Rockaraoke: 3 minutes in the spotlight
Live-band karaoke lets people unleash their inner rock star through regular gigs around the Puget Sound. Live-band karaoke has become popular enough in the Seattle area that people can do it several nights a week.
Seattle Times Eastside reporter
It's easier sometimes to talk yourself out of taking the stage for Rockaraoke night at Snoqualmie Casino than it is to get on stage. If singing with a live band doesn't induce massive stage fright, then flashing lights, deafening volume from a professional sound system and two dancing backup singers might.
"Scary-aoke," says Jay Phillips, a karaoke fan, host on 98.9 KWJZ-FM and occasional Rockaraoke participant.
But for people who love the limelight, it's a siren song.
Until live-band karaoke, the only time most people could strut in a rock-star fantasy was in their heads or aided in their living rooms by a karaoke machine or video game like "Rock Band." But this version of karaoke lets amateurs unleash their inner idol — with the help of a live band and in front of an actual audience — and revel in three minutes of fame.
"It's a whole new dimension," Phillips said.
Only a few bands in the Seattle area embrace a job with more Journey performances than they care to count, but live-band karaoke has spread enough that fans can do it several times a week at places scattered around Puget Sound, including Rockaraoke at Snoqualmie Casino in Snoqualmie and Rockstar Live at Tulalip Casino, near Marysville.
The bands spend their nights playing with "amateurs, wannabes, has-beens, never was," as Rockaraoke founder George Aragon says.
At the Snoqualmie Casino, Rockaraoke is definitely heard before it is seen. Music thumps from the Sno Lounge speakers into the main hall, often muffling the din of slot machines nearby. Gamblers can hear when singers hit (or miss) their high notes.
In the lounge, the band and its singer-of-the-moment are showcased on a brightly lit stage, which faces an atrium with tall windows offering sweeping vistas. Conversation is shouting-level only.
Some singers are all voice and no stage presence. On a recent night, one woman used her leg as a guitar. Some stand awkwardly during musical interludes, while others dance with the guitarists, who chime in on chorus lines.
In her first Rockaraoke outing, singer Susie Weis cozied up to guitarist and singer Pete Ortega, who wore a black cowboy hat, black-and-silver cowboy shirt and boots for that night's "urban country" KMPS-sponsored contest. The 50-year-old mother put her hand on Ortega's back and shimmied around on stage as she belted out Melissa Etheridge.
Weis drove in from Roslyn, Kittitas County, to sing in the contest. She used to perform in bands, but it was her first time singing with this group.
"To do karaoke with a band is totally different than a TV screen," she said. "I feed off whoever else is up there."
Aragon and his band were one of the first to offer live karaoke in Seattle — coining and trademarking the term Rockaraoke — and various incarnations of his band have been performing since 2001.
Rockaraoke started on impulse at The Sunset in Ballard, when Aragon was playing classic rock with some friends. Aragon noticed the crowd sang every word of songs from Led Zeppelin and Cheap Trick. He decided to let the audience take the stage and sing with the band, flipping through lyric books. The band eventually added monitors with lyrics.
Rockaraoke also does corporate gigs, but since 2007, has played regularly at Jazzbones Restaurant & Nightclub in Tacoma. The Snoqualmie Casino brought the band on when it opened in November, offering Rockaraoke on Sunday nights. The casino recently added a second night. Rockaraoke also started playing at Parlor Live in Bellevue this month and will anchor Wednesday nights.
Parlor Live manager Reuben Buck was looking for an interactive event and heard about Rockaraoke.
"I want to do something different, have something people can go up and sing, and it doesn't kill your ears," he said. "I just liked the energy."
The band includes three on guitar and/or bass, Aragon on drums, a keyboardist and two backup singers who host the event and sing if there are lulls, which happens more during corporate events.
Rockaraoke has attracted people who tried out for "American Idol" or "America's Got Talent." It also has tossed unruly people who won't wait their turn. One person tried to dive into the crowd, but when nobody reached out to catch him, he landed on his feet, band members say.
The band repeats a lot of songs — Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " is a standard — but members never know if the person will be able to sing. The worst are the ones with no rhythm, band members say. The backup singers don't even try to sing along.
Aragon and the band members view themselves more as entertainers than artists. Aragon likes how live-band karaoke knocks down social barriers. CEOs and 80-year-olds all get on stage and sing.
"It's not about us being a band," he said. "It's about giving the opportunity to these 300 people who came up to sing to be part of the band, and it's their band for three minutes."
Radio personality Phillips has a stable of songs for karaoke, but has fewer songs for Rockaraoke. On a recent night at Snoqualmie Casino, he pulled off what he calls a "Rockaraoke suicide," singing a song for the first time with the band. On this night, he chose "Light My Fire" by The Doors.
He struggles more with Rockaraoke, even on songs he knows. It's harder to hear the song with the band than with a recording, he says. The first time he does a song with the band, "it's 50-50 it'll come out OK."
Vanessa Hoff, 31, couldn't see the audience or hear herself the first time she got on stage. A band member told her to sing really loudly.
Now she's addicted and comes regularly from her home in Maple Valley to Sunday night at the casino.
Said Hoff: "You feel like you're a star when you're up there."
Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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