Jesse Rubenfeld
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Jesse Rubenfeld

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Band Rock Singer/Songwriter

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Penn's new Piano Man
-by Eric Dash

[The Daily Pennsylvanian]
November 8, 2001

Billy Joel hit all the right notes with the Penn crowd Tuesday night.
In front of a jam-packed Irvine Auditorium audience, the Piano Man zinged 'em with his off-the-cuff humor and zany stage antics. He won 'em over with his honesty and frank New York state of mind. And he wowed 'em with an amazing display of keyboard prowess and a songlist of favorites worth the price of any scalped ticket on eBay -- and then some.

But while all these aspects made Joel's peformance memorable, they certainly weren't the highlight of the evening. That moment belonged to a Penn student: 23-year-old College and Wharton senior Jesse Rubenfeld.

For those who didn't win the SPEC ticket sweepstakes, break the auditorium doors down for seats -- or "know someone" important enough to score a coveted spot in VIP rows that filled roughly one-third of the house -- let me explain what happened.

About halfway through the question-and-answer program, Joel called on an enthusiastic young man, seated in the middle section of Irvine, who wanted a favor from the the pop legend he had idolized since childhood.

"As a singer and songwriter, your music has been important to me for a long time," said the shaggy-haired Jesse, sporting the classic rock and roll uniform of jeans, t-shirt and a leather jacket. He said that he had written a song called "A Friend in Bill" that he dedicated to Joel, and asked, "in the spirit of this master class, if I could play it for you and ask for your critique and response."

This was not the first time that Jesse had turned to the Piano Man for advice. Since starting lessons at age six, Jesse appreciated his classical piano training but found inspiration in Billy Joel's music. He would hammer out his favorite songs at the keyboard, and whenever something bothered him, he found a ready friend in a Joel CD.

"His songs, the music -- they just work," Jesse said. "They have the ability to connect with people on so many issues that we deal with but still be great rock and roll, poetry and art."

In high school, Jesse took his obsession with Joel to the next level. During his senior year, he wrote the pop star, inviting him to his graduation ceremony in Houston. And at Penn -- where Jesse quickly made a name for himself freshman year by playing Billy Joel songs in the Quad with Mask and Wig -- he sent Joel a demo tape along with a note asking for his thoughts. (Both letters were promptly returned by Joel's production company.)

But on a night dedicated to picking Joel's brain about the music business, Jesse hoped he might finally get the chance.

After hearing his hero was coming to Penn, Jesse polished off the song he was writing for the pop legend and practiced every day until he could play it flawlessly by heart. When he didn't win a ticket, Jesse pleaded with SPEC organizers to let him "work" his way into Irvine by helping the production crew.

And when A&E producers flatly denied his repeated requests Tuesday afternoon to play the song during the peformance, Jesse stood up and asked anyway.

It was a gutsy move on his part. It took chutzpah. It took courage.

But to his credit, the master Piano Man gave Jesse a chance. With the audience's overwhelming approval, Joel invited young artist up to the stage and allowed him to take a seat at his own concert piano.

Speaking softly into the mircrophone at the piano to contain his enthusiasm, Jesse said: "Billy, it's in G. It's in three. And here it is, I wrote it for you."

The audience hushed. Joel stepped aside. The A&E television producer, already worried about keeping the show on schedule, just cringed. And Jesse played -- no, he dazzled 'em.

"I couldn't believe that I was playing on Billy Joel's Steinway," Jesse explained. "I could see him staring at me from across the room. His attention was on me."

By the end of the song, Penn's own piano man had brought down the house. Jesse stood up from the piano and turned to the audience.

The crowd roared with applause and rose out of their seats. Penn's ever-stoic provost cracked a smile. Even the producer acknowledged a job well done and agreed to send Jesse a tape.

Then Jesse walked over to meet his musical hero, who acknowledged he was impressed.

"That was actually the first standing ovation of the night," Joel pointed out before dishing out some advice to talented young kid.

"Get a lawyer," warned Joel, whose own legal battles with his manager have been widely reported. And with a name like Rubenfeld, Joel kidded, "you may not need an accountant."

But Jesse got in the final word. As the Piano Man and his Penn protege shook hands and exchanged thank yous at center stage, Jesse slipped him a demo CD as well as a special note written on the lyrics to his song:

"Thank you for all the great years of music -- Jesse Rubenfeld." - The Daily Pennsylvanian


Discography

Let It Go - EP (4 tracks) 2007
Silken Walls (11 tracks) 2008

Photos

Bio

Jesse Rubenfeld was still a student at the University of Pennsylvania in 2001 when a once in a lifetime opportunity came his way. Aspiring singer-songwriters everywhere would love the chance to take a master class from one of their musical heroes—in Rubenfeld’s case, the legendary Billy Joel—but few possess the kind of courage the young singer and pianist summoned when he took the stage before Joel and 1,200 others and performed “A Friend In Bill� as a tribute to the Piano Man. Joel saw a kindred spirit, everyone stood and cheered and Rubenfeld has been pumped ever since to rise to the great potential of that life and career defining moment.

A few short years later, the Houston bred, New York based artist is living his dream, building a grass roots fan base with regular gigs with his band throughout Manhattan, from legendary venues like The Bitter End to The Triad, Don Hill’s and Rockwood Music Hall. Focusing on his trademark strengths of emotional honesty, piano and retro-keyboard (Rhodes, Hammond B-3) driven musical textures and colorful, Crosby, Stills & Nash type vocal harmonies, Rubenfeld follows his critically acclaimed early 2007 EP release Let It Go with his highly anticipated, provocative and compelling full length debut Silken Walls.

Silken Walls is now available on iTunes, CD Baby and emusic, and will also be featured on the new LimeWire Store. Rubenfeld’s ultra cool “day job� for the past two years has been Chief Financial Officer for the file-sharing software giant. It’s the perfect place to merge his musical passions—which began with an incredible 12 years of classical piano training—and his strong business acumen, while also putting his business degree to work. “It’s a day job that plays well into my artistic interests,� he says, “but clearly I’m focused on being able to write, record and perform music full time.�

While the Joel influence is inescapable throughout Silken Walls, Rubenfeld expresses his emotions and spirited, thoughtful reflections about romantic relationships and the pursuit of dreams with a rich originality that blends classic piano and keyboard driven pop rock with harmonic inspiration from his other favorite artists The Eagles, Maroon 5, CSNY and John Legend. “I’m very proud of the way I convey these emotional snapshots of my life over the past few years over the course of the eleven songs,� he says. “Love is certainly a dominant theme in my songs—love and women and trying to figure things out on an emotional level. There are intimate moments in all of our personal relationships that tap into universal feelings that everyone shares, and those are the emotions I love to express.�

Though some who have listened wonder if there are sexual overtones in the lyrics of the sweeping and wistfully romantic opening title track, in actuality, the “Silken Walls� refer to the lush softness of a woman’s long straight beautiful hair as a metaphor for the relationship. “Take You Home� is a funky, dynamically produced, real brass-enhanced rock tune that takes an optimistic look at the courting process. Showcasing his remarkable diversity, Rubenfeld follows the seductive, acoustic guitar enhanced James Taylor vibing “Another Touch� with “So Hot Right Now,� an explosive high energy, electric guitar propelled rock ballad that stands as a departure from the rest of Silken Walls; the energy of the track dictates that it be piano and keyboard free! Another song that takes Rubenfeld slightly out of his comfort zone is the percussive, New Orleans meets country/bluegrass flavored “When You Need My Love.�

Back to his trademark graceful piano style, Rubenfeld reaches the starry eyed romantic in all of us on the anthemic “All For Something� and taps into his classical background on the hypnotic (and vocal free) piano solo “Erev X-mas� (a lovely track perfect as background for holiday parties). Finally, he incorporates Queen-like vocal harmonies and lively, high energy Allman Brothers piano licks on “Thoughts About The Future,� which finds Rubenfeld looking back on the hardships of his musical journey, determined to forge ahead come what may. He also taps into a Southern rock front porch feeling on “Love Began,� a rich chronicle of the end of a relationship that shows the way the heart grows even when things don’t work out.

“The most difficult part of being a songwriter is not that it requires a lot of self-exploration and intimacy with the subjects of the songs (which is certainly not easy), but that you must universalize that and render it unshakably sticky,� he says. “But there’s no greater feeling than overcoming creative obstacles and conveying everything I set out to say. Over the last few years I have been getting to know myself musically and learned how best to convey my feelings and thoughts in a straightforward manner within the context of accessible pop music. I’m excited about s