‘We’re here to make you rock stars’

DC’s HariKaraoke Band blends unorthodox concept, professional musicianship and a playful attitude

Paul Anderson sings with HariKaraoke Band

Paul Anderson, 31, sings with the HariKaraoke Band, the live karaoke band, at Hill Country Barbecue in downtown Washington, D.C. (Photo: Don Clemmer)

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, D.C., and Arlington, Va., thanks to the HariKaraoke Band.

The band, which appears weekly at the Hill Country Barbecue bar and grill near Gallery Place in downtown Washington and RíRá Irish Pub in Arlington, 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,” says 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.”

Gangnam Style jacket

The “Gangnam Style” jacket is one of several accessories the HariKaraoke Band offers to help singers capture the look and feel of the rock star experience. (Photo: Don Clemmer)

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” of 1970s TV. 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, says. Lewis says 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 says, adding that the services of the HariKaraoke Band are something that DC, a “really intense working town” with a lot of 20 and 30-somethings, “really needs.”

Learn more about the HariKaraoke Band.

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,” says Hollenkamp, 33, who says 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.”

Paul Baumer sings with the HariKaraoke Band

Paul Baumer, 27, sings with the HariKaraoke Band at Hill Country Barbecue in downtown Washington, D.C. (Photo: Don Clemmer)

“In general, it’s the people who look least confident in life who do the best.”

The man is Paul Baumer, 27, who says 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 says 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,” says Baumer, a Minnesota native and employee at the U.S. Department of Transportation.  What sets live band karaoke apart, he says, is that “people are really trying to do a good job.” Baumer says 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 says.

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 is accompanied to the show by her father. According to bartender Hollenkamp, McDermott is a regular participant in the HariKaraoke experience.

“When I first came, they seemed kind of surprised,” she says. “It was a bar. I was 12.” McDermott says she enjoys performing musical numbers and aspires to sing professionally.

Who are these guys?

Kenny Lewis

“We’re here to make you rock stars.” Kenny Lewis, drummer, manager and co-founder of the HariKaraoke Band, emcees a show at RíRá Irish Pub in Arlington, Va. (Photo: Don Clemmer)

The HariKaraoke Band is the brainchild of drummer Lewis, who says 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 says 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 says 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 says that while classics like Aerosmith’s “Dream On” hold up, material like Lady Gaga gets old the fastest. However, he says, 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.”

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Karaoke Sidebars

Tools of the trade

Here are some essential elements of a HariKaraoke Band live show:

Karaoke Kommand Center

The Karaoke Kommand Center (Photo: Don Clemmer)

The Karaoke Kommand Center: The band previously relied on an iPad, dubbed the “Word-O-Matic 5000,” to display lyrics. In November, they unveiled the “Karaoke Kommand Center,” which frames the iPad with a plastic exoskeleton and includes big red buttons for advancing the lyrics and several drink holders. “People are up their with drinks in their hands,” says bass player Sachse, who designed the Kommand Center. Now, instead of risking a spill while trying to work the iPad, singers “can just slam their drinks down” on the Kommand Center’s buttons. Sachse says the Kommand Center provides “more of a Fisher-Price vibe” or something “like a video game.”

the HariKaraoke gong

The HariKaraoke Band’s gong. (Photo: Don Clemmer)

The gong: “I actually owned that gong before I put the band together,” says Lewis on the element of the show that provides “comic relief” if a selection gets “really painful and terrible.” The band gives prizes to singers who get gonged so that, according to Lewis, “they don’t go home upset.”

HariKaraoke song menu

HariKaraoke menu. (Photo: Don Clemmer)

Menus: The 300-plus songs that comprise the band’s playlist are available online but are also in books distributed to tables around the venue ahead of each show. Selections come from a range of genres, including classic rock, country and contemporary pop. While slimmer than a traditional karaoke menu—hundreds of songs instead of thousands—the HariKaraoke guide also includes diagrams for properly holding a microphone and singing the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

HariKaraoke helmet

The helmet. (Photo: Don Clemmer)

The helmet: Lewis and Sachse say that there are many wrong ways and only one right way to hold a microphone. That’s why they’ve designed “the helmet,” with a microphone mounted a fixed distance and angle from the wearer’s mouth, for singers who violate this principle.

The cowbell: A percussion staple of classic rock, the HariKaraoke Band offers a cowbell for use by participants. When it’s not punctuating the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” or other selections, the cowbell resides onstage in a custom-knitted “cowbell cozy,” which Lewis says is a gift from a male fan.

Join the HariKaraoke Band onstage

Wednesday Nights, Hill Country Barbecue, Washington, D.C. (no gong)

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Thursday Nights, RíRá Irish Pub, Arlington, Va.

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Friday, Jan. 4, The Hamilton, Washington, D.C.

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Saturday, Jan. 5, Lion & Bull, Haymarket, Va.

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What’s shared among chiefs

Authors explore bond shared by former U.S. presidents

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy discuss their new book at the Newseum.

Authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy discuss the relations between former U.S. presidents at a December 1 forum at the Newseum. John Maynard, left, moderated the discussion. (Photo: Don Clemmer)

WASHINGTON—Former U.S. presidents share a unique bond, one forged through shared pain and enjoyed across party lines, said the authors of a recent book at the Newseum on December 1.

Time magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy shared the history, relationships and even the gossip of former presidents in a discussion of their book, “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.” John Maynard, the Newseum’s manager of exhibit programming, moderated the discussion, part of the Newseum’s Inside Media series.

“All presidents come out of office with scars and welts and bruises,” said Duffy. He said Jimmy Carter once told him, “We all have our sorrows.” Duffy said all former presidents need some redemption, and they all find solace in the only group of people who can really understand.

Gibbs and Duffy traced the history of the club back to the unlikely friendship between Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover. Truman enlisted the former president’s help when he faced a humanitarian crisis in Europe in the wake of World War II. By the time of Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953, the two, then the only living former presidents, joked that they should form a club.

Gibbs and Duffy collaborated on the 2007 book, “The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House,” and they said it was the relationship Graham had with one president after another, and how the presidents used him to send messages to one another, that sparked the idea for their new book.

The camaraderie among former presidents is a 20th century phenomenon, Gibbs and Duffy said, with increased life expectancy—and quick turnover fueled by Watergate and lost reelection bids—creating more than usual former presidents.

Gibbs said that presidents from different parties get along better than those from the same party. Duffy recalled that Truman once said, “There is no conversation so sweet as that of former political enemies.”

Truman and Hoover were only the beginning. Duffy said Carter and Gerald Ford became friends while traveling for the funeral of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981. “They realize they both have more in common than what separates them.” Both were raising money for their museums. Both disliked Ronald Reagan, and both soon vowed to say the eulogy at the funeral of whichever died first, a commitment Carter honored.

Duffy said Nixon and Bill Clinton became “late night phone buddies,” early in Clinton’s presidency, with the former president offering advice on everything from China to Clinton’s schedule and exercise routine. Gibbs said Clinton compared Nixon’s death to the death of his own mother, experiencing “reach for the phone” moments. Duffy said he hopes the friendship becomes “the HBO movie” of the book.

The unlikely friendship between the first President Bush and the man who defeated him in 1992 is probably the closest, said Gibbs and Duffy. Their book describes George H.W. Bush and Clinton as becoming “so close they were item,” with Bush becoming a surrogate father figure.

When he learned George H.W. Bush was hospitalized in November, Duffy said he immediately emailed the chiefs of staff of both Bushes, but that it was Clinton’s chief of staff who responded most quickly. “Inside the fraternity, there’s a paternity,” said Duffy of the relationship between George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Bush’s own son.

The relationship between Clinton and President Obama exemplifies the tension that exists between presidents of the same party, Duffy said. He described them as rivals who have very different ideas of how to advance progressive ideals in a center-right nation. “It’s not all Kumbaya between them,” he said.

Duffy described Clinton’s address to the 2012 Democratic National Convention was “incandescent.”  He said the Clintons decided in the summer that Obama was going to be reelected and “they really wanted to be part of it.”

Gibbs said Carter modeled what a former president should be for the rest of the club, leaving office at a young age and dedicating his post-presidency—the longest in U.S. history as of September—to philanthropic work and global troubleshooting. Duffy said Carter’s belief that he’s a better former president than the others generates tension, but that “every club needs a black sheep.”

Duffy and Gibbs said the group is also protective of one another, with Gibbs describing is as “almost a shadow Secret Service.” They gave examples of Eisenhower urging support for John F. Kennedy in the wake of the Bay of Pigs disaster, Ford trying to cut a deal to stop the Clinton impeachment out of concern for the “majesty of the office,” and more recently, George W. Bush saying that Obama deserved his silence.

Duffy said there’s a wealth of documentation of the relationships between former presidents, from their “voluminous writings” to recorded conversations “advertent or inadvertent.”

Duffy said the group communicates on a “fairly constant basis” and that “they do get together, but it’s not regular.” They will convene in March, he said, for the opening of George W. Bush’s presidential library. “That’s a big deal for the club. There are feast days like that.”

Gibbs said, in response to a question, that first ladies and even presidents’ children have similar sympathy to each other, having “lived in the fish bowl,” but that the bond among former presidents is “unique to having sat in that chair.”

Lifespans of U.S. Presidents

(Click the head of each column to sort by that statistic.)

No. Name Born Term Died Age Retired
1. George Washington 1732 1789-1797 1799 67 02 yrs
2. John Adams 1735 1797-1801 1826 90 25 yrs
3. Thomas Jefferson 1743 1801-1809 1826 82 17 yrs
4. James Madison 1751 1809-1817 1836 85 19 yrs
5. James Monroe 1758 1817-1825 1831 73 06 yrs
6. John Q. Adams 1767 1825-1829 1848 80 18 yrs
7. Andrew Jackson 1767 1829-1837 1845 78 08 yrs
8. Martin van Buren 1782 1837-1841 1862 79 21 yrs
9. William Harrison 1773 1841-1841 1841 68 N/A
10. John Tyler 1790 1841-1845 1862 71 16 yrs
11. James K. Polk 1795 1845-1849 1849 53 0 yrs
12. Zachary Taylor 1784 1849-1850 1850 65 N/A
13. Millard Fillmore 1800 1850-1853 1874 74 20 yrs
14. Franklin Pierce 1804 1853-1857 1869 64 12 yrs
15. James Buchanan 1791 1857-1861 1868 77 07 yrs
16. Abraham Lincoln 1809 1861-1865 1865 56 N/A
17. Andrew Johnson 1808 1865-1869 1875 66 06 yrs
18. Ulysses S. Grant 1822 1869-1877 1885 63 08 yrs
19. Rutherford B. Hayes 1822 1877-1881 1893 70 11 yrs
20. James Garfield 1831 1881-1881 1881 49 N/A
21. Chester Arthur 1829 1881-1885 1886 57 01 yr
22. Grover Cleveland 1837 1885-1889 1908 71 04 yrs
23. Benjamin Harrison 1833 1889-1893 1901 67 08 yrs
24. Grover Cleveland 1837 1893-1897 1908 71 11 yrs
25. William McKinley 1843 1897-1901 1901 58 N/A
26. Theodore Roosevelt 1858 1901-1909 1919 60 09 yrs
27. William H. Taft 1857 1909-1913 1930 72 16 yrs
28. Woodrow Wilson 1858 1913-1921 1924 67 02 yrs
29. Warren G. Harding 1865 1921-1923 1923 57 N/A
30. Calvin Coolidge 1872 1923-1929 1933 60 02 yrs
31. Herbert Hoover 1874 1929-1933 1964 90 31 yrs
32. Franklin D. Roosevelt 1882 1933-1945 1945 63 N/A
33. Harry S Truman 1884 1945-1953 1972 88 19 yrs
34. Dwight D. Eisenhower 1890 1953-1961 1969 78 08 yrs
35. John F. Kennedy 1917 1961-1963 1963 46 N/A
36. Lyndon B. Johnson 1908 1963-1969 1973 64 04 yrs
37. Richard Nixon 1913 1969-1974 1994 81 19 yrs
38. Gerald Ford 1913 1974-1977 2006 93 29 yrs
39. Jimmy Carter 1924 1977-1981 N/A 89 32 yrs
40. Ronald Reagan 1911 1981-1989 2004 93 15 yrs
41. George H.W. Bush 1924 1989-1993 N/A 89 20 yrs
42. Bill Clinton 1946 1993-2001 N/A 67 12 yrs
43. George W. Bush 1946 2001-2009 N/A 67 04 yrs
44. Barack Obama 1961 2009-present N/A 52 N/A