‘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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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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