This Week in the Mercury


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Karaoke-A-Thon Day 2: Karaoke From Hell at Dante's

Posted by Laura Hudson on Wed, Mar 16, 2011 at 3:30 PM

Portland resident, ComicsAlliance editor, and insane karaoke addict Laura Hudson continues her 7-day karaoke marathon, hitting up a different Portland hotspot every night and reporting her experiences back to Blogtown.

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Deep within every person who summons the courage to stand up on stage and sing karaoke — or even just stand in front of a mirror and sing into their hairbrush — there is a secret rockstar. While in reality, you might just be caterwauling to a room full of disinterested hipsters (and/or your personal coterie of stuffed animals), somewhere inside your heart and your imagination, you are fronting a totally kickass band in front of a sea of devoted fans who cheer wildly as you rock the mic.

It's a nice dream, and if you happen to have the instruments, equipment, talent, dedication, and luck necessary to form a rock band and make it a reality, then that is very awesome for you. For everyone else, though, the closest you're going to get is Karaoke From Hell.

In short, Karaoke From Hell is like regular karaoke, except that instead of singing solo to a pre-recorded track with lyrics on a screen, you're standing on stage with a live band playing behind you. Which is to say, it is not like regular karaoke at all in so many ways that it's hard to know if the definition even applies.

That's not a complaint, mind you, but I do know that some of the people I brought to Karaoke From Hell walked away elated, and others totally pissed off, and the reasons for both seemed to coalesce around one general theme: It wasn't the kind of karaoke they were used to.

If you have some clearly defined ideas about what a trip to the empty orchestra should entail, be aware that it's probably not going to go down that way. But if you can adjust your expectations — or just expect something totally different — you're a lot more likely to have a good time, so here's a quick rundown of the ways that Karaoke From Hell is a totally different animal from regular karaoke:

1. You are not the center of the universe. Karaoke is usually an ad hoc showcase for the singer, and while you're still in the spotlight Karaoke From Hell, you're also a part of something bigger. Working in concert with five other people to perform a song is a fundamentally different experience than rocking out solo to a backing track, in ways that are both terrifying and thrilling. Much like at Stripparoke, not everything is about you, and if you want to have a good experience, you should probably think about how to make your performance work for the other people on stage. Adding the energy of four or five other people to the equation makes things a lot more complicated than regular karaoke. It also makes it tremendously exciting.

2. There is no screen displaying the lyrics, just a music stand with a piece of paper on it. Absolutely nothing is going to guide you through the song, and you need to know exactly when to start singing at the beginning of the song and after any instrumental breaks. I honestly thought I knew where the vocals came in on “Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones, but as you can see in this helpful but slightly embarrassing video from the evening, I did not.

I also managed to jump ahead an entire verse before Voodoo Donuts co-owner Tres Shannon — who sings backup vocals on most of the songs — pulled me back on track. So seriously, pick a song you know. I cannot emphasize this enough. Trying out new songs and testing the limits of what you can pull off is a great way to expand your range and your confidence, but Karaoke From Hell is not the place to do it.

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3. Mistakes can happen. Human beings are subject to human error, especially when they're musicians being asked to spontaneously perform one out of nearly 500 songs on command. When one of my friends got up to jam on a Buzzcocks song, let's just say it didn't turn out precisely the way it did on the album, so be ready to roll with it. Conversely, if you should happen to take a non-linear approach to singing a song — as I did yet again later in the evening, jumping a key change on Peggy Lee's “Fever” after a few too many G&Ts — they'll do their best to roll with you too.

4. There is a cover charge
. While most karaoke places will ask or require that you tip for each song — especially if you want prompt rotation — you almost never have to pay just to get in the door. At Dante's, you do, and it's two dollars. Personally, I think two bucks a fair price for the extraordinary experience of being able to jump up on stage and sing with a live band, but it can seem less fair if, for example, your song never comes up. Which leads me to possibly the most controversial issue...

5. Song rotation is not standard. The order in which songs get played is often one of the biggest points of contention at karaoke, as it is usually not determined purely by the order in which they were submitted. There are a lot of reasons a KJ might move songs around, like integrating new singers, responding to significant tips, creating a better musical flow, or just straight up because they feel like it. This is true to some degree at any karaoke place, but it is really true at Dante's.

It's important to realize going in that on some level, the band is going to play what they want. From what I observed — and what other patrons told me — whether or not the band likes your song can be a pretty significant factor in when it comes up. I managed to sing two songs in four hours, but two friends of mine who arrived later in the evening never got to sing at all. While this may seem a little unfair by typical karaoke standards, it's possibly worth recognizing that they aren't just loading up these songs and pushing play; they're personally performing each one. However grating it may be for a KJ to cue up “Don't Stop Believin'” for the five billionth time, it has to be infinitely more painful to actually play it live.

But if the idea that your song may get moved up or down the rotation seemingly at random — or never show up at all — makes you clench your hands in fists of rage, be aware that you may be in for a frustrating evening. Yes, sitting around for hours and never getting a chance to sing may be a bitter pill to swallow, especially since you paid a cover, but if it's any consolation, the quality of the singers is pretty goddamn high, possibly because the fear factor selects for a high level of confidence. Sitting and listening for them rock out certainly isn't the worst way to spend an evening. Unless you had your heart set on being one of them, in which case it might be.

In related news, I have been going to karaoke for seven days straight now, have four more days to go, and I may, possibly, die.

Tonight: Karaoke at the Boiler Room, 9 PM.

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