at least two appearances a year, although those dates are tough to nail down.

In the meantime, she’s secured some solid regional talent for the rest, including the Groovetones, whose rising popularity has been spilling out of Charleston down this way for quite a while.

Wednesdays will bring a mix of talented artists playing Motown and R & B. Reid Richmond will team with Christian Young on Thursdays, which will continue as ladies night. Fridays will continue as $2 shot night with dance bands such as the Simpson Brothers, David Wingo and the Vincent Ruby Trio.

Southern Rock and Country will be the Saturday sound through the remainder of 2010, but the Groovetones will take over to play rockin’ blues Saturday nights in 2011.

Although Adam doesn’t miss the Vegas glitz and unending neon (he’s traded that in to be a long-boat surfer), he does bring a worldly quickness to his chit-chat time behind the bar and a sense that he’s seen it all—or at least most of it—when he gets borderline serious.

“There’s really just one serious rule,” said Adam, being really serious for a moment. He points to two signs on the piano, encouraging patrons not to rest or leave their drinks there. It’s a request that’s respected. The reason: “It’s an electric piano.” He pauses. “An electric piano.”

A rule you can live by when you’re in a place where, when the lights dim, and the music starts, an unusual energy for these parts kicks in that’s infectious, sometimes even overtaking the prevailing “island time.”

It’s way better than drinkin’ alone.

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