Complete Review: Las Vegas Weekly
The World on a String
Monty Banks is climbing the Strip ladder, playing Las Vegas old-style
By Molly Brown
Monty Banks is immersed in a velvet chair, cigar in one hand, greyhound in the other. He jokes with the waitress with a glint in his eye, his upper body busting some sweet dance moves, and flashes his unique grin–bearing all his straight teeth–curling his whole face into nothing short of pure jolliness.
In a few minutes he’ll grace the stage.
“Well, I better go change into my monkey suit,” he says. “Every diva’s gotta have their costume change, right? How is it I can put on a suit and still look f–ed up?”
It’s pretty dead on this Wednesday night at the Venetian’s new Venus Lounge, but by four songs into the set, he’s got a few people out there dancing. And most of the short-attention-span Vegas audience are enthralled. Rarely breaking eye contact with the crowd, Banks pounds away on his keyboard, his left foot tapping the entire time, as he belts out classic hits like Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String.” Casually sipping from his cocktail throughout, he comments, “I always drink when I play. It’s in my contract.”
After his two sets, he sits back down and sips more from his drink. Several people come up to thank him and compliment the show. Banks, who’s always quick to crack a joke, even manages to be funny when he’s being straightforward. As he gets up to go the bathroom, he says, “I know it’ll cost me a buck to wash my hands, so when I know I’m gonna be shaking 35 hands, I carry one of these.”
And then he pulls out a Binion’s wet wipe, giggles and walks away.
If you haven’t caught Monty Banks yet, rest assured he is one of the few performers in town deserving of the phrase, “can’t miss.” A breath of life from old Vegas, he and his High Rollers’–tonight Chad Burton on guitar sitting in for Mike Powers and Doug Frye on the drums– performances could be described as casual with flare. Banks is like a straight shot back to the Rat Pack days, a Vegas lounge singer who loves his audience and performing with class and style.
Ever since he was a little kid in Tacoma, Wash., Banks has been performing. He’d put on neighborhood shows doing magic, even inventing some tricks of the trade that magicians use today. The music didn’t come until he started accompanying his elementary school choir on piano–“I’ve always been the accompanist,” he says.
His father, a jazz musician, and his mother, a singer, were huge influences. They’d play together at home–his dad on the drums, him on the piano. They even didn’t mind when Banks and his crappy junior high band, Nova–which covered all the “great butt-rock classics” like “Smoke on the Water”–would play in the basement. In fact, he was also part of a bagpipe-playing family, which sealed his fate.
“My favorite thing was, after parades and stuff, we’d go into this biker bar, and there’d be the Shriners, the bagpipers and the bikers all getting shitty. It was at that time I learned that musicians drink for free.”
He didn’t go to music straightaway. In fact, there were a few years where Banks didn’t play at all. He was a performance artist in New York City–even touring his one-man “Buck Duke’s Wild Sex Show,” a Western-inspired carnie, around Canada. But that idea quickly burned out.
“Even the top avant-garde performance artists in the world are starving to death,” Banks says over steak at Careful Kittie’s in the El Cortez–one of his favorite hangouts. “So I was starving to death in New York City. That’s a very bad place to be poor. And I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ Musicians can make good money. So I got a piano.'”
But New York was getting tiresome. So it was back to Washington. This time Banks hit Seattle in ’91–right in the beginning throes of grunge. While long-haired Gen-Xers were holing up together in cheap houses trying to become the next Soundgarden, Banks and his buddies were cranking out old Dean Martin tunes.
“My drummer’s grandparents owned a roller-skating rink and his grandma played the organ and then DJ’ed. So she had all these old records. And when he told her what we were doing, she’d make us cassettes–these little, cheap tapes with the grandma handwriting on them. …We still refer to them as ‘the grandma tapes.'”
Banks’ first gigs? In nursing homes. The people loved them–they’d line up the wheelchairs waiting for them to arrive. Banks and the High Rollers learned how to click with the audience perfectly here–they knew the people by name, and they knew their favorite songs.
The Seattle rock clubs were next–small, dingy, dark bars where Nirvana played before they become famous. Banks and Co. would play at punk bars–and get the punk rockers laughing and dancing. Then Banks got a job accompanying one of Seattle’s more fashionable singers at ritzier places. And that got him gigs– regular, well-paying gigs.
Soon, Monty Banks and the High Rollers became a Seattle staple, getting requests to play any and everything–weddings, corporate gigs, bars, restaurants, ballrooms. Saturation, however, became a problem.
“I’d be bored if I was still there,” says Banks. “There isn’t that much further I can go up. I’m too young to keep repeating things.”
So it was off to Vegas, a city Banks refers to as the “mecca for entertainers everywhere around the world.” He arrived here a little more than a year ago, and within days he was meeting the movers and shakers. He went to all the lounges and studied the acts–citing Sonny King and Sam Butera as two of his favorite “classic, old time Las Vegas entertainers.”
Essentially, Banks soaked up every ounce of Old Vegas he could find.
“They exemplify the ethics I feel are important, and they’ve always done it like this. When they go on a break, they go into the audience and talk to them. They have people who’ve been following them for 30 years. They have that personal connection. That’s what Vegas was built on.”
And that’s exactly what Banks does. Besides his own big band, jazzy boogie songs, he likes to incorporate other performers into his act. DJ Bazooka Joe spins old-school records between sets. He’s had guest performers come and sing. Comic relief through actors. And, recently at Tropics, a Storm dancer broke out with a tap-dancing demonstration.
All in the name of returning to Vegas’ golden age.
“I love walking into the Plaza and hearing, ‘Monty Banks is in the house’ and they pull me up on stage. Or playing that little piano at the Golden Gate. It makes my heart feel good to play an old song, and see those old farts tapping their toes, eating shrimp cocktail. Now that’s entertainment.”