“Can we get Maryanne up here?”
My heart pounds as I make my way to the stage. I try not to trip as I step behind the mic stand and turn to face the audience. I can’t see a soul, the lights are so bright, but I know there’s a small crowd watching, I was just standing in it, and I wonder why I ever agreed to do this.
A screen overhead blinks on, displaying the lyrics to the song I had signed up to sing: Hit Me With Your Best Shot, a karaoke tune I could do in my sleep. Except this time it’s different. This time I’m singing with a real band.
I’m surrounded by professional musicians, guys on guitar, bass, keyboards and drums, and I remember: this is it, my rock-and-roll fantasy finally coming true. I try to relax. I sing the first verse, and the second, and it’s going pretty well actually. Before I know it I’m belting out the last “Fire awaaaay!” and that’s it, the end, time to leave the stage and give someone else a turn, and I think, when can I do that again?
"The stakes are so much higher"
That was over three years ago, and since then, free live band karaoke — LBK to fans — has become a bit of an obsession. I used to get my fix by coaxing (dragging) various friends and family members to pass-the-mic karaoke bars in New York City like Karaoke One7 or Japas 38 where a few bucks buys a song, or by renting a room at Sing Sing or Duet where you typically pay about $7 to $9 per person per hour.
But the machine doesn’t do it for me anymore. It’s like my friend Sarah says: “If you like to sing, any kind of singing in front of other people is fun in that stressful yet satisfying kinda way. But with live band karaoke, suddenly you’re part of a band, and so there’s this added thrill, but there’s also added pressure—like, man, I hope I don’t suck and let these guys down. The stakes are so much higher.”
That extra thrill comes cheap too. Usually there’s no cover or per-song charge with LBK. (I always buy at least one drink or a snack though, because the host’s gotta make some money, right?) This free form of entertainment that is now my favorite way to spend a Friday night is also freeing on a deeper level — a chance to tune out the noise of life and be somebody else, someone who rocks out, for four or five minutes.
It’s a different audience every time. LBK draws 20-somethings on up: friends just hanging out, couples on dates, groups grabbing drinks after work or celebrating a 30th birthday. You lose the privacy of the rented room, but the payoff is greater. There’s nothing like receiving some raucous cheers and high-fives from strangers—especially those who seem almost as neurotically committed as I am to the craft.
Feeding my live band karaoke obsession
I’m always on the hunt for it. CenterStage LBK, the same guys who played Pat Benatar for me back in June 2015, only do public shows twice a year at Purpl (where there is a cover charge, but a reasonable one) in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, just north of New York City. So I’ve been venturing all over the New York metro area, to catch The Human Karaoke Experience at Slane, Rock Star Karaoke at Hill Country and Crash Course Karaoke at Yonkers Brewing Co. and Rudy’s. LBK’s not unique to New York, course. If I lived in San Diego, say, or Philadelphia or Chicago, I’d have options. (Google “live band karaoke” AND “your city” to look for it.) There’s also piano karaoke, which is basically LBK, cabaret style.
Usually I can get someone to come with me for a laugh, but many people beg off saying they’re too shy. To get three members of my book club on stage took some doing, including a practice run in a private karaoke room followed by a YouTube-fueled cram session at my house. (Totally worth it, and I got a big thank you hug from my friend Liz after she crushed Whip It.)
Sometimes I’ll just go on my own, knowing I’ll run into at least a few regulars. There’s my friend from choir, Kristina, a seasoned pro who sings everything from Lady Gaga to Bad Company; Dancing Joe, an IT professional by day who seems to know all the words to every song, and has a dance move for each one; and Marky Mark Harris, a retired traffic court judge who discovered his passion ten years ago while on a trip to Ireland, singing Raining in My Heart by Buddy Holly. “It was magic,” he says. For him, LBK “is all about sharing the joy, and spreading the joy” of great music he loves, oldies by Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and The Everly Brothers, among others.
A good band makes all the difference
I often wonder what the musicians who play in LBK bands think about all this. Tony Novarro, the guitarist for the Human Karaoke Experience, plays with a lot of cover bands, like the Petty Thieves (a Tom Petty tribute band) and Dream of the Archer (Heart tribute), doing about 100 gigs a year. He says he likes seeing LBK singers get up and enjoy their brief moment in the spotlight, the variable quality of the performances notwithstanding. “I just go with the flow,” he says with a grin. “There might be this cool guitar riff that I love, and maybe the person sings over it, and that’s okay, because it’s not about me.”
The other big difference between an LBK show and a regular cover band show—besides having a string of volunteers on lead vocals—is the lack of predictability and control over the set list. “We’re going to do 50 songs tonight, we just don’t know what they are,” Human Karaoke Experience’s bass player Marty Bender tells me one night as he organizes the lyric sheets and puts out the clipboard people use to sign up. The band offers 810 songs, everything from Abba’s Dancing Queen to ZZ Top’s Tush—a fraction of what machine karaoke will offer, to be sure, but impressive nonetheless, and a well-balanced mix of mainly classic rock, oldies and pop.
There’s usually at least one band member who will help out a singer in trouble, and Bender’s that guy for his band. He’s subtle about it, nodding to let you know when to come in and when to hang back. Without him, my attempt at Whole Lotta Love would’ve been disastrous.
“When someone gets up who’s not 100% sure, and you see them overcome their fears and just go for it, everybody gets behind them,” says Cliff Rubin, guitarist for CenterStage LBK. As someone who still gets nervous, every single time, it helps me to remember that it’s not about perfection. It’s about the thrill of hearing my own voice through the mic, backed by a real band playing one of my favorite songs, and I’m Benatar or Petty or Robert Plant—if only for a few minutes on a Friday night.