What: The Piano Men: Elton John and Billy Joel featuring Jim Witter and the Victoria Symphony
When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.
Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
Tickets: $30-$80 (adults), $28-$68 (seniors), and $15-$30 (students) at the Victoria Symphony box office, and victoriasymphony.ca
Jim Witter had a thriving country music career in the ’90s, the likes of which resulted in a U.S. record deal, multiple Juno Award nominations and several co-writing credits with Grammy-winning country star Steve Wariner.
As for why he eventually gave it all up, he blames three of the biggest and best songwriters of the past 50 years for steering him astray. Nowadays, he almost exclusively pays tribute to the music of Elton John, Billy Joel and Paul Simon in concert.
“I was at a point in my recording career and frustrated with my record label,” Witter, 50, said from his home in Hamilton, Ont. “But I wanted to continue to do something musically, so I looked back on my youth and what I had grown up with. I used to play Elton and Billy in clubs and bars, so I thought it would enable me to tour and play nice theatres.”
Witter succeeded on that front. The Piano Men, his tribute to John and Joel, is now his official calling card. He has been at it since 2001, the same year he unveiled Feelin’ Groovy, his tribute to folk duo Simon and Garfunkel. Witter is a five-time Juno Award nominee, his most recent nod coming in 2004 in the contemporary Christian category, but these days he’s more widely known as the piano player with a knack for covering the classic songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s.
“When we go into a new market, it’s the show itself that sells tickets. But afterwards, we do a lot of repeat business.”
For example, he will travel to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on May 16, for a performance — his fifth time through the city in recent years. “People know we give them a good show, but it’s the music of Billy Joel and Elton John that brings people out.”
Witter and his trio will perform a scaled-down version of The Piano Men at three performances this weekend, all with the Victoria Symphony. His dates at the Royal Theatre will not feature the multimedia aspects of his regular Piano Men performances, nor will this version of his “tribute to the ’70s,” as Witter calls it, feature the TV theme songs from shows such as Welcome Back Kotter and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Not that he minds shelving certain aspects of his show. When he’s on stage with a bevy of classically trained musicians, he is focused solely on the music. And there is strength in numbers, he said.
“When we get an opportunity to perform with a symphony orchestra behind us, it’s equally as enjoyable on a whole different level, I think. It’s a blast for us as musicians to be up on stage and hearing that wall of sound from behind us. It’s inspiring.”
While there is an orchestral side to Elton John — who released an album with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra — people expect less from the music of Joel, Witter said.
That said, after almost every performances he hears feedback about how effectively Joel hits like Movin’ Out were adapted to fit an orchestra. “It’s an art unto itself,” Witter said of the process.
On some occasions, the feedback from his classically trained counterparts is less than favourable. Witter recalled one show where he caught orchestra members complaining afterward about the relative simplicity of the pop songs they had just performed. But overall, Witter says there’s a sense of accomplishment with the project, because he brings new audiences to symphony shows.
“We’re putting people in front of an orchestra that would not normally go to a show.”