Robotham - Get Up and Sing
Karaoke provides a cathartic release and some time in the limelight.
By Tom Robotham
I have a confession to make: About a year ago, I fell in love with karaoke.
Yeah, go aheadsnicker if you want to. A lot of people do. Really, one smirking friend said to me recently when I told him about my interest in it. But its so cheesy.
He was right, of courseto an extent. In some venues, the karaoke is thoroughly campyso bad, in other words, that its actually good. That was my initial experience with it, in fact, during my first visit to Cruzers, a full-time karaoke bar deep in the heart of Norfolks West Ghent. The instrumental arrangements of many songs often bear little resemblance to the original recordings; the lyrics are projected onto a video screen with random travel videos playing in the backgroundscenes that have nothing to do with the songs. And many of the singers Ive encountered there couldnt carry a tune if their lives depended on it. But that is precisely what makes Cruzers funpeople just enjoying themselves without inhibition. They know they cant sing, and they couldnt care less.
Not that all of the singers at Cruzers are bad. Every so often a man or woman will grab the microphone and blow the crowd awayand that adds an additional dimension: an element of true, soulful beauty in the midst of the general raucousness. More recently, though, Ive discovered a whole different level of karaoke at Cogans, one of Ghents most popular bars and restaurants. Unlike Cruzers, which has an inexpensive machine operated by the bartender, Cogans karaoke nightevery Wednesdayis run by Mike Barefield of Klass Act Productions. The name of his company is fitting; Mike himself is a class act, and very professional. He estimates that he has upwards of 40,000 songs in his computer, and all of them are true to the original recordings. Moreover, hes an expert hosthe knows how to engage the crowd and how to encourage anyone and everyone to sing, regardless of how good or bad they might be. It doesnt matter if you suck, hes fond of saying. Cmon up here and have a good time.
I love people, says the 52-year-old deejay, who got into the karaoke business after retiring from a job that bored him to tears ... Its a joy to see people at their best, having a great time, regardless of whether they can really sing.
Whats surprising is that so many people there can sing. During the course of half a dozen visits there, Ive heard many people who sing beautifullyand a few who sound downright professional. One of them is bartender Drew Worden. A skilled musician who is not currently playing gigs because hes a new father, Worden sings like an angel. He adds to the entertainment value, moreover, by doing so while hes bartending. Donning sunglasses whenever he sings, he moves behind the bar pouring drinks and picking up empties while belting out tunes with the grace and skill of a professional pop vocalist.
Drew makes my life so much easier, says Barefield, because he always gets the crowd going. Its very important, in any case, he adds, to have the staff behind you.
But that, of course, is just one element of Cogans karaoke night. In the end, its all about the customers.
For some, its more than fun. Take Michael Shaw, for example. By day, hes a librarian with the Norfolk Public Library system. By night, hes a karaoke fanaticand a crowd favorite, not only at Cogans but at New Belmont on Thursdays and Plaza del Sol on Fridays, both of which are also hosted by Barefield. Shaw told me recently that he got into karaoke back in the summer of 2008, after a deejay friend who was hosting a karaoke night at San Antonio Sams encouraged him to get up and sing. I told him, No one wants to hear me sing, Shaw recalled. But he did it anywayand had nothing short of an epiphany. I was just coming out of some personal crises, he said, and I found karaoke so liberating. I could feel my energy flowing to the crowd and the crowds energy flowing back to me.
As he began to sing regularly at various venues, the 50-year-old found himself making new friendsmany of them considerably younger. The effect on his psyche, he said, was remarkable. I think that mentally, Ive shed about 25 years doing this, he observes. It was a catalyst that got me into other activities and led me to meet so many good people, he said.
I understand Shaws point from my own personal experience. One of the nice things about karaoke nightswhether at Cruzers, Cogans or other venuesis that people of all ages mix together, bound by a love of all kinds of music, laughter and the exhilaration that comes from being in the limelight, if only for a few minutes here and there.
The question is, what to perform? Shaws choices are often surprising. Judging by his appearancehes white, middle age and unassumingyou might expect him to sing old standards or pop hits from the 60s. As it happens, he prefers rap. I dont want to get up and take some nostalgia trip, singing the Beach Boys or something, he told me. Not that theres anything wrong with that. But Im the last guy in the world youd expect to be doing rap; I didnt grow up listening to itand thats what makes it challenging. Its fast-paced, and you really have to pay attention. The disconnect between his everyday persona and his choice of material adds to the entertainment value.
For my part, Im a bit more predictable. My preference is for songs made famous by Frank SinatraThe Way You Look Tonight, and New York, New York, among them. Ive also taken to singing Sweet Caroline, because it suits my vocal range, and its a guaranteed way to get the crowd involved. Occasionally, Ill also sing rock tunes, like R.E.M.s Losing My Religion.
Its not my only outlet for singing. I play a little guitar and often get together and jam with friends; occasionally, Ill even sit in on gigs with Lewis McGehee, or play open mic nights. But karaoke fills a different need. Its unlikely that Ill ever get to sing New York, New York on stage in front of a big band. Singing it on karaoke night is the closest Ill ever come to that fantasy.
I dont know that Ill ever end up doing it as frequently as Shaw does. But you never knowand thats the thing; youll never know how it might affect you until you try it. With that in mind, I hope to see you out there on the circuit. If so, dont hesitate to come up and say hi. That, in the end, is what its all about.