- Austen Diamond
What is it about karaoke that always draws a crowd, even on a weeknight? I stopped into four very different SLC bars to see what I could find—which turned out to be a lot of questions about the solitude of the stage and the camaraderie of being part of the audience.
The Chakra Lounge
Upon entering The Chakra Lounge (364 S. State, chakralounge.net) on a recent Thursday, I hear the opening chords of "Space Oddity" by David Bowie. In the brightly-lit space of the dance floor, a man softly sings the countdown that builds the song up, and which blasts me off into my project of exploration. As I settle in with a cold Coors, the singer and the DJ (both have long hair and beards fitting for a metalhead) solemnly double-clap to the part that calls for it. This song is followed up by "Love Is a Battlefield," sung by another serious-faced man in a cut-off tee. As that song ends, the DJ announces, "This song has no bearing on reality," before launching into "The Heat Is On." He's joined by a supportive woman, who dances around him as he sings. I want to step into the self-serious yet fleeting apart-ness these singers inhabit, so I get up and sign up to sing The Cure's "Just Like Heaven." While I wait, songs I considered singing are sung by other people: The Smiths' "There is a Light That Never Goes Out;" Dolly Parton's "Jolene." I'm struck by how we all seem to be on similar wavelengths. When it's my turn, I try to sing it like I have a million times in my car, shyly glancing at the patrons, who aren't even looking, thankfully. My voice takes on a nervous, twangy quality as it hits the mic, and before I know it, it's over. Satisfied with myself, I leave as "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" begins to play.
My next stop of the night is Tinwell (837 S. Main, 801-953-1769, tinwellbar.com), where, pulling up, I can hear the heavy bass voice of someone singing Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt" from outside. When I get into the bar and out to the patio, it's still going on, and someone is complaining that it's depressing. Other than the complainer, the patio is pleasant, cool, and smells sweetly of a clove cigarette. I hear my name, and find my friend beckoning me to join her, her friends and her boss—the latter a local bar owner who, in this context, simply calls himself the King of Karaoke. The King is up before they get to tell me much more, and as he begins a faltering but confident rendition of Sam Smith's "Stay With Me," I notice this crowd is way more involved with the performances, whooping supportively and laughing along to screw-ups. The King, my new pal, buys me a shot of Fernet Branca, which I sip on as the tall bartender comes out to cheers for a duet of "Margaritaville" with a patron. In the same classic vein, another patron does "Jolene," like I wanted to, like someone at another bar did an hour before. I can't help but wonder what it is about certain songs that hang so presently in our minds as not just catchy tunes, but ones perfect for singing alone in front of strangers.
Cheers to You
Cheers (315 S. Main, 801-575-6400) is my dive bar comfort-zone, and entering late on a lonely Sunday night, I find the same DJ from my Thursday visit to Chakra Lounge. The first singer—who greets me with a dramatic, lowered-voice version of "Zombie"—later teams up with a sultry-voiced fellow for "Tennessee Whiskey." The most interesting song I see performed is by an older man, who looks around with a curious remove as he sings Chicago's "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" Folks in the crowd who seem to know him call out their enthusiasm, but he remains stoic, and it truly sounds like he's asking, "Does anybody really care?" On that note, I decide to decamp for Tavernacle, where people apparently really, really care.
Tavernacle (201 E. 300 South, 801-519-8900, tavernacle.com) couldn't be more different from the dark, shotgun-narrow Cheers, with its wall of windows, raised stage, gleaming piano and large lyric screen. The altogether-swankier setup seems to invite some grandeur. Upon walking in, a girl is up singing Lana Del Rey's "Video Games," while someone who seems to be a friend of the singer poses and preens at her feet on the stage. Sometime after her, a tall and graceful young man gets up on stage to deliver a growling, passion-streaked rendition of "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing," which everyone sings along to. He's followed by a girl in a little polka-dotted dress who sings a pitch-perfect "I Will Always Love You," hitting the high-notes with a delicateness that makes the crowd applaud. This evening is certainly less scrappy than the other nights I've been to; it's truly for the well-practiced performers who love to belt.
No one sings "Jolene" at Tav, but I'm sure they have, and they will again. What's in a go-to track? I'm not sure, but karaoke's got me thinking about the vulnerability of being in the spotlight, and what it means to be witnessed—casually or rapturously, depending on the crowd. I'll mount the stage, or at least join the crowd again soon.