Whether you want to believe it or not, there is a flourishing karaoke underground right here in your own back yard. Unlike some other flourishing undergrounds, the karaoke underworld is nothing to be afraid of. Full of colorful characters such as The Captain, Smokey Box, Cherry Sprout and Captain Hellfire, the Portland karaoke scene is like pro wrestling without all the cleavage and smells. It was into this magical world that a few Vanguard staff members, some associated friends and myself thrust ourselves on a rainy Saturday night. Our goal was simple: sample the karaoke madness and alcoholic related beverages at four well-known karaoke establishments in one night and then relay our findings to you. Isn’t that exciting?
Now I’m going to be completely honest, I am a little biased by default. I was temporarily employed at Chopsticks Express II as a KJ (karaoke jockey, for the uninitiated) and my brother is the head KJ at the Boiler Room. While this obviously affects my judgment a tad, my higher-ups believed that this made me the resident karaoke expert, a title that I am simultaneously proud and ashamed of. Anyhoo, here’s how the night shaped up.
9:30 p.m. Chopsticks Express II
We rolled into Chopsticks early enough to score a pretty sweet table, front and center in front of the ‘raoke action. KJ Michelle was friendly as always and the drinks were superb. I started the night off strong with a Long Island iced tea, which I believe is a great way to start an evening. After one of those bad boys, anything tastes great and goes right down the hatch. Do you remember that donut thing that you put on your bat to make it seem real heavy, and then when you take it off the bat feels lighter then it actually is? It’s like that. I sang “On the Dark Side” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band to get the night started, and the crowd was responsive. Saturdays are a strange night for karaoke, especially at Chopsticks. While the regulars stay away for fear of the large crowds, newcomers create an atmosphere of confusion and impatience. If you’ve never tried your hand at karaoke, then Chopsticks on a weeknight is a great place to do it. The stage at the Choppy is big, the music is loud, and the people are nice. After a greyhound and a crowd-pleasing performance of “Hurt So Good” by singers Tita and Joe, we were off to our next destination. Bar tab: $13, with tip.
10:45 p.m. The Galaxy
Now the night is in full swing. Despite a small police presence directly outside the front door, we enter the Galaxy with no hassle. The bartender, Lisa, is friendly and makes some pretty mean cocktails, and word on the street is that the girl’s bathroom is “super clean.” I order a greyhound and join my cohorts at our table. The Galaxy is definitely set up like a restaurant that didn’t think it would be a popular night stop. There are just booths, no moving tables or chairs. We are lucky enough to score tables next to each other to fit the needs of our gang, and the search begins. What to sing, what to sing? I finally decide to go with “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls. It’s a song I’m familiar with and doesn’t require any real singing talent. The stage at the Galaxy is a little awkward as there is a small raised stage (very rare in karaoke) and then a dance floor immediately below. My battle plan was to go with the dance floor. Sadly enough, due to time restraints, we had to move on before we could sing our songs. This was our own fault in planning. From past experience, I will tell you that singing at the Galaxy is relatively painless. However, if heavily intoxicated, that huge fish tank that runs along the wall can make your head spin in a second. So we waived goodbye to friendly KJ Kurtis and caught our taxi. Besides, as one of our female associates informed us, there “wasn’t any snake” for her (the trouser variety). Bar tab: $5, with tip.
11:30 p.m. The Alibi
Boy is this place tiki! As advertised, The Alibi is the tiki-est place that ever tikied. I was immediately hit with a barrage of palm trees and Hawaiian shirts when I entered the joint and headed right for the bathroom. It was small, to say the least. As with any bar on a Saturday night at midnight, we had trouble just finding somewhere to sit. When we did, it was seriously in the farthest possible corner away from all the karaoke action. This presented our first problem of the night: We couldn’t hear a damn thing. If I wouldn’t have known better, I would have assumed that the ‘roke had been canceled for the night. This was also at about the same time that the alcohol started kicking in. The lighting combined with the lack of ‘roke sent me into a bit of a lull. I had planned to sing “Chantilly Lace” by the Big Bopper but never really got around to getting a book. Either way, I couldn’t have heard my name being called from where I was. My notes here become a little more scribbled and confused, but I do manage to jot down “hazardous to health.” I think what I was saying was that in my drunken state I found the layout and multiple stairs to be quite a challenge. By the way, I had ordered another greyhound. When we finally scored a table close to the action, it was near leaving time. We watched the action from our round booth as singers sang without a whole lot of feeling. The KJ seemed nice and ran a smooth ship, but the stage seemed intimidating to me. It was just kind of in the middle of the tables, with no room for dancing. While the drink was great and the waiter was super nice, I found the karaoke to be a bit scary. After the much-talked-about mozzarella sticks were gone, we bid a fond adieu to the Alibi, which I vowed to visit again on a less busy night. Bar tab: $5, with tip.
1 a.m. Boiler Room
Here’s where the night got major. Bartender Clarissa served up a mean Vanilla Stoli and Coke and we luckily found a large table that had just been vacated. We were all looking to redeem ourselves after our relatively tame and shy stint at the Alibi. The Boiler Room is set up like a big “L,” with the karaoke stage and dance floor right in the middle. Unlike the other bars we’ve visited during our crusade, the design of the bar makes the karaoke inescapable, which is both good and bad. Basically, when girls sing “Celebrate” by Kool and the Gang and substitute the word “masturbate” for “celebrate,” there is nowhere to hide. However, when bar owner Nikki and KJ Brad do their patented rendition of “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, you actually get up and dance like all those drunk people at house parties in ’80s movies. And they’ve got the video game Galaga! After two straight no-shows, I felt I needed to redeem myself and signed up for “Bad Boys” by Wham, possibly the greatest song of all time. The crowd was nice and everyone ended up having a good time, although no snake was ever found. After a Madras and a Gardenburger (which was quite delish) we decided to call it a night. Although the Boiler Room sports the KJ with the most attitude in town, a good time can definitely be had. Bar tab: $13, plus tip.
Our night had been a success and we left feeling like we had accomplished something, and we all woke up with hangovers to prove it. Karaoke can be fun and is nothing like that awful movie “Duets.”
Here are a few simple rules for karaoke enjoyment from someone’s who’s been on both sides of the fence. 1. Don’t make singing the focus of your evening. It’s just something fun to do while you are intoxicated with your friends. You will never get a record deal from karaoke. Never. 2. Be nice to your KJ. You would be amazed at what a little friendliness and a one dollar bill can get you. 3. Sing a song you know. 4. Go on a weeknight. Less people = more singing. 5. Don’t sing “Love Shack” or “Ice Ice Baby.” Believe it or not, it’s been done. 6. The same goes for “Baby Got Back.” 7. Remember that it usually takes about an hour for you to get back up. This is unavoidable in most cases. If this concerns you, then refer to rule 1. In any case, just remember that karaoke is just as scared of you as you are of it.