For years patrons of the Maple Leaf Bar have observed a hundred year old Wurlein upright piano, pushed up against the wall in the back of the club. Yet it served a mostly aesthetic purpose. Few of the keys worked, it was barely playable. However, with the help of the bar, Cajun Spirits and master piano technician (and Oak street neighbor) Paul Agostino, the piano has been restored to its rickety glory, quintessentially New Orleanian. With looks, feel and most of all a sound that blends in perfectly with its Oak street surroundings.
This is the kind of instrument New Orleans music was born on. It was built in the 1900’s and acquired by the Maple Leaf’s owner, Hank Staples, in the early 80’s. Endless legends have touched these keys and now more will be able to.
The Maple Leaf has recently started hosting weekly solo piano sets in the back bar in the early evenings on Thursday nights, before the great Johnny Vidacovich trio comes in. This week featured none other than CR Gruver, keys player extraordinaire of the New Orleans Suspects. He went through many of the New Orleans piano classics, busting out favorites from the James Booker repertoire such as his arrangements of “Junco Partner”, “All By Myself” and to close it all out “Goodnight Irene.” But then he also threw the audience a few curveballs with New Orleans-type piano arrangements of songs like “Big City Lights” by Bob Seger and Johnny Cash’s “Big River.”
The crowd was jovial and attentive. Circling around the piano with drinks in their hands and smiles on their faces. These 7:00-9:00pm piano nights have all the intimacy of an after-hours hang yet still allow folks to enjoy great music and still get home at a decent hour. For those that can’t stay out to 3am on a Thursday or folks who just feel like going out early, the Maple Leaf Bar and their refurbished Wurlein upright piano have you covered. This lovely new tradition will continue next Thursday with Matt Lemler gracing the ivories. Given his rich history in this city playing with so many other great bands, its sure to be a special night of music with a lovely atmosphere to match.