I love the eastside. Bellevue was the first place I lived when my family moved to this country, and I've spent most of my adult life working in Redmond. Sure, the commute from Greenwood can be hell, but I'm totally used to it. Rain or shine, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't look out at Lake Washington from the 520 bridge and think to myself how lucky I am to live around here.
Had this fucking knob gone up against Zoe, he'd never have been America's Idol.
Last Friday I had a work party in Downtown Bellevue, so I decided that would be the perfect opportunity to check out what eastside karaoke's all about. I asked around to see if anyone knew of a good spot, and a couple friends told me the Maple Leaf Chinese Restaurant on 148th Ave NE is the best place in town.
I had it all planned out: catch a ride into work, start drinking at Lucky Strike Lanes at three, head up to The Parlor around six to watch the second half of the M's/White Sox game, then have my buddy Lex get me to the Maple Leaf by nine. Everything went as planned, except I didn't anticipate how deflated I'd be after a bottom-of-the-ninth Mariner loss.
When we got to the Maple Leaf, the bar was already three-quarters full. It looks a lot like Chinese restaurant karaoke lounges in Seattle: nice and dim, gold tinsel lining the corners of the ceiling, disco ball/lights above the stage, and lots of Seahawks paraphernalia. We took a spot at the booth in the far back corner. There was a sign on the wall behind our table that warned of a $5 cover for anyone that doesn't order at least one thing to eat or drink. I thought to myself there must be a lot of karaoke-crazed cheap skates around Bellevue to cause them to post a sign like that.
The KJ hadn't gotten there yet, so we ordered up some dinner as we waited for him to arrive. I had a splitting headache I'd been trying to kill with Hornitos for the past hour, but that wasn't working, so I changed it up to Jager. The KJ showed up around 9:15, and handed out books around the time our food arrived.
I started feeling better by my third bite of Almond Fried Chicken, and remembered there were songs I had rehearsed and ready to go. I caught a slow Saturday at Tarasco the weekend before and rediscovered some gems I hadn't done in awhile. I immediately turned in John Cougar's "Jack & Diane" to the KJ. His name was Jeremy.
The show started at 9:30, and it was the first time in a long time I've been to a place where the KJ didn't start things off. Jeremy called me up to open the night. When I took the mic I looked out at the tables and noticed how young a crowd it was (young meaning there wasn't anyone my parents' age there). When the song title came on the big screen behind me and the guitar kicked in, I could see in everyone's faces they were excited to hear Cougar. The mic was nice and loud and I rocked it. I broke out the classic haymaker punch to the beat (as Cougar did in the video) and strummed out the air guitar. It felt really good. I've given in to the fact that when it comes to pleasing a karaoke crowd the Coug has it over the Boss every time.
I got a big round of applause and as I made my way back to the table I saw one off my co-workers, Zoe. We crossed paths earlier in that night as I left The Parlor. When I happened to tell her what I was up to, she told me she has been singing at the Maple Leaf for years and said she may stop in. It's commonly known at the office that she has a great voice (singing and speaking), and I knew that she knew I was the Karaoke Korrespondent, so I was super-stoked she got to hear me at my best. It immediately took away the bitterness I had over the wasted Jose Lopez grand slam earlier in the evening.
The guy after me sang "Sweet Transvestite" from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I've said before it's one of my least favorite songs to hear, but I have to admit, everyone I've seen sing it has done it well, and the crowd always seems to enjoy it, so I've just got to accept it. This guy actually delivered the least annoying performance I've heard. I think it's because he didn't try to exactly like Tim Curry did in the movie. And he didn't come off like he thought he was the shit up there as he sang it. When you take those two factors out, the song is tolerable.
The singer after him was a dude with pork chop side burns, and he delighted us with "Build Me Up Buttercup" by the Foundations. Who doesn't love that song? It's just so happy and it reminds me of the first time I saw There's Something About Mary. It requires some serious range, and I've never heard anyone attempt it before who made it look so easy. Three performers in and the crowd was good and fired up.
Up next was my friend Zoe. I was really excited to finally get to hear her sing, and she did not disappoint. She sang "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" by KT Tunstall. The last time I saw that song performed live was when Katharine McPhee did it in the American Idol finals four years ago and, if McPhee had Zoe's pipes that night she would have beaten that geek Taylor Hicks easily.
A few singers later was a black gal named Nikki, and she sang one of my favorite songs from when I was in my early 20's: "Weak" by SWV, another song I've never heard attempted at a karaoke bar before. She sang it so well it triggered the squishy nostalgic feeling I get whenever I catch it on the radio. Hearing her deliver that song like a pro made me understand what my friends were talking about when they said this place was the best in Bellevue. It's packed with ringers.