“Everybody is a star …” — Sly Stone
If you’ve ever fronted a real live band with the screaming energy of a stack of Marshalls, a kick-ass drummer and a funkengruven bass, then singing karaoke is flat-out going to fall short of that experience. However, if you haven’t experienced the joy of having your eardrums vibrated out of your head trying to project over amplified instruments, then canned stardom might just move it for you. At the very least, if you actually know you can’t carry a tune and choose to watch safely from your barstool, karaoke participants can thrill, amuse and be that comedic relief you’ve long sought after a hard day on the slopes or the trail. They can also grind on your aesthetic sense like fingernails raking down a chalkboard.
You might have sworn you’d never be seen on stage mimicking Steve Perry, only to find yourself with mic in hand under the spotlight lured by ill-meaning friends and plied with brews crooning about small-town girls and believing. There are the willing wannabe glamour girls who are convinced that they may serendipitously get discovered as the next Lady Gaga by the celebrity tourist as they’re crooning out an off-key version of “Star Struck.”
Whatever the extent you find yourself involved in karaoke rituals, somewhere in a small bar in Japan, where the term and practice is rumored to have originated in the 1970s, the locals are still waiting for the band to show up. The literal translation of “Kara” means “missing,” and “Oke” means “band” or “orchestra.” If the band didn’t show up, they had a pre-recorded tape of their music and the singer would belt out the songs in front of an empty orchestra. At some point, a savvy singer must have figured out they could make far more money at a gig if they didn’t have to pay the band and karaoke took flight and stopped waiting for the band to roll out of bed.
Up here in the thin air, sometimes all it takes to get people up and chirping is the promise of free booze offered by the bars hosting the sing-along. Kyleena Graceffa, co-owner of the Lobar in Crested Butte, has witnessed the transformation in people once they hit the stage. “People say ‘No way! We’re not singing!’ or ‘I can’t get up and sing,’ but as soon as they have a couple of cocktails, I can’t get the mic away from them. Liquor makes people sing,” she notes. “It makes them stars and oh yeah, it’s like America Idol down here some nights.”
Free sake makes it easier for courage to blossom, as well as making it easier on the ears of listeners. During the summer season, when the Crested Butte Music Festival goes into full swing, Kyleena watches the vocal talent go up a few notches. “It’s really entertaining, because they’re really good, so, between the not-so-good, there’s the relief of the experts,” she says. “Those operatic voices aren’t singing Puccini and Mimi isn’t diving into her tailspin swan song … when the opera people are here they want to sing Def Leppard, not opera.”
It doesn’t seem to matter which side of the Divide you’re on, there’s a commonality of music that mountain folk want to warble. Anything by Journey and songs like “Sweet Caroline” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” — all the classic rock and cheesy love songs. “Depends on the age in the club and the demographics,” says veteran karaoke jockey (KJ) Sandman in Vail. “There’s not much difference between Aspen and Vail unless I get a Filipino group in that loves Elvis. I get a lot of rap in a younger bar, like the Hunter Bar in Aspen, but the Red Onion is probably my most eclectic, longest established show and the oldest bar in Aspen,” Sandman says of the 150-year-old place. “These are resort towns, so my winter crowds are far different than summer … a lot of winter tourism as opposed to summer when more locals show up because they’re not working as hard.”
And there are memorable nights like when the entire touring cast of the musical “Stomp” came in to bang on pizza boxes, chairs, garbage cans and anything that would raise a joyous noise to play rhythm to all the karaoke songs.
Attesting to karaoke’s popularity, Sandman is kept busy with his velvet voice and comic charm, enticing would-be stars to take the stage six nights a week in six different bars from Aspen to Vail, and he claims that, “It is never the same show twice. Like snowflakes, no two are alike. I get visitors and locals, and there’s a difference between each mountain town and venue.” And, he chortles victoriously, “I still get to play for a living — my band is never late, never out of tune, never shows up drunk, their equipment always works and they don’t fight with each other.”
While it’s obvious there’s a loyal following for the art of interpretive musical imitation, way up in the northern ski country of champagne snow, close to the Wyoming border, I asked my Steamboat Springs buddy if the town sported any karaoke bars, to which he snorted, “This is cowboy country. We shoot people who only pretend they can sing. It spooks the horses.”
Just as we suspected …