The Karaoke Korrespondent Takes His Microphone to Maryland

I took a little vacation last week at my sister's home in Catonsville, Maryland, which is outside of Baltimore. Friday, we had ourselves a great karaoke night with her husband and friends at a bar called The Trolley Stop in a town called Ellicott City.

We arrived just before 10. As I approached the front door and heard the music from the outside, I just knew it was going to be good. When we entered, the place was packed, but a really friendly host was able to set us up at a table in the back room. The restaurant's in a nice old building with brick walls. We couldn't see the stage area from where we were, but could still hear the singers very well. A dude sang The Doors' "Riders On the Storm" as we settled in, and for some reason that groove triggered the butterflies inside.

I was really stoked to sing, and I couldn't wait to get some tequila in me. I ordered one from the bartender and he served me up a five-ounce mega-shot of Cuervo Gold. I stay the hell away from that stuff at home, but have come to learn they don't have quality tequila in Maryland. I took it down, it tasted like poison, but two minutes later I could feel it tickling the lining of my stomach. Five minutes later I followed it with an equal portion of Jager, and that combination took care of me for the remainder of the night.

My buddy Imix is the biggest fan of my column on the East Coast. We'd been planning this night for months. We had one catalog for our table, so we took turns with it. I quickly spotted "Thunder Road" and set it aside for insurance as I looked for the song I was really going to sing. They only had catalogs arranged by song title, so I had to act fast.

The past few weeks I've been returning to the standards I used to do back in my Baranof days. The crowd was full of people in their late forties, so I decided this would be a great night to do some 80's Elton John--specifically "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues." I handed the slip off to the KJ's sidekick and sat back down. My sister noticed I left my Springsteen pick back at the table and asked me why I didn't hand that one in either. I explained when dealing with a KJ you've never dealt with before, it's best to play it safe and hand in just one request your first time up. If the place is dead and there are only a couple of singers, that's a different story, but when it's busy you want to be as little of a pain in the ass as possible. Plus, if you hand in two, you have to explain which song you want to sing first, and things wind up getting complicated. When submitting a song, your main objective is getting up to sing that song as soon as you possibly can.

Imix had a couple songs he wanted to do, but they weren't in the book. It gets really frustrating when you actually have songs in mind but you keep coming up empty in the search. It gets harder and harder to think up other songs with every denial. He eventually came up with a short list of songs that were available. One of them was "The Sweetest Thing" by U2, and I told him he should do that. He's a musician with a great voice, so I knew he'd be able to handle Bono.

The crowd that night was pumping out nonstop classic rock. I noticed that the last time I sang in Maryland. Nobody really stuck out but no one stunk either. A half-hour in the place got even more jammed with people. I knew we had to make the first song count. The KJ gave the courtesy of announcing the next three singers, so I got to hear when my song was up.

When I was called, I made my way to the mic and had to wait a bit as the KJ queued up the disc. I always feel awkward during those moments. Sometimes I feel like talking to the crowd, but I've learned, for me, it's best just to keep quiet until it comes time to sing. As soon as the piano kicked in I remembered how much I loved this song as a kid. It was my intro to Elton John and it was one of the first videos I ever saw on MTV. What's also great is it's perfectly in my range. His 70's stuff can be ridiculously tough, but right at the turn of the decade his voice turned really low. From the first verse I owned it, and never had to refer to the monitor. Whenever I look across the crowd and see people as they watch me sing a song by heart, I always wonder if any of them think I'm showing off. It's so much different up there when you don't have to read the screen. You just feel powerful.

I got a great round of applause when it was done, and as I made my way back to our table this guy told me I did a great job and said I looked like Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters. This was not the first time I've heard this about myself. I didn't mind it. The other guy I get compared to is Lou Diamond Phillips, and for some reason that bugs me way worse.

Imix was called up a couple singers later and did his U2. The scroll on the words was kind of screwed up in the beginning. It kind of threw him off, and it took until mid-song for him to get into a flow. I was thinking of putting that song on my to-sing list, but realized as it went on I didn't know it nearly as well as I thought I did. When the song was over, the KJ chimed in and told the crowd to "give him a round of applause because that song is not an easy one to sing." That's a pretty brutal way to go out.

My sister sang "Heaven" by Bryan Adams. The song makes me think of my first taste of puppy love in the 6th grade. I still feel squishy when I hear it on the radio. It's a really challenging song to sing. My karaoke life would be so much better if I could consistently handle Adams' range. My sister played it safe and sang it in her lower register, but it still sounded great. Growing up, she was the singer between us. I watched her in a ton of recitals and musicals growing up. I didn't realize I was good at singing until after I turned 21 and started going to k-bars.

It was close to midnight when the KJ did something I'd never seen done before. He started announcing who the next 10 singers would be between songs. For the customer it's a very considerate move. He probably did it to keep people from constantly asking him when their turn was. But as soon as we knew we weren't close to being up again, we accepted it and got ready to leave. We weren't the only ones. A couple other tables started leaving, too. If I was the owner of that place, I'd tell the KJ not to announce more than three singers at a time. If people are having a good time, don't put a damper on it by letting them know how far down the list they are. It's not like everyone cares, but it just takes that one person in the party that wants to split, then all of a sudden you lose the whole table.

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