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On a recent Monday night, the wannabes, the could-have-beens, and the almost-weres joined cover band Diesel at Dada for the kickoff of live band karaoke.
There was Jen, the karaoke-crazed singer who's been known to drive all the way to Port St. Lucie for a decent night of song. And Angel, the cook who's been in a few bands that never took off but had tattooed "Music is passion... passion is destiny" on his left shoulder anyway. Not to mention Kristen Kelly, a lanky, redheaded singer who'd moved with her band Pank Shovel to New York City, lived the dream, and had recently moved back to South Florida for some much-needed rest, which I doubted she was getting serving tables and booking bands at Dada.
These and many others were at the funky Delray restaurant and lounge to raise their goblet of rock and stick it to the man, like an adult-ed version of School of Rock.
The inspiration for the weekly event came from Dada co-owner Scott Frielich, whose Palm Beach County holdings also include Delux, the Dubliner, Howley's, and the Lounge and extend to Miami's Lost Weekend and Blue. The 39-year-old club owner had read about a similar event (also on Mondays) at Arlene's Grocery, a punk bar on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "I had the idea rolling around for six months or so," he said, his Ramones T-shirt signaling his own musical leanings. "It was a slow summer, so I figured I'd pull it out."
The live-band karaoke concept (currently in country, rock, metal, and punk versions around the country) rang the death knell for Dada's long-running Monday-night open mic. If the numbers of hipsters and musical hopefuls had dwindled during the offseason, though, tonight was no indication. The place was packed with soon-to-be singers seeking liquid inspiration. As they served as role models to the rest of us, the sweltering Monday night during the offseason felt more like a Friday-night frat house party. The vibe was enhanced by the fact that we found ourselves in front of the fireplace of what was once a living room, and the historic home turned hip hangout was furnished almost entirely with band equipment.
I'd come with Ben Kmosko, who'd been my band mate, taught me just about everything I know about rocking (we broke up before I'd been thoroughly educated), and could appreciate the experience from more than one perspective.
"If I wanna play drums or bass or guitar, I can sign up for that too," Ben said, his gaze fixed on the set list that he held, which included more than 100 selections of alternative, '80s, and classic rock.
While he immersed himself in the possibilities, I drank in the scene, which was almost possible on a literal level thanks to what felt like 99 percent humidity on a hot August night. Still, it couldn't douse the excitement.
The couches on the front porch beneath the twinkle lights were full of hipsters so adorned that even their tattoos had tattoos; their clustered piercings created new, unnamed constellations. At the tables beneath the illuminated banyan tree, tables of effortlessly pretty girls and their casually handsome escorts polished off the last of their dinners.
Inside, the air conditioning competed with body heat and atmospheric conditions; the front door had been propped open to accommodate the traffic flow. The few bar stools were taken, and with radio announcer Ross Mahoney and his posse commandeering "the red room" as their HQ, the only good spots were right in front of the band in the main room. There we played what Ben, a server himself, called "a constant shuffle of 'excuse me, watch out, coming through' " as the servers balanced trays on their way outside; unfortunately, the historic charm of the old house also delivers a legally immutable, inconvenient floor plan for a busy restaurant.
When Diesel kicked things off, a self-assured Jen popped the event's cherry with Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me." Instead of color-changing lyrics on a video screen to prompt her, the singer had only a lyric sheet and the nods, finger points, and mouthed lyrics by the band's usual lead singer, Ken Johnson. Drummer Mike Brown filled in the backups; bass player Katina Engle rocked steady, throwing her whole body into the action; and guitarist Tito Rivera laid down some clean leads. Karaoke in this form was actually tolerable.
"Special guest" Walter Harris, Dada's hunky general manager, decided to take the Weird Al approach to Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." In a tone-deaf chant, he provided alternate lyrics like "a free ride when you're already laid." Now I understood why he introduced his three-minutes of fame with "All for fun, right? Don't judge me by this song."
Even when the singers were unremarkable, the band kept the rest of us focused on other things — like how much fun they were having and, consequently, how much fun we were having. It takes some real unity and professional chops among the band to deal with vocalists who don't know when to come in or when to wrap it up. You'd think that the band spent hours rehearsing, but you'd be wrong. Diesel's busy gig schedule doesn't allow for it. Its set list is built by each band member learning songs alone. The first time they play a new song together is when they debut it at a show.