18 August 2012

On Singing in Bars

Start spreading the news: You are not this man.
This man could sing. This man is dead.

Having spent time (or done time, if you prefer) in some of Greenwich Village’s more musical watering holes lately, I have learned several important lessons. First is that approximately 98 percent of New Yorkers believe themselves to be Frank Sinatra. But of greater urgency to me personally is the lesson that to be a music writer in a karaoke bar requires the acting ability of an Olivier. “Karaoke” is of course a Japanese word meaning, “I can’t find the pitch,” and unless you want to get into a bar fight, you must develop the survival skill of smiling brightly no matter how bad the singing is.

Extra beer helps in this regard, though you must remember at all times that it is beer that encouraged these other people to get up and start singing. Drink too much, and you could become one of them.

Curiously, the folks who sing in piano bars tend to be more capable. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the pianist, a living person with musical training, is seated right next to you, whereas in karaoke of course the music is pre-recorded, often by people in Japan, which is about as far from Greenwich Village as you can get. Thus, if the karaoke instrumentalists glare at you, you are not likely to see them.

Victoria Chase, the glamorous, gender-bending hostess of a couple of karaoke nights each week at Boots & Saddles on Christopher Street, might be expected to glare, too, since she is herself no slouch at singing, with a range extending from truck-driver basso to dog-whistle falsetto. But in her role as mistress of ceremonies, Miss Chase practices such artful diplomacy that neither the karaoke participants nor this observer can guess what she truly thinks of a singer. I have urged her to seek daytime employment at the United Nations.

Victoria Chase:
Ambassador from the Nation of People Who Can Sing
to the Democratic Republic of Karaoke.

Around the corner on Grove Street is Marie’s Crisis, which, night in and night out, draws an exceptionally talented crowd, composed of people who have — or ought to have — bona fide Broadway credits on their résumés. Sing-alongs do make it easier for weak singers to hide (trust me, I know), but I seldom hear a note go astray, and the solos are always impressive. Marie’s hires good pianists, too, most of whom barely need songbooks and sheet music to command a repertory spanning about a century of musical comedy. There’s a fellow named Jeff Williams who plays on Monday nights; not content merely to play piano, he manages to get the sound of a full symphony orchestra and a jazz band out of Marie’s upright: he’s nothing short of astonishing. And he knows all the words, too.

Upstairs at the Stonewall on Friday nights, my friend Ben has been hosting a karaoke evening for a couple of years now. I’ve observed that the best singers here tend to be heterosexual — and I have no way to account for this anomaly — and that one key to a successful karaoke evening is to crank up the volume. This encourages non-singing customers to speak more loudly, to drink more, and to pay less attention to the singing.

Levels appear to be important, too, and both at Boots and at Stonewall I’ve noticed that the instrumental tracks typically are played slightly louder than the microphone — so that there’s less chance of actually hearing the singer over the song. This has drawbacks, especially when the singer is good. Take my young friend Zak, one-quarter Japanese but thoroughly Western looking, whose fluent renditions of Japanese standards at Boots would be even more impressive (not to mention startling) if his voice were placed forward over the instrumental tracks. Mixing is more than most karaoke DJs can handle; maybe Zak will get a club gig — or his own Japanese TV show — one of these days.

Generally I prefer the division of labor I find in cabarets, where one person does the singing and everybody else does the drinking, and where belting is most often reserved for our trousers. Yet who am I to deny the inner divas of so many, many tipsy New Yorkers? So I keep smiling, and smiling, and smiling.

In all likelihood, you are not this woman, either.
Now aren’t you glad we cleared that up?

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