Sing, Sing a Song

It's cheesy. It's got a geek rep. It's completely self-absorbed. It's karaoke...and it's packing Dallas barrooms.

This room-packing effect is nothing new really. What's new is that kitschy karaoke has grown from the 12-ton cassette-playing machines of your father's Christmas party, past conventioneer-chic and straight into out-and-out hipness. Weeknights have become the property of performers of a different ilk. Karaoke nights aren't a joke or an event unfortunately happened upon at an unfamiliar hotel bar. They're a destination. And there's no lack of options. There's the live backing band of Rock Star Karaoke and the absurdly expansive catalog of DJ Mr. Rid's Scaraoke and a dive-y haven for pro musicians at The Goat and many, many others, but we didn't have the voice left to try them out.

As soon as we walk in the Goat's weary door, Gene Warren, a regular performer our group has dubbed our "karaoke concierge," welcomes us and guides us to a book of songs. Periodically throughout the night--between serenades, dances and anecdotes--he prods us to select a song already. The decision is always difficult. We pore over the page-protected sheets and simultaneously take in the smoky scene.

Sherri Aldridge's night is somewhat of an institution, as is The Goat itself. "It's a musician's hangout, a place for them to get away to," Aldridge says between her patented introductions. She comes off half-auctioneer, half-strip club DJ--capturing patrons' attention with a husky growl, her quirky sense of humor (and dancing) is well-received.

The crowd howls at her next bit, "That was brought to you by Sherri's Karaoke and Clairol 57. Now we got Homer up next for the first time tonight!" The Homer she refers to is Homer Henderson, Dallas' legendary one-man band known for hits such as "Lee Harvey Was a Friend of Mine." He rallies the crowd with his rendition of "Wichita Lineman" before Gene, a retired piano player at an elite Dallas hotel, contributes his hybrid style of Barry White and Lou Rawls for the dark dive's bizarre mixture of haggard barflies and 20- and 30-somethings.

Other Goat regulars--Brooke, EZ, Chelsea, James, a guy we only know as the East Dallas Tom Jones--break up the pro lineup with songs by Fiona Apple, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich and others, but the crowd is equally as receptive. "I get sick of listening to myself so I come here, and some young person will sing a song I've never heard," Gene says. Two-steps abound, and Gene is off wooing lucky girls with dance requests. The performances go hard until the bar closes, and it makes for a late night, but no one is complaining.

In contrast with the will-always-be-there nature of The Goat, Rock Star Karaoke recently found itself uprooted from its home at Lakewood Bar & Grill. Beginning October 4, however, the group will offer its first Wednesday, and the first of its new weekly karaoke contests, at the Barley House. Karaoke itself may be empowering for the typical wallflower, but RSK goes one step further by providing a live backing band complete with support vocals. Founded by Howard Kelley in 2003, the band has seen around 20 members over the past three years--all accomplished musicians with impressive local résumés. Currently, the outfit is hosted by vocalist Jenn Nabb, and includes Gerald Iragorri (drums), Allan Hayslip (bass) and Ed McMahon (guitar).

Members must know nearly 150 songs on the selection list, possess the skill to improvise and have no problem getting paid not much to bust their asses. So why bother? "Everyone wants to feel like a rock star," Nabb says. Hayslip offers his take: "I'm gonna distance myself from any illusions that we have any therapeutic effect, but, and I'll speak directly from my own experience, there's nothing that sticks with you like the response of a supportive crowd. That does more for [the singer], and that does more for us," he says. "At its best, with all cylinders firing...I've never had a better gig..." For the regular karaoke singer, RSK is one incredible adrenaline rush. From CD to rock band is quite the promotion.

"I've met some really freakin' amazing people that aren't in my normal group," Nabb says. Used to be, there was a sense of shame--"that karaoke stigma," she calls it--that would prevent you from ever saying something along the lines of "Oh, Tony? Yeah, I met him at karaoke." But RSK's added live element shakes up that stigma. "These guys have played and been onstage with some amazing people. They're rock stars," Nabb says. And by association, and for a song, karaoke singers can be too.

Wednesday, Nabb will offer her casual chemistry of aggressiveness, motivation and heckling, probably belting out a starting number--most folks need an example before they hop up onstage and tackle "White Rabbit." She and the band will make it look effortless and enticing (both of which it really is), encourage clapping for performers and maybe bust some balls in between performances. "It's karaoke," she says. "Everyone can sing it regardless of your musical background."

After The Office and other Thursday TV favorites, Mark Ridlen, aka DJ Mr. Rid, gets to spinning his myriad disks for Scaraoke at the Meridian Room. Rid safely has the most expansive catalog of any karaoke host--tens of thousands of songs that could satisfy pretty much any request. Ten deep cuts by Blur? He's got them. "Brandy (You're A Fine Girl)" by Looking Glass? Done. "Taki Rari" by Yma Sumac? Well, if he doesn't have it, two months and a double dare might do the trick. His collection began several years ago, when XPO Lounge was still in existence and Scaraoke resided there. "It just became a new obsession as far as trying to find the best and most diverse and coolest songs that I still don't see anyone really having," he says.

Case in point, a Scaraoke virgin, RSK's Nabb, is wailing on a Susan Tedeschi number near Rid's setup in the back of the restaurant; a train of people stand behind her waiting to sign up for their own songs. A bachelor party is raging, and there's frightening talk of Helen Reddy, Boston and Eddie Money. Luckily, a death metal version of "Like a Virgin" distracts the bachelors. Between performers, Rid shows his DJ chops, kicking out upbeat and unexpected tunes such as Mr. Peppermint's "If You're Happy and You Know It," so there's no down time.

Scaraoke may be nestled in the back of a restaurant, with no stage and a bit of an impaired view, but there's an artistic, hip, almost in-crowd vibe. "I just encourage singers to act out and use their imagination and not just play to the original," Rid says. It works. Over the course of the evening many performers offer renditions that span snarky, silly, theatrical and downright good. Rid's stellar song options and obscure in-betweens have successfully played to a bar full of musicians, album collectors and music snobs alike.

It's surprising but true: At some point, and we don't know exactly when, karaoke became cool. Sure, there are still heinous sports bars with white-capped assholes riffing Bob Seger every six minutes, but more often we found, at least in Dallas proper, hosts and hostesses making an effort to provide a variety of songs. In turn, performers and patrons respect that effort with spirited renditions and selections that reach further than the overdone "Sweet Caroline" and "Hotel California." Aldridge, the RSK bunch and Mr. Rid all pack their respective residences with ambitious regulars and hopeful newcomers each week before the card-carrying performers and bands hit the weekend stages. And all we can say after weeks in this karaoke circuit is, "Pass the mike."

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Merritt Martin
Contact: Merritt Martin