by Zacch Estrada-Petersen



DAVIDSON – This Sunday on the Village Green, the Town of Davidson will welcome The Stranger, a Charlotte-based Billy Joel tribute band, as part of its summer-long Concerts on the Green series.

Formed in 2009, the band performs not only an extensive array of Joel’s repertoire, but they also mix in a few hits from similar artists Elton John, Paul McCartney, Chicago and Toto.

The group got its start when, after moving to the Charlotte area from Long Island, N.Y., self-taught musician Mike Santoro hit a three-year lull in his musical endeavors. When he sought to start a band, the type he wanted to start was determined in the onset.

“It was my wife’s suggestion, actually,” Santoro said. “She knew that I could do it, and saw that I wasn’t really doing anything down here musically since we moved. So we went in with the sole purpose of doing a Billy Joel tribute.”

The band name is a reference to a Joel song featured on an album of the same name. The album, released in 1977, went on to sell more than 10 million copies in the United States alone.

“I did it kind of the old-fashioned way,” Santoro said. “I went online, I opened up Billy’s discography, and I just went through all of his album and song names and just tried to pick one that was identifiable. ‘The Stranger’ is one of his biggest-selling records.”

The group averages three to six gigs a month during the busy summer season, and then does a number of private and corporate gigs during the off-season. The band members are so experienced that they have no regular rehearsal schedule.

“This band is so good, we never practice,” Santoro said jokingly. “That’s what’s so amazing about these guys – they’re such polished musicians that they show up and they know their parts. If they have to refresh their memory on a couple things, they’ll do it on their own time, and then they’ll show up at a gig as if we didn’t miss a beat.”

That level of musicianship can be expected of a band when half of the members are professional musicians as their full-time career.

Santoro, who sings and plays piano, owns and operates a home remodeling business in Charlotte. Bass guitarist Chris Revels is a schoolteacher in Rock Hill. Musical director Steve Daley, who plays saxophone, keyboard and flute, and also sings, is a Charlotte-based engineer.

As for the other three members, drummer Mike Graci is a member of the Charlotte Bobcats drum line, also known as The Rhythm Cats. Multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Bello has performed with Alvin Slaughter, Rascal Flatts and the Christ Church Choir. Peter Gray is an accomplished guitarist with a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies from UNC Asheville.

Santoro, who taught himself to play drums and guitar as a teenager, views his bandmates with respect and admiration.

“I’m just a student in a band full of professors,” he says.

In the years since the band has been together, one of their most moving moments came just recently, at its July 14 performance at The Fillmore in Charlotte.

“I was contacted a week prior about a group of friends who bought tickets to the show and were driving from Virginia to see us,” Santoro says. “Their friend, Tom McNamara, who was supposed to come with them, had died tragically in a boating accident a week earlier.

He was a huge Billy Joel fan and his favorite song was ‘Downeaster Alexa.’ They asked if we could play it and dedicate it to him so they could videotape it and send it to his family in Massachusetts.”

Without hesitation, the band obliged. The following day, a video of their tribute was posted to You Tube and has since garnered hundreds of views.

“It was quite a moving experience to be able to connect with complete strangers on that level, and I was honored that they asked us to do it,” Santoro said. “That was by far my most memorable experience ever as a musician.”

For more information on The Stranger, visit them online at www.billyjoeltribute.net. For more information on Davidson’s Concerts on the Green series, visit www.concertsonthegreen.com.