In attempts to create and shape her own rock n’ roll mythology, Lady Gaga has often recounted her artistic birth story. At one of the many bars she played at on the Lower East Side in New York City, back when she had to lug her own gear around, she sat at the piano while everyone talked and no one listened. Feeling frustrated and in need to get her audience’s attention, Gaga decided to take her clothes off and played at the piano in her skivvies. A straight up singer/songwriter/pianist was dead and an all around pop performance artist was born. And people listened.
Those in the audience at 1982 on Saturday night did not get to see Janna Pelle and her Half-Steps take their clothes off, but they got to witness what may have been Janna Pelle’s artistic birth moment as a full fledged performer.
Janna Pelle is a singer/songwriter/pianist and lead singer of Janna Pelle and the Half-Steps, a tight and talented young band that makes piano-driven pop/rock songs with influences as diverse as Lady Gaga, Rachmaninoff, Iron Butterfly, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Minutes before they were to go on stage, Janna Pelle approached me and calmly told me, “My piano’s not turning on. I don’t know what we’re going to do.” Then she walked on stage.
This would be interesting.
Pelle started the show with full disclosure, telling the audience that her piano was out of commission and that they were going to make up the set as they went along. I expected at least some kind of mild exodus, but the audience was intrigued.
The set started off with an a capella version of the show tune “It’s All the Same” from Man From La Mancha, the song with which Pelle said she first discovered she could sing. She sang the song while her bassist Patrick Wanninkhof did an interpretative dance and rolled around on stage like Madonna at the VMAs. They continued with original songs like “Sand In My Eyes” and “Rules” which feature prominent piano solos. Pelle belted her songs and danced around onstage, feeling out this new frontwoman role, and sometimes mimed or even sang what would have been her piano solos.
Some songs worked better than others under the circumstances. Quieter numbers like “Don’t Cry Wolf”, a slower song with a bossa nova vibe that is sometimes out-shined by showier numbers during regular sets became more vibrant in this alternate setting.
This is a credit to Janna Pelle’s Half-Steps: Andrew Penick on guitar, Mike Thomas on drums, and Wanninkhof on bass. The rhythm section kept the show’s momentum going at times where it seemed as if it might collapse. Penick provided his signature blistering solos as worthy extended placeholders for Pelle’s missing piano parts. Pelle clearly shares the admiration for their talents. At one point she joined the audience and just watched her band play, and another time she sat in the corner of the stage drinking a beer and listening.
Pelle did not need to pull a Gaga to gain and maintain her audience’s attention. By the end of the show everyone was so thrilled at the spontaneity that came of what could have been a disastrous, anti-climactic gig on a Saturday night, that a few members of the audience jumped onstage and joined Pelle in dancing along to the music of her Half-Steps (or as they were referred to throughout the night: The Whole Steps).
Every band has a story about that show that went horribly. Saturday night could have been that show for Janna Pelle and the Half-Steps, but instead they showed what musical pros they were and kept the music going. And people listened.