Human juke boxes
Twin brothers Jon and Chris Kelly pack ’em in at 33 Steaks, Booze & Jazz
A packed house inside 33 Steaks, Booze and Jazz encircled the Kelly Brothers, throwing paper requests on their dueling pianos.
As Jon Kelly played Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” and those in the circle sang along, brother Chris read another request, attached to a dollar bill: “Devil Goes Down to Georgia.” But there were a lot of requests on their pianos and “Tiny Dancer” had $3 attached. He shouted to his brother underneath the noise of the encroaching crowd, and they switched gears.
“Blue jean baby, L.A. lady"—faces lit up, nearly everyone raised their glass—"Dancin’ in the sand …”
A blonde in a red sweater dress splashed her dirty martini. A man at the end of the bar finished his NorCal sushi roll.
Then it happened: A woman braving a short black cocktail dress set a drink on a piano.
“Chug that drink! Chug that drink!” the twins chanted and the bar joined. As things got wild on this cold night, the bar’s large windows fogged up and the girl in the black dress chugged her vodka soda.
“Ballerina, musta seen her. Dancin’ in the sand.” These guys are professionals. They picked up Elton’s song right where they left off before protecting their equipment. Anyone who sets a drink on the pianos has to chug it until it’s gone.
We’ve both gone to 33 Steaks Booze and Jazz every Thursday night since early November (except for Thanksgiving) to see these guys. The weekly dueling pianos show that the Kelly Brothers put on is the talk of the town among college students.
The rambunctious crowd barely missed a beat as the twins flowed seamlessly into the next song. On this night, like most nights, it took a few songs for 33’s patrons to warm up.
“The first song is like the first dance at a high school dance,” explained Jon. “It takes a minute for the crowd to get comfortable.”
It starts with the women, who are the first to surround the attractive, talented identical twins. The guys, content at the bar listening to the music and ordering drinks, soon notice where the scenery is and are quick to follow.
After inhibitions are thrown to the wind, the requests start flying. It’s like it’s 1950 and this is the only jukebox in town, and the Kelly Brothers do their best to play anything with a tip attached.
“If we’ve heard a song, we can play it,” Jon said. “And if we don’t know a request we go home and learn it.”
Until the dueling pianos gig came up, Chris played guitar. He had to hit the keys again to polish his act.
“It feels like we’ve been doing this for a long time, but it’s only been a few short months,” Chris said.
Born in Chico, the brothers have been playing various instruments since they were 2 years old, but grew up in various places such as Davis and Nevada City. Chris went on to play guitar for a band in the Big Apple, while Jon spent time in L.A.
The twins, who turned 27 this past October, joined forces back in Chico where Jon will finish his degree in musical theater at Chico State next May. Now they perform for packed houses at 33 Steaks on Thursdays and the Black Crow on Fridays, although the crowd is a bit more subdued in the sit-down environment.
“It’s a sweet job,” Chris said. “Especially only working two nights a week.”
They make good money (mostly through tips), and their act seems to bridge the generation gap, something not often seen at other bars in Chico. It was evident when a $100 bill turned up in the tip jar last Thursday—it didn’t come from a college student.
The brothers plan on taking their performance on the road, or rather sea. They want to work the cruise ship circuit. If that happens, 33 Steaks owner Tyler Cook has a plan to keep Thursday night dueling pianos alive.
“They have the job until they don’t want it,” Cook said. “But if they leave, we want to hold a contest for the next great dueling piano act.”
There may be enough talent in the crowd. Those brave enough to belt out their favorite song can have their moment in the spotlight. Mat McWhorter, 21, who happens to be the lead singer of DogFace Lie, rocked the mike with a rendition of “Born to Be Wild.”
“It’s the first time I’ve been here,” he said. “I totally plan on coming back.”