Out of the shower and up to the mic
By Brian Jacobson + Photos By Kat Berger
It is a bitterly cold night in Milwaukee, and the idea of staying home and huddling around the warmth of a television set is alluring. Yet many brave souls venture out into the sub-zero darkness this Saturday evening. They’ve come to Frank’s Power Plant in Bay View to engage in the ancient Japanese practice of performing songs for a gathered audience.
Until recently, karaoke (literally translated as “empty orchestra” ) fans in the greater Milwaukee area were hard-pressed to find more than a dozen weekly events. Developed in its present form in Japan around 1970 and imported to the states in the 1980s, the U.S. karaoke craze seemed to hit its zenith in the mid-1990s before going the way of the dinosaur and disco.
But in the last few years, some funny things have happened involving consumer technology and pop culture, and karaoke has reared its sparkly head again. Now devotees can find a dozen events per night or more in Milwaukee alone, with midweek action of sometimes 20-25.
Don’t blame it entirely on American Idol. Yes, the uber-popular contest show may have made people believe that stardom could be found with some colored spotlights, a stage and a wireless mic. But the current scene rarely involves contests for money. Hardly any even use a stage and spotlight. Nobody expects to become a star.
The popularity of websites like singshot.com and video games like Karaoke Revolution certainly gave the genre a new shot in the arm. But let’s face it; it’s just not the same without a roomful of strangers and a slight tremble in the hand that holds the microphone.
Karaoke’s new-found affection seems to be more about sentimental love for popular music from all decades and styles. Singers carry around that certain tune that speaks to them until they find themselves sharing with others. They bring their voices out of the shower or car seat and into the saloon.
“I don’t know if it’s really more popular than ever,” says Moonlight Karaoke host Lee Seeber. “But I have been busier lately.”
Seeber reflects on his craft as he sets up at Mo’na’s on a Tuesday night. He distributes piles of songbooks to the gathering score of patrons, who set upon them, scribbling out catalog numbers – mostly for country and ‘80s tunes.
He got his start as a karaoke enthusiast at a local bar some seven years ago. One night, he was given a chance to take over the hosting gig. Nowadays he packs up his minivan as many as four or five nights a week and takes his own show on the road. Needless to say, he’s seen his share of performances.
“Some people think they’re great…and while they’re not bad, they’re not good,” states Seeber. “[But] some are actually incredibly great. They’re usually the ones that don’t care and don’t flaunt it.”
Far to the south in Wind Lake, super-sports bar Kelly’s Bleachers II is packed with patrons playing dartball, indoor volleyball and billiards. The karaoke setup here seems largely ignored by the gregarious blue collar crowd more interested in the basketball on TV, hooking up or sharing snowmobiling stories. Yet a steady stream of women and men wait their turn to belt out their favorite classic rock songs throughout the night.
I BELIEVE I CAN FLY
The very next night, at a tiny restaurant/bar near Mitchell Airport that improbably sports a small plane hoisted inside, a woman struggles to dolly heavy equipment through the front door. Amelia’s patrons and servers alike call to the woman by name and help her inside. This is one of a handful of locations that holds karaoke several nights a week.
“This one, as always, is going out to Patty,” begins the first gruff man before launching into “King of the Road” by Roger Miller.
There’s an intimate but lively crowd at the Bay View VFW Post after a busy Friday Fish Fry. One-third of the crowd is a bowling team. “Wait till you hear this guy, he’s got a terrific voice,” says the woman at the next stool. The dark stranger the woman refers to saunters in as people cry out “Dan!”
Dan is greeted warmly by locally-renowned KJ (karaoke jockey) Carlo “Mr. Karaoke” Cataldo, who stops sorting through his amazing collection of laser karaoke discs to greet the local superstar. Anyone cognizant of the forerunner of DVDs from the 1980s remember these things: as big as 33 1/3 records, each holding up to twenty songs, and when Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’” appears on the big tavern screen, words fill with color in the foreground of a campy romantic video specifically shot for karaoke.
From behind his giant cowboy hat and biker beard, Dan reveals a sweet and sentimental crooner’s voice. The woman from the next stool dances nearby with her fiancée, and patrons at the horseshoe-shaped bar scribble away, looking to sing next.
THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL
If you can get either beyond or way into the kitsch factor and you’re willing to stay out late on a Tuesday night, karaoke holds the promise of entertainment to which American Idol can’t hold a candle. Tucked away among the alcohol-stained pages are Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” just waiting to be sung. Ambling up to the mic is a short, balding man or a bespectacled, shy woman waiting to blow you away with their voices. Milwaukee’s winter season is long and filled with beer, long nights and now, the strains of amateur song. Find your courage and step up. VS
Sound advice for the would-be Karaokist
1. Check your local listings, then call them anyway. Nothing ruins a night out with friends faster than finding out the information was old or that the bar has cancelled. Many karaoke setups also start way later than advertised.
2. To thine audience be true; pick your songs wisely. Just because the songbook lists the Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma” does not mean the audience at Clifford’s Fine Dining or Fat Boy Roadhouse will appreciate your take. Save it for Rascal’s or Frank N Stein’s. If you seek adulation (or at least respect) from your peers, pick a favorite that the crowd will get behind. Think Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”.
4. Did you remember to ask the host questions? I wanted to sing the Presidents of the United States “Peaches” AND “Kitty” during the opening twofer sets. Even though the latter song wasn’t listed, the deejay had it. While KJs update their collections often, it’s just too expensive to keep reprinting the books.
5. Don’t be a mic hog. In a four-hour stint, we should only hear from you five or six times maximum (unless there are only ten people present, which does happen). Want more attention? Go start your own band.
6. It’s not always the right key, it’s the good heart. Hitting a wrong note or being in the wrong range (some hosts can modulate with their equipment to another key) is not the end of the world as we know it. Not really caring that you’re out there or stopping mid-song because you’re shy is a real karaoke killer. It’s pretty hard to go too far, unless you’re that drunken guy KJ host Lee Seeber remembers jumping from tabletop to tabletop, belting out Creed songs. VS