Once a month, a guy named Rusty brings his keyboard into the back room of Hattie's Hat, spreads 20 songbooks out throughout the room (from every era), amps up a couple mics, bellies up to a table shaped like a grand piano, and plays song requests for anyone that wants to sing.
Singing along with a piano is not karaoke. It's a whole different level of performing. Anytime you don't have the security of those rolling lyrics on that screen, things get real tricky, real fast. I still have nightmares about this time in Albuquerque eight years ago when I got drunk and disrupted my cousin's wedding rehearsal dinner by getting the piano man to play "Moondance" for me--and I tripped all over it. My timing was off and I totally forgot the second half of the song. It was bad. My family was supportive, but couldn't hide their embarrassment for me. I bomb all the time, but humiliating myself in a restaurant full of strangers who wanted nothing to do with me singing to begin with really cut me down to size.Rusty's night used to be on Sunday from eight to midnight, but they moved him to Thursday (at the same time). I checked it out a couple weeks ago. When I got there at ten, he was in the middle of a break hanging out with a handful of people sitting around the "piano." They looked like good friends of his. The rest of the room was empty. I took a table in the back and started looking through a book of popular songs from the 70's. There was no way I was ready to sing anything at that point. I had no drinks in me and was worried I would screw up.
Feeling uncomfortable, I moved it to the bar to allow myself time to loosen up. There were a lot of people there, but nobody was ready to go back and sing with the piano man. I pounded a tall can of Rainier and downed a big shot of Fernet Branca. The stuff tastes like liquefied Sharpie ink, and I almost threw it back up, but two minutes later, I felt a wave of comfort kick in. Just as that was happening, I heard the sound of sweet harmonization coming from the back room. I ordered a fresh beer, reclaimed my seat and watched a man and woman sing "And Your Bird Can Sing." All of a sudden I felt right at home. It was the day after the 30 year anniversary of John Lennon's murder, and I was so ready to sing along to Beatles songs.
The Fab Four did rule the night, but there were some random performances between. People had a pretty easy time reading lyrics straight out of the songbooks and Rusty was able to do pretty much every song requested. By the time 10:30 rolled around everyone in the bar filled in that back room. I moved piano-side just before things got packed. We heard everything from the "How Deep Is Your Love" to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." What made this better than an average karaoke night is everyone was singing along to every song. This gal did a bit of Harry Nilsson's "Breakin' My Heart" and everybody had the best time filling in the "...You're tearin' it apart, so FUCK you" part.
When it was my turn, I asked Rusty to play "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues." I wasn't about to try a song I didn't know completely by heart, and this Elton number's one I could do if I had amnesia. Rusty had to refer to one of the song books, and this version didn't go exactly like the original, but my voice sounded strong in the mic and I didn't stumble once. It felt so great to get that first one out of the way.
There wasn't a single performer that didn't have a great voice. This gray haired guy in his mid 50's asked Rusty to do "She Works Hard for the Money" by Donna Summer. Everybody figured it would be a joke and he'd screw around, but he was totally committed and it wound up being the most memorable performance of the night. I was both, super impressed and super jealous of Rusty. He was the real star of the night. As I watched him play, I couldn't help but think about how much pussy he must get around this gig.
By midnight, no one in that room was about to let Rusty leave. I didn't have any cash for his tip jar so I bought him a Jim Beam on the rocks. It was far from the only drink that was covered for him that night. There was no real rhyme or reason to the singer line up. It was pretty much whoever was able to get control of the mic got to sing. The night kept on going back to the Beatles. We all sang everything from side two of Abbey Road that last half hour and I was able to lead "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight" and when I was done, Rusty gave me props for nailing it. It was one of the best times I've ever had singing anywhere.