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Gene Ween brings Billy Joel tribute band to Underground Arts

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Band features Woodstock transplants from Philly

STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media

Aaron Freeman, who once again embraces the name Gene Ween, is presenting the show “Gene Ween Does Billy Joel.” He, along with the band’s bassist/musical director Paul Green, who both now live in Woodstock, N.Y., return to Philadelphia for a performance at Underground Arts.

Freeman, originally from New Hope, Pa., achieved notoriety as one half of the duo Ween. Green founded Paul Green School of Rock in Philadelphia, which achieved notoriety through the documentary “Rock School” (9.14 Pictures, 2005). The two Woodstock transplants became fast friends.

In a phone interview from his home in Woodstock,  Green said “I became really good friends with (Aaron). We both do yoga together 3 days a week. One day when we were doing yoga we were listening to some Billy Joel on a (CD) that I had made for the workout and we both just remembered how much we love Billy Joel. It was such a big part of our childhoods growing up.”

Subsequently, Freeman asked Green if he wanted to put together a Billy Joel cover band, and Green agreed immediately.

“(Aaron) told me to put a set list together and to pick a band and I rehearsed the band,” continued Green. “In a project like this, being music director just means picking the right people and letting them do their thing.”

Being the musical director also enables you to choose what your musical role is.

“I listened to the music a few times and I really like the bass playing on it. That’s what I felt like doing,” said Green, who added “I’m kind of an old punk rocker from back in the Philly scene so … I get to play bass with a pick and it’s actually pretty fun.”

In a phone interview, also from Woodstock, Freeman emphasized that just because he gets the billing in the band name because “I am Billy Joel,” this is definitely as much Green’s project as his own.

“I had the idea and he executed it,” said Freeman. “He got all the musicians. He’s arranged everything. He’s the bandleader.”

Freeman elaborated about his love of Billy Joel and his desire to put together this band.

“I’ve always loved Billy Joel and I could always sing like him,” said Freeman. “So for people in their 40s, like my age, I think ‘Glass Houses’ [Columbia, 1980] made a big impact on everybody. Well… not everybody, but me. And I love Billy Joel.”

Though it started out as a fun project, Freeman and the band took it very seriously.

“It’s complicated music… Once we got into it, it really tested everybody’s musical ability, in a good way. And that’s what’s fun about it,” said Freeman.

As for the repertoire, “early on I said ‘let’s just do hits,’” said Green. “Maybe if we’re still doing this in 3 years we’ll do some deep cuts. We do 17 songs a night and we still have to leave out 10 big hits. We’re doing one hit after (another).”

It was also important to Green to have authenticity and “do recreations as much as possible. We juice the songs up a little bit, but the albums are so good that we’re just trying to recreate what’s on the albums. And Aaron does such a good Billy Joel. Mostly our job is to lay a beautiful bed of music for him to be able to sing over.”

There’s another Philly connection in the band – multi-instrumentalist Zach Djanikian. Locals may remember Djanikian’s band The Brakes. He too lives in Woodstock now and he fit this project into his busy schedule touring with both Amos Lee and Rachael Yamagata.

In a phone interview from his home in Woodstock, Djanikian explained how he got invited to join the band.

“Paul had recruited Dan Hickey, the drummer. Paul asked Dan if he knew anybody who could sing and play keyboards and saxophone. Dan and I had just gotten off the road playing in Rachael Yamagata’s band, where I was singing and playing saxophone and keyboards… so I was a perfect fit.”

Djanikian said being part of this band is “a total blast. It’s so much fun.”

He added: “I was a Billy Joel fan but now I’m a much bigger Billy Joel fan. Having to learn all this music I realized how truly great it is.”

Freeman said that Djanikian is “friggin’ amazing… He’s the glue that sticks it all together. He’s an essential part of the band. We couldn’t do it without him.”

Freeman, Djanikian and Green are all looking forward to their return to Philly. And in typical Paul Green fashion he said: “I can’t wait. I’m really excited. Philly’s such a great place to eat (he laughed).”

IF YOU GO

What: Gene Ween Does Billy Joel with Souldiers of Soul
When: Friday May 29 at 9 p.m.; doors at 8 p.m.
Where: Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St., Philadelphia.
Ages: 21+
Tickets: $16
Venue website: undergroundarts.org
Artist’s Website: freemantheband.com

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