When you think about who plays the organ during games at Boston’s historic Fenway Park, you might imagine that the same man has been doing it since the 1940s, possibly living in a memorabilia-filled studio apartment inside the Green Monster outfield wall. Or maybe that’s just me. But Josh Kantor, Fenway’s organist since 2003, is every bit a versatile, contemporary working musician: in the off-season, he plays keyboards and accordion for a huge array of bands, including R.E.M.-derived supergroup The Baseball Project. His connection with indie rock, as well as his knowledge of several generations’ worth of pop music and background playing for improvisational theater, help him skillfully and spontaneously connect with the enormously diverse fans who come to the park.
For example, at Monday night’s Red Sox home opener against the Nationals, Kantor played the Beatles’s “We Can Work It Out” during a lengthy instant-replay umpires’ review in the first inning. Here are his secrets to complementing the action on the field and getting fans pumped.
For a mainstream institution like baseball, where fans are only hearing short excerpts of songs while a million other things are happening, it would be logical for Kantor to play nothing but the most instantly recognizable classics. But one of his counterintuitive tricks to get fans’ attention is to do the opposite, and go for a niche audience.
“The last few years, as I’ve been playing with a lot of these different indie rock groups, it occurred to me that, well, I’m going through the trouble to learn the songs to play the shows, maybe I can sort of double dip and incorporate those occasionally into the ball games,” says Kantor. “It’s not a huge fan base that’s going to recognize those songs, but there’s always a number of people at those games who will hear me play something that’s a little off the beaten path. Those folks get excited about it.”
In 2013, for example, Kantor caught attention for filling a changeover with Superchunk’s “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” a single from the North Carolina indie vets’ just-released album I Hate Music. “I’ve been a fan of them for a long time, and [Superchunk touring bassist] Jason Narducy and I actually went to high school together outside of Chicago. We barely knew each other back then, but we’ve kind of reconnected in recent years. I loved the song, it was getting enough play in the press that I knew if I played it, some people would recognize or get a kick out of it.” The performance made it to YouTube, thanks to a fan’s cell-phone video, and spread on social media.
Kantor says that even huge hits can get attention for being unexpected. “Every year I try to learn whatever the big summer jams are that year, and then I’ll play them,” he says. “I guess there’s this novelty factor for some people, because they associate the ball park with more old-time or old-fashioned music, so if I’m playing the new Beyoncé single or the new Daft Punk single, people are like, ‘Oh wow, that’s kind of cool and unexpected.’ That usually gets people going.”
Kantor comes to every game with a potential playlist, but what he actually plays when depends on a variety of in-the-moment factors, including game action, fan requests, and the simultaneous work of Fenway DJ TJ Connelly.
“Probably the best training for the Fenway job I had was a lot of live piano and organ accompaniment for improvisational theater,” says Kantor. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next, you have to respond to something that happens in the action on the stage, which I found to be a very transferable skill to baseball games.” Kantor is also in constant contact with Connelly, who has the parallel job of playing recorded music during games. “He and I have a nice kind of shorthand with each other in our dialogue, because during the game, we talk to each other in the headset, we give each other cues and feedback and suggestions.”
Kantor also has an ongoing dialogue with fans from whom he takes requests on Twitter. During every game, he says he’ll end up learning at least one song from scratch based on a request. “I turn down the connection to the ballpark speakers, and I just play the song through a little earpiece that I wear, and I can just pick it out quickly enough, usually–it can be challenging and stressful, but it’s exhilarating too, especially when you then play it and it works,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t have to know the whole song, you just have to know the chorus because you’re only going to play it for 20 seconds, and it has to be the recognizable part of the song. I don’t have the benefit like the DJ of playing the lyrics, so I’m just invoking the lyrics by playing the melody. So I know lots of parts of songs.”
Since the music during a game is secondary to the game itself, part of the fun for Kantor is using music to comment on what’s happening on the field–even if it’s good-natured ribbing.
“If a guy on the other team makes a bad play in the field, I might play a little thing just to jab lightly,” says Kantor. “The DJ, he calls it finding the line between cruel and whimsical, and calls it ‘crimsical.’ Which we refer to to figure out, are we on the line, are we near the line, are we in jeopardy of going over the line?”
And the line sometimes is up for debate. “Very early on in my job, there was a brawl that broke out on the field between the two teams, and I thought it would be kind of clever and cute to play ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends’ by War,” says Kantor. “A high-level person in the Red Sox organization after the game came up to me and said, ‘I thought that was great.’ Another high-level person came up to me after the game and said, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ I was like, what can you do?”