You're with the band: Live karaoke makes you the rock star
She's wearing a half-shirt, exposing her belly dancer’s midriff, and baggy camouflage army pants. She has bejeweled her neck and ears in the spirit of a Middle Eastern goddess. Dorit--a stage name--takes the microphone at Arlene’s Grocery, a divey bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to sing Guns & Roses’ “Sweet Child O' Mine.”
The band behind her is a classic configuration of guitar-guitar-drums-bass. They are fingerboard-tapping, drum stick-twirling, phenomenally well-rehearsed musicians (the bass player shirtless), practically spewing chutzpah in all their hyper-masculine, Zeppelin-esque glory.
It’s just another mind-boggling Monday night of live rock ’n’ roll karaoke, where anyone can be a rock star for five minutes.
This isn’t the karaoke of drunk middle-aged businessmen slaughtering Garth Brooks and Jim Morrison to keyboard-laden backing tracks and a glowing blue box. This is karaoke with a live band behind you, a phenomenon that has had a niche in New York and Los Angeles for the better part of a decade, but is now popping up all over the country.
At Arlene’s, everyone is a pretty good singer, or least a committed ham, like 32-year-old Kristian Rickert, a man who loves his ‘80s metal.
“I think with the popularity of a video game like ‘Rock Band,’ it's OK again to embrace the cheesiness of rock and roll,” he said.
John Miller, the bass player for the popular Chicago live karaoke band the Hootenanners, said he has seen more and more people let loose with Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" over the years.
The Hootenanners play "all the classic singer-oriented songs, but not like some stupid suburban cover band," said Miller, who has played with the band since 2002. “We're a service to the public, in a way."
The band at Arlene's, calling itself "Arlene's World Famous," has been host to the live event for more than three years. The preceding house band, a punk rock group, is credited with starting the live karaoke trend in New York in the mid-‘90s. Linda Immediato, a writer for the LA Weekly, traced the trend back to 1994 in Los Angeles, but no one knows who first dubbed these open mic nights "live karaoke."
Whatever the origins, it's a national explosion, at least in urban areas. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Portland, Ore., Cleveland, Kansas City and Kalamazoo are all homes to established live karaoke nights. In Madison, Wis., an artist who goes by "Biff" leads a touring outfit called Gomeroke, playing bars, corporate events and wedding receptions, claiming a set list of more than 2,000 songs.
"We mix it up, we know things in every key, we'll do a reggae version of 'All Along the Watchtower,'" said Biff. "And people go crazy when grandpa gets up to sing 'Ring of Fire.'"
Back at Arlene's the nights are as theatrical as they are musical. Both Dorit--a serious singer-songwriter and part-time dance instructor--and self-proclaimed ham Rickert fit into the energy of the evening. It all starts with a pre-recorded intro, a booming voice reciting “the Ten Commandments of rock 'n roll karaoke,” one of which is, "Thou Shalt Seek Only to Rock!" Then a petite blonde in a red vinyl teddy cuts through the crowd carrying the rock ’n’ roll karaoke "bible" (the lyric book) to the stage.
For the next three hours, the band affectionately tears through crowd-pleasing classic rock songs from artists like Pat Benatar, Led Zeppelin and Bon Jovi.
And sometimes it's all in German. Claudia Hassbach, a native of Germany, likes to sing Nena’s “99 Luftballons.” The 37-year-old accountant also takes the time to explain to the audience how Nena's early-80s hit was actually a serious look at the threat of nuclear war.
The song "was so happy and popular, with the red balloons,” said Hassbach. "But she's saying, after 99 years of war, there will be only one remaining luftballon."
Live karaoke is also a godsend to working musicians who have trouble making ends meet. For Los Angeles-based veteran guitarist Mark Groveman, live karaoke is the natural next step in the cyclical evolution of popular music: the 40- and 50-something ex-hair rocker musicians need another outlet for the hundreds of good ol' tunes they still know. Groveman, who played in the popular band Roulette in the early '80s, made a living for a while in a touring cover band. He now plays live karaoke in the San Fernando Valley with a band called "O Feel Ya."
"In a cover band, with each new front person, you need to learn a lot of new songs anyway," he said. "So it was easy to adjust."
Drummer Mark Marone is embracing live karaoke with open arms. A former chart manager at Billboard magazine, who played on Debbie Harry's tour last summer, Marone has made Monday nights at Arlene's his only job.
"We’re calling the band 'Arlene's World Famous,' because we are," he said. "People from all around the world show up on Monday."
To Bob Scofield, a professional photographer who takes turns singing and shooting other performers at Arlene's, Marone is key to the band's appeal.
"The drummer is often overlooked," said Scofield, "But (Mark) has an amazing ability to memorize drumbeats to songs."
That amazing ability is also why he suspects that live karaoke probably won’t eclipse the traditional sort: "The box will always have more songs," Scofield said. "The musician who knows how to play 100 songs well enough to be entertaining is rare."
But is the phenomenon technically karaoke? The Japanese word translates literally into "empty orchestra," yet the term doesn’t seem to bother Dorit, the belly dancer and aspiring rock singer. For her, the weekly ritual is a vibrant experience to lean on, and not empty at all.
"I realized how much more animated and powerful I am" at live karaoke, she said. "Sounds crazy that karaoke can do that, but it changed me as an artist."