The Reluctant Piano Man: Ben Vandergaast

benHe saved a cat from a tree a few years back. It’s that feat of bravado that he is able to speak about with ease and pride. He describes in vivid detail how his girlfriend’s cat had gotten stuck at the top of a tree that was approximately 30 feet high. They only had a ten foot ladder. Ben willingly climbed up the ladder, tied his shoe to a rope and swung it up over the branch that was still several feet above his head. He lowered the rope down to his girlfriend and she tied a basket to the rope so that it could be pulleyed up to where the cat was perched. With the aide of a little bit of catnip, the cat willingly got into the basket and was lowered to safety once more. Ben beams with pride telling this story. But try to get him to share anything remotely brag worthy about his music and he is shy.

From the age of about ten he was fascinated with music. At church he would eagerly climb up onto the platform and marvel at the variety of instruments. He didn’t come from a musical family, so there was no one to teach him. His passion and drive to learn an instrument, ANY instrument, is what fuelled him to teach himself. Now in his early twenties, Ben is highly skilled at a variety of instruments including the drums, guitar and piano. His nickname has been dubbed ‘The Piano Man’, likely because of how often he plays the song for his audiences, but he considers himself first and foremost a guitar player.

ben-and-jordan-2He spent the past summer playing piano at The Stache on Main in Wellington every Thursday night. This past week however he and his guitar player from their band Moon Sugar were playing to a packed house on Friday night. And Ben knew how to work the crowd. He had been playing singable theme songs from notable television shows such as Friends and Cheers while the whole room sung along. But then segued to his own rendition of Space Oddity by David Bowie. Ben had mentioned in an interview the day before that while he is a strong lyricist, he is far more comfortable performing covers. And he floats over the piano keys like they are an extension of his fingers. He hits high notes like they are his job. And his personality comes alive while sitting behind the piano, it fills the room. He is electric with his humour and improvisation. The crowd is completely in love with him.

His guitar player and friend is just as talented, he can make his guitar talk. The way in which he picks the melody of each song has the ability to transport the listener into a different dimension. After their first set, Jordan returns from break playing his decadent electric guitar. But when Ben switches modes and starts playing Only the Good Die Young, Jordan quickly swaps out for his acoustic in one fluid motion.

Karl, one of the owners of the Stache, turned a photo of both Ben and Jordan into an incredible piece of artwork. Most of the artwork along the wall of The Stache is created by Karl.

These guys take requests all night and it seems as if they know everything, from Johnny Cash to Sinatra, the Beatles to Bowie. An audience member requests Billy Jean by Michael Jackson and Jordan begins picking out his own interpretation of the King of Pop’s famous song. But the soulful acoustic version isn’t wimpy, once Jordan begins singing the otherwise shy guitar player boasts a deep and powerful tenor voice that commands attention.

At one point in the evening Ben slows down the pace and pays tribute to the recently departed Leonard Cohen, and as if the crooner was playing the song for himself Ben begins to play the introductory familiar sounds of Hallelujah. The mood and atmosphere in the bar instantly shifts and a collective sigh of mourning could be felt while each verse was sung in succession.

ben-and-jordanBut these guys don’t take themselves too seriously, dispersed throughout the night they surprise the audience with crowd pleasers like Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off.  Jordan’s girlfriend mentions that they also do Backstreet’s Back by the Backstreet boys, and sure enough they can belt it out with such confidant presence.

Ben and Jordan are part of a band named Moon Sugar, and they regularly play throughout the Quinte Region and in Kingston bars as well. Their originals, which are just as incredible as their covers, can be found online through iTunes or on CD at their lives shows.

While Ben is a performer he is loath to brag about his accomplishments. It was completely by accident that he mentioned his friendship with two members of the Tragically Hip, and when asked why he had held back that tidbit of detail he said, “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

While playing with his previous band Vintage Soul, local girl turned big town celebrity Emily Fennell had been in the audience and she had noticed Ben’s ability to also flow between instruments and asked him if he would like to play for one of her shows with her band. Ben was so honoured to have been asked. As it turned out, Emily’s band  was comprised of Bobby Baker and Gord Sinclair, and she was opening up for Big Sugar in Kingston, Ontario. Now Ben considers these talented musicians friends. He was even able to see one of The Hip’s last shows in Toronto with excellent seats because he had been given free tickets. But what might have otherwise been considered a “big deal” to some musicians, he modestly attempts to downplay.

Ben is a musical prodigy, but he says he wasn’t always received with such favour. He recalled a few times where he had played and was literally booed off the stage. The experience was soul-destroying and it took him a long time to get up the nerve to play in front of a crowd. But now he has had some incredible opportunities that some musicians only dream of, such as opening for artists like Kim Mitchell or George Thorogood.

Ben Vandergaast in his rubber horse head during a performance. Photo courtesy of Ben Vandergaast Facebook.

Ben would rather be known as a modern-day jester. At his shows he says that his priority is to be constantly surprising. One gimmick he employs is to randomly bring out a rubber horse head and begin to play songs related to horses. Once the audience sees the horse head they explode into raucous laughter and Ben can’t tell if its the beer or his prank; either way he is satisfied with the effect.

And when he does play Piano Man, which is at almost every show, he changes the verses to  tell tales of the people sitting around in the crowd. *(Last night while I was sitting in the bar listening and taking pictures, he selected myself to make-up an on-the-spot verse about and was rather hilarious) He begins with a harmonica attached to a brace around his neck and plays piano while Jordan compliments the song with his picking. And then it becomes clear why they call him The Piano Man.

  • Ben and Jordan will be playing locally on December 9, 2016 at Coach’s in Picton.
  • The Stache on Main in Wellington is owned by a Husband and Wife team with their daughter. They hail from Toronto, and opening up a piano bar was a retirement dream. They bring a big city flair with small town charm, and the place is chic and classy. A great way to spend an evening out with friends. Karl, Gloria and Kyla are fabulous people and they run an incredible establishment, but be sure to go see them before they close for the winter. (Stache is closed from January-March each year)   
Kyla (left) and Gloria, you would never know it to look at them but they are mother and daughter…but shh, don’t tell anyone.


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