Quest for Karaoke—Chapter Five

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It's true I take karaoke much more seriously than the average person. Actually, much much more seriously than the average person, with only one much applied to the average karaoke enthusiast. I scrutinize microphones and contrast the versions of songs offered by different companies in the same way audiophiles compare different pressings of vintage records. Whereas most people have a single go-to song and one or two backups that they trod out every week, there are over 60 songs that I consider my standards, and I'm always hungry to find a bold new track that challenges my vocal cords, my dance moves and my audience. I once penned a comic-zine guide to karaoke etiquette explaining why you shouldn't ever punish the poor bar staff with yet another version of "Summer Lovin'/What's Going On/Goodbye Earl" and how to best maximize the experience for yourself and the audience. I realize I have high standards for the sport, but they aren't unrealistic or even unachievable. Karaoke is of the people, not of the elites. It's not as much about having expensive gear or every song in existence as it is valuing the craft and working within your means to make it the best it can be within the constraints. Karaoke is a chance for anyone to be a pop god for three-and-a-half minutes, and they all deserve a fighting chance at it.

This is why I've been a bit frustrated with my vocal outings in Boise so far. Everywhere I've been, karaoke has been treated as an anonymous add-on, a "special-guest" rather than a headliner. And while I was certainly tickled pink to belt out Jefferson Starship, Young M.C. or Elvis at the places I've visited, between the anemic books, lousy sound, corrupt KJs and total participant disengagement, there wasn't a one that I would label a destination rather than an incidental.

I was beginning to think karaoke was a lost cause in Boise. That is until I stopped by Ha'Penny on a Wednesday.

It's a comfortable space, with that standard American faux-Irish pub style of dark hardwoods and gleaming brass, brick columns and a comfortable unforced feel. Karaoke is set up on an excellent stage, at just the right height and placement to make it a real performance, but to still allow bar patrons the choice of front and center, or hanging back on one of the two patios or the satellite room to chat.

The gear was beautiful. Three mics and a stand, a good sound system with a monitor and a TV stand for the screen, none of it held together by duct tape or coated in last night's barf. It all ran through a nice Mackie rack mixer that KJ kept watch over to moderate levels.

And then there's the book. Thick and beautiful, like the finest of shampoo slogans. All of the books were organized by artist, rather than the "by title" charlatans everyone dreads being stuck with. They had convenient little plastic pouches loaded with pencils and slips and none of the pages were stuck together. On those non-yellowed pages was a great selection of oddities like The Mars Volta and Vanilla Ice's "other single, "Play that Funky Music," along with regular updates for the latest singles. This was a book that had actually had a song by Bad Religion, as well as the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" and Concrete Blonde's version of "Everybody Knows." And then there was all the glorious Billy Idol that other venues lacked ... I could finally give a rebel yell while rocking the cradle of love after my white wedding during a hot night in the city. What joy! They even had both Fords: Lita and Tennesee Ernie.

I sang four songs in 90 minutes or so, with the perfect interested-but-not-creepy level of involvement from the audience.

When the KJ got up to sing "Cracklin' Rosie," my heart went all aflutter at having found a k-match. But then I got a bit frustrated. Here's the thing: This is just how karaoke should be run. That this is the anomaly rather than par is sad. That this is the doings of a for-hire karaoke company, Almost Famous Entertainment, and not the bar itself, is almost enough to make me buy the Republican line about privatization and financial incentives. But I've seen the same setup bungled enough times to know better. This guy just gets it.

But perhaps the best moment to exemplify all that was good about Ha' Penny's karaoke, was when Larry's name was called.

"Is it Elvis or Sinatra?," he said on his way to the stage.

"Sinatra," the KJ responded.

"Well, I better wear my hat," Larry said, and plopped a black fedora down on his head. Drink in hand, he crooned "Fly Me to the Moon" like a f#$%ing champ, the f#$%ing champ. Larry later told me he sells rotary mowers. But for that night, he got to be a three-minute-God because all the pieces were in place allowing him that chance. The Ha'Penny is comfortable to sing at, to be in the audience at and, by all outward appearances, even to work at.

Aside from the KJ's well-intentioned comment that I was practically the soundtrack to an Adam Sandler movie, the only real point of negative criticism I have to offer for karaoke at the Ha' Penny, is that the drinks could be cheaper. But even then, my $5 beer was a rare-ish imported fave that came in a 20-ounce glass, which isn't enough to make any nation cry for me, let alone Argentina.

So I guess my only complaint is that today isn't Wednesday.

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