“If you put me on that stage and say, ‘Sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” ’ I’ll sell it,” Frankie Moreno says.
Anyone who has seen his barnburning lounge sets over the years will not doubt that. Moreno is the old Vegas, in spirit if not in content, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But first, the rest of the statement:
“But not nearly as much as I’ll sell it if it’s something I lived. … I should sing songs I actually feel. Because if I feel it, I’ll sell it to you.”
You can file this under “Good Problem to Have.” Nonetheless, Moreno has had a basic struggle for almost a decade in Las Vegas: uniting his “entertainer” side — the one who knows countless cover tunes, downs shots onstage and plays piano upside down — with the “singer-songwriter,” who co-wrote a comeback single for Air Supply and has volumes of self-released material for the world to hear.
Two roads of show business, which took a big split at some point around the time Bob Dylan went electric.
Now, you can add another good problem. Moreno is making the jump from the lounges to ticketed showroom headliner next Wednesday. He and the Stratosphere’s marketing team have to explain to the uninitiated just who he is and why you need to see him.
The Stratosphere is backing Moreno and his 10-piece band in the Stratosphere Theater, a commitment that’s rare in this era of the “four-wall,” or rent-the-room deals. He will share the venue with the topless “Bite” show and start out modestly, three nights a week with a $21.99 ticket for locals.
But the new show comes with a makeover for the room that launched Danny Gans back in 1996. Cocktail tables are replacing awkward banquet tables, and other physical upgrades are on the board to make the room even more retro-modern.
“If you’re with friends, you have more fun,” Moreno explains in the half-converted venue on a recent afternoon. “I’m purely basing my whole show off what’s happening with them. It’s tailored to the crowd.”
Since the early 2000s, locals have counted on Moreno for what’s left of the live lounge scene. Wherever he’s played — from The Venetian to a long stretch at the Golden Nugget and, more recently, the Palms — has been the haven for those who like to have a drink and a little fun, and hear some real musicianship instead of electronica.
“We keep getting coined with this ‘vintage Vegas,’ but I think it’s more just the vibe of it,” Moreno says. “It’s a vintage vibe with a modern-day songwriter. It’s Michael Buble meets John Mayer, or Charlie Sheen even.
“Without the drugs.”
The Santa Cruz, Calif., native was a piano prodigy as a tot, when the showman side of him began to emerge. “I have my little tricks to make you like me, and it’s fun and you talk about it,” he says.
But the goal is that “when you go home, you go to the website (and find) this guy’s got 15 albums (and) quite a large resume nobody would ever know.”
His original piano-man songs might have put him on the radio in the era of Elton John and Billy Joel. But now, they can be frustratingly neutral to those programming today’s rigidly segmented airwaves.
You could picture “Let’s Fake A Honeymoon” (on his most recent self-release, “Hangin’ on a Maybe”) arranged with pedal steel for Kenny Chesney or with a horn section for Buble. That might reflect Moreno’s coming to Las Vegas after several years in Nashville as a contract songwriter.
But both of Moreno’s biggest breaks of late came from the lounge, by artists who were dragged to see him at the Nugget.
Graham Russell of mellow-rock Air Supply was “blown away,” as he later recalled. He signed Moreno as the group’s tour keyboardist, and the two co-wrote five songs for Air Supply’s locally recorded “Mumbo Jumbo” album. One of them, the single “Dance With Me,” put the group back on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart last year.
Moreno got even more mileage touring with classical-crossover violinist Joshua Bell, after an “Eleanor Rigby” duet ended up on Bell’s “At Home with Friends” album in late 2009.
“I had no idea who this guy was,” Moreno confesses of meeting Bell at the Nugget, after the violinist played a Las Vegas concert. “We only did (‘Rigby’) because Paul McCartney was supposed to be on the record and had to pull out.” But Moreno ended up equally billed with other album guest stars such as Sting and Josh Groban.
Working with Bell led him to a deal with Sony Records for an album Moreno hopes to release next spring. It’s overseen by Simon Cowell’s company but comes with a now-familiar marketing challenge.
“That’s the thing that’s been hard for the record labels. ‘What do we call this?’ ” Moreno notes.
Story of his life. So far, anyway.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.Preview
11 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Stratosphere, 2000 Las Vegas Blvd. South
$32.99; $21.99 for locals (380-7711)