A hit song and lots of money separate most people from the rock star experience. But the apex of that experience — fronting an actual rock band before a cheering crowd — is accessible to anyone in Washington and Arlington, thanks to the HariKaraoke Band.
The band, which appears weekly at the Rí Rá Irish Pub in Clarendon and the Hill Country Barbecue bar and grill near Gallery Place in downtown Washington, specializes in live band karaoke.
This twist on the traditional interactive entertainment follows the same format of bar patrons taking turns at the microphone to lend their vocals to pop songs, but with a four-piece band providing the musical accompaniment in place of a machine.
“It gives us everyday people, for the three minutes the song is lasting, the chance to feel like a superstar,” said Safie Da Costa Soares, a bartender at Hill Country Barbecue, where the band plays a Wednesday night “Rock ‘n Twang” show. “They’re not your usual karaoke.”
Apart from the live band, other unusual elements of the show include costumes, such as hats, wigs, jackets and other props to help participants get into the rock star experience. The band also takes song requests via email and, depending on the venue, employs a gong for quick dismissal of stumbling singers in the tradition of “The Gong Show” from the 1970s. The gong also meshes with the HariKaraoke name and their tagline: “Sing with honor.”
“We keep it fun,” Kenny Lewis, 50, drummer and manager of the band, said. Lewis said the difference from performing “without a machine with a bouncing ball” throws off even seasoned karaoke veterans. “It’s a new rush for people,” he said, adding that the services of the HariKaraoke Band are something that Washington, a “really intense working town” with a lot of 20- and 30-somethings, “really needs.”
Taking turns in the spotlight
The lower level of Hill Country Barbecue quickly becomes a standing room only crowd of what bartender Clay Hollenkamp describes as largely young Capitol Hill staffers. “They’re definitely here because of the karaoke,” said Hollenkamp, 33, adding the live karaoke show makes Wednesday night his favorite shift of the week.
The show begins, and four young women crowd around the microphone to sing Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” Renditions of Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet,” Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” and the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” soon follow. Then a sturdily built man in a business suit, beard and glasses takes the stage for a performance of Squeeze’s “Tempted by the Fruit of Another.”
The man is Paul Baumer, 27, who said he’s attended Harikaraoke Band shows weekly for almost two years. Like other regulars, he’s helped emcee shows and has built up a repertoire of 15 or 20 songs. But he said three favorites, the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” and Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” are the ones he’s “comfortable with in a pinch.”
“It’s always really great when somebody unexpectedly impresses you,” said Baumer, a Minnesota native who works at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
What sets live band karaoke apart, he said, is that “people are really trying to do a good job.” Baumer said two years of shows have instilled him with a sense of how people will fare the moment they walk onstage. “In general, it’s the people who look least confident in life who do the best,” he said.
A short time later, the show’s emcee tells to the crowd they have a special guest and calls “Cammi” to the stage. A girl in an AC/DC hat walks coolly onto the stage and proceeds to belt out solid renditions of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” The crowd cheers wildly.
The girl is Cammi McDermott, 13, who was accompanied to the show by her father. She's also a regular.
“When I first came, they seemed kind of surprised,” she said. “It was a bar. I was 12.” McDermott said she enjoys performing musical numbers and aspires to sing professionally.
Who are these guys?
The HariKaraoke Band is the brainchild of drummer Lewis, who said he first heard of live band karaoke from a friend who’d seen a show in Lower East Manhattan. After seeing the show himself, Lewis enlisted bassist Steve Sachse, with whom he’d played in other musical projects, telling him, “We gotta get this going in DC.”
Lewis and Sachse, 45, launched the HariKaraoke Band at the Wonderland Ballroom in Washington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood more than two years ago. That led to gigs at other venues in the area including SoBe’s in Arlington and the Fillmore in Silver Spring, Md.
Sachse said the partnership with Lewis is a “good division of labor,” with Lewis handling the business and the booking and him focusing on the music end, such as making charts for the musicians to follow. “We try to keep the level up,” Lewis said of the act’s musical quality. “These people have to learn 350 songs.”
The band’s catalogue offers only a fraction of the songs offered by karaoke machines, and Sachse said that while classics like Aerosmith’s “Dream On” hold up, material like Lady Gaga gets old the fastest.
However, he said, having different vocalists on different songs from week to week means even familiar material continually takes on a new sound and feel.
“That seems to give the songs a better shelf life,” Lewis said.
HariKaraoke performs from 9:30 p.m. Thursday to 12:30 a.m. at Rí Rá Irish Pub in Clarendon at 2915 Wilson Boulevard.