North Phoenix/Scottsdale’s Duelies Sports Bar and Grill is crowd interaction at its finest.
Dueling pianists perform alongside guests, who join the musicians at their instruments, while others gather around and sing, dance or start a conga line around the three-month-old venue.
Housed near Harkins Theatres Scottsdale 101, Duelies is an upscale sports bar with live music and has garnered great reviews. Patrons have learned about it from word of mouth.
The space is owned by Ross Paterson, a real estate developer and a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He had owned restaurants and hotels before, but a dueling piano bar is a new venture for him.
He was inspired to start a piano bar after frequenting the Bar at Times Square in the Las Vegas casino New York, New York. Paterson persuaded the two featured pianists from Las Vegas — Chris Nelson and Scott Ellis — to come with him to Arizona.
The dueling piano lineup also includes one of the Valley’s foremost duelers Mike “Mikey C” Clement, as well as shredding guitarist Shane Pomeroy.
“Anyone can have a piano bar where they do ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Brown-Eyed Girl.’ Having the best around is important,” Paterson says.
Paterson calls the musicians “savants” who can play thousands of songs at the drop of a hat.
General manager Ryan Basaites says the engagement between the piano players and patrons brings the space to life.
“There’s so much interaction with the crowd. It really brings the energy up. It’s not just watching a show. You are involved in the show,” Basaites says.
The bar is building a core group of regulars.
“The great thing about it is every night is a different night. People will come three nights in a row because it’s different every night,” Paterson says.
Blending comedy and music
Paterson says the transition from a restaurant to a piano bar took more work than expected.
“This was supposed to be turnkey, but it was everything but. … It was supposed to be a quick opening. We replaced the TVs, the sound system, the lighting system, the bar, the floor, the tables, the chairs,” Paterson says.
Paterson wanted his space to stand out. For him, it was important for listeners to be close to the action.
“The difference we have here is it’s in the round, with the pianos in the middle. So, you have more interaction, with people sitting all around you,” Paterson says.
Patrons can request their favorite songs, and the musicians will also bring tunes they think the crowd will enjoy.
On a recent Friday, the piano players jammed to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” “Respect,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “Baby Got Back,” “Stacy’s Mom,” “Footloose,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” “Push It,” “I’m Still Standing,” “Mamma Mia!,” “All the Small Things,” several TV theme songs, “Uptown Funk” and “Easy (Like Sunday Morning).”
The three piano players blend comedy and music into their performances. Often, they will ad lib lyrics to fit the situation or jump on the piano to get the crowd energized.
When someone in the bar has a birthday, they get the whole crowd to celebrate.
As a unit, they bring decades of experience playing piano.
Hailing from the Tempe area, Nelson began teaching himself the piano at age 7. He has been part of the dueling piano scene for more than 30 years. He got his start in the ’90s in the Valley. He spent 25 years at the Bar at Times Square in New York, New York.
Nelson has been recognized all over the country, as well as in Ireland, because of his music and 6-foot-6 stature.
Born in New York, Ellis is a multi-instrumentalist and career musician who has performed across the globe over the last 25 years. He plays the bass, drums, guitar, saxophone, harmonica and piano.
Clement has 18 years of experience performing in Phoenix. He previously played at the Low Key Piano Bar in Tempe. He started playing the piano at age 6, following in his mom’s footsteps.
He got his start with dueling pianos in St. Louis at the Big Bang Bar, and when that club opened a Tempe location he made the move, where he was for 11 years. He has done dueling piano in locations across the country, including Las Vegas, San Francisco, Portland and Southern California.
Duelies is taken over by the pianists from Thursdays to Saturdays. At other times, it’s a sports bar with 40 large-screen televisions available for viewing. The space has a hybrid music and sports aesthetic, with guitars and sports jerseys decorating the walls.
The outdoor patio is a popular hangout spot, especially for dog owners.
The space has elevated bar food, which is made with fresh, in-house-made ingredients. Most of the sauces are prepared at the restaurant by chefs John Tatler and Russ Robardey.
The menu includes appetizers such as Rapper’s Delight, jalapeños filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon, and loaded Everything Fries with jalapenos, bacon and avocados.
Guests can also choose from salads, chicken wings, chicken sandwiches and burgers.
Some of the spicier wing options include “Highway to Hell,” “Living on a Prayer” and “More than a Feeling,” Tatler says.
As for drinks, the signature cocktails have music-inspired names such as 88 Key Tea, Strawberry Fields, Blueberry Mic Drop and Tropical Serenade.
There is also a special Duelies Lager, a golden lager made by Four Peaks Brewing Co.
During the weekends, the three piano players trade off throughout the night. They all will also hop on the drums, the bass and the harmonica when the song calls for it.
The performers are all knowledgeable in different genres of music.
Nelson’s voice tends to fit best with classic, ’80s and ’90s rock songs, and Clement and Ellis are often the ones to perform rap songs. Ellis is also knowledgeable in his vast repertoires of Journey, Elton John and Billy Joel, while Clement loves hitting the high notes in various hair metal songs.
Nelson recites movie lines and knows more than 90 college fight songs. Ellis learns songs on YouTube while playing other tracks.
Clement brings his dance skills to the table and is best known for his “Napoleon Dynamite” number.
Ellis says that music is often nostalgic for listeners and tries to get the whole crowd involved.
“The primary goal of the show is to get everyone in the room to participate. Our job is to be the party people, to create a party. How do you do that? You sing the songs that do the work for you,” Ellis says.
“Our job is to provide them with the songs they want to hear, but to craft the show out of the song requests. That’s the hard part. That’s what makes it interesting.”
Clement says in any given night, it is important to take the temperature of the room and decide on songs based on the crowd’s energy.
“Half the time, you are trying to gauge the crowd and figure out what they would like,” Clement says.
There is always the risk that a song will kill the vibe. Clement says this makes his job interesting. It took him about two years to really develop and get used to the speed of dueling piano playing.
“You can start to integrate more of your own personality into it, and then you just take off from there,” Clement says.
Nelson started out as one of the youngest guys on the scene and now has become one of country’s best veterans. He says he owes his longevity partially to his ability to bring joy into others’ lives.
“At the end of the day, as long as you keep everyone happy and smiling, you don’t have to sound like Parvati or play like Liberace. … People have said, ‘Me and my wife had a horrible day today, and you put a smile on our faces,’” Nelson says.
Duelies Sports Bar and Grill
7000 E. Mayo Boulevard, Suite 1072, Phoenix
Thursdays are free, Fridays and Saturdays have a $10 cover charge
Reservations are recommended, as Fridays and Saturdays generally sell out.
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