“It’s not every day we get a virgin,” the pretty bandleader says into the mike. “So I want you to take it real easy on her.”
I walk to the stage as the crowd stares at me in anticipation, sizing me up, wondering if I’m gonna be any good. I nervously show the band my song selection and smile. They each give me the once-over. I feel like Hagar auditioning to fill Roth’s shoes. Am I going to measure up?
I’ve never sung karaoke by myself before, but if you’re gonna indulge the fantasy, why not sing in front of your own live band? This is opening night for Rock ‘n’ Roll Motherfuckers Karaoke at Boardner’s, and my live backup band, O Feel YA, are ready to go.
“Umm, yes, this is my first time,” I say softly, “and I want to warn you all that I have a very small vocal range, so be gentle with me.”
I know I won’t be able to wow ’em with my vocal stylings, so my plan is to kill ’em with stage presence. Earlier in the night, my pals and I watched and took notes. It was kind of like watching American Idol auditions. There was the bleached-blond dude who sang a Hole song. He kept the mike in its stand and lunged forward, rocking back and forth, dragging the entire stand with him, a classic Steven Tyler move. There was the tall, spectacled fellow, the spitting image of Ric Ocasek, who grabbed the mike off its cradle and sang to the crowd in classic crooner style. ?A blonde chick went up to the stage with a glass of whiskey in her hand ?à la Joplin.
Now it’s my turn. I try singing the hell out of “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman, but there’s no Teleprompter, no screen with a bouncing ball, to tell me when to jump back in on the chorus or the verse. And because the sound is so live and so loud, I can’t hear myself sing. It’s like being underwater.
But the point is to have fun, right? I decide to muck it up with the band. I do the classic back-to-back stance with the guitarist, a sort of Bon Jovi/Richie Sambora thing. I hold my mike up to the bass player in homage. I turn my back to the audience in an ode to Jim Morrison and pay my respects to the drummer.
Singing karaoke with a live band is a completely different beast than singing with the tinny machines parked in the corners of dark bars. You are the lead singer, so you really have to make it theatrical, especially if your chops aren’t grade A.
“It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” promise O Feel YA on their MySpace page. They don’t disappoint. The band tour around the city as the backup for all kinds of people who want to explore their inner rock star. O Feel YA are no longer at Boardner’s, but you can find them every Monday night at North Hollywood’s Studio Suite, where the vibe is much more mellow and low-key. They’re also kicking off a karaoke night at the Joint on February 10. Singer Crystal Keith, guitarist Mark Groveman, bassist Jorge Lopez and drummer Jim X are all serious musicians in their own right, but they love having fun, and it’s the unpredictability that keeps things fresh for them.
“It’s sort of like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get,” says Groveman, quoting Forrest Gump. “Some people surprise you and can really sing, but every now and then, someone just freaks out. Like this guy who came up to do a No Doubt song, and threw himself on the floor and screamed through the whole thing. We just kept playing. What can you do?”
Live-band karaoke is not a new concept, and there are many bands, from London to New York, that try to take credit for starting the idea. But we traced the phenomenon back here to Los Angeles and Jac Zinder, who ran the club called Fuzzyland. According to John Albert, author and local music historian, the very first punk rock karaoke featured himself on drums; Marty Hall, a.k.a. Hal Negro, on guitar; Mike Coulter from Lifter on guitar; and Chris Handsone from Thelonious Monster on bass. After Zinder died in a car accident in 1994, another version was started featuring Greg Hetson of Bad Religion and Steve Soto of the Adolescents. Hetson was even appears in the documentary Punk Rock Karaoke, which features footage of amateur singers fronting a live karaoke band over the course of a single night.
Live-band karaoke has taken off around the country, from Atlanta to Chicago; in New York, you can find a live karaoke band playing somewhere on any given night of the week. Here in L.A., the band S.W.E.A.T., which had a regular night at Safari Sam’s, just lost their bass player — at least, they couldn’t blame the lead singer for going solo. And Corey-oke, which had a weekly gig at the Joint dressed as the three Coreys — Corey Haim, Corey Feldman and Corey Hart — just couldn’t get a big enough steady crowd to keep it going and are currently looking for a venue to host them again. But there’s Mr. Mister Miyagi, the ’80s karaoke band, which promise to be the Ants to your Adam, the Banshees to your Siouxsie, at least once a month at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach. And Howl at the Moon in Universal City, home of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Dueling Piano Show, has a weekly You Sing It Tuesday, where patrons sing with a live karaoke band. Corey-oke bandleader “Corey Hart” says his advice to would-be singers is simple: “Just get on up there, don’t be afraid. You don’t have to be the best — everybody is welcome.” Oh, and it helps to know your song really, really well.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Motherfuckers Karaoke Night, Thursdays at Boardner’s, 1652 N. Cherokee Ave., Hlywd., (323) 462-9621. $5 cover. 18 and over with ID. 9:30 p.m.-2 a.m.
Rock & Roll Fantasy Karaoke, Saturdays beginning Feb. 10, 9 p.m. at the Joint, 8771 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., (310) 275-2619. No cover. 21 and over. For weekly date and times see myspace.com/thejoint.
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Live-Band Karaoke, Mondays at Studio Suite, 4823 Whitsett Ave., at Riverside Dr., N. Hlywd., (818) 753-8297. No cover. 21 and over. 9:30 p.m.
You Sing It Tuesdays, Howl at the Moon, 1000 Universal Center Dr., Universal City, (818) 755-9970. No cover. Bar open 6 p.m.-2 a.m. 21 and over.
Mr. Mister Miyagi, monthly at Alex’s Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) ?434-8292. No cover. 21 and over. Next ?show Feb. 17.
For upcoming O Feel YA gigs, see myspace.com/gotgigs.