Brian Jacobson
Deep-Fried Romantic

The State of Karaoke

By - Jan 26th, 2011 04:00 am
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photo by Derek Gavey via Flickr.com (CC Lic.)

photo by Derek Gavey via Flickr.com (CC Lic.)

Winter offers particular allure to the idea of imbibing and intoning under the glow of neon beer signs, but until recently I was fully prepared to declare the resurgence of Karaoke in Wisconsin over. It’s had a good run: I first wrote about the ’empty orchestra’ art of bleating Meatloaf’s “Paradise By the Dashboard Lights” almost four years ago in a VITAL Source feature.

Since then, many well-known karaoke-hosting venues have closed (Frank N Stein) or changed hands (Cataldo’s). Its share of press coverage has dwindled to just slightly more than nothing.

Glancing through local entertainment listings, there are few features on karaoke artists, and nothing stands out as an evolution of the activity.  If you consider Don’t Forget the Lyrics a progression, stop reading this now. If you think wailing into the mic for Rock Band is a step forward, please step back.

photo by Mil via Flickr.com (CC Lic.)With a few exceptions, karaoke pretty much remains the same as when it first broke in America in the late 1980s. At the very least, the singing hasn’t improved and local venues put little thought into the staging of their crowdsourced singers.

But a few fascinating niche ideas have come along in recent years, taking root in southeastern Wisconsin. The last Wednesday of the month offers Live Band Karaoke at Bar Louie in the Bayshore Town Center, with volunteers ably backed by a cover band who know close to 200 songs.

Another item of morbid intrigue is World Stage Karaoke Showcase.  It’s recorded at Paddy O’s Pub and Club Bene’s, both in Kenosha (and sometimes Coach’s in Burlington), then broadcast later on local public access channel 14. Never in my life have I wanted comprehensive cable that could pick up every station within a 100-mile radius. It’s just that deliciously wrong.

The concept is this:  Choose your song. Stand in front of a green screen with magical effects that make you look like you are on MTV (circa 1987). Have your video featured on television or even YouTube.  Listen as you realize the microphone picks up every last nuance of your vocal chords. What sounds awesome in the bar is often torture upon big screen review beaming out to area homes.

Then there are locations that favor certain styles of music, such as the blues-centric Up and Under Pub.  This Wednesday night standard has its own cadre of serious volunteers, with a contest and prize at the end of each night.

John the Revelator, who operates a local blog reviewing and profiling karaoke nights in Milwaukee (and a karaoke DJ himself) co-hosts a Motown Night at MJ Cafe on Sundays. Occasionally, you can find an enigmatic notice for “Pam’s Fun Factor Karaoke” at the Northern Lights Stage in Potawatomi Casino, which sounds fantastic.  Milwaukee Ale House does a much-beloved and cozy late-night karaoke on Thursdays, and Clifford’s multiple nights are reportedly well done on an elevated stage.

But for me, the most exciting development in the waning world of karaoke is this: Saturday night sees the triumphant return of Underground Karaoke to the Cactus Club. Husband and wife team Kaleb Asplund and Hannah Ford came up with the idea while living in Minnesota, and in the best DIY fashion proceeded to work on stripping out the indie/punk vocal tracks while living in Austin, Texas.  Now it’s coming to Milwaukee as part of a four-date Midwest tour before returning to warmer climates.

“Human Fly” by the Cramps? Check. “Punk Rock Girl” by the Dead Milkmen? Check. Seven more Fugazi songs than most all karaoke books? Check. The instant I saw this notice, I invited all my friends, and have seen the list on Facebook grow and grow. Now I’m getting a bit nervous. The small hall of the Cactus Club might not be able to handle this much wanton abandon and pure indie freak show goodness.

So I’m begging you, please don’t show up — at least not until I get my one Wilco song outta me.

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