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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Take a step into Rockeys Dueling Piano Bar downtown and enter the world of Billy Joel. And T-Pain. And Garth Brooks.

Rockeys, 112 S. Main St., opened New Year’s Eve but is already one of the few bars downtown that can pack in a crowd by 10 p.m. And variety is not lacking here.

Last Friday, as bartenders sang along while they mixed drinks, the crowd la, la, la’d along to “Crocodile Rock” and didn’t miss a beat during the transition to “Low (Apple Bottom Jeans).”

At Rockeys, two pianos back-to-back and a drum kit fill the raised stage where crowd requests alone determine the set list Thursday through Saturday. Local live music reigns on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

On request days, if a crowd member wants to hear his song before the rest, he's got to be the highest bidder. And if someone else doesn't like the song, he or she can pay more to put a stop to it.

That means a $6 bid can get your request bumped to the front of the line, but an opposing $7 wager can make sure the first chords of “Party in the U.S.A.” are also the last.

It’s all about interaction at Rockeys. The players banter with one another and are not shy about talking directly to the crowd. And sometimes, they do more than just talk. While on stage, each player has a hand-held spotlight, ready to select volunteers for games and serenades. Recently, Rockeys hosted an impromptu “booty-shaking” contest with participants ages 21 to 61.

Brad Heron, owner and house piano player, said the “ageless” factor where everyone checks their egos at the door is one reason people can have a good time at Rockeys.

After graduating from UF in 2004, Heron toured the U.S. playing professionally, building his repertoire. But Heron, a self-proclaimed diehard Gators fan, said each college town reminded him of his alma mater.

“I missed Gainesville,” he said. “And I had such a good time here, and I was having such a good time in other college towns, I thought, ‘Man, I’d really like to do Gainesville.’”

Heron partnered with Scott Schmailzl, owner of Blue Moon Dueling Piano Bar in West Des Moines, Iowa, and longtime friend from the piano circuit.

Tim Buie of Savannah, Ga., also joined Heron in Gainesville as a house player.

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Although there are regular appearances, the lineup doesn’t always stay the same.

Every week, a guest player from another town joins the regulars on stage with a different background and different skills, which helps keep things interesting and fresh, Heron said.

After going through “a million” names, Heron said they settled on the combination of the words “rock” and “keys” to brand the new piano bar downtown, but that’s often how people still refer to it.

However, naming was not the biggest challenge people said they would face. The 21-plus, non-smoking requirements, on the other hand, were. But instead of being a problem, Heron said those two factors are what he gets complimented on most, besides the friendliness of the staff.

And as for Heron’s favorite song to play?

“I probably wouldn’t sit in a room by myself and say, ‘Oh, I feel like playing some Lady Gaga right now.’ But in front of a crowd of people that want to hear it, I mean, there’s nothing more fun than Lady Gaga.”

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