House Party (Singing West Virginia, #27)

The West Virginia stop was one of those that was on the way to nothing; a two-day drive to put a checkmark by a state. After months of chatting online and sharing schedules, Joe waits for at the Elks Lodge #198 in Parkersburg – so were his assistant, Kristy, and his mother. He and his mom wore matching blue Joe-E-Okie T-shirts; she had no teeth. Not to worry, though, as her dentist was simply on vacation, but it did require her to pass on the corn on the cob that came with the steak dinner. Every Friday is steak dinner and Joe treated both of us – he had already promised my dinner was on him, and Dave benefitted from the fact that his girlfriend decided not to order one back to the house after all (she was home watching their 8-month old). Dave, Joe, and I ordered it rare, and mom got medium. The dinner also came with a baked potato as big as a house; luckily, the Lodge ran out by the time our dinners were served, so I “only” got half of one, splitting a spud with mom. The four of us sat together in a booth and exchanged small talk during bites. Sometimes the talk grew, though, as we learned about mom’s ex, Joe’s time in the Marines, and the juggling of blended families. A “Don’t Tread on Me” sign hung on the wall above us.

Time for steak dinner!

The corn was a bit mushy but still farm sweet, and the steak was cooked just right, but was about half fat; Joe complained about it to no one in particular, then cleared our plates and started the show. He had gotten there early to set up, so that he could have dinner with us.

Joe opens and Kristy follows with matching CCR tunes. Kristy normally opens with Crimson and Clover, and Lodi is her second song, followed by Cathy’s Clown, but she mixed up her typical order so that they could match up nice. Two lights and a disco ball make a crazy display of color throughout the room. Shows here get to be about 8-12 singers long (I think this includes them) so no matter what, the KJs get to sing a lot, too. It’s pretty much a steady string of regulars every night here, though last week for Joe’s birthday there was a larger crowd – 21 singers that night. The Elk’s Lodge simply doesn’t ever get packed, they say and that’s fine by me, though I end up singing a lot more than usual. Coming up with songs can be challenging at times, and when there are a lot of choices to make it calls for extra brain power and creativity that I simply don’t always have.

First song up I choose Rhiannon; I sing a lot of Fleetwood Mac, but this is a first for me. Mom tells me I sound better than Stevie Nicks when I sit down. A huge compliment for sure, but extra special for me, as in high school I was tempted to get a heart tattooed on my ankle with “S.N.” written inside. One of the many dreams I had back then I’m glad never manifested themselves.

After a couple of rounds of singing, Joe buys me a shot. He first offers a “little beer” which I decline because it has cream as a float to look like the foam – I don’t like dairy with my booze. Then he keeps recommending shots with Red Bull in them; I tell him I can’t do caffeine; plus, I think to myself that Red Bull tastes like cough syrup – I hate that shit. I tell him that straight Jaegy is fine, and no, not in a bomb (that means with Red Bull). He orders the shots, and we clink glasses at the table together. I take mine down in a few gulps, as I’m not one to slam anything. Later on, Becky the social manager of the Elk’s Lodge offers to buy me a drink, but I say I really shouldn’t have any more alcohol tonight. She seems disappointed, but I was already a beer, a G&T, and Joe’s shot in, and was staring at a full G&T. Linda Lou, the bartender, pours a stiff drink and sings a mean Susan Tedeschi in a perfectly gravely voice. Joe says she sings a lot better when she’s drunk, but I have a hard time imagining her any better.

Joe, me, and Dave under the crazy Elks Lodge lights

Joe records me for his YouTube channel and it’s time to decide on a song. Not sure whether to play it safe and choose more Fleetwood Mac or go big; Dave encourages big and Somebody to Love is recorded. During the song, I sense every missed note, every missed opportunity to amp it up a bit. My scat at the end feels off, and I’m painfully aware that I have no stage presence during instrumental breaks. Still, I have a good time. I awkwardly wave at the camera when it’s all done. The patrons cheer and the one black man yells “Who Let the Dogs Out?” which seems to be his signature phrase for a job well done. His friends try to get him to actually sing the song, but he says no way – his amazing voice is reserved for the likes of Tracey Chapman and R. Kelly.

Even though the show started out super slow, it fills by 9:30 – we’re at about 15 singers during the peak singing time, which is a pretty nice balance between getting to sing and just hanging out. Many others are here just to have a cheap drink and hang out with friends. At 11pm, we stop and the traditional Elk 11 o’clock toast is conducted to honor all absent members. After the break, someone sings Welcome to the Jungle. Joe leads the song by saying he won’t come knocking if there’s a jungle, then mutters something about the carpet matching the drapes, until he settles on the line “It better be a hardwood floor.”

Joe and I close with the duet, Stop Dragging My Heart Around — another Stevie Nicks first for me. We listen to once out front while he smokes to remember it; I don’t think I’ve heard that tune in at least a decade. Normally Joe opens and closes the show, but this time I get to share the honors with him to end this night. We do OK, all things considered. At a tad after midnight, there are no more songs to choose; everyone hugs me goodbye or shakes my hand and wishes me well. I hope these people all fare well, too. They made the long drive totally worth it.

The basics:

  • Location: Elks Lodge #198, Parkersburg, WV
  • Miles traveled: 554 Miles
  • Songs sung: Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac), Like the Weather (10,000 Maniacs), It’s Raining Men (Weather Girls), Somebody to Love (Queen), I’ll Be There (Jackson 5), Walkin’ After Midnight (Patsy Cline), Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty).

House party (Singing Kentucky #16)

I get to the bar early because I don’t like to drive to a new place in the dark if I can help it. Kaptin the bartender wears a navy baseball cap backwards, his name embroidered on it in the same color so it’s only visible at certain angles in certain light in the dark bar. He has a soothing voice and a trusting soul. This is demonstrated when he leaves the bar and disappears behind a door, leaving me in the bar completely by myself. The few others in here went outside to smoke, leaving behind a phone and tablet. I guess it’s that sort of place. It’s strange to be completely by myself in a bar I don’t know at all, in a state I don’t know at all.

Kaptin comes back with a handful of limes. The smokers come back inside as well, this time with the KJ in tow and he begins to set up. The four of them talk about how to bring more patrons into the bar before karaoke starts – they talk about game nights, getting the pool tables back into commission (the room where they are is being redone), and starting Guitar Hero nights. It made me think that Kaptin was the owner, or at least a manager, but as I talk with him I no longer think that’s the case. I think he just really likes being here and cares enough to have the place do well. He’s been coming to the bar for over 20 years, but working there for just over 3, “I love music and karaoke fits the bill. It’s better than putting money in a jukebox.” I feel like I’m a guest, sitting at his kitchen counter as he slices limes to get ready for a house party.

Such a personal spot tucked away in the most impersonal of places.

Soon after, others begin to filter in and the singing starts. Kaptin hugs or fist bumps most of them. The party is about to begin. Like most gatherings, it starts out slow until those who prefer to be fashionably late arrive. People sing Weird Al Yankovic, misogynistic rap songs, Nora Jones, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. One of the original smokers turns on the disco lights and cranks up the bass so that the whole bar shakes with the music. Kaptin sings Chemical Romance when it’s his turn. With the party in full swing, I slip off my stool and out the door. Part of me feels guilty that I didn’t say goodbye to the host.

The basics:

  • Location: Survivors, Lexington, KY
  • Miles traveled: 221
  • Songs sung: Mr. Brightside (The Killers), Dreaming (Blondie)

The magic of outdoors (Singing Indiana, #15)

There were only two things the karaoke in Indiana had in common with the karaoke in Michigan. Both were outside. I didn’t think that I would have one, never mind two, times, never mind two times in a row, where I would find myself singing in the great outdoors. Whereas the karaoke in Detroit was in the afternoon under the blazing sun, the karaoke here didn’t get underway until 10:30pm, and therefore we all got to sing under the stars. The evening was significantly cooler than those in previous days, and the night had a soft breeze to it that made me want my jacket for the first time since I left Oregon.

The setting was a neat, clean patio made of Trex decking and faux tile tables. My Miller Lite tallboy ran me $4.50; we were in a very trendy neighborhood in Indianapolis. The crowd skewed very young, and most chose to sing in pairs or groups. Unlike the singers in Detroit who sang with confidence and appeared to enjoy their time in the spotlight, the singers here needed the security blanket of another. Beyoncé, Maroon 5, Celine Dion (covering Meatloaf), B-52s, Vanessa Carlton and the Eagles – none were sung solo, or at least not alone. Those that did brave being solo onstage at least brought their beer for company. They sang to their friends, not the crowd as a whole. Their friends were supportive and clapped and whooped when the songs were done, but did so from afar, in the area where smoking was permitted. The scent of cloves dominated the air.

singing at night
Singing solo! Outside!

After one odd duet, a woman laughed at her partner into the microphone, “Nick, you’re a fucking dick;” the bouncer came up to remind them, “No cussing outdoors.” I felt sorry for anyone who chose to live in this area. I’m sure those that rented or bought here figured on dealing with bar patron noise as people hopped from one place to another, and then got into their cars when the lights went out. But dealing with bad singing until 3am is a whole other ballgame. And as the evening progressed, that seemed exactly what people were in for. I got in one song early on, but two hours later, I was still waiting for my second chance, and gave up. It was a Wednesday night after all, and my friend needed to get to work the next morning. I wonder who among us did as well.

The other thing that this bar had in common with Michigan was its fun environment. These singers, for the most part, weren’t good, but they were all-in, smiling and having a ball. There is something about singing in the open air that feels freeing – more comfortable than I imagined. I didn’t expect singing outside versus inside to be all that different, but it is. Summer karaoke brings a special quality to it, if you can sing to the light of the moon – and you don’t have to listen to it from your apartment window.

The bar mascot

The basics:

  • Location: Monkey’s Tale, Indianapolis, IN
  • Miles traveled: 375
  • Songs sung: Heart of Glass (Blondie)

Family reunion (Singing Michigan, #14)

Friendly people and food out front…

I wasn’t sure if I belonged. For the longest time, I was the only white person there. No one made me think I shouldn’t be there, but I felt I was intruding – that I was crashing someone else’s party. The scene was both a large party and an intimate gathering – a family reunion. When I went up to the KJ to request a song, I felt like I had to explain myself; I said I was from Portland, OR. I babbled that I had been in Detroit less than an hour and was already loving the place. Then, I sat down and wondered if I was ever going to get a chance to sing – so many people getting up and sharing their amazing voices with the crowd. The KJ did call my name eventually, and when she did she let everyone know I was new in town; I received a warm welcome. Then I sang, and people clapped along, and at the end, just like they did for everyone. I was another singer in the group, another person enjoying good music in the sunshine.

….friendly people and singing out back.

I only sang that one time; I was enjoying myself too much to sing again. I shared a table with people who welcomed me to Detroit, then left to get out of the sun; there I talked with some others who found shade at the side of the building, but were still able to enjoy the show.

So many words describe this day. Magic. Happiness. Comfort. Joy. A large gathering of people in a back parking lot, singing, dancing, laughing. Amateurs like me baking in the sun, while most knew better and brought umbrellas or event tents. People setting up and settling down, because they were there to stay. I went for a walk, then came back to hear the music. When I left again after 8, they were still there. I want to believe they are always there.

I love me a good street mural.

The basics:

  • Location: Bert’s Marketplace, Detroit, Michigan
  • Miles traveled: 316
  • Songs sung: Still the One (Orleans)

Home away from home (Singing Nebraska, #10)

I’m not sure what to say about my Nebraska experience, except that I enjoyed the bar quite a bit. I could see going there on a regular basis. The KJ was a little older than me, a current/former hippie with a beard, dark-rimmed glasses, and a rope necklace. He has a beautiful voice and sings country music unfamiliar to me. Most of the singers are my age, and choose non-obvious, but familiar songs — Voices Carry by ‘Til Tuesday and Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nillson. For the most part, they have really good voices.

Some singers are gone by 10, and others replace them. It’s a small but steady crowd with almost everyone either singing or there to accompany someone who is. I’m as comfortable here as I would be in my hotel room so I stay to watch the baseball game, and appreciate the show. I get the KJ to do a duet with me, which is always fun — I like singing with others, but rarely get the chance to do so.

As I get ready to leave, I say goodbye to the KJ and we chat for a bit. He said he used to KJ at a karaoke bar, but to him this bar is more like a bar that has karaoke. Sure, people come here to sing, but they do other things. I think I understood what he meant. Even though most people put at least two songs in, they also phased in and out of focusing on karaoke to go about their business– watching the game, chatting with friends, shooting pool. There wasn’t really a sing-a-long, but there was always clapping. A relaxing Monday night in Omaha.

  • The basics:
  • Location: Moe & Curly’s, Omaha, NE
  • Miles Traveled: 168
  • Songs sung: Keep on Loving You (REO Speedwagon), Gloria (Laura Brannigan), Leather and Lace (Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty)
Obligatory shot of the bar.