Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle You're a Terrific Audience!

By Kim Mellen

JANUARY 4, 1999:  Wednesday night: 8:45. Contest night at the Common Interest, but almost nobody was there at this early hour. No sign of Dick Sharpe -- a regular who has a fondness for singing Frank Sinatra -- unless he was among the the regulars in the back room playing a watered-down, legal version of blackjack. The KJ doesn't go on until 9pm nightly. Before that, it's a DIY happy hour setup, wherein you enter your own selection and usher yourself up there and do your thing. Nobody was taking advantage of this, though. It was too early; and who would want to break the silence? Karaokers are not shy about performing anytime, anywhere, but without the large, drunken audience it feels like you're a tree falling in the forest. And for a good portion of the regulars who made up most of the sparse early crowd, this place is a bar first and a karaoke venue second.

The KJ came on at 9pm and had no shortage of performers lined up, even on this slow weekday night. A group of Japanese people came in and one of the women asked if they had Japanese songs. She seemed crestfallen about the English-only selection, but her group stayed anyway.

A sloppy-drunk patron, Alan, when asked why he chose to visit a karaoke bar -- if it's a hobby of his -- seemed kind of surprised that he was in a karaoke bar, even though the KJ had been in action for some time already and a woman was onstage singing a kickin' version of "What's Love Got to Do With It?" He leaned back and shook his head, and staring blankly at the stage, said, "Man, I've played with the Beach Boys, I've played with CCR, but no way, man, I won't get up there." Pressed on why a man of his stature would be reluctant to participate in this particular musical form, he seemed less interested in talking karaoke than purchasing my favor with Shiner Bocks. As if I could love a man who Will Not Sing. As he told his life story, a waitress was en route delivering drinks to a table at which a couple who had just walked into the bar was sitting down. The woman pulled a stack of already-filled-out request cards out of her purse, shuffled though them, chose one, and brought it up to the KJ.

The regulars here are hard-core.

After shaking off Alan it became apparent that the contest was a wash; by 11pm only three of the requisite quorum of eight contestants had signed up and anted their $5, so it was called off, the five-spot returned. A sad night at the Common Interest.

photograph by Bruce Dye

A return visit, this time with an intimidating-looking male friend in tow to fend off more suitors, proved more fruitful. The KJ announced the specifics: The entry fee is $5, and the first-place winner takes the pot plus another $20 or so thrown in by the house. Second place wins a Common Interest T-shirt; and Miss Congeniality gets a special-edition Common Interest cassette tape on which they may have their next numbers recorded. That night, there were 12 takers in all. The panel of judges is comprised of bar regulars, often Dick Sharpe. The contestants are judged on vocal performance, stage presence, and audience response, although Dick Sharpe once confided to me that there's no scientific system at work on the panel; it's more of a holistic assessment, subject to whimsy, but remember, this is whimsy of seasoned, gentle, understanding karaoke veterans. At my table, we had our own quiet panel of two. If only it were up to us. Following is a transcript:

#1: "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bonnie Raitt sung by Heather. Folks, this contest is starting out on a whisper, this lady has a lovely voice but she's in a tough spot; the audience hasn't been warmed up yet so nobody's paying much attention. The singer needs more stage presence to snap people into attention; she's sitting on the stool. Survey says? Next ...

[At this point a young man who must have sensed our influence sits at our table campaigning for audience support. I admire this UT-baseball-capped frat-dad-lookin' kid's spunk. He will be doing Rob Base's "It Takes Two"; he promises to freestyle during the instrumental breaks. "If I do it justice, hook me up, aiiieeet?"]

#2: Ron sings "What's Forever For?" by Michael Martin Murphy. Ron is soft. That makes two candidates who have not moved from the stool. Points for smoothness and praise for ballad choice, but, no. Goodbye, Ron.

#3: A woman with the stage name "Shania" sings, wow, a Shania Twain song! This is from her own disc, so there's video and no words on the screen for the audience's focusing pleasure. Bad move, Shania. She's off the stool, though, doing a lap dance without the lap, and she's holding the microphone like a ... "cigar." A piano bridge disturbingly recalls a special episode of Blossom.

#4: Olivia Newton-John's "Hopelessly Devoted to You" is hopefully and heartfully rendered by Robin. She loses big points for choosing a Grease song, but to be fair, this is the least Grease-y of all Grease songs, since it was only in the movie and thus more like an ONJ single. Still, I can't get past the associations. Sorry, Robin.

#5: Our friend from earlier, Leonard, keeps up surprisingly well with the ill rhymes of Rob Base. His baseball hat is now on backwards. The audience loves him and the song ("Whooo! Yeah. Whooo! Yeah.") Lots of people run up on stage to dance, even Shania and her cigarette. Bonus points for making good on his promise to freestyle! Oh yes! Leonard is a noted contender.

#6: Dave, in a sleeveless T-shirt, does Elvis' "All Shook Up," but fails to shake up the audience before the break.

This intermission consists of three non-contesting karaoke numbers, and the audience falls back into a state of benign neglect, which contestant #7: Katherine, has difficulty breaking with her version of Bonnie Raitt's "Let's Give 'em Something to Talk About": Everyone's eyes are on the nutty video, for Pete's sake. She does step down from the stage to work the audience, though. Bold!

#8: "Mike Fortune" (the stage names come out with greater force for the contest, it seems), in a double-breasted suit with a collarless shirt, does a gripping rendition of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." He's a regular here, though, which might explain the lack of audience response, although he has stage presence in spades.

#9: Marcus moves us with Kenny Rodgers' "Lady." You know that Lionel Richie wrote this song, right? Marcus sings it like he's in a white gospel choir. This performance is a panties-throwing, single-tear-running-down-the-cheek affair.

#10: A Tweety-bird beshirted young man by the name of "Otis" belts out "In the Midnight Hour" by Wilson Pickett. I love Otis! I love him! Otis is The Man! Everyone is whooping in support of this spectacle: the Commitments, only Jewish. My companion warns, "If Otis doesn't win, I'm turning this table over."

#11: Joseph sports a Hawaiian shirt and turns Tennessee Ford's "Sixteen Tons" into a lounge song. I like Joe.

#12: Suzanne wraps things up with the traditional "Let Me Entertain You," working the crowd in a sultrier manner than Katherine did earlier. Actual stripping would cinch the $80 top spot for sure, but this ain't that kind of joint, see? The video's echoing of Suzanne's performance with a Marilyn Monroe-like classy broad cooing into the old-fashioned mike adds a Rocky Horror-like poignancy.

Surprisingly, nobody made a show of having the KJ change the key of the song. That's when you know you have a true pro onstage: the key-shifter is a little-known capability on most karaoke machines -- and few singers know the key in which they sing. But oh, the horror of getting up there and discovering John Denver was a virtual freakin' soprano.

A few non-contesting songs later, the KJ announced the real contest winners to much fanfare: in third place, Marcus ("Lady")! In second, the burlesque performance of Suzanne! And the winner of $80 and an extraspecial encore ... ladies and gentlemen ... Otis! What will you do with the prize money, Otis? "I'm gonna buy something nice for my girlfriend." You could hear the hearts breaking. That's one lucky woman. Otis confessed afterwards that his real name is Avi, and that he's new to the karaoke scene. "This is the only place I can sing real soul," he sighed. "I've tried to find a band; I've placed ads, but I don't think anybody in this town wants to play real soul." (Send inquiries to The Austin Chronicle Classifieds' musician's referral.) For the encore, Avi chose "Been Lovin' You Too Long" by his hero, Otis Redding; during the breakdown he repeatedly cried "good God almighty," which wasn't even part of the song! You can never go wrong with a good ad lib.

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