Fringe Day 3: Massaoke gets Rochester to sing-along

Sep 15, 2018

It was the biggest gig in the short history of Massaoke, but the band’s expectations were low. Sure, it was the Glastonbury Festival. But the band was playing at 5 in the afternoon.

To its surprise, the show was packed. Except, “People were crying,” says drummer Mat Morrisroe. “They had been showing the Amy Winehouse documentary right before we played.”

Nevertheless, the band played on. And the crowd stayed. “We thought: This actually worked in front of a crowd of people,” keyboardist Mark Nilsson says.

Yes, it worked. And it did again Friday night at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival, for several thousand people gathered on downtown’s Parcel 5. Five guys in their 40s, wearing spandex and glittering sequined shirts. Massaoke, mass karaoke. A giant, London-bred karaoke party, with thousands of people singing along to the live music.

These massive free outdoor shows have become the signature event of Rochester Fringe. Last year an estimated 10,000 people came each of the two nights at Parcel 5, the gravel lot off of East Main Street, to see the fantasy inflatables and sternum-pounding music of Plasticienes Volants.

Now it’s Massaoke’s turn, with a second show Saturday. Although there was minor hiccup to open the tour. The band’s flight from England took it to Detroit, where an overly enthusiastic customs inspection led to Massaoke missing its connecting flight to Rochester. No big deal – “The guy with the rubber gloves was fine,” Nilsson says – and they caught a flight to Elmira to get the band close enough.

Massaoke’s first gig was seven years ago, same day as one of the Royal weddings, although it wasn’t invited. “We all used to be in rock bands in our youth,” Nilsson says. “We gave it up as a failed dream.” But after working its way up from a steady diet of pub gigs, Massaoke caught the eyes of Rochester Fringe Producer Erica Fee at last year’s Fringe Edinburgh; she was so enchanted, she went back a second night, and booked it for its North American debut. Massaoke has shown that karaoke has a place even among hardened fans at the Rugby World Cup finals. “Butch men singing ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart,’ and loving it,” says guitarist Neil Winspear.

Friday’s stage was set by three excellent and diverse local bands, the Americana of The Crooked North, La Muralla’s Latin and Vanishing Sun. The latter in particular gave the glam of Massaoke a run: A jazz and funk fusion, showing Afro-futurism in lead singer Zahyia with her black-leather outfit outlined in crimson feathers.

And then Massaoke. Embarrassing karaoke moments such as forgetting the words to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” or The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy” are kept to a minimum, as they appear on large screens behind the band. The band sings as well, but often only as a backup to the crowd.

Familiarity is a key. The audience did well enough with the opening “Livin’ on a Prayer,” but was uncertain what to do with the followup, “Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag.”

But for the most part, the songs were familiar, and Massaoke helped out by organizing them by theme. An ’80s mixtape featuring A-Ha’s “Take on Me” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which seemed like what everyone came for. A ’70s mixtape of The Village People’s “YMCA” – the crowd remembered how to spell it out, semaphore style – and Abba’s “Mamma Mia,” greeted with a roar of approval. A USA collection included Van Halen’s “Jump,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and the second Bon Jovi offering, “You Give Love a Bad Name.” There was a Grease soundtrack sampler. And disco, with Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.” It seemed a shame there wasn’t a wedding reception to accompany all of this.

The crowd was even called on to help with the set list, screaming for whether it wanted Blink-182’s “All The Small Things” or The Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” Winner: Blink-182. And should Massaoke play Toto’s “Africa” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Inexplicably, or perhaps weakened by the smell of French fries coming from the food trucks, people voted for Toto.

Massaoke knows its audience. What doesn’t work? “Apparently ‘Sweet Caroline,’ because that’s the Boston Red Sox theme song,” Winspear said, well aware he’s in Yankees territory. The band tossed in a couple of challenging ones, such as The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” But it stayed away from making statements with songs like Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny ’Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?” or John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” No, on nights like this, Massaoke was here to help us forget the world’s troubles.

And it saved the biggest challenge for last. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was the evening’s finest moment. Rochester can do falsetto.

The party at Parcel 5 returns Saturday, with Syracuse’ Chris Eves and the New Normal, the Eastern conglomerate EightFingers and Philadelphia’s Cold Fronts starting at 5 p.m., with Massaoke hitting the stage at 8:30 p.m. 

Fringe Day Four

Getting a handle on the extensive schedule of Saturday’s events involves Monk-like study of the Rochester Fringe guide. The complete schedule, and tickets, are available at rochesterfringe.com. Here are a few suggestions:

The cast of Estrofest
Credit Rochester Fringe Festival

PUSH Physical Theatre, 7 p.m., School of the Arts: Allen Main Stage. Rochester’s acclaimed motion-theater group presents a few of its works from this year, as well as a solo new piece by founder Darren Stevenson, “The Pew.” As the son of a pastor, Stevenson took note of what people were doing as they sat through his father’s preaching. PUSH also performs 7 p.m. Sept. 20 and 7 p.m. Sept. 22.

EstroFest Comedy: Celebrating 20 Years of Laughs, 8 p.m., Geva Theatre Center: Fielding Stage. The first women of Rochester comedy present their sketch comedy and videos. EstroFest continues with shows 2:30 p.m. Sunday, 5:30 p.m. Sept. 21 and 8 p.m. Sept. 22.

With the Cows, 6 p.m., Writers & Books. A collaboration of spoken word by local poet Rick Petrie and ambient music, featuring guitarist Phil Marshall.

Melissa Cole of Mo-to-the-oncle
Credit Rochester Fringe Festival

Mo-to-the-oncle, 6 p.m. School of the Arts: Enemble Theatre. This one-woman show, written by and starring Melissa Cole, was a big hit at last year’s fest. The premise is inherently comical: a high-school teenager wearing a monocle. The show returns 4 p.m. Sunday.

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI and Rochester-based writer, is reporting on the Fringe Festival daily at wxxinews.org. His web site is jeffspevak.com.