On Bandeoke Night, versatile musicians help would-be rockers sparkle in the spotlight

By Jeanne Shook  |  Photograph by Scott Nathan
From the July 2019 issue

bandeoke The Backup Plan - Delaware Beach LifeRock star wannabes, meet your bandmates — they’re ready and waiting for you each Monday evening in Rehoboth Beach.

That’s when Murph’s Beef & Ale offers Bandeoke Night, when those eager (or simply brave enough) to bring their voice and/or instrument into the spotlight can stand alongside seasoned professionals happy to provide the background music, vocals and harmony.

The concept is familiar: think karaoke, only on steroids. Unlike karaoke, however, there’s no predetermined song list, canned music or lyrics to guide participants. It’s what singer-guitarist (and Murph’s bandeoke spokeswoman) Kim Butler calls the “Wild West version of open mic.” Butler, the founder of the weekly event, is also one of the Usual Suspects, the four-member ensemble that puts the “band” in bandeoke.

Considered the bar and restaurant’s house group, the Usual Suspects are joined regularly by a cadre of professional singers and musicians who drop in to play along or try out a new act. With all that musical talent as a backdrop, the stage is set for audience members to live out their fantasy of singing or playing with a live band. “It’s a chance for the average Joe to get up and have fun or seasoned pros to play with other people,” explains Butler.

From a guy with a ukulele to another who wanted to sing a Frank Sinatra selection from the Great American Songbook, it’s “a great novelty,” says Murph’s singing bartender, Ashley Ruark, adding that “people are into it.”

When a band member needs to rest his or her voice and the crowd is more focused on socializing than singing, it’s Ruark’s turn to keep the ball rock ’n’ rolling. While there’s no mention of a “singing bartender” in the bandeoke playbook, in this case it adds entertainment value and a high-energy vibe. “People love to watch a bartender multitasking,” observes Murph’s owner
Jo Ketler.

Whether belting out Pat Benatar or Alanis Morissette with the Usual Suspects, she doesn’t miss a beat, or a drink order, throughout whatever number she’s singing. (The Rehoboth Beach resident is no stranger to performing: She’s been in her own band, Freshly Squeezed, for 12 years — “before I was old enough to tend bar.”) Her dual-role performance — from behind the bar — gives new meaning to Benatar’s lyric “Hit me with your best shot.” Says the multitasker: “I have a mic in one hand, a bottle of liquor in the other. … I’m just trying to keep everyone happy.”

The Usual Suspects share that aim. The group is actually a collective of familiar faces from the vibrant Delmarva music scene who otherwise perform at various locales with their own bands. There’s guitarist Kathy Nace-Jones of Luna Sea; acoustic guitarist John DelGuidice of Identity Crisis; and drummer Jill Brady of The Girlfriends, an all-girl rock group that also includes Butler and bass guitarist Robin Rohr. (The Girlfriends perform regularly at Murph’s.)

The Suspects’ musical “agility” — which is essential to providing bandeoke participants with the accompaniment they need — stems from the fact that each member’s respective band has a diverse playlist that encompasses a variety of styles and genres. From Eric Clapton and B.B. King to Three Dog Night and John Mellencamp, they offer solid renditions of popular covers, enough to entice most would-be rock stars or pop phenoms to take the mic and turn their dream into reality. “We do what they want,” says Butler, noting that most song requests are familiar to someone in the band; if not, iPhones or iPads can acquaint the musicians with the song and provide the singer with the lyrics.

The U.K. is credited with introducing the first fully live bandeoke experience in the early 2000s. Most bandeoke bands feature at least one member who can sing and, at the very minimum, drums, guitar and bass (although one night, according to Butler, six drummers showed up at Murph’s).
The overall format can vary, but the Usual Suspects fit the bill for the three basic elements needed for successful bandeoke: versatile and flexible musicians; the ability to provide lead or background vocals as the song dictates; and moral support, should the performer need encouragement — vocally or otherwise.

According to one audience member/sometime participant, Alicia Mickenberg, “Every night is different,” which is part of the attraction.

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