On a recent Friday night in South Philadelphia, Erica Ruiz commanded the back room at Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar with her karaoke rendition of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.” The eye of a pulsating storm of bodies, Ruiz, 35, bellowed the song’s familiar refrain — “You, you, yooou oughta knoooow!” — 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 belting in front of an audience. But without performing a live show in over a year, Ruiz has sought out karaoke as a creative outlet until her band performs together again in September. Last Friday was her second consecutive week at Ray’s, helmed by local karaoke host DJ Lars. “This is definitely one of the best spots for karaoke,” Ruiz said. “It’s a very supportive crowd. It doesn’t matter what song you’re doing — the crowd will cheer you on no matter what.”
That Friday, the Italian Market haunt was brimming with patrons, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, and a dense cloud of body heat settled across the bar. Every performer was met with the same rapturous applause, regardless of skill or song choice, even as night turned to early morning and the crowd began to thin.
The scene at Ray’s mirrored the spirit of bars across the city during the first post-pandemic karaoke nights. On June 11, after nearly 15 months since the city was placed under stay-at-home orders, Philly’s indoor mask mandate and 11 p.m. last-call regulations were lifted, allowing bars to return to business as usual. Ray’s resumed its indoor karaoke that night. In the ensuing days, Bob and Barbara’s, the 700, 12 Steps Down, and Locust Bar followed suit, with packed houses and long song queues.
The collective message: Karaoke in Philly is back, baby, and it’s been long overdue.
For Ellen Trappey, now that 70 percent of Philadelphia has received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the first order of post-pandemic business wasn’t to meet her nephew for the first time. It was karaoke. At the 700 in Northern Liberties, Trappey, 41, selected a lineup of powerhouse heartbreak songs: Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” and the Chicks’ “Gaslighter.” “My whole repertoire tonight is about loss and cheating,” Trappey said.
Among the first vocalists of the evening, Trappey had the task of energizing a tepid Monday-night crowd seated on the sofas and chairs on the bar’s second floor. “It’s so quiet,” she said, in between Robyn verses. From a couch near the stage, Trappey’s friend Tara Cox sang harmony.
“That’s a usual thing for me,” Cox said. “I tend to dominate any song.” For her own performance, Cox, 32, led the crowd, which had nearly doubled in size, through proper hand-clap timing on “Private Eyes.” She planned to later take on all five vocal parts of “My Shot” from Hamilton. “I’ve never done it out,” she said. “I’ve practiced it for a year and a half. I know it without words.”
During the pandemic, Trappey, Cox, and their friends attempted pod karaoke nights at each other’s houses, wherein every attendee would quarantine for two weeks prior to their singalongs. They much prefer the embodied experience of singing live in a room with a public audience, led by their favorite karaoke host, Sara Sherr.
A fixture in the local karaoke scene, Sherr has lugged her P.A. equipment and songbooks into bars from Fishtown to Brewerytown since 2006. These days, she can be seen at Bob and Barbara’s on Sunday nights, the 700 on Mondays, and 12 Steps Down on Tuesdays.
In light of the pandemic, Sherr’s songbooks have now been digitized for access via a QR code and each performer receives their own fabric microphone cover, affectionately dubbed mic condoms. A post-pandemic change, Sherr said she’s already seeing a growing appetite for karaoke. “When I first started at 12 Steps Down in 2010, that was my busiest night, and then Bob and Barbara’s eclipsed that,” she said. Now, “both of those nights have been equally busy and it hasn’t been that way since 2010.”
Christopher Reinig, 40, said he only managed to sing once over the course of four hours at 12 Steps Down’s first karaoke night post-pandemic. “Part of me is upset because I want to sing karaoke and the other part of me is like, these bars needed that,” he said. “I’m trying to be not selfish about it. I want to fucking sing songs, but it’s good.”
A full extension of hot vax summer, the resumption of karaoke in the city allows for joyful expression, following a year marred by loss and trauma. In-person karaoke, unlike virtual or pod-based singalong events, creates space for the community to connect through song, which can be equally as cathartic as it is entertaining.
Maya Beale, 28, and Matthew Knox, 31, said they went out on a limb with their duet choice of the title song from The Phantom of the Opera at Bob and Barbara’s on a recent Sunday night. They’d practiced it once over the course of the pandemic during at-home karaoke Knox hosted for friends at his place — with Beale singing the Phantom’s verse and Knox taking Christine’s part — but they performed their public post-pandemic debut of the song at the South Street dive. The risk paid off: Beale and Knox’s full-bodied performance was met with delighted shrieks. “I’m surprised with how many people knew it and were down with it,” Knox said.
Awaiting his turn at the mic at Bob and Barbara’s, Nazeer Harper stood just off to the side of the performance space nursing a PBR and singing along with nearly every performer, bobbing his head to “Super Bass,” “You’re Still The One,” and “Careless Whisper.” Karaoke was his primary hobby pre-pandemic, and for the first time in nearly a year and a half, Harper was back at it with one of his go-tos: “You Are My Lady” by Freddie Jackson. Over the course of the pandemic, Harper, 33, had been practicing new songs, following lyrics and singing along to himself, to add to his rotation, like “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo. He said he’d try it the next night at the 700. In the end, he wasn’t ready to whip it out just yet, he said; instead he performed Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.”
As the city settles into some version of normalcy, residents are embracing the activities that for so long carried the most risk. Together again, double-fisting a beer and a microphone, Philly’s amateur singers can be the center of attention — for at least a few minutes.
“When you’re handing a mic to somebody who doesn’t get to be center stage, there’s a lot of power in that,” Sherr said. “I can’t make things 100 percent safe in a bar because there’s a lot of elements that I can’t control, but how can I make it so that person feels comfortable and safe and heard?”
Back at Ray’s, Ruiz finished the final notes of Morissette and attempted to squeeze her way through the crowd for a smoke break, a process which would’ve taken far less time in a less-congested bar. If the city were to completely shut down again this winter, Ruiz takes comfort in the fact that she’s fully embracing performing in this capacity — any capacity.
“I’m just trying to enjoy everything being open and then doing everything I’m being told by science,” Ruiz said. “If [the city shuts down again], then I’ll just sing at my house. I’ll put karaoke on YouTube and sing at home.”