I have always appreciated a good night of karaoke: Grab a few friends, throw back a few drinks and make some questionable musical and life decisions.
So when I was given journalistic carte blanche to write about karaoke, it seemed like a cinch: Scope out some spots, grab some friends and hit up four karaoke spots in four days. Portland has a plethora of karaoke options, and I tried to patronize a variety of venues, each highlighting a different aspect of Portland’s karaoke nightlife.
Here is my attempt at four nights of karaoke…and the ecstasy and agony that followed.
Chopsticks II Express(2651 E Burnside St.)
When I first moved to Portland in fall 2007, I often heard Chopsticks II mentioned as the premier karaoke spot in town. An easy-to-find, well-publicized karaoke spot has its pluses (terrific people-watching and dance-partying) and minuses (you will probably never sing a song). I figured that a Monday night would offer a more subdued, less jam-packed night at Chopsticks II.
As I approached the door on the north side of Burnside, I could hear a plaintive, falsetto screech through the walls—something braying and exceedingly unpleasant. It was, as it turned out, a tattooed man, down on one knee, attempting to reach the high-pitched heights of The Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.”
I approached the bar and ordered a hot toddy, which should give you an indication of my general health and well-being: I was struggling with something that sounded like whooping cough and made every word I uttered sound like a chopped-and-screwed rap remix. If there was to be any chance of my singing karaoke this week, hot toddies would have to be part of the equation.
The karaoke portion of Chopsticks II is technically called “The Stargate Lounge,” though it’s neither particularly futuristic nor affiliated with the syndicated Richard Dean Anderson television program. On this Monday night, it’s populated by a rather boisterous birthday party, many men in flannel and glasses, and of course, me and three friends at a back corner table.
After a couple uneventful songs, the birthday-night revelers approach the mic, and the flannel-clad, bespectacled ringleader of their troupe implores our table to come join them for a rendition of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” We demur, and as the music starts, he forgets about it. What follows is best described as “tone deaf Rob Zombie sings Fiona Apple,” and that feels a touch generous. This group runs into a frequent karaoke dilemma, one I’ll call the “Verse Conundrum:” You may think you know a song perfectly, but when forced to carry a tune all by your lonesome, it’s always the verses that trip you up. Be it melody or cadence, you need to know a song to really kill it.
(Later, someone attempts LFO’s “Summer Girls,” which typifies the Verse Conundrum: We all know that he sings about Abercrombie & Fitch in the chorus, but capturing the subtleties of lines like, “Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets” may prove more difficult.)
Like every karaoke night, there are several unflinchingly earnest singers, belting out their tried-and-true numbers. Tonight, a short, long-haired woman sings “Ziggy Stardust” with her eyes closed, and another woman in a floral dress belts out The Beatles’ “Oh Darling” for what must be the 100th time.
But the vibe at Chopsticks II is one of ironic detachment. The song choices tend toward the cheesy (Eagles’ “Hotel California,” Air Supply’s “All Out of Love,” Brian McKnight’s “Back at One”), the videos playing in the background look like Cialis ads and most of the songs are performed with tongues set firmly in cheeks.
A couple pretty vigorous dance parties break out, one during “Like a Prayer” and another during “My Humps,” and our four-person contingent sings along to most of the night’s songs. We totally crush “Say My Name,” and it seems fitting when my roommate leaves, bringing our group from four to three—just like the real Destiny’s Child!
The night ends, as most here do, with our last song, En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go,” not having been called. This, for me, is the lasting legacy of Chopsticks II: Even on Monday nights, you may never get near a microphone.
Baby Ketten Karaoke @Mississippi Pizza(3552 N Mississippi Ave.)
Baby Ketten Karaoke is the antithesis of the irony-rich karaoke offerings of places like Chopsticks II or the Alibi (both of which certainly have their value). “The music selection is very different,” said Lauren, a classmate of mine who I ran into at Mississippi Pizza. “There are a lot of songs that aren’t available at more mainstream karaoke.”
What this means, fellow karaoke-goers, is that on a given night you will find pretty damn good singers pouring their hearts out to Roy Orbison’s “Crying” or Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire” or The Cramps’ “Garbage Man.” Because the folks at Baby
Ketten create their own karaoke tracks, often based on customer request, the lists are consistently updated and filled with tracks that people actually want to sing. Their shows also feature great sound (I heard more preparation for the Baby Ketten sound check than I have for some live shows), a big projection screen and a pretty kick-ass lighting system.
Shelbi, a Portland native and karaoke fiend, jumps on stage early on to sing Smith’s version of “Baby It’s You” and, pardon my French, fucking murders it. It turns out that this particular song is one reason Shelbi loves Baby Ketten: She had been searching for “Baby It’s You” and Sharon Jones’ “100 Days, 100 Nights” at karaoke spots around town before finding them at Baby Ketten.
“Their song selection is rad as shit,” Shelbi says later as we wait in line for drinks at the bar in back. (Even in the back corner of the bar, far removed from the stage, Baby Ketten keeps you connected through a video camera that feeds live shots of the stage to a TV screen. It only adds to the professional feel of the show.)
While we talk, Shelbi is listening to a song surreptitiously on her iPhone; she is preparing for her next song and won’t tell me what the song is, though I can see a Ferris wheel on her screen. She, like many of the other “kettens” (which is what the regulars are called), takes this pretty seriously. A few minutes later, I have to laugh when the Ferris wheel is finally explained. She is singing “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease with a baritone in a Phantom of the Opera T-shirt.
Like Baby Ketten in general, it’s the quality that sets this apart. Yes, Grease gets sung everywhere, but these two can sing, and even on an eight-inch stage, the lights and sound quality make it actually feel like a show.
I’m getting ready to leave and mention to Shelbi that I’m planning to go to karaoke for the next two nights. Wednesday night, I’m going to Suki’s in Southwest Portland. Shelbi decides to come with, and it seems like I’ve found a karaoke Sherpa. She also points me toward Karaoke From Hell, a live-band karaoke that plays at Dante’s on Mondays and Tiger Bar on Thursdays. So the itinerary is set: Suki’s on Wednesday and Tiger Bar on Thursday. Two down and two to go.
As I’m preparing to leave, I bemoan the fact that, once again, I’ve submitted a song that doesn’t get selected. But just I am opening the door to head outside, I hear my name called. I jump back inside, throw down my backpack and head up to the stage. The first notes of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” blare from the speakers, and I’m actually getting excited. I love this song, and I know it so well. This is what karaoke should be about: Not some jackass fumbling through bits of a song they vaguely recall but someone belting out notes they love and sounding good doing it.
Unfortunately, I don’t sound good doing it. I can’t hit the high notes—ya know, due to the fact that I can’t swallow or talk or really breathe—and when I sing it an octave lower it just sounds like I’m speaking awkwardly. I settle for scratching my voice in my upper-register and speak-singing the words while dancing my ass off.
As I look out to the tiny but ardent dance party breaking out, I convince myself that it’s not the booze or the strobe light, but me. I am awesome. I make sure not to ask anyone else how I did and am glad there’s no video evidence of my performance.
Suki’s (2401 SW 4th Ave.)
It’s my third straight night of karaoke, and I’ve convinced a couple friends to join Shelbi and I for a full night of karaoke revelry. We decide to get good and drunk beforehand because we’re cheap and this is karaoke after all. I, however, underestimate the effect of a three-day karaoke binge on my already ragged immune system. By the time we reach Suki’s, I am drunk and I am coughing every 20–30 seconds. It’s not a good look for me.
The combination of my state-of-mind and Suki’s remodeled interior is a bit off-putting. I’ve spent some time in this little bar under the Travelodge, and they’ve taken pains to spruce it up: repainted walls, revamped menu, etc. But the karaoke remains the same, which is good, because it’s one of the more enjoyable karaoke nights in Portland: Dick, the KJ, tosses jokes around and sings a show tune every fourth or fifth song, depending on how busy the evening is. (Tonight, he sings “Wonderful Guy” from South Pacific. Sample lyric: “I’m as trite and as gay as a daisy in May.”) As a singer, you always know where you stand with Dick: if he calls your song “fabulous” just once, you did poor-to-okay; twice means you did pretty well; and “absolutely fabulous” means you crushed it.
Shelbi garners an “absolutely fabulous” for a killer version of “Son of a Preacher Man” that prompts my friend Dusty to ask, “Why isn’t she in a band?” I manage to sing “Love Shack” with Shelbi, but I hate the song and spend most of the four minutes swaying back and forth. Cayle sings Alan Jackson, which I only know because he wrote it in my notebook.
At this point, my notes have slowly transitioned from my sloppy, drunken handwriting to other peoples’ sloppy, drunken handwriting. Somebody wrote “I’m failing with the waitress,” someone else wrote “I can’t sing either. Reach out and touch me,” and someone—probably me—spilled ketchup all over it. None of this makes any sense to me. There is also a quote from me, written in someone else’s hand, that reads, “This was the least productive of my nights out so far,” which is undeniably true.
There is a law of diminishing returns on a karaoke binge, and Suki’s is certainly my nadir. The next morning, I remember that I’m supposed to attend Karaoke From Hell that evening, and I am immediately nauseated. You see, dear reader, there are people who can sing karaoke sober, and I am not one of them. I suspect that you or someone you know is the same way. For those of us who cannot soberly confront the debilitating combination of a microphone, video screen and stage, three nights of karaoke is just about all a body—not to mention a wallet—can handle.
Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are generally set aside for laundry or The Bachelor or crossword puzzles or homework. You can’t expect too much out of them. So even if nothing earth-shattering happened, I did make a few new friends and cajoled a few old ones to spend three usually-mundane weeknights getting rowdy with me.
What did I learn? Not much, I suspect. But I got to sing Robyn in public, dammit, and that feels like a small victory for fun in the battle against banality.