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You haven’t done karaoke until you’ve tried live band karaoke.
Singing along to a CD is cheesy. Singing alongside a professional backing band is exhilarating. You can expect a little polite applause when you’re up there by yourself. You can expect a raucous ovation when you’re singing live.
If all the world is a stage, live karaoke is like standing front and center.
With drink service.
Mike Grassman leads the band that plays behind hopeful – and hopelessly romantic – singers every Thursday night at Vitucci’s, 1832 E. North Ave. A music teacher by day, he’s a drummer by night – and singer if a tone-deaf vocalist needs a little help.
"It’s not a concept that we invented, but I joined up with a couple of guys about four years ago," says Grassman of the band’s genesis. "In the last two years, we’ve really hit our stride."
In addition to the band, keeping the night flowing as the emcee is Bret Buganski, who works as a reporter at FOX 6 when he’s not wrangling singers to and from the stage.
"I started off as a customer," says Buganski. "I was going there on my day off to have fun. I knew about live band karaoke in Chicago, because it was so big there. A girl who was with the band decided to part ways, and they needed someone to be host, and they asked me."
Buganski opens the night singing a few songs to loosen the audience up, then walks from table to table recruiting people and answering nervous questions from first-timers.
It’s not long, however before the audience gets a sense of what’s in store. The band doesn’t have a name, but Buganski frequently refers to them as "Sexual Chocolate," which is a very dated reference to the movie "Coming To America."
"Half the people don’t know what I’m talking about," he says.
With Pete Gorski on guitar and Jason Hellman on bass, the action starts slowly at 9:30 p.m. Regulars, some with excellent voices, belt out their favorite tunes. Participants can choose from more than 300 songs on the list, and amazingly, the band doesn’t rehearse, adding 10-15 songs to its repertoire each week. (Editor's note: I performed "Santeria," "Sister Christian" and "Easy" by The Commodores before joining in no fewer than three warbling duets.)
"It’s each musician’s responsibility to learn the song," says Grassman. "We’ll get together at the show and try to hash it out."
As the night rolls on, drinks start flowing, and the newbies take the stage. Here, a major difference between traditional and live band karaoke begins to unfold.
When singing along to a CD, you won’t get any help if you flub a line. But with a backing band, they can slow down or speed up, or repeat a line in the verse or chorus if needed. They can also adjust level on the fly if the singer is screaming or shy, and harmonize when necessary. If you’re a lost cause, they’ll just solo for a while.
Their job, after all, is to make you look – and sound – good.
"Sometimes you just don’t know what will happen," says Grassman. "We’ll get singers up there who want to go off in a different direction, and we follow them. Sometimes they know what they’re doing and sometimes they don’t."
By midnight, Vitucci’s is packed and the vibe is quite different. Now people are screaming duets, dancing around the stage, interacting with the audience. At the end of the night, everyone is shouting at the tops of their lungs to "Sweet Caroline," "Free Falling" and "Don’t Stop Believing." It feels like the end of the most fun cover band set you can imagine, because most of the people in the crowd have taken their turn at the mic.
Says Buganski, "It is amazing to see people at the beginning of the night who say that they won’t do this. They’re usually the people at the end of the night signing up for three more songs."
"At the end of the night, people get a little crazier, doing the sing-alongs," adds Grassman. "People lock arms and throw their hands in the air."
So is it all very silly, or is this a chance for new singers to get comfortable on stage?
"I think it’s both," says Buganski. "There are so many people out there who are talented and have no idea how much fun it is. When they get up on stage, they forget about who they are, what they do, and what people might think of them."
Says Grassman, "For a lot of really good singers who want to take a step up and play in a band, this is a great opportunity. It’s not the same experience singing with regular karaoke."
It's true. You can't interact with a machine playing a CD, but you can be a lead singer of a band – one song at a time.
"Everyone’s on a level playing field. Everyone has a dream of playing in a rock n’ roll band. This is their chance to get up there and do it." says Buganski.
If all of this sounds really fun, it is. The trick is to immerse yourself in the moment and not hold back. If you don’t wake up hoarse the next morning, you’ve done something wrong.
And even as a professional musician, Grassman says this gig is still fun.
"Every night it’s different," says Grassman. "Even the bad singers, we put a smile on their face."
Buganski and Grassman say there’s plenty of room for their group to grow, and they also play monthly at O’Conners Perfect Pint and Lucky Mojo’s in Burlington, as well as at private parties.
"We’re always looking to keep this thing growing," says Grassman.
Says Buganski, "In Chicago it’s such a big thing. They do it in multiple places, and the lines are out the door, almost every night of the week. If it’s a big hit there, why not Milwaukee?"
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.