“Man, we were killing time, we were young and restless, we needed to unwind”
—Bryan Adams “Summer of ’69”
Entertaining myself during work trips isn’t a hard task; there always seems to be a lively bar or old friend to visit during my off-hours. Looking to up the ante during a recent jaunt to Washington, D.C., I Googled the one attraction sure to make me swell with American pride: the live band karaoke bar.
For those unfamiliar with this concept, please forego previous experiences of a ball bouncing on multicolored lyrics on a screen, all to a (rather poor) rendition of a Pat Benatar song. Backed not by a recording but by an actual drummer, guitarist, and bassist, you become Pat Benatar.
My Boston friends, Steve and Colleen, first introduced me to this concept some seven or eight years ago. It’s been my habitual drug ever since. If we go more than a month without live-band singing, one of us (likely me) will send the text, “I need my fix!”
While in my nation’s capital, I find the local “supplier” in the dimly lit basement of a barbecue joint. The wood paneling, lack of tables, bar in the back, and stage in the front mirrors other live-band bar setups. Smoked meat, however, replaces the standard smell of booze. Tonight offers another variation. This is the first time I’m singing to complete strangers without the company of my karaoke companions. Full disclosure: they weren’t present when I attended “karaoke night” on a cruise ship once, but I had only performed to a father and his 30-something daughter. They slow danced with each other before said daughter takes the stage and serenades him to something called “My Father’s Hands.” Motion sickness wasn’t the only thing making my stomach turn that night.
Personally, song selection is an arduous process. Singing a song that sings to you and is within your range takes some thought. Some nights, there’s trial and error. (Feeling adventures, Colleen and I to attempted Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” but the nearby alley cats in heat sounded better.) Of course, we have our staples, mine being mainly ’80s: “Stray Cat Strut,” “Footloose,” and Berlin’s “Metro.” On occasion, you succumb to the urge of attempting something different. That’s my plan tonight.
Toting a Victory IPA, my aptly named cup of liquid courage, I stand in the back awkwardly near the bar and watch groups form around me. Nobody engages me in conversation, and (being a bit shy in new settings) vice versa. I text my friends, hoping to evoke envy or at at the very least fake preoccupation as the crowds fill around me. Following the standard “why-wasn’t-I-invited” text from Colleen back in Boston, I ask for song suggestions. Steve sends me my usual selections, Colleen fires off “Lose Yourself,” by Eminem. I laugh at the song (meant as a joke) since I rap as well as I yodel. Looking back on the song, though, I realize (likely unbeknownst to Colleen) there’s some hidden meaning in that selection. The control freak in me hates to lose himself. That’s likely why I’ve never taken any illegal substance or why I cringe while in the passenger seat of a car; if I’m not firmly at the helm, it’s harder to control the outcome.
I also thought losing yourself on stage would be just as hard. Singing to a crowd of strangers, my inhibitions are initially on display at karaoke. My voice might be “karaoke good,” as I say, but there’s always the initial butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling of being judged for my abilities. Karaoke, however, gives you a safety net. I’ve learned that no matter how badly you perceive your stage self or how deep the anxiety, you have the ability of getting lost in the music. On stage, it’s you, the band, and the song. As you soon realize that the karaoke audience rarely passes judgment, the insecurities start to melt. You get a heartwarming ovation for whatever comes out of your mouth, from both friends and strangers. You master your fears and sing your ass off in the process. You immediately want to sing something else. It’s a high likely unparalleled by any drug. Tonight, though, I don’t have the safety net of my friends. Would the experience be any different?
Squeezed out of my small space at the bar by the now sizable crowd, I head towards the sign-up sheet near the stage. I pass 20-somethings in jeans and T-shirts, Suits finished with the day’s business, couples in their 40s. The dim lights make it hard to see the song list but I find my choice. “Niiiiiice!” says the bald-headed Suit next to me as I share my selection with him. I convince him to add his name to the list.
Standard procedure before my first song, my nerves start to accelerate. The knots expand in size as each name gets crossed off the list. The beer and other songsters–each thoroughly enjoyable with their renditions of Tom Jones, Carrie Underwood, and Journey–ease the tension a bit.
“Fred to the stage!”
Equal parts terror and excitement, I climb the stairs to the band. I place my beer in a holster attached to the mic stand. Also in front of me are two iPads also on stands that display the song lyrics. To advance the screen, I’m told, you need to tap the adjacent arrow buttons. Way more high-tech than the lyric sheet we’re typically given by our favorite karaoke band. The band tunes up as the spotlight warmly beams on me. Mainly congregating near the front of the stage, the crowd curiously stares at me, and I nervously smile back. I take the mic out of the stand, and wait.
The band confirms my song choice with me. “I think we know this one,” says the grinning bassist. The audience immediately recognizes the iconic opening, which is a quick slam on the drums followed by those unmistakable guitar chords. “I got my first real six-string/bought it at the five-and-dime/played it ’til my fingers bled/was the summer of ’69…”
They stare curiously at me as I sing the first stanza. I notice heads bobbing, hands raised, beers in the air. Until that moment on stage, screaming into a microphone, I never realized how high the notes for “…that summer seem to last forever” get. I feel my voice strain a bit during this part, but neither I nor the audience cares. I start dancing in place. When we come to the part “…and that’s when I met you, yeah” I point to the audience. They point back. We’re now feeding off each other’s energy.
The physical barrier between stage and audience is severed. We’re one unit, singing in unison: “Those were the best days of my life/oh yeah/back in the summer ’69!” It’s an amazing feeling to sing one of your favorite songs for an audience, knowing you’ve moved them and are being moved in the process. My focus wasn’t about sounding the best or the fear inside. It’s about getting lost in a moment when, for a mere three minutes and 25 seconds, I learn the magic that is being a rock star.
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