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Five St. Louis Karaoke Bars in Five Days: The Diary of a Sing-Along Addict (Riverfront Times)

Air guitar champion Mean Melin celebrates a victory in a Harvey Brown photo, as seen in the Riverfront Times

Digital story, Riverfront Times, April 23, 2013

Five St. Louis Karaoke Bars in Five Days: The Diary of a Sing-Along Addict

By Allison Babka

You'd best prep your favorite Barry Manilow, Nelly and Journey songs, because you're entrenched in National Karaoke Week.

Seriously, this is a thing; I'm not making it up just to jump back into the karaoke-writing game, though it's sure convenient. National Karaoke Week happens through Saturday, and it's a BFD in some parts of the country.

Here in St. Louis, we've got karaoke joints out the wazoo, so in honor of National Karaoke Week, I recently challenged myself to hit up a different sing-along bar every night for an entire work week. I like to pretend that my life is actually a really long episode of Glee, and I figured I'd emerge from the five-day challenge with better jazz hands than ever. Besides, becauseI host karaoke at least once a week, I thought I had the stamina for a few days of singing and might find a few new favorite bars. What could go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out.

First, I set some parameters for my challenge venues:

  • The location must be east of I-170.

  • Karaoke must start before 11 p.m.

  • I can't have visited more than three times.

  • No smoking inside.

  • Performing "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morissette would be my musical constant.

What follows is my diary of a week containing both karaoke joy and karaoke hell, complemented by Glee gifs. I should note that my words are the immediate post-karaoke ramblings of an increasingly exhausted madwoman and shouldn't be taken as straight-up professional reviews.

Night 1: Joey B's on the Landing, 710 N. Second Street

Bias: I generally hate everything on the Landing.

Chance of return: What Mercedes said.

Not one for tourists or bachelorette party queens, I'm not thrilled about going anywhere along our cobblestone riverfront. I am, however, excited by the 9 p.m. karaoke start time that a Joey B's staff member told me about over the phone -- I could do my song within an hour and get the hell out, right?

Seated at a front table, my friends and I watch the KJ fiddle with his system before our eyes lock onto signs saying "Dancing on the bars is at your own risk." Shit, is this going to turn into Coyote Ugly? We chuckle, chat about work and continue our waiting game, confused as to why it's now 9:45 p.m. with no sign of songbooks -- or our KJ, for that matter. The wascally wabbit keeps slipping away to what we can only assume is Joey B's secret lair of decadence. Drinks empty, we finally flag down a waitress, who says that karaoke "should start" at "maybe" 10:30 or 11 p.m. Sigh. I hate life.

At 10:25 p.m., our KJ returns from his 34th smoke break to finally address the crowd, mumbling something unintelligible before heading outside yet again. This time he's kind enough to leave us with a slideshow of Joey B's event photos, Coyote Ugly gifs and the ear-cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs(WTF?), all set to the Go-Go's "We Got the Beat." A brilliant friend observes, "This is the place where dreams go to die."

When the KJ finally returns, my friend practically jumps him to ask where we can find the songbooks and request slips. The response: The songs are listed online, and you can just walk up and tell him what you want whenever you feel like it.

Whatever. We tell him our songs, and after another twenty minutes, we're finally treated to some singing -- by the KJ. My professional KJ brain is exploding, but I'm determined not to fink on my challenge this first night.

Finishing his song by the fake INXS of the mid-2000s, the KJ calls one of my friends up to sing some MGMT. Our relief is short-lived, however, because the KJ again heads outside immediately afterward. I dramatically slump over the table until he returns to summon me at 11:21 p.m. Ready for this nightmare to be over, I perform my song, barely noting that the sound is way too loud but the large wall-mounted monitor is easy on the eyes. My friends are waiting to leave the second I put down the mic. I love them.


Night 2: Just John Nightclub, 4112 Manchester

Bias: I've never had a bad time with Teh Gayz.

Chance of return: Sunny, with a chance of rainbows.

After a horrible first night, I figure showtunes at Just John will keep my experimental karaoke train from crashing. I give myself a midnight curfew and head to the Grove, where my friends grab a table at 10 p.m., pick up a songbook and start submitting requests to the KJ.

When the first eight singers select '90s R&B love songs, I worry that my expectations for a peppy evening are misplaced, but we're soon rewarded with an inspired rendition of CeCe Peniston's "Finally." The KJ calls me up at 11:10 -- not bad, considering the high number of singers out on a Tuesday. Many of the JJ patrons sing along fiercely with my Alanis imitation and hug me afterward. I feel your pain.

My friends are summoned for their turns, and the crowd joins us in cheering for their versions of Queen and Justin Timberlake. Yeah, we know our audience. We head back to our table to dig further through the songbook and watch more of Logo TV's That Sex Show on the flat screens. In the meantime, I'm impressed with the singers' confidence, jealous of their prowess at doing Michael Jackson moves without falling off the stage.

The KJ keeps the show moving without much video filler between songs, and I'm called up three more times. One friend finally forces my hand with some Broadway action, and as we perform "Suddenly Seymour," my mind flashes back to that one episode of Head of the Class. Filled with good cheer and good booze, the bar sings along, and I can't lie -- the effect is kind of magical. A gay friend dubs the night "Fairy-oke," and I declare Just John my favorite place ever. We're definitely over the rainbow in the best way possible.

By the way, fuck that curfew. Our happy asses are shutting the place down.

Night 3: Double D's Karaoke, 1740 S. Brentwood

Bias: Sleepy-crabby and expecting the worst.

Chance of return: Pretty high on a Wednesday, but hell no to other nights.

I'm freaking tired. I've had a full day of client meetings and networking events with no time for dinner, and I'm not excited about going all the way out to a place that had wall-to-wall cougar/frat boy action the last time I was there. Besides, my body is still screaming at me from last night's Just John party, and I really want to get this over with so I can crash at home like the old lady I am. Grrr, argh.

I join my friends at Double D's shortly before 9 p.m. anyway, wondering how the hell the twentysomethings do this "party every night" thing. Inside, I get a little hopeful for the evening -- there aren't many people here, and no one my mom's age is sucking face with a newbie. Wow, it's a completely different atmosphere here on a Wednesday! Buoyed with the knowledge that it won't take long for me to get on the stage, my mood brightens. We take a table at the front, order some drinks and garlic fries and start paging through the songbooks, which are newly printed and brilliantly clean. So far, so good.

The bar is silent until 9 p.m., when the KJ starts playing videos before calling the first singer. A guy who seems to be a regular does "Slide" by the Goo Goo Dolls, and the bright white lights remain on while he sings. I'm growing increasingly jealous of the KJ's permanent setup with all the monitors and speakers, and the attention whore in me is transfixed by the sign that says "Your performance can be recorded on DVD!" Mental note: Bring gay friend here to record "Suddenly Seymour."

Except for the douchey business-dude trio in the corner, the small audience proudly claps for all singers, and I'm at the mic within 30 minutes. I've got the third in a string of '90s songs, and I can see Alanis' angst about Uncle Joey reaching the five spectators in front of me. You guys, except for the weird barricade in front of the stage, this is downright pleasant; Double D's isn't the suckfest I remember at all, at least on a Wednesday!

A stocky guy sings "Under the Sea," a mom-type does "Gunpowder and Lead" and a dude in a pink polo shirt kicks ass on "Who Knew?" Everyone gets the clap in the best way possible, and I'm kind of forgetting about my crankiness. I sing "Maps" and "Angel of Harlem" before finally succumbing to exhaustion, leaving shortly before 11 p.m. You know, I kind of like this place now.


Night 4: Carson's Sports Bar & Restaurant, 1712 S. Ninth Street

Bias: Twitter friends have pumped up Carson's big time.

Chance of return: Slightly higher than Joey B's, which isn't saying much.

My voice is starting to die. As much as I want to live Gleefully, I'm just not used to singing every damn evening. Good thing I'm going to Carson's tonight, which everyone on Teh Twitterz tells me about once they find out I do karaoke. Based on their recommendations, I'm expecting good vibes and a stress-free environment.

We arrive around 9:15 p.m. to what feels like a middle school dance -- singers on the right, grizzled bar guys on the left and miles of space in between. We want to leave room for Jesus, so we take seats on the right and gawk at the Blues game on the flat-screens. Borrowing a songbook from the large group celebrating something in the back, we feel like we're reading Latin -- songs are listed by title instead of by artist. It's been quite a while since I've encountered this, and my brain just doesn't want to register the shift; I get frustrated when I try to look at all available Huey Lewis songs but realize that I have to remember the names of each of them. Sigh.

I give up on Huey and put in a few well-known songs for our table. I'm called up to the little platform just fifteen minutes later, not for Alanis but for KT Tunstall's "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree." As I sing under the bright lights, I notice that the mic sounds fine, but it's hard to hear the music from the stage. The KJ uses the same software that I do, though, so that's neat. I finish my song, the three people paying attention clap, and my friends are called up in succession. We hand the KJ another batch of songs and try to make up for the bar's general lack of whooping when other folks sing. But then this happens:

After two hours, we're ready to throw our Latin songbook at someone's head. Instead of keeping to a rotation, the KJ has elected to bring up the same handful of people over and over. Worse, we're subjected to four duets in a row built around a certain person. As a KJ, I understand stacking your singers a little bit for easy transition, but this is ridiculous. With only ten performers in the joint, you should be able to spread the love among groups and make the night a little more inclusive.

Two of my friends leave before singing a second song, but I promise myself that I'll see this thing through. I'm finally called up again at 11:39 p.m. for "Lovin' Every Minute of It," but I can't see most of the words because a woman keeps leaning over the monitor to chat with the KJ. My two remaining friends are called by midnight, and then we get the heck out of Dodge.


Night 5: My own karaoke gig. It's a secret to everybody.

Bias: I'm Grandmaster B every Friday.

Chance of return: High, as long as they pay me. A dolla makes me holla.

Guys, I'm spent. I'm not exactly looking forward to another late night, but I sure am glad to be back in my home bar after all this craziness. It's been a long week of karaoke and drinking and crying and exhaustion, and I'm ready for it all to be over. I plan for an evening of somber '90s ballads until a few friends show up to pump up the jam. Combine those with a surprise wedding party, and my plans to wallow disappear.

Suddenly, we've got ourselves a rockin' party! SAD FACE BE GONE!

I took on this karaoke week experiment to Glee-ify my nights, see if I really could make it through five straight evenings of soulful singing and perhaps find a new favorite bar or two. The experiment wasn't a complete failure (Honestly, there's a karaoke joint out there for everyone; some of the places I visited might not be my style, but you may love them), but the end result was a bit more like The Wizard of Oz than I'd anticipated:

"If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard, because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with."

Happy National Karaoke Week, everyone!

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