For anyone who's heard that video games are killing the entertainment industry, this may be the most rocking case ever of "if you can't beat them, join them" - and shred them.
Rock Band and Guitar Hero, two of the biggest video games on the market, have landed on Philly's bar and club scene, with players and onlookers socializing on blast.
Only it's "peripherals" and "controllers" shaped like guitars and drums with "interfaces" made to look like monsters of the six-string (a la Slash) that will get you to Overdrive and Star Power - gamer versions of bliss.
And leading the way are a Philadelphia actor dressed like a cartoon character and a former WYSP-FM DJ.
Carmen Martella III plays Skeletor, the arch-enemy of the Masters of the Universe comic series, for monthly Guitar Hero Shred-a-thon and Karaoke Gong Show events at the Trocadero in Center City.
Michael Andrews, a.k.a. "Couzin Ed" - a onetime radio jock-turned-video-game promoter - hosts Rock Band Sundays at Jager's in Old City.
Since 2005, Activision's Guitar Hero series, developed by Harmonix Music Systems and Neversoft, has sold more than 14 million games.
Rock Band, developed by Harmonix, published by MTV Games and distributed by EA, has been around since 2007. But it's already sold nearly four million units.
Both feature downloadable songs from names old and new: Fall Out Boy, YeahYeahYeahs, Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. Some bands, like the Sex Pistols, even re-recorded some of their classics for the games.
The ultimate Guitar fantasy is to hit the right notes - and become them.
Guitar Hero is perfect for two people in competition, with its skill levels matched to how accurately you can play the "notes" coming at you on the screen. Rock Band does the same, but with a full band on its monitors.
Playing at home and in a bar or club are two very different experiences.
"When you play Rock Band at home, it's like just singing in the shower," says Andrews. "When you play Rock Band in a bar, it is a real gig."
In a live social setting, you can garner the cheers of a big crowd by strutting and making strained faces like John Mayer or wagging your tongue like Gene Simmons.
There are also a lot of boos and jeers. That's where a host like Skeletor comes in.
While Brooklyn hot spots such as Hugs and Barcade have made a name for their Guitar Hero nights, neither can match the Trocadero's amenities - an antique balcony and a full-size movie screen onto which they project the wireless set-up's proceedings of flying notes and Mohawk-wearing character interfaces.
As a mix of karaoke and Guitar Hero Shred-a-thon, the Troc becomes a gamer mini-mall, a party for nerds, ruled by Skeletor's iron fist.
"Be prepared to hear the sound of your doom," says 32-year-old Martella through a toothy rubber mask. "I got a brand-new gong."
The fact that Skeletor is a nasty cur, in blue-gray tights to match his skull, is what makes that character perfect to host what Martella calls a pop-culture cocktail.
"You have the 1980s Skeletor and the 1970s proto American Idol program, The Gong Show. You have '60s guitar heroes and '20s vaudeville where performers would be pulled off the stage with a hook," says Martella.
"Simon Cowell - eat your heart out."
Says Martella: "The concept of being a rock star, guitar hero or singing sensation is more powerful than winning the lottery. Who doesn't want to be on stage with throngs of adoring fans worshipping your every note?"
Larry West wants it.
The 23-year-old graphic designer and recent mayoral candidate with a stunning Mohawk plays a real guitar. He rattles off a list of favorite bands to jam to: Iron Maiden. Metallica.
On this night, he's trying the Guitar Hero Shred a-thon, lured by the competition and social connection.
"I've already met a bunch of people and everyone seems pretty cool," says West. "I'm waiting to play Jen."
That's Jen Corsilli, 26, the club's promotional manager and the one who brought Guitar Hero to the Troc.
Before the night ends, West will face off against Corsilli on the Dead Kennedys' "Holidays in Cambodia." While West bobs and weaves, Corsilli stands still and riffs hard. West barely ekes out a victory. But win he does - this time.
"I stayed focused and sober. That's the key," says West, pleased to have beaten the reigning champion.
"I'm a nerd," says Corsilli, who moonlights as a field- hockey coach at Drexel University. After she brought the game to a staff Christmas party, everybody got hooked. She thought it would make a great night out - especially after she met Martella, doing his Skeletor character at a comic- book convention.
At Jager's in Old City, the competition can be as intense as a hot riff.
"Last night, dude walks in with his own PlayStation 3 Rock Band guitar and eight of his friends," says the weekly Sunday event's host, Andrews. "This guy was serious. He heard about Rock 'N Shot Sundays and brought his axe. Suddenly he's got his own singer, drummer, guitarist, and bass player. Full band. It was bad."
Andrews, 40, has dealt with the rock scene, the gaming scene and the bar scene.
He bartended at Jager's when he ended his on-air radio stint at WYSP-FM (94.1) in 2006.
He's worked for Rockstar Games - not the maker of the video game Rock Band but rather the creator of the mega-selling Grand Theft Auto - doing everything from voice-over work to radio promotions and vending for GTA.
Doing Rock Band at a bar was a no-brainer for Andrews. But, it had to be the right environment with the right kind of patrons.
"It's like karaoke times 10 with all rock music," notes Andrews. And since some people don't like to sing, Rock Band gives you options to hit the drum pads, strum the faux Fender Stratocaster controller, or howl into the microphone while the corresponding "instrumentalist" appears on the video screen.
Weezer, the Ramones and the Beastie Boys are faves on Rock 'N Shot Sundays.
"Some people come in alone, see it and want to play," says Andrews. "One guy gets on the drums, and two people that he or she does not even know join in. Next thing you know, they are rockin' out and having a great time, buying each other beers or shots, making friends."
The social aspect of fast friends and fast music is what makes Guitar Hero and Rock Band played in a bar perfect for those not into the club scene.
"At Jager's there's no red rope, no cover charge, no dress code, no trendy girls who only go out to be seen. Only this game that people fall in love with," says Andrews of his Rock Band nights.
"The purpose of doing Guitar Hero is about being in a social setting without having to be cool," says Corsilli at the Troc.
"You have Skeletor and Guitar Hero and rock music. If you can't figure out something to talk about, you should stay home."
To play Guitar Hero or Rock Band alone.
But that's another story.
Guitar Hero Shred-a-thon
Saturday, 9 p.m.
1003 Arch St.
Rock Band Rock 'N Shot
Jager's Shot & Beer Bar
Every Sunday, 9 p.m.
45 S. Third St.