Karaoke in Northern Michigan

Drawn by urges undefined, people around Northern Michigan make their way to the karaoke mic each week. We check in with some of the devoted. Find the original story in the April 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.


 There’s a tavern off 8th Street in Traverse City that’s nearly indistinguishable from the countless other roadside watering holes in Northern Michigan. Inside, there’s a long wooden bar with a bunch of bottles behind it. There’s worn carpet, pub games and a few large, etched mirrors paying homage to America’s great beers. There’s a blue-collar feel to the neighborhood; the town’s underutilized train tracks and wastewater treatment plant are a stone’s throw from the front entrance. But there’s also an artifact in here that sets Sidetraxx apart from other dime-a-dozen dives: a radiating disco ball shaped like a male torso suspended over a small dance floor. It’s the most ostentatious indicator that the pub caters to the non-heteros among us. But Sidetraxx is (according to its website) “not just a gay bar.” And come Wednesday nights, this bar known for the best dance floor in town is also a karaoke Shangri-la.

One wintry Wednesday eve I sidle up to Sidetraxx’s bar and order a tall one. The crowd is thin. It was, after all, a Wednesday night. Like trivia nights or open mic nights, karaoke is a way to get people in the door—lure them away from the TV or divert them from competing bars. Surveying the meager crowd, I couldn’t help but wonder which part of the human brain thinks, “Yeah, karaoke … good idea!” and convinces the body to tag along.

The scene is somewhat predictable for much of the night. One by one, patrons shuffle up to the microphone, sing their songs, and return to their cushioned seats, their drinks, and their friends. As an observer of—not participator in—the night’s proceedings, I cannot enjoy the full-on pageantry of karaoke: the indecisiveness of picking the perfect song, the butterflies in one’s stomach being squashed by Dutch courage and peer pressure, the performance itself and, finally, the audience’s polite applause and post-song smiles. Sure, watching is fun, but karaoke is about participation. And for me it’s less exciting from the sidelines. That is, unless a young man named—well, he prefers we not use his name, but his pretend name is going to be Bill—Bill is about to sing a song.

Bill is tall and thick, with a shock of sandy hair and an infectious smile. Bill and I went to the same high school, though he graduated before me. We were barely acquaintances. I remember watching Bill when he was an unassuming high school athlete, but that was about the extent of our interaction.

Bill is now in a different arena, on a different mission, one speckled with thousands of tiny disco ball spotlights. A guttural guitar grumbles the opening bars to “Mother” by Danzig, a 90s heavy metal band. Bill clutches the microphone to his chest with both hands and casts his head downward like a Benedictine monk. He bellows the first few lines of the song before raising his voice to a howl, and he sways across the dance floor, his movements embodying the jarring song. This is no casual recital—no haphazard “attempt” at karaoke—but an artist’s statement. Three-and-a-half minutes later the song ends as abruptly as it began, and applause and hoots and hollers follow Bill back to the bar. We strike up a conversation once the fervor ebbs.

“I was testing out the song before the karaoke contest,” Bill says. He’d just finished his evening shift then headed over to Sidetraxx and the awaiting mic.

“Karaoke contest?”

“Yeah, at Union Street Station. Not this Sunday, but the next. The winner gets $1,000.”

“You’re going to sing that song at a karaoke contest?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m the defending champ.”

 

Photos: Todd Zawistowski

 

The Bayview Inn Bar & Grill is located in Acme about 10 minutes from downtown Traverse City on US31. The restaurant’s large windows provide sunset views of East Grand Traverse Bay, but tonight is karaoke night in March, and it is dark outside. Rather than displaying the vast frozen bay, the windows reflect the eatery’s interior and all its karaoke grandeur. A small sing-along TV screen is mounted on a stand in front of the Bayview’s billiard table, and a few portable can lights flash above the makeshift stage.

A fair number of regular karaoke customers show up on Thursday nights. One is Chicago native and investment banker Michael McCarty. Seven years ago McCarty serenaded a Bayview bartender on her birthday with a version of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”; he was wearing a wedding gown at the time. On the night I visited, it happened to be that bartender‘s birthday again, and, in keeping with tradition, Michael donned a cheerleader’s outfit and sang “Mickey,” by 80’s one-hit wonder Toni Basil. So if you’re looking to see a banker in drag, swing by the Bayview on a Thursday around March 20th.

Another regular is Ben Shimek, aka Reverend Ben, whose ordination from an online church afforded the nickname. From Dick’s Pour House in Lake Leelanau to Cedar Tavern, in Cedar, to Traverse City’s Sail Inn, Ben is a staple at Northern Michigan karaoke nights. He grew cherries on his family’s Leelanau County farm before an accident in the orchards left his shoulders and his hip damaged to the point that he couldn’t do the work. Before the accident, Ben had practiced voice impersonations to pass the time during 12-hour days among the undulating rows of red, ripening cherries. His penchant for imitation found another outlet in karaoke.

Rev. Ben is something of a karaoke purist. He doesn’t do it for the adulation (he said that his performances are applauded once in a while) or for what few unknown perks may come of a night of karaoke in Northern Michigan. He’s not going to turn heads with acrobatic antics or searing vocals or by wearing a dress. In fact, his stage presence is subdued in spite of his large stature. At the Bayview, he leaned comfortably against the billiard table behind him while busting out one of his signature songs—“Treasure” by Bruno Mars.

“Why do you do karaoke?” I ask him, half-expecting an answer that would unlock some corner of the human psyche.

Instead, he says, “For fun.”

Televised singing competitions and karaoke share a similar entertainment recipe. There’s the suspense of not knowing what will emerge from a performer’s mouth, the willingness to be awestruck by true talent, and the familiar disappointment of having to listen to someone who can’t sing particularly well. But weeknight karaoke isn’t strictly about performing well for others or landing a record deal. It’s relatively inconsequential. Nothing bad happens after a botched song, and usually nothing especially good after a well-performed one.

Union Street Station’s contest provided a financial incentive for Northern Michigan’s karaoke kings and queens to perform well, effectively turning the devil-may-care ethos of karaoke on its head. On any other night, failure to hit a note could be shrugged off as a trivial flaw. But on this night at Union Street Station, $1,000 was up for grabs. Even one mistake could be costly. The 10 contestants had secured their places in the finals by battling through previous Sunday evening qualification rounds, and, for most, the night marked the culmination of their karaoke careers. Nine would fall short. Only one would be crowned champion.

The potent chi of karaoke pulses through the historic Traverse City bar. Each contestant will sing four songs of his or her choosing, making the competition a 40-song karaoke marathon. Bill4 squeezes his way through the crowded saloon with a pint in hand. I catch his eye, and he stops at the table where I sit. He tells me he’s not so sure about the order of the songs he plans to perform. Is it better to start with a bang or end on a high note? I tell him I don’t know.

The finals suddenly begin. The crowd has divvied itself into different camps according to which competitors they support. Garnering audience approval is critical in determining the winner: after the 40 performances, the contestants will gather on stage, and, in turn, the audience will have the opportunity to cheer for their favorites. The recipient of the loudest ovation will be declared the victor.

Bill appears to be a frontrunner based on the enthusiasm from the crowd during his performances, yet he faces stiff competition, notably from a sable-haired songstress named Sara and a bearded, beanie-wearing guy named Tim. Tim had placed second in the karaoke contest the year before. His rapid-fire rendition of the late-90s hit “One Week,” by Barenaked Ladies gained him much support, as did Sara’s singing Alannah Myles’ 80s slow-burner, “Black Velvet.” Would Bill’s well-rehearsed, evocative performance of “Mother” propel him to the top? Was a repeat in store, or would Tim, Sara, or a different dark horse dethrone Bill?

The singing churns on, and eventually the last song is sung. All 10 finalists mount the stage for the voting some three hours after the competition commenced. The contest is now in the hands of the people. The evening’s emcee brandishes a smart phone with a decibel meter app to measure the crowd’s volume. He runs through the list of karaoke hopefuls, with Tim, Bill and Sara receiving the most raucous cheers. The contestants are dismissed from the stage while the results are confirmed.

When the emcee returns to the mic, the crowd falls silent. In a moment of anticlimax, he reveals that the decibel meter app wasn’t very precise. There was no clear winner, but he was able to discern the three top decibel-getters. On the fly, the emcee organizes a runoff that pits Tim, Bill and Sara against one another in a final, chaotic poll. The three return to the stage, but not before imploring eligible voters for a good scream on their behalf. Again, the emcee holds his phone up to measure the volume of each salvo of cheering. This time the outcome is definitive. The winner of the $1,000 grand prize is Tim.

Bill is crushed, but squeezes a sportsman’s smile from his lips at the announcement. He ultimately lost to the guy who had the most loudmouth buddies in the room. I don’t want to downplay Tim’s win—it was one for the ages—it’s just that such a ridiculous means of judging a contest could only happen in the tragicomedic world of karaoke.

With so much karaoke spectacle, I can’t help but think back to my Thursday night at the Bayview Inn Bar & Grill, as the action was wrapping up. Reverend Ben had graced the pulpit three or four times, and Michael McCarty is back in trousers.

The karaoke singers are done, so they bundle up and walk out to the cold, paved parking lot against a sweeping end-of-winter wind. Their small triumphs at the microphone are behind them, but when the warm glow from the colored can lights beckon a week later, I know they will be back for more of their favorite midweek sport.

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