Step up to the mic
What’s better than karaoke? Karaoke with a real live backing band
The thought of karaoke often conjures up images of, as the band Cake puts it, “A Japanese man in a business suit singing ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’” For most people, karaoke is about public embarrassment, good fun with friends, and having a few drinks (possibly a few too many). The reality, however, is that being “on stage” for a typical karaoke night means standing next to a machine, singing along with the prompt screen, while a bastardized instrumental version of some popular song plays over the PA system—fun for some, but not exactly the sort of thing to write home about.
However, Ray Rodarte and the members of Karaoke Rockstarz have brought to Reno something better than karaoke: the chance for would-be rock stars to sing their favorite songs in front of a live band.
Live band karaoke is just what the name describes. It combines the best of karaoke with the energy of a cover band. Rodarte first pitched it to entertainment director Rob Stone at the Eldorado with the hopes of putting the show on at Brew Brothers. While the idea was received with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, the problem was that Rodarte had never done it before.
“I had heard about it and thought it sounded great,” he says. “It’s hard for local bands to find the right niche, so this seemed like a good solution. … We’ve all sung along at the top of our voice to a song in the car and thought about what it would be like to be on stage. Who hasn’t? So that’s what we do. We offer people their chance at 15 minutes of fame.”
From the beginning, it’s been popular. The band has been playing every Monday night, seven months straight at Brew Brothers, often to a packed room.
“We get regulars every week, along with people who have never seen live karaoke before,” says Rodarte. “We have one guy, ‘Karaoke Bob,’ who has no rhythm, but everyone loves him! It’s a blast.”
Rodarte is joined on stage by drummer Gary Setzer, bassist Dave Edwards, and Tina Fink on keys and acoustic guitar. Rodarte says dancer Julia Mansfield-Cholico “was the missing ingredient. She brings so much energy to the show, it’s impossible to not have fun.”
Mansfield-Cholico is from London and has been performing in various shows at the Eldorado for seven years. “I love this show,” she says, “I work six nights a week, and this is my night off, but it isn’t work for me. It’s just fun.”
And without her, Karaoke Rockstarz wouldn’t be half as fun. She’s the emcee, and she gets things started by singing songs like K.T. Tunstall’s “Black Horse & The Cherry Tree,” dressed in the finest British punk aesthetic with an audacious faux-hawk, and her small stature is made up for by her tremendously infectious energy. When others are singing, she dances on stage and holds up a glittery sign for the audience to “SCREAM!”
Haley Bond completes the Karaoke Rockstarz show. During the show, she mingles with the audience and signs people up for each set, with about 10 to 15 people per set. On a given night, Bond can be seen flitting from table to table in a mini- dress, a bright pink wig, and equally brightly colored leg warmers, or singing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Her alluring smile and vivacious personality are all that’s needed to entice someone to sign up for another tune.
For musicians, live band karaoke is no cakewalk. “It’s incredibly challenging,” says Rodarte. “We all have to be synced together, as well as synced with the lyrics. Some singers can’t find the first beat, so sometimes we have to tune them out and just keep playing.”
According to Setzer, formerly of Gunshot Liquor and The Darlins, “It’s a bitch. But it’s also therapy. One guy came up to look at our song list and said, ‘This isn’t karaoke! You’re supposed to have 2,000 songs!’”
The Rockstarz song list is only about 200 songs strong, but they add new songs every week and are happy to take requests. However, for a band to be able to play songs from a highly varied list—a list that includes The Beatles, Cheap Trick, Billy Ray Cyrus, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and many, many more—is no small feat.
“Sometimes we get started on a song, and I’m not even sure I remember how it goes,” says Rodarte. “And I have to remember where the solos go, what effects to use—it’s not easy!”
The Rockstarz put on a show that makes regular karaoke seem like a watered-down nursing home variety act.
“I come down just to watch,” says Mark, an audience member on a recent Monday. “I love it.”
On the same night, a group of college girls celebrating one friend’s birthday says it’s nothing like karaoke they’ve experienced before. “It’s like you’re part of a band. After this, who wants to stand next to a machine and sing all by yourself?” Three of them got onstage to belt a Katy Perry tune, complete with an impromptu dance routine.
During the songs, Mansfield-Cholico and Fink sing back-up, and regardless of how well or poorly you might think you sing, with them backing you up, along with the competent band, it’s very difficult to not put on a great act.
The hardest thing for Rodarte in making this live band karaoke idea a reality wasn’t learning the songs. “We essentially have to have a hard drive of songs in our heads and be able to play on command, so talented musicians are a requirement,” he says. “But now that we’ve been doing it awhile, we have a lot of fun.”
No, the hardest thing was a technical aspect—getting the lyrics to sync up while the band is playing. Though live band karaoke is starting to get more popular around the country, there is no off-the-shelf solution for syncing the lyrics with the band. That’s the sort of thing you can only get with standard karaoke.
After pitching the idea to the Eldorado, Rodarte flew out of town to check out how other bands were doing it. “Most bands simply give the singer a lyric sheet, so no one is doing it the way we are,” he says. He came up with a way to have scrolling lyrics across all the screens at Brew Brothers to make it seem more professional, and he’s still working on improving his system. “I’m actually working on a prototype live-band karaoke machine that I want to get patented.”
The Karaoke Rockstarz aren’t satisfied playing Monday nights at Brew Brothers. Right now Rodarte is talking with the GSR to play in the Xtreme club, as well as the Carson Nugget.
“Starting this month we’ll be playing every Wednesday night at the Carson Valley Inn,” he says, “And we’re starting to take our show on the road.”
According to one audience member, “Live band karaoke is addictive. Now they can’t keep me off the stage.” When the Rockstarz get going, the room fills up quickly, and the atmosphere quickly resembles something much more like a party than a karaoke night.
“That’s what we love about doing this,” says Rodarte. “It’s so much more than karaoke!”