Fenix at Vanessie is quiet as the evening approaches, but you shouldn't expect it to stay that way. Pianist Bob Finnie warms up, smiling from ear to ear and placing his effects at the grand piano. As the crowd pours in, they know him by name. Finney is eager to greet every last one of them as they settle in:
"What's your favorite song, dear? I can't remember," he says to a patron.
"'Send in the Clowns,' of course," she responds.
"I guess I'm warming up with some Clowns tonight," Finnie says with a laugh.
Starting in 2012, Finnie is now in the midst of his seventh year at Vanessie, and he couldn't have more of a rapport with the senior musician Doug Montgomery, a mainstay at the restaurant and wine bar for decades.
"Doug started this, and our sets provide a great contrast," Finnie tells SFR. "He's the showman, he plays classical piano, and is more performance based. I'm the sing-along guy—showtunes, Mowtown, hits from the '50s to the '80s is my bailiwick."
His approach is also more communal, preferring his audience to gather around the piano and participate while he sings and plays. And so they do, swaying with drinks in hand and following along. As for Finnie himself, he's in and out of Santa Fe for most of the year, splitting his time between slots at Vanessie, on a summer riverboat excursion on the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, a resort in Palm Springs, California, and winters gigging in Aspen and Vale, Colorado.
"Oh I missed you," he proclaims as he hugs the grand piano. "Hugs are always good."
And with an energetic intro, he jumps right into "Welcome Back," instructing the audience how to sing the shout-backs. This is the kind of setting every person dreams of walking into at least once; a comfortable bar with the charming regulars and hit after hit, a performer with an inescapable level of charm. The waitstaff at Vanessie all have a unifying comment: "Oh it's fun, bro."
Finnie started out in Youngstown, Ohio, a steel mill town just outside of Cleveland. The youngest of four, all the Finnie kids were given the opportunity to play piano, but he was the only one who stuck to it. His family was strictly
Protestant Evangelical, and he came up playing gospel music for his congregation, the Church of the Nazarene.
"Everything growing up was gospel music. The church was an opportunity to hone my skills," Finnie explains.
He carried that evangelical education all the way to Nazarene College, becoming a minister before and until he hit 30.
"I was always taught the ultimate authority was the Bible's at that time," he reflects. "When I finally branched out at 30, I had never set foot in a bar, let alone [played] in one."
But play he did, carving a niche for himself as a performer and bandleader for adamant crowds. Of course it's no surprise Finnie's influences come from gospel jams, but he also rattles off greats like Elton John, James Taylor and Steely Dan as driving forces for his own tunes. Still, in his later years, Finnie has been learning what he calls his "new stuff;" old ballads from the turn of the 20th Century.
"I love learning some of these old songs by Gershwin, amongst others, and introducing them to my crowds," he gushes. "They're classics, but people are hearing them fresh for the first time."
As far as modern music is concerned, Finnie says his interest is little to none, especially, he says, as he observes a noticeable change in how youths learn about and make music.
"Generally speaking, I've found there's been a huge decrease in music education over the years," he laments. "It creates poverty in music making. GarageBand is cute with three chord progressions, but if you're serious about this, you need to learn more."
Asked if he would affect any particular change, Finnie adds, it would be to unify and educate. Along with playing the old (or new?) Gershwin jams, he cuts deals with steady patrons: If they want to hear a hit, he also gets to show them something less-known.
"I've made my peace with those songs, Billy Joel, Les Miz, Phantom—the requests literally come every time I play," he says. "If I can match that request to something you may not have heard before from one of these artists, then I think I'm doing my job."
While watching Finnie bring the house down, it's clear there probably won't come a day without a piano bar scene in Santa Fe or anyplace.
"It isn't dead and it won't die," Finnie exclaims. "This is one of the few places where the music isn't booming; it's perfect for a romantic evening, or for a hankering for some good ol' real music."
Finnie is full of energy on that piano. A man is in his natural element. The crowd smiles, sings and shouts. We aren't focused on anything other than the nostalgia kicked up with every hit he pulls out.
"I'm not in the music business," he muses. "I'm in the memory business."
8 pm Friday Sept. 11 and Saturday Sept. 12. Free.
427 W Water St.,
Fall standing schedule: Wednesdays-Thursdays 6:30 to 9:30 and Friday and Saturdays 8 to 10 pm.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Finne's name. SFR regrets the error.