Feinstein helps keep American popular music and nightclub entertainment alive by embracing what’s new and fresh, and integrating it with the classic.
Last New Year’s Eve, at Feinstein’s at the Nikko—the downtown nightclub that’s celebrating its one-year anniversary this month—Michael Feinstein was presiding at the piano, presenting his patented Great American Songbook concert, when a woman in the audience suddenly shouted, “What’s that love song you sing about the two guys?”
Without missing a beat, Feinstein said, “All of them.” That retort got a big laugh, but the woman persisted, trying to remember the name of the song. “It became one of those things where the whole audience was held hostage,” says Feinstein. “She was adorable.” Finally he sang the song he thought she wanted to hear, but that wasn’t it.
Later she sent him a Facebook message. She’d finally remembered the song: “Fifty Percent” from the musical “Ballroom.” As it happened, lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman had given Feinstein permission to turn it into a song about a same-sex couple. He sent the woman a live recording.
That’s the kind of casual intimacy that his club fosters. With its low-lit ambiance, its little tables each with a tiny shaded lamp, the tiered rows in the 140-seat room, the place invites singers to relate directly to the viewers.
“If I’m engaged with someone in the audience, that’s going to take its course, whether it’s a moment or a long repartee,” says Feinstein. When those types of interactions occur, he says, “I’m not even thinking at the moment, I’m going with the flow. Sometimes, not very often, I’ll have to really kick in and think, What do I do now? But usually—I sound like a rabbi—I’m shown the way.
“For me, this room works extremely well,” he adds. “I think the most important aspect of a nightclub is that the audience feels comfortable with the performer, that there’s a sense of hanging out, if you will. The most successful acts in an intimate venue are the ones where it feels conversational, not staged.”
The multi-platinum-selling musician gravitated to the American popular classics when he first started playing piano by ear at age five in Ohio; in 1977 he became Ira Gershwin’s assistant for six years and went on to perform the works of 20th-century greats like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington. Rock and roll never attracted him emotionally.
An Emmy and Grammy award nominee who has performed in such prestigious venues as the Sydney Opera House, the White House and Buckingham Palace, Feinstein appears this month at the club’s anniversary celebration, performing with local jazz singer Paula West (May 29-June 1). When not on the road, he is in New York, or in Carmel, Indiana, where he is the artistic director of the Palladium Center for the Performing Arts and where he also maintains the Great American Songbook Foundation for educating kids. At other times he’s in Los Angeles, where he was recently appointed principal pops conductor of the Pasadena Symphony (after the untimely passing of Marvin Hamlisch). He also composes and arranges. The New Yorker recently praised his “gentle vocal style and subtly displayed erudition” in a concert of Cole Porter songs at Carnegie Hall.
Feinstein and the team at the Nikko worked hard to prepare for the opening of Feinstein’s here last May. Previously the Rrazz Room, the space was redesigned: new chairs, new piano, ample spacing between tables, new lighting, new sound system.
On opening night, Feinstein performed for an adoring crowd; the response, he says, was more than he could have hoped for. “Certainly I had worries and nerves about how it would go,” he admits. “A curve ball can be thrown—and that’s what I love about live performance.” He was also concerned about such things as the kitchen being properly prepared (the Nikko serves drinks and snack plates), and the waitstaff knowing when to serve, or not making a loud noise in the middle of a ballad. As it turns out, he is delighted with his partnership with the elegant Nikko—in fact, he says one of the reasons he wanted to be connected with the hotel is the way the staff there works together like a family.
Still, he points out, creating a new venue is as much art as science: “Certain factors cannot be scientifically engineered.” Those factors have to do with booking the right entertainers for the space and knowing how long each run should be. Says booker John Iachetti, Feinstein’s business partner in New York, “When the house is full, it’s exciting, and the artist feeds off it.” Some performers are only engaged for one or two days, which creates a demand and leaves the audience wanting more—and that’s a good thing. The key, say Iachetti and Feinstein, is to include plenty of local stars: Wesla Whitfield, Connie Champagne, Paula West, Sharon McKnight and others. Ideally, acts are booked to appear both in New York (Feinstein’s new club will open there soon, after his previous club, at the Regency Hotel, closed due to hotel renovations) and in San Francisco. That doesn’t always work—sometimes a performer is loved in New York but not here and vice versa. And of course not every artist suits Feinstein’s taste. But it’s about pleasing audiences, and booking decisions are made not by Feinstein alone but by a committee of Feinstein, Iachetti and the Nikko hotel.
Feinstein had always wanted to have a club in San Francisco. “This is where my first significant success happened,” he says. “Prior to that I was playing piano bars in Los Angeles, which was great, but San Francisco was where I had a cabaret show, a nightclub act, and because of that I’ve always had a nostalgia and love for the people who made it possible to do what I do.
“One of the great things about San Francisco is [its] appreciation for art that’s more broadly accepting than in other places,” he continues. “I think of the history of the city in terms of acceptance of all kinds of things throughout the ages, going back to the Gold Rush times. … Because of that, a room like ours has to take chances, bring in entertainers who might be a little more offbeat.”
For example, San Francisco-based jazz singer Paula West: “When you see her show, it’s the most inventive and offbeat repertoire, inspired by the community where she lives. She’s magnificently talented and so in her element in our room.” West, who has worked all over the world, including at local venues such as Yoshi’s and the SF Jazz Center, held a sold-out, four-week residency at Feinstein’s recently (with another such residency planned for next year). Her show was new and eclectic; she is known for a range that includes songs by Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart, as well as “If I Only Had a Brain” and jazz and cabaret standards. “There aren’t a lot of rooms like Feinstein’s left in the country,” she points out, noting that the club is becoming an established part of the music scene in San Francisco. “I’m looking forward to years of singing and listening there,” she says.
Feinstein’s at the Nikko opened last year with a week-long engagement for Sutton Foster, and Iachetti says this month’s anniversary lineup follows a similar pattern of bringing in Broadway and TV performers and locals. Wesla Whitfield returns (May 8-9) as does Spencer Day (“hip and edgy,” says Iachetti; Day is a singer/songwriter who has headlined internationally and whose work is influenced by Burt Bacharach, Roy Orbison and others and includes jazz standards), May 15-17. Also on the lineup for anniversary month: singer/actor Jeremy Jordan (the TV series “Smash,” Broadway’s “Newsies” and more), May 1-4; Kim Nalley (hometown jazz and blues vocalist who has performed worldwide), May 10; Veronica Klaus (San Francisco transsexual actress/chanteuse and tuba-player), May 18.
“At this point in my life,” says Feinstein, “I’m so focused on doing what I can to keep classic
American popular music alive, and to keep nightclub entertainment alive, and the only way to survive is to welcome what’s new, what’s fresh, and to integrate what is fresh into the classic. The only way!”
May 1-June 1
222 Mason St., 415/394-1100