While some karaoke machines hold only a few CDs at a time, lead entertainers at Howl at the Moon memorize up to 400 songs across many genres.
“Because when I walk into a piano bar, R. Kelly is the first thing I think of,” Alex Walsh, a lead entertainer and dueling piano player, said to the audience during a Wednesday night show.
Dueling piano bars are not a new concept to Philadelphia. However, Howl at the Moon, which is located at 258 S. 15th St. in Rittenhouse and opened on Oct. 4, aims to create a more encompassing interactive music experience and revive the live music in the bar scene. The bar uses guitars, drums and keyboards, as well as two baby grand pianos. Sometimes the performers even use trash cans as instruments.
Audience members request songs to be played by the band. Songs can vary from hip hop staples such as “Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly, to karaoke favorites such as “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi, to current radio hits such as “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus.
“[It] allows their typical customer to sing along with 90 percent of the songs,” Howl’s website says about the bar’s mission.
“There are five musicians, all playing different instruments, and they all know how to play every instrument used from bass to piano,” Katie Thomas, Howl at the Moon’s sales and events manager, as well as a Temple alumna, said. “If they don’t know a song, then they learn it on the spot.”
Most of the time, the choices aren’t left up to the performers.
“They can play anything from Billy Joel to Lady Gaga, and it’s really just up to the audience,” Thomas said.
Many performers at the bar come from other Howl at the Moon locations to bring their entertainment to Philadelphia.
Thomas said performers come from all over the nation, including San Antonio, Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans.
The dueling aspect of the piano bar begins when patrons start tipping the pianists to play their song next or stop playing a current song to play the tune they want to hear instead.
Small slips of paper can be found at the tables in Howl to write in requests before the show begins, but shout outs and tips are a more popular option.
Performers have to be knowledgeable in a wide variety of music so they can comply with song requests. Just being able to play the music is not the only criteria, though. Entertaining the audience is a large part of the performance, which means humor and wit are needed for the job.
“I’m not a huge pop fan, but when Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ is performed, it’s really great,” Thomas said. “The whole band plays and they get out metal trash cans to use as drums.”
Howl at the Moon has been around since the 1990s and uses the New Orleans location as inspiration for its shows.
“The inspiration comes from the old-school duel piano shows, but Howl is more of a rock ‘n’ roll show made more entertaining with audience participation,” Thomas said.
Lines to enter the bar on weekends have been down the block, Thomas said.
“It’s been amazing,” Thomas said. “Just from word of mouth, people have really started to know us. When we were first opening, the most common thing I heard about the Philly bar scene was, ‘There’s not enough places to dance.’ At Howl, we have live music and a dance floor, but it’s not a nightclub and it really works well.”
They serve food and a variety of alcohol, from local craft beers to moonshine. The moonshine served, Midnight Moon, can be found at local liquor stores, but it still adds to Howl’s vibe.
Since Howl hopes to bring Southern charm to Philly through its New Orleans inspiration, serving moonshine is a way of expressing its Southern roots.
Moonshine used to be an outlawed drink, traditionally associated with prohibition in the South, but it has recently become a government-regulated and alcohol.
Moonshine, which is un-aged white whiskey, has gained popularity with a national movement toward smaller, local distilleries.
It is a trend Howl has picked up on and used to differentiate itself from more traditional bars.
As for the venue, Howl is set up with a stage for the band in the front, a dance floor, high tables so patrons can easily watch the show and a bar in the back.
“We’re really excited to be a part of the Philly live music scene,” Thomas said.
Sinead Cummings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.