Last week, I saw an ad on Craigslist for a karaoke host at a random restaurant/bar along the Danforth in Greektown. I sent it to Mink as a joke, and she applied on a whim. When she got the call for an audition, she decided to check it out. What doesn’t sound awesome about being a karaoke hostess? Exactly.
Here is David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” because it’s Friday and this is a great song and why not?
It is Wednesday night. To her credit, Mink doesn’t get nervous until a just few hours before she is slated to begin her audition. I am warned that this area might be a little rough around the edges by a friend who lives a couple of subway stops west. We decide to give it a shot anyway because it might be, as he suggests, one of those ‘hidden gems’ that all neighbourhoods have. These spots are always findable if you live there for a while or if you look hard enough – or, by some strange chance, your friend has an audition to host karaoke there on a Wednesday night.
(I figure it’s best to take these random nights as you get them. One of my fears is that someday soon I’m going to wake up and realize my life has become boring and mediocre and most definitely not filled with enough randomness.)
The bar is small but inviting, with an unassuming black sign that reads, The Groove Bar and Grill. When we get there around 10, the place is empty except for an older gentleman who is perched on a bar stool and reading a newspaper. He slips behind the counter as we enter, asking if we would like drinks. We bide our time by checking out the song selection and waiting for a few people to saunter in.
Mama and Papa
This is family-owned establishment, with parents and their sons working together. The gentleman is married to a fascinating woman. “Everybody here just calls me Mama,” she smiles when we first meet her. I end up talking to Mama while Mink is getting instructions on her audition. She is originally from Macedonia, and moved to Canada at age 19 and has lived here for 38 years.
She asks if I am European. I have “the look” of it, she insists, which I am inordinately pleased to hear her say. Must be that Romanian blood surging through my veins. I tell her that I am not European, but I am a mutt — several tiers of great-great-grandparents back are from Europe, depending on which side of the family you’re tracing. Most Canadians are, of course, if you peel back enough onion-skin layers of generations.
The father is the strong, silent type; I don’t think I hear a word from him for the rest of the night. But he smiles as Mama tells me that this is a family business. She adores the neighbourhood, loves her bar and its patrons. Their two sons are managing the karaoke side of things, which is finally getting underway.
Mink and I warily eye up the competition for the host(ess) job. It seems that one of competitors is a regular named Matt. He is an unassuming man in a ball cap and jeans who picks songs like “The Freshman” by the Verve Pipe, and others in the same vein. They are not downers, exactly, but they aren’t doing much to amp up the crowd. His voice isn’t bad, but he seems shy.
The second competitor is a 19-year-old named Brittany, who has an awesome voice. She has a whole entourage with her, including her mom, who is a sweetheart and offers to buy Mink and me a drink as the night wears on. Brittany also has an older sister and a purple-shirted guy friend along for moral support and to jump in on the occasional duet.
There is a large man who is into the R&B jams and has a voice like melting butter. He tells us that he is a karaoke regular, and shows us the photo of his 10-year-old daughter who lives in Montreal with her mother. He fills out the playlist with the requisite slower songs, a crooner to the end.
There is an older heckler drinking a beer at the bar. I try to get him to sing something, but he is adamant that he never joins in the karaoke – he just yells out a few mostly-harmless comments. I can appreciate that to a certain degree, but I admit that I was hoping he would cave and sing some Johnny Cash or something by the end of the night. (He didn’t.)
The Reluctant Joiners
There are two young guys playing pool in the back who at first seem too cool for karaoke (a myth if I ever saw it). Soon enough, of course, they are both gyrating around their pool cues and mouthing the words to whatever comes on. And then they are signing up to belt out songs like Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol,” and doing a fabulous job of it.
The Surprise Rock Star
The purple-shirted guy in Brittany’s posse also has a knack for choosing songs, and a great voice. My favourite is his rendition of “Karma Police,” which one might think is completely inappropriate for karaoke, but it somehow works. I may have been the one shouting, “Thom Yorke forever!” at Purple Shirt throughout the entire song, or maybe that was someone else, we have no way of knowing.
Another middle-aged man is flipping through the songbook uncertainly. He tells me that he met a friend here, and had no idea that it was karaoke night. I ask him what he thinks he might like to sing, and he asks if I work here. I reply cheerfully that I do not, but I really like karaoke and think everyone should join in. He chooses Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” and I manage to quell my normally irrepressible loathing of all CCR songs because he is enjoying himself so much up there with the microphone. Losing his original reticence, he later sings David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which is a real crowd pleaser.
Upon further conversation, Pete introduces himself and confides that he is an aspiring writer. (Aren’t we all, buddy?) He is working on a graphic novel that he won’t show anyone until it’s completely finished. Apparently I naturally gravitate towards aspiring writers of all ages, even in karaoke bars. Not surprising.
Mink and one of the sons, Rob, sing a heart-rending rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” as a duet. This is fantastic in theory, but Rob doesn’t know the song at all. I try to give him cues from my bar stool in the audience, but to no avail. He is a good sport about it though, and the outcome is hilarious – especially the dramatic hand gestures.
For the last song of the night, those of us left in the bar sing “Hey Jude,” all seven or eight of us really getting into it. Paul, John, George and Ringo would have had tears in their eyes.
Mama takes a group photo as we finish the song. She is not-so-subtly telling us to finish whatever drinks we have left and to get the hell out of here, since it’s after 2:30 a.m. on a Wednesday night.
Mink and I say goodbye to the whole family and the stalwart singers who have remained until the bitter end. The stragglers leave alone and by pairs, satisfied with their throats sung raw and that natural high that comes from performing on stage (as humble as the karaoke stage may be). We catch the night bus heading west.
Nights such as these are strange but beautiful in their own way. They are a petri-dish in which those “single-serving” friendships are given the opportunity to thrive and then die within the span of a few hours (think Fight Club).
The strange mechanics of human interaction allow for the possibility, over the course of a few hours, of transforming a room full of strangers into a group happy to bellow out The Beatles together, arms draped around each other with an ease that normally develops between much better friends. And then this uncomplicated camaraderie dissipates into the early morning air as we leave the bar, as intangible as the clouds of breath that rise up above us.
I guess that’s the magic of karaoke.