Willi B's makes a killer sandwich and an even more killer side of beans. They make both in a small downtown location packed so tightly with high-backed wood booths that there is precious little room to move around, co-mingle or "shake, shake, shake, shake your booty." It has always struck me as an odd place to hold karaoke. But that doesn't mean it couldn't work.
So one recent weeknight at 8 p.m., I decided to give it a shot.
The first thing I noticed is that the space is as ill-suited for karaoke as it seems. No, I take it back. That's the second thing. The first thing I noticed is the blast of sound from a PA speaker by the front door because there doesn't seem to be a better spot for it. Willi B's is, without doubt, a marvel is getting the maximum utility out of a small space, but the effect is like doing karaoke in a tightly packed U-Haul.
The second—or third—thing I noticed is how anemic the book is. Less a binder than a Pee-Chee folder. Though it took me awhile to discover this, there were actually two books. One—the only one I knew about for the first half of my visit—had approximately 10 pages of songs, many of them repeats. That's barely enough for a home collection. The second book was better but still thin and poorly organized. It wasn't grouped by artist or title but was alphabetized in only the loosest sense of the alphabet.
Once I found a song, I discovered the next obstacle: a painful slow switchover between songs. Working with a single CD player, and no ability to skip easily between tracks, the KJ routinely spent up to three minutes searching for a song. That cut greatly into Willi B's greatest asset: the relatively short wait time resulting from its size-limiting attendance.
It also didn't help that the KJ that evening didn't seem tremendously interested in ensuring a fair rotation. I saw one singer three times before my first song came up and a BW intern reported not being called at all, despite spending several hours waiting.
But it's not all bad. Singing at Willi B's has a few distinct advantages. The first is that all singers get a code to open one of the restaurant's antique mailboxes and receive whatever prize is hidden inside. For me, it was a Pendleton whiskey T-shirt.
It is also the kind of place where the singers make up for their lack of talent with enthusiasm and sense of pride in their venue choice. That can make for an excellently warm-fuzzy singing experience that is part of the essence of karaoke.
As a whole, Willi B's doesn't feel like a venue that is really into doing karaoke as much as it is a place that just wants to get people in the door. Which isn't all bad. Sometimes, venues that take the craft too seriously can be a pain to sing at for the casual karaoketeer. But that's not a great excuse for things like a poorly organized book or long wait times. Put the art of karaoke aside and those things still stand as just being good for business.
And so the quest continues . . .