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October 22, 2010
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Piano man J Roddy Walston & the Business, in Aspen

ASPEN - J Roddy Walston told me he couldn't believe how often people have approached him after performances to tell him he was the best piano player they had ever heard. Walston doesn't say this as evidence of how great a pianist he is; rather, it's more an indication of the limited listening experience of people who attend his concerts."I always say, 'Well, that's because you've hardly ever heard a rock 'n' roll pianist," Walston said.Of course, the piano and rock 'n' roll have a long history together. Piano's rock roots go back further than what is now seen as the quintessential rock 'n' roll instrument, the electric guitar. Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were burning up the 88s before anyone knew what kind of racket could be stirred up with six strings, some pick-ups and a stack of amplifiers.But Walston comes from a different place than oldies rock 'n' roll, or the manicured music of Billy Joel (which, despite his protests on "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," probably doesn't quite qualify as rock 'n' roll), or even the glam-rock of Elton John. Forget about Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Rick Wakeman of Yes, who played synthesizers. It's a genuine piano - a '70s vintage Yamaha CP60 upright that, despite being portable, still weighs an unwieldy 300 pounds - that Walston lugs from gig to gig. ("It's a back-breaker," Walston said of his main ax.)The opening riffs of "J Roddy Walston & the Business," released in August, can mislead an audience into thinking of Walston as a throwback. Playing solo piano, and singing in his Southern-inflected voice, there are echoes of Professor Longhair and Leon Russell. But wait for it: at the 30-second mark of the opening song, "Don't Break the Needle," that old-school barrelhouse sound opens up. The members of the Business, a band that has been touring behind Walston for some four years, join in and throw down a stomping rhythm, while Walston's voice becomes a roar that owes much to Kurt Cobain. By song's end, Billy Gordon's electric guitar licks have kicked in. On song two, "Full Growing Man," even grander elements are added, shades of Queen and Supertramp, even as Walston's vocals retain the greasiness one would expect of someone who was born and raised in Cleveland - Cleveland, Tennessee, that is, a small town a few miles from the western edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest. "Used to Did" has more than a passing acquaintance with vintage punk, while "Pigs and Pearls" has the raunchy country-barn feel of the Band. "I Don't Wanna Hear It" manages to fuse two polar opposites: arena rock and bar-band."In this band, the interplay of what I do, and what the guitar player, Billy Gordon, does - I think there's something unique there," Walston, who brings the Business to Belly Up for a free show on Wednesday, Oct. 27. "It's not like the piano is a direct replacement for the rhythm guitar - it's two elements that have been done together, but not like this, old blues or gospel piano matched with big guitar riffs. If it is out there, I don't get to hear enough of it. We're creating the sound of the songs we wanted to hear."••••Walston started out at 10 playing drums (an influence one can clearly imagine listening to "J Roddy Walston & the Business") before switching briefly to cello. He then picked up guitar - an instrument he still plays on-stage about one fifth of the time - before finding his place on the piano bench. But music was only one of Walston's three prime passions, battling with rock climbing and soccer.When Walston was 20, music won a decisive victory. "I had a two- to three-year period where I kept the most minimal hours working possible, and just wrote as much as possible," Walston said, listing his jobs at the time: candy factory worker, coffee shop guy, food deliverer. "I was completely immersed in music. I couldn't take care of myself, didn't know how to pay bills."Walston speculates that his attraction to the piano was due to the novelty. It was simply easier to sound fresh on piano than on guitar."In the world of music we exist in, there are tons of people who have done great things on guitar," Walston said on his way from San Francisco to Portland. With piano, "there's less expectations and more room to be creative."Most significant to the development of his sound was Walston's desire to take all his musical loves and make them co-exist. "I knew I loved three or four things, and it took time to figure out how to put them together," he said. "It was a period of figuring things out. I loved classical and ragtime stuff and rock 'n' roll and old country."When he began examining what had been done with the piano in rock, he focused on a typically unsung figure: Ian Stewart, an original member of the Rolling Stones who, despite being kicked out earlier on, was still allowed to hang on as road manager and keyboardist. "I love the way that guy plays," Walston said of Stewart, who died in 1985. "I think he's one of the more under-appreciated musicians of that period. He's as important to the Stones sound as Keith Richards."Walston has found some drawbacks to his choice of instrument. There is not only the heft of his instrument, but the related fact of its immobility: "Writing on the road, it's really hard with a piano. With a guitar you can walk off by yourself," said Walston, who has lived in Baltimore for the last seven years.The upside is that Walston & the Business are giving music fans something they didn't even know they were lacking."After shows, people definitely react to the piano quite a bit," Walston said. "Maybe they wanted to hear it but didn't realize they wanted to hear rock 'n' roll piano."It's definitely a rock 'n' roll instrument. And I don't have the option of going out and playing classical piano. I'm definitely a rock 'n' roller."stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Oct 22, 2010 07:54PM Published Oct 22, 2010 06:23PM Copyright 2010 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.