Mr. Karaoke: Our newbie makes noise 

click to enlarge Jonathan Sanders is NUVO's newbie on the karaoke scene - PHOTO BY MICHELLE CRAIG // DESIGN BY WILL MCCARTY
  • Jonathan Sanders is NUVO's newbie on the karaoke scene
  • Photo by Michelle Craig // Design by Will McCarty

When I tell people how much I enjoy visiting local karaoke bars, the look I sometimes get implies I should be part of a 12-step program.

Something like "Hi, I'm Jonathan, and I'm a karaoke addict. I mainline Katy Perry and Adele for kicks."

Not that there is anything untoward about getting behind a microphone and belting out tunes to entertain a drunken crowd. I've been doing it for years, and unless I find my way onto America's Got Talent, odds are those sojourns are the only way I'll ever live out my rock and roll fantasy. Grab that mic and for five minutes you're a star, whether you can sing or not.

And trust me, no one cares if you can sing.

Sure, it's a bonus if you can hit the high notes of a Whitney Houston song or growl like Disturbed's David Draiman. But once everyone's drunk enough, it's just as fun being dragged up front for a group singalong to "We Are The World." Yes, this has happened to me. And yes, that song goes on forever.

I grew up in a small town in Southern Indiana, Tell City, where karaoke was something that happened in bars just every once in a while. Only recently did any local bars start booking a regular show, and the town was so small every singer knew each other. Hazards of small town karaoke: you can't hold a contest often because the same singer or two would win every time. Because of this, people tended to play it safe, choosing a song or two to sing regularly, rarely stepping out from their comfort zone.

Obviously I couldn't wait to get to Indianapolis, where aside from hitting the freelance writing hard, I could go to karaoke bars seven nights a week if I wanted, competing against the best singers at every opportunity. I pictured myself as a karaoke hustler, sneaking in and shocking everyone when they saw this 300-pound bearded giant hit the stage and nail every note of Hozier's "Take Me To Church." I saw karaoke titles in my future, because no one would hear me coming.

My in-laws were having none of it.

"Don't expect this to be like Tell City," my mother-in-law said as she drove my wife and me to the Monkey's Tale the week we came up to sign the papers for our new condo. The implication was that on the mean streets of the Indy karaoke scene, people were going to be cruel. Knife-you-in-the-nuts cruel.

So I braced for the worst.

click to enlarge MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Michelle Craig

Then I heard "Aunt Susan" singing Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" and knew immediately this was exactly like Tell City. Once you hear a crowd cheering on an octogenarian as she sings "I want your ugly / I want your disease," you know they're down for anything.

It didn't take long for Kat, my editor here at NUVO, to hear that I was the city's latest wannabe karaoke star, and that I lived off the high I got each time I found a new bar where the microphone was open to anyone with lungs. So she set me loose on the city's karaoke scene with the task of putting together a new list of best places to sing any day of the week. I, of course, agreed immediately, and set out to find the places where everybody knows your name – and what song you're known for.

The first thing I noticed was that I was right about the level of competition. That first night at The Monkey's Tale, I left empty-handed, not placing in the top three of that night's second week of Monkey Idol. Sixteen people competed and no one played it safe, which meant a level of competition that was at once intimidating and exhilarating.

In Indianapolis I didn't have to sing the easy songs. In fact, taking risks was openly encouraged, as singers informally battled each other to see who could come up with the riskiest performance. When I returned to battle the Monkey Idol gods in mid-December I fared better – placing third – but I knew I'd have to continue to step up my game if I ever want to be a champion singer here.

Each bar had its quirks too, which made me feel like a cultural karaoke anthropologist everywhere I went.

At Metro, for example, the bonus is that you can sing while backed by actual radio jocks who put in effort to make a professional show out of a ragtag bunch of singers. While the dance party raged on upstairs, those of us adventurous enough to take up the challenge sang everything from "With A Little Help From My Friends" to Alanis' "You Oughta Know," all while Chris Van Sickle, who produces the Smiley Morning Show on WZPL, kept up banter with the audience while blasting upbeat dance tags between singers. Packed in like sardines, we loaded up with beer and let everything out. Being new in town, it was three hours in before I even realized I was in a gay bar (not that anyone in the place gave a shit who was or wasn't).

At the Hi-Fi in Fountain Square, where they've been hosting karaoke only since early last year, the atmosphere was the complete opposite. When I arrived, expecting a long wait before singing, there were only 10 or 20 people in the place, which meant I had four beers in me and five songs under my belt before the hipster crowd really got the place moving. The best thing they have going is that singers can take the stage where national touring bands play, living the rock star dream in a venue where high quality sound is guaranteed. Once you belt out the opening lines of Smashing Pumpkins' "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" in that setting, there's no going back. Except on Tuesdays, since you know you'll definitely be doing Hi-Fi karaoke again.

click to enlarge MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Michelle Craig

My favorite spot in those first two weeks of karaoke newness had to be Downtown Olly's, which has the benefit of being a gay sports bar, a fantastic diner and hands down the best place to let your inner singer fly. Take the stage beneath a sea of year-round Christmas lights and face the giant screen on the opposite wall, and you're immediately at home. And the variety of singers was impressive as well! My first night there I heard an extremely grizzed guy sing a slurred-yet-awesome rendition of "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," after which Aunt Susan of Monkey's Tale fame belted out the best (and only) version of Ricky Martin's "Shake Your Bon Bon" I've ever heard. Later, a dude sang "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" like he was starring in his own cabaret act. What more could you want?

The week before Christmas, Kat hooked up this humble, legally blind freelancer (me) with a photographer willing to log some serious karaoke miles. And thus the inaugural Naptown Karaoke Crawl was born, as photographer Michelle Craig and I set out to visit as many karaoke spots in a single night as we could handle. She was apparently under orders to make sure I was photographed singing, and she made sure to request her favorite songs once she realized I am a veritable karaoke jukebox.

At Dear John's Pub, we found the closest thing to Tell City I'd experienced in the Circle City. Dear John's is a quiet Thursday pub where an older-skewing crowd of Eastsiders still desire to push the karaoke envelope. Thus, we were serenaded by the best version of Pink Floyd I've personally ever heard from anyone who could easily have been my grandmother. I responded with my take on Johnny Cash's "Hurt," kicked up with more than a hint of the Nine Inch Nails version, and was told that I'll be hunted down and dragged back if I don't make a return trip there in the new year.

Emboldened, we moved on to Peppers Brew Garden & Eatery on 56th Street, where I became known, for at least the third time, as "NUVO Guy." The place was decked out for Christmas, and the karaoke DJ seemed particularly in the holiday spirit, his halls decked in the most resplendent ugly Christmas sweater I'd ever seen. Though there were only a handful of revelers at the early hour of 10 p.m., those who were there made the best of it in true karaoke tradition. The DJ put together a chorus line and commenced dancing to strains of Sinatra, as the three men bellowed the words of "New York, New York." My kind of place! It was an atmosphere you don't find often, with those in the audience clearly having as much fun as those slinging the microphone.

click to enlarge MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Michelle Craig

Later that night we made return trips to the Monkey's Tale in Broad Ripple and Metro downtown. Monkey's Tale was packed (typical), and the couple who were manning the DJ booth clearly enjoyed helping karaoke veterans and newbies alike come out of their shells. In the half hour, we were there everything from Rocky Horror to "No Diggity" was fair game. When I took the stage to sing "Copperhead Road" by Steve Earle, the DJ backed me with his tambourine. It was a nice touch, and a perfect counterpart to the more behind-the-scenes DJ work on Tuesdays when they host their weekly Monkey Idol contest.

Metro, of course, was packed body to body when we arrived well after midnight, but it's a place where you're a regular once they've seen you there a few times. I found a spot against the wall to stand, nursing a beer while watching a lively pair serenade us with Salt 'n' Pepa's "Push It." Getting my chance to sing one final song just after 1 a.m., I chose one by Sam Smith, and was gently chided for not singing the DJ's favorite, "Take Me To Church." "You ruined my night!" she laughed, smiling. "You better come back and sing that one next time!"

I wound down my karaoke journey with a Sunday evening stop at Zonie's Closet on East Washington. The oldest school karaoke spot of the bunch, their DJ still chose to stick with a printed book of available songs, though it was certainly the thickest of those I've seen. The place was packed with regulars who knew each others' songs and were lively about joining in when the time was right.

I readily soaked it all in.

While I'm still technically the new guy in town, I'm ready to say Indianapolis is my new karaoke home. These are my people. They know my not-so-secret favorite pastime, and share it, even revel in it. We are karaoke fiends, and we're not afraid to shout it from the rooftops of dozens of pubs and clubs in town.

And in Indianapolis you can become one of us, any day of the week. What more could you want?

See our picks for the best karaoke joints in town, plus a comprehensive guide to seven days of singing here.

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Jonathan Sanders

Jonathan Sanders

Bio:
Jonathan Sanders is a recent transplant to the Indianapolis scene, but he's figured out how to make a quick impact -- find great local bands and fight to be the first to get them in print. An unabashed karaoke junkie, he is at home anywhere wannabe rock-stars regularly caterwaul.

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