Let’s be honest, most of us can only dream of singing on stage, in front of a pumped up crowd cheering you on, with a live band rocking out behind you…that is until now. Live band karaoke has been sweeping the nation, and it has landed in the DC Metro area courtesy of the HariKaraoke Band Gong Show. We headed out to Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights to talk with the band see what the buzz was all about.
“Karaoke is a machine, but when there is a band behind you it’s definitely a whole new thing,” said HariKaraoke drummer Kenny Lewis. “Everyone is giving support and yelling for you while you’re up there singing.”
Lewis and bassist Steve Sachse started the HariKaraoke Band this past May, after Lewis had taken a trip to New York City and checked out a similar live karaoke show. “I’d heard of it and went to this one place and it was a crazy crowd!” he said.
The band is made up of Lewis, Sachse, keyboard player Dave Ylvisaker, guitarist John Lee, and part-timers guitarist Robert Sullivan and MC/vocalist Scott Taylor. Like the audience members that hop on stage to sing, the band members have a variety of musical backgrounds, ranging from self-taught to professional careers with well known bands.
Live band karaoke has become somewhat of a franchise across the nation, with the most shows in Chicago and New York, but Lewis says that the HariKaraoke Band adds their own twist to the idea with costumes for singers and the ringing of the Gong – hear it and the singer knows that it’s time to step down.
“It’s all in good fun, and no one takes it personally,” he said. “Some people yell for it and we’ll stop playing, then whoever is the gong master will hit the thing…it’s definitely entertaining.”
The entertainment begins before the band takes the stage. To have a karaoke show you have to have singers and Sachse and Lewis ask me to come with them to see how they alert the bar that the show is about to start.
Outside at the main level beer garden they leap on benches to announce the exciting show awaiting patrons upstairs. Sachse bangs on a cowbell and Lewis holds the “red velvet song list and lyrics book.” The two then run inside to the main floor and again leap up on a chair for all to see, as they exchange colorful comedic banter and announce to patrons that it is not only the start of the show but “temporary tattoo night.”
The comedic exchange works, when we re-enter the show upstairs the once empty room is now packed, and according to Lewis, with both regulars and new faces. One regular I meet is Paul from DC, who describes himself as an avid karaoke follower, going to bars in the area to get the opportunity to get up and sing. “I miss being in a band back in college,” he said. “The live band karaoke is ten times better than normal karaoke…I come all the time, I love it!”
First on stage is Kristin, a lively young woman who went straight for the afro wig in the costume collection, and begins belting out “Lady Marmalade” like a pro. “I live across the street and sometimes will come here and start things off, tell jokes with Kenny,” she said. “It’s funny, but I find a lot of people that come here are actually pretty good singers, looking for a band to sing in.”
All of a sudden Paul from DC is up on stage belting out “Sweet Child of Mine” again sounding like a pro, complete with hat and attire from the costume bin. Soon after Paul is done, the band plays the well-known lead to the song “Smells like Teen Spirit.” A guy dressed in a plaid shirt and blond wig is up on stage head banging with the crowd and channeling Kurt Cobain.
The songs covered span the spectrum of classic rock, pop songs and oldies, but one thing was clear, the crowd loves it and so do the performers. “We sometimes get these quiet people and all of a sudden on stage they surprise everyone singing,” said bartender Jocelyn. “It definitely brings people out of their shells and they get a stage persona here.”
The show at Wonderland Ballroom is every Tuesday night. It starts at 9:30 p.m. and runs until around 12:30 a.m., admission is a very reasonable $3. Most participants get there early to sign up and to take advantage of the costumes.
The band also plays shows the first Wednesday of each month at Whitlow’s on Wilson in Arlington, and Lewis said they hope to expand that to weekly soon. They are also looking to expand to other bars, including a once a month, Friday show at Town Danceboutique in DC, that Lewis says he hopes to turn into drag queen karaoke. “With the gong it would be awesome,” he said.
HariKaraoke Band Gong Show: www.harikaraokeband.com.
Wonderland Ballroom: 1101 Kenyon St. NW, DC; 202-232-5263; www.thewonderlandballroom.com.
Whitlow’s on Wilson: 2854 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA; 703-276-9693; www.whitlows.com.