Barry Manilow, Billy Joel, the Beatles and Brian Gurl
Brian Gurl splits his time living in North Carolina and Florida, but spends a big chunk of it traveling around the country with his wife, Joey, performing the variety shows he has used to make a name for himself for the past several decades.
But, despite all the travel:
“He’s a Lebanon boy,” Joey Gurl said.
And she’s a Woodstock girl, a singer who had studied theater. When they met, she introduced him, at the time just a pianist, to the concept of a show, the kind that is more than just a set list and a guy at a piano, but a coherent, multifaceted performance.
Gurl’s latest, titled “The Killer Bs,” will see a costumed Gurl alternating among Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and The Beatles, playing piano and singing in front of a backing band. Tonight’s show at the Lebanon Opera House will mark his first performance in the city he grew up in since the late 1990s.
“It is put together in a way that it is super high energy,” Gurl said. “The arrangements are so unexpected, and the people are so surprised at what they hear. It will not be the run-of-the-mill Barry Manilow, Billy Joel. There will be some of that, but they will hear things in this show that are totally unexpected.”
Like, for instance, the Manilow ballad that Gurl turns into a “high-energy rock samba,” before returning it back to its original form by the end, or the famous Beatles cut that transforms into a “jazz-rock concerto.” It’s a tribute to the music, Gurl said, but a sort of tribute with surprising surges of energy.
Through it all, Gurl will play the piano, the instrument that’s been a part of his life since he was born, when his dad and mom would play a variety of songs, and he’d hit the odd note when he was about 4 or 5.
“I remember her making the very first call to that piano teacher in Lebanon,” he said. “I was 5 years old, and I started lessons. I was interested in it right from the beginning. I never thought it would be a career, though.”
His other love, throughout high school, was science. He figured he’d try to do something with that after graduation. But music stuck.
He played piano around the Upper Valley at first, including at the old Owl’s Nest Restaurant in Lebanon, where Lucy Gibson, a fellow graduate of the class of 1972, was bartending.
“I had never heard it played like this,” said Gibson, who is one of as many as 30 of Gurl’s classmates who have already bought tickets to Saturday’s show.
Regarding the flow of ’72 support: “It’s not just because he’s our classmate,” Gibson said. “They just don’t know what they’re in for. They’re going to get a hell of a show.”
Gurl met Joey, and worked with her on a show in Killington for several years. They moved to Wilmington, Vt., where they opened and owned a theater for eight years in the 1980s, writing new shows annually and performing them mostly on bus tours.
The pair moved to North Carolina in 1991, and have been based there since, though they’ve been doing a circuit of shows in Florida for years.
Florida, interestingly, has provided some coincidental Upper Valley reunions more than a thousand miles from home. Jim Dobson, who went to school with Gurl, reconnected with his friend during last year’s 40-year class reunion. Gurl mentioned he did shows in the Venice, Fla. area, not far from where Dobson was spending the winter. He ended up seeing four or five of Gurl’s shows.
“They were all excellent,” Dobson said. “Most were pretty much sold out.”
Dobson, who now lives in the Burlington area, said he doesn’t remember too many specifics about his high school years in Lebanon, but he does recall a few things about Gurl.
“What I do remember is his musical talent,” Dobson said. “Going over to his house, and he was very dedicated to the piano. I didn’t know anything about music myself. He’s one of those people that can just hear a song on the radio and play it.”
And that’s what he did, through the classical piano training of his younger years, when he’d bounce from classical music to radio tunes to television theme songs.
“Focusing on one style of music was never good for me,” Gurl said. “I wanted to learn a little bit about everything.”
So Gurl’s shows, over the years, have tackled everything from the Beatles to Broadway medleys to a show called “Gershwin with a Twist.” “The audience went crazy when I rapped,” he said.
“It’s a happy show,” said Yvonne Frates, an old friend from Woodstock who also goes to Gurl shows in Florida, where she lives for part of the year. “There’s not one that’s sad. They’re all upbeat, happy.”
Jon Wolper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3242.