Sometimes it’s not enough for a bar to have the most righteous jukebox in town.
Patrons don’t always want to dump in dollars to hear tracks off Rancid’s “Let’s Go” or Sonic Youth’s “Dirty,” and Rolling Rock rockers aren’t always looking for Soul Asylum’s grime-coated cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” to serenade their swilling. Some nights, freewheeling bar-hoppers need to provide the night’s vocal themselves.
For these evenings, there’s Macky’s Essex Street Pub, whose Tuesday Night Karaoke extravaganza might be Buffalo’s most free-spirited weeknight debacle inside one of its greatest corner taverns.
Opened in 1986 but operating in its current James “Macky” Moberly-owned state since 2011, the pub’s attributes, history and music provide everything one could want in an iconic Buffalo alehouse. The green-wallpapered barroom is littered with odes to the city’s past, whether with Simon Pure beer trays or a 1999 Buffalo St. Patrick’s Day parade poster to go with the pub’s tremendous burger menu. Local pre-Prohibition brewing titan, Gerhard Lang, once utilized Essex Street’s 1883-era interiors as a saloon. As for the music, walk into the bar, flip through its juke pages and know this: It’s most likely the only bar in the state that hosts all seven discs of Time Life’s phone-order-only “Rolling Stone Collection.”
But despite this amazing relic of late-night impulse purchases (including one from this writer), Essex Street’s Tuesday night crowd isn’t interested. Instead, they find the locale’s dimly lit side barroom for pitchers of Rolling Rock and Long Trail’s Mostly Cloudy, a Witbier-style offering. They enter the more expansive front barroom for their turn at the billiards table or on the retro two-player arcade console. And, those with an itch for imitation grab one of the night’s microphones to churn out their choice of karaoke classics.
On a recent Tuesday night, I found Essex Street for a Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald ($5) and a spot at the corner of the bar. The night’s song options – ranging from A-Ha’s “Take On Me” to Wilson Phillips’s “Hold On” – were available inside phonebook-sized lists distributed throughout the barroom. My last karaoke attempt was a duet with my wife on AC/DC’s “Back in Black” at a family wedding in Cape Cod. Since my overzealous Brian Johnson impersonation frightened most of my in-laws, I decided to retire from anymore barroom tributes and stick to spectating.
Thankfully, Essex Street’s party had plenty of entries to keep me silent.
A ramshackle opening effort on Tears for Fears’s “Head Over Heels,” one in which a stranger walked in off the street to sub mid-song for the original vocalist. A hipster duo teamed for Meatloaf masterpiece “Paradise By The Dashboard Light.” A solitary man sincerely emoted his way through Bob Seeger’s “Night Moves” before the night’s Tears for Fears crew returned to smash through Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” under an overhead statue of Jack Daniel.
One by one, millennial patrons donning dark-framed glasses and multicolored denim danced through excruciating or epic versions of ready-made sing-alongs. For every misguided Mohawk tumbling through a misguided version of Young MC’s “Bust A Move,” there was a seasoned professional, clad in green jeans strutting through an expert take on Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”
But in Macky’s Essex Street Pub, both efforts add to the bar’s clubhouse vibe. Whether painful or pleasing, patrons still dance, pass around pitchers of Flying Bison’s Rusty Chain and sing along, song after song. It’s the rhythm of a Tuesday night on Rhode Island.
And even with its jukebox turned off, the street’s cherished welcome mat still makes beautiful music.