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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.
And that rumor that they were looking for a lead singer?
"We have a lead singer," Engle — also the band's founder, manager, and booker — told me, correcting a bit of misinformation that had run in New Times' calendar. "But we gig so often that we are looking for someone else to help out."
We found an unlikely candidate in Matt Black, who'd driven all the way up from Hollywood just to unfurl his "Rebel Yell." North of 40 and so diminutive that his T-shirt came down to his knees, he sang with such passion that when he was finished, the band's regular lead singer asked, "Can you believe that voice came out of that body?"
And some took themselves a little too seriously for the band's fun vibe. When Angel Chevere Jr. took the mic, the Hot Topic poster boy — complete with spiky hair, tattoos, piercings, and "rock" belt buckle — let us all know, "I've done this before. I am a vocalist... This is Rage Against the fucking Machine!"
His dead-on, balls-out approach to "Killing in the Name" brought out the "fuck yeah" face from the drummer as Chevere pounded the humid August air with the microphone and stomped on the hardwood floor. He screamed his way through the "fuck you I won't do what you tell me" portion of the song — just like the original dictated. Isn't it ironic?
"He's a happy-go-lucky fucking person," his buddy assured me, though by the end of the night, I tended to doubt it since he had forced the reluctant-but-accommodating band into a freestyle jam so he could scream his way through a song uniquely his own.
In the right spirit, the guy with the star-spangled right forearm (thanks to five-pointed, blue-and-red tattoos) was representing with Rick Springfield's "Jesse's Girl." But this was Ross Mahoney, who already had a rockin' job as a DJ.
When it was Ben's turn to offer up STP's "Plush," I offered my support by standing on a chair back in the ant room, a necessity to see my six-foot-four friend beyond the crowd, even in the tiny space. As he sang, a group of posers took advantage of the rock 'n' roll backdrop for what I'm sure was destined to be a MySpace photo — flirty head tilts, pursed lips, and all.
By rounds two and three, a seemingly intoxicated Jen was using her time at the mic to spoof other singer's announcements ("I'm not a professional. I'm just a karaoke singer," she said, mocking Chevere) and to comment on the band's set list ("There's not many songs for women to sing on this list," she chanted, adding some "uh-uh, uh-uh" vocal fills for emphasis.)
"We promise to have more chick songs for you next week," Johnson assured.
There was bound to be a snafu or two along the way. The only one so far seems to be that the band's set list naturally was developed for a male lead. With their talent and energy, I suspect they'll live up to their promise over the next few weeks.
"Everyone gets a turn! This is not one of those things where you have to know someone to get on the list," Johnson encouraged the sweat-soaked crowd.
So it wasn't by virtue of his stake in the place that Frielich had the opportunity to play drums for a few songs. Nor was it thanks to Kristen's punk diva status that she claimed three more minutes of mic time with the Cure's "Just Like Heaven." The usually brusque executive chef, Bruce Feingold, sent tremors of shock through the room when he opted to give Social Distortion's "Bad Luck" a go, something that co-owner Rodney Mayo called "a miracle."
As the crowd chanted "Bruce! Bruce! Bruce!" it proved that the day job can't quash the dream.