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Karaokes triumphant rowdy, delightfully weird return to Philadelphia

One last Friday evening in South Philadelphia, Erica Ruiz commanded the back room of Ray’s Hpy Birthday Bar with her karaoke version of Alanis Morissette’s „You Oughta Know.” The eye of a pulsating body storm, Ruiz, 35, roared the song’s familiar chorus – „You, you, you should know! ” – to exuberant cheers and fist pumps from the crowd.

A professional musician – she sings in the local band Foxtrot & the Get Down – Ruiz is no stranger to buckling up in front of an audience. But without putting on a live show for over a year, Ruiz has been looking for karaoke as a creative outlet until her band is back together in September. Last Friday was their second straight week at Ray’s, run by a local karaoke host DJ Lars. “This is definitely one of the best places to go for karaoke,” said Ruiz. “It’s a very supportive audience. It doesn’t matter what song you’re doing – the crowd will cheer you on, no matter what. „

That Friday the rendezvous in the Italian market was packed full of guests, shoulder to shoulder, and a thick cloud of body heat settled over the bar. Every performer was greeted with the same stormy applause, regardless of skill or song choice, even as the night turned into early morning and the crowd began to thin.

Gregg Gethard sings Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” in Ray’s Hpy Birthday Bar Friday Karaoke with DJ Lars

Natalie Piserchio

Kevin Sullivan sings

Kevin Sullivan sings Natasha Beddingfield’s „Unwritten” in Ray’s Hpy Birthday Bar Friday Karaoke with DJ Lars.

Natalie Piserchio

The scene at Ray’s reflected the spirit of bars across town during the first karaoke nights after the pandemic. On June 11, after nearly 15 months since the city-home order was issued, Philly’s inner mask mandate and rules on the last call at 11 p.m. were lifted, allowing bars to resume normal operations. Rays resumed indoor karaoke that evening. In the following days, Bob and Barbara’s, the 700, 12 Steps Down and Locust Bar followed with full houses and long song queues.

The collective message: Philly karaoke is back, baby, and it’s long overdue.

For Ellen Trpey now 70 percent of Philadelphia has received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, her first order after the pandemic was not to meet her nephew for the first time. It was karaoke. Among the 700 in Northern Liberties, Trpey, 41, picked a number of heartbreaking songs: Robyn’s „Dancing On My Own,” Dua Lipa’s „Don’t Start Now,” and „Gaslighter” from the Chicks. „My whole repertoire tonight is about loss and cheating,” Trpey said.

Ellen Trpey sings Dua Lipa's

Ellen Trpey sings Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” at Sing Your Life Karaoke with DJ Sara at 700 in Northern Liberties.

Natalie Piserchio

As one of the first singers of the evening, Trpey had the job of energizing a mild Monday evening crowd on the sofas and chairs on the second floor of the bar. „It’s so quiet,” she said between Robyn’s verses. Trpey’s friend Tara Cox sang Harmony from a couch near the stage.

„I do that,” said Cox. „I tend to dominate every song.” For her own appearance, Cox, 32, guided the crowd, which had almost doubled, through proper hand-Cl timing on Private Eyes. She planned to do all five vocal parts of „My Shot” later Hamilton. „I’ve never done it before,” she said. “I practiced it for a year and a half. I know without words. „

During the pandemic, Trpey, Cox and their friends tried pod karaoke evenings at each other’s homes, with each participant being quarantined for two weeks before their singalongs. They prefer the embodied experience of singing live in a room with a public audience, led by their favorite karaoke host. Sara Sher.

Nazeer Harper sings

Nazeer Harper sings „Juicy” by The Notorious BIG at Sing Your Life Karaoke with DJ Sara at 700 in Northern Liberties.

Natalie Piserchio

A fixture on the local karaoke scene, Sherr has been hauling their PA equipment and songbooks to bars from Fishtown to Brewerytown since 2006. Today she can be seen at Bob and Barbara on Sunday evenings, at 700 on Mondays and at 12 Steps Down Down Tuesdays.

In view of the pandemic, Sherr’s songbooks have now been digitized for access via a QR code and each performer receives their own microphone cover made of fabric, which is affectionately called microphone condoms. A change following the pandemic, Sherr said she was already seeing growing demand for karaoke. „When I first started at 12 Steps Down in 2010, it was my busiest night, and then Bob and Barbara dwarfed that,” she said. Well, „these two nights were equally full and that has not been the case since 2010.”

Leslie O'Donnel disinfects the microphone and replaces the disposable microphone cover between singers as a Covid-19 caution at Sing Your Life Karaoke with DJ Sara.

Leslie O’Donnel disinfects the microphone and replaces the disposable microphone sleeve between singers as a Covid-19 caution

Natalie Piserchio

The audience at Sing Your Life Karaoke with DJ Sara at 700 in Northern Liberties

The audience at Sing Your Life Karaoke with DJ Sara at 700 in Northern Liberties

Natalie Piserchio

Christopher Reinig, 40, said he managed to sing only once in four hours on 12 Steps Down’s first karaoke night after the pandemic. „Part of me is upset because I want to sing karaoke and the other part of me is like, these bars needed this,” he said. “I try not to be selfish. I want to sing damn songs, but it’s good. „

The resumption of karaoke in the city, a full extension of the hot Vax summer, allows for joyous expression after a year marked by loss and trauma. In contrast to virtual or pod-based sing-along events, personal karaoke creates space for the community to connect through songs that can be cathartic as well as entertaining.

Maya Beale, 28, and Matthew Knox, 31, said they were happy with their duet selection of the theme song from The Phantom of the Opera at Bob and Barbara’s on a Sunday evening. They had practiced at home karaoke once during the pandemic, which Knox put on for friends at his place – with Beale singing the phantom’s verse and Knox taking on the role of Christine – but they made her post-pandemic public debut of the song the South Street dive. The risk paid off: Beale and Knox’s full-bodied appearance was answered with enthusiastic screeches. „I’m surprised how many people knew and weren’t done with it,” said Knox.

Kira Myers and Erica Ruiz sing Alanis Morissette's

Kira Myers and Erica Ruiz sing Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” in Ray’s Hpy Birthday Bar Friday Karaoke with DJ Lars.

Natalie Piserchio

Nazeer Harper waited for Bob and Barbara’s turn to be on the microphone and stood right next to the performance room, doing a PBR and singing along with almost every artist, nodding his head to „Super Bass”, „You’re Still.” The One „. „And” Carefree whispering „. Karaoke was his primary hobby before the pandemic, and for the first time in almost a year and a half, Harper was back with one of his favorites: You Are My Lady by Freddie Jackson. Over the course of the pandemic, Harper, 33, had practiced new songs, followed lyrics, and sang for himself to supplement his rotation, such as Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License”. He said he would try 700 the next night. In the end he wasn’t ready to whip it, he said; instead he played „Juicy” from Notorious BIG.

While the city embarks on a kind of normalcy, the residents take on the activities that have so long been the most risky. Back together, a beer and a microphone double fisted, Philly’s amateur singers can be the center of attention – at least for a few minutes.

„If you give a microphone to someone who is not the focus, there is a lot of power in it,” said Sherr. „I can’t make things 100 percent safe in a bar because there are many elements that I can’t control, but how can I make the person feel comfortable, safe and heard?”

Back at Ray’s, Ruiz finished Morissette’s final notes and tried to push through the crowd for a smoke break, a process that would have taken much less time in a less crowded bar. If the city closed completely again this winter, Ruiz would be comforted by the fact that she is fully involved in the performances in this cave – every cave.

„I just try to enjoy everything when I’m open and then do whatever science tells me,” said Ruiz. „If [the city shuts down again]then i just sing at my house. I’ll put karaoke on YouTube and sing at home. „

Metal Steve sings Coldplay’s „Yellow” on Ray’s Hpy Birthday Bar Friday karaoke with DJ Lars while a crowd of people sing along.

235 South 10th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107
(215) 925-2191