Around D.C., only the would-be powerful or tearfully apologetic (and sometimes both) elect to slide behind lecterns in the harsh light of day and do the public address thing.
But come Wednesday, Congress’ closeted crooners climb down from their mountain and make a beeline for Hill Country, where they loudly and proudly belt out their personal anthems with a little help from the HariKaraoke Band.
Those who’ve never been to Hill Country’s weekly Rock ’n’ Twang Live Band Karaoke should know that it’s far removed from the tragic-comic torture originally visited on us by sake-blind Japanese businessmen. Which is not to say that Hill Country is totally devoid of musically challenged performers. (We’re looking at you, dude who overemoted every last bar of Radiohead’s “Creep.”)
But that is, of course, all part of the fun.
“If you can’t sing, it really is a friendly room. If we know the words, we’ll sing along with you,” a Hill Country spokeswoman said of the insta-camaraderie that the weekly cover-fest fosters. “Usually when Congress is in session ... it’s packed down there.”
HariKaraoke drummer Kenny Lewis suggested the quirky quartet, which formed in May 2010, is happy to rock out with anyone. “We’re there to supply people a release,” he asserted, noting that the band deliberately exclude the giant gong that it hauls around to other local shows because Hill Country doesn’t want to alienate any of its off-key customers.
The band got its start accompanying entertainment-starved Columbia Heights denizens who would gather at the Wonderland Ballroom. The group is now in demand almost every night of the week, jamming biweekly on Tuesdays at the WB and Whitlow’s on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, Va., on Wednesdays at Hill Country, on Fridays at SoBe’s in Clarendon, Va., and usually one Saturday a month at the Lion & Bull in Haymarket, Va.
Hill Country, however, remains the band’s largest and most enthusiastic crowd, Lewis said. “At this point, tables fill up by 8:30 p.m., it lasts till midnight ... and it’s packed and crazy every night,” Lewis explained, though he predicted the mounting throngs at SoBe might eclipse Hill Country come spring.
For now, the ebb and flow of Hill Country’s shindig is dictated more by available time than visiting talent. Lewis said the band tries to accommodate about 40 singers per night (allotting about five minutes per performance), amassing a songbook of 300-plus tunes that apparently strikes a chord with all kinds of folks.
There was the breathy brunette who vamped her way through Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”; the tuneless trio (ZZ Top-bearded lead singer, black backup singer and timid chick clutching a Mason jar full of liquid courage) who took the time to mangle Modern English’s “I Melt With You”; the soulful sista who injected some flava into Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”; the tipsy, cowboy hat-wearing lug with a penchant for David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”; and the extended family — with what appeared to be no less than three generations on stage harmonizing together, including three infant-toting moms — collectively demanding a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Lewis estimated that song selection at Hill Country is reliably one-quarter country, while the rest is a hodgepodge of popular music. Of those who jockey to claim a slot, Lewis said that no more than 20 percent of the participants are regulars, with an even smaller contingent (perhaps one or two, he posited) shadowing the band from venue to venue.
Then there’s Camille.
The talented tween, a slip of a girl who’d be hard-pressed to flirt her way into a PG-13 flick, began showing up a few months back. Lewis said the Chevy Chase,Md., native, who is always escorted by her father, has since become a minor celebrity. Sure enough, when she thunders through Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” — displaying unparalleled maturity and a preternatural appreciation of the agonizing loss that fuels the source material — the crowd goes wild, waving the tabletop candles overhead while she builds to her crescendo and rocketing to their feet for a standing ovation when the pint-sized songstress brings it all home.
If seeking out the spotlight would require slogging back a bit of social lubricant, may we recommend giving the house cocktail carte a second glance. Sure, there are $2 bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon to be had during happy hour and $20 pitchers of the full gamut of Shiner beers all the time, but Beverage Director Alex Munoz has compiled nearly a dozen specialty drinks that will ably whet your whistle.
Those who favor the sweeter side of life should enjoy the dulcet tones of the Buffalo (bourbon and spiced rum swirled with a splash of Big Red soda) or the Austin Rattle Snake (more bourbon tempered with fresh watermelon and a slew of citrus juices). Fire-eaters can live dangerously with the Mayor of Lockhart (tequila, champagne and bitters bolstered by Serrano peppers) or Kreuz margarita (straight tequila and hot peppers). We most enjoyed tussling with the Amarillo Highway (marrying rye and honeyed-bourbon with fresh lemon) and the HC Cooler (a space-age screwdriver composed of domestic vodka and that NASA-approved, gravity-defying OJ known as Tang).
Dining in the song dungeon is a tad challenging, particularly if all the picnic-style tables have already been claimed. The best standing-room-only fare would have to be the brisket tacos, weaving together slow-smoked (16 to 18 hours) lean brisket with tangy pickled onions, creamy cotija cheese sauce, herbaceous cilantro and matchsticks of incendiary jalapeno, or the beef barbecue sandwich (seasoned, smoked and shaved beef shoulder heaped onto a bready bun).
If sitting is in the cards, make sure to indulge in the restaurant’s full complement of oak-smoked, hand-rubbed barbecue options. Were money no object, we’d dine exclusively on the incredibly unctuous short ribs, yielding massive slabs of meltingly tender meat the likes of which we are confident would turn any on-the-fence vegetarian.
Midwesterners revere burnt ends, those resplendently charred extremities that encapsulate the full measure of flesh, spice and smoke, and you should, too. The pork ribs, second only to the brisket, yield mouthfuls of wood-scented tissue offering less resistance than a 2 a.m. booty call. Beef ribs take more convincing, their well-marbled flesh challenging the canines and incisors to a delicious tug of war that eventually ends in the relinquishing of ravishingly juicy cow parts.
And we are ever so grateful they’ve never made us sing for our dinner.
Hill Country DC
410 Seventh St. NW; 202-556-2050; hillcountrywdc.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open daily for lunch, dinner and late-night dining.