Babe’s of Carytown, 3166 West Cary Street; 804-355-9330.
Where Babe’s had been quiet, Santa’s, housed inside an old trailer set up on stilts, was bursting. I brought along a high school friend, and we ducked into the crowded, smoke-filled room lit up with Christmas lights and neon. The walls are one step up from plywood; those who prefer fresh air with their cigarettes can loiter on the wooden porch outside and check out the Santa-theme mural on the clapboard siding. Like any good karaoke bar, Santa’s transcends irony.
Out-of-towners and old-timers intermingled without resentment or shame; we were all there for the same ridiculous thing. A few minutes after my friend and I entered, the entire place broke into a mass wailing of Elton John’s “Your Song,” each face contorted with joy. Santa’s is a karaoke bar where you participate.
Every few songs, chaos would erupt, and we would all start into a big, messy singalong. After Elton came R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” then every woman in the bar screamed the opening lyrics of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” as if we’d practiced it beforehand. (We had, of course, in childhood bedrooms and cars.) Somehow, we all ended with “Yellow Submarine.”
There were more collared shirts than cowboy hats, but the room was just as rowdy and warm as one would expect any respectable honky-tonk to be. Country music was, predictably, favored. We sat down with a table of locals, also new to the bar, who had heard about Santa’s from a friend. By the end of the night, one of them would be scream-dancing with Lance, a tall, muscly specimen of a man in a backward cap and a cutoff shirt who had serenaded us earlier with “Song 2” by Blur. (The song’s main feature is a “woo-hoo” that constitutes the chorus.) During his performance, an unrelated group of bros chanted his name as if watching a chugging contest. The next morning, having smoked zero cigarettes, I washed the smell of Marlboro Lights out of my hair before setting off for New Orleans.
Santa’s Pub, 2225 Bransford Avenue; 615-593-1872; santaspub.com.
I assumed I would do a whole lot of singing in New Orleans, but I did none. My first night, a friend obligingly took me to the Cats Meow on Bourbon Street, a sprawling two-level bar where you can watch suburban mothers sing Madonna. Drinks come in large, multicolored plastic cups with stars shooting off each letter of the word “cats.” We left after a particularly off-key bachelorette group took the stage, realizing we were perhaps not drunk or bedazzled enough.
The following evening, I dragged another friend to Kajun’s, which I had heard was the place to go for actual karaoke. This proved so true that we were 33rd and 35th in line after putting our names in, even though it was a slow night thanks to an L.S.U. game on the televisions over the bar. The place itself is extremely regular: a long, wooden, almost-horseshoelike bar in the middle, a handful of electronic games against a wall, a few large TVs, plenty of cheap whiskey for sale. The crowd was a mix of woo-woo-ing women celebrating a birthday, college students, and a smattering of regulars.
We heard Bradley, a 30-something regular, sing “Midnight Train to Georgia,” his voice doing all the things you wish yours could do. Later, he explained that he likes to sing here, go across the street to Hustle Dance Party at the Hi-Ho Lounge to dance while he waits for his next turn. He likes Kajun’s, he told me, because “it’s a little dirty, a little nasty, a little cheap.” Ideal karaoke conditions, even if I didn’t get to sing.
Cats Meow, 701 Bourbon Street; 504-523-2788; 701bourbon.com. Kajun’s, 2256 St. Claude Avenue; 504-947-3735; kajunpub.com.
Texas’ capital city made up for my dry spell in New Orleans with Ego’s, a divey karaoke bar tucked inside a parking garage. Even on a Monday night, the crowd of mostly locals swelled to 30-plus by 11 p.m., gathering either by the bar or the pool tables or around tables in dinette chairs. The now-familiar glow of Christmas lights gave the room a cozy artificial comfort. A longhaired gentleman named Nick, there by himself, belted out “All the Young Dudes,” even the backup parts. I was captivated. Everything at Ego’s was just slightly stranger and warmer than everywhere else.
I brought along a friend, and after my third Miller High Life, we sang “Jesse’s Girl,” off-key and screeching on the high notes. I did a few high kicks; we were really getting into it, our own little dance party onstage, egged on by everyone else in the room. It was the friendliest place I had been in since Santa’s, the energy both casual and vibrant, and by this point I remembered that all I could hope for was a song going over pretty well or just being fun. At karaoke, perfect continues to be the enemy of good.
Ego’s, 510 South Congress Avenue; 512-474-7091.
I found Brigett’s Last Laugh in northern Phoenix, a sort-of sports bar with pretty good Buffalo wings where the songbook was laden with songs you might not remember but were overplayed on the radio during the past five years. (I counted a shocking 13 Lady Gaga songs.) I saw a woman sing the hypersexual “Pony” by Ginuwine, by herself, interjecting her own expletives. A group of women sang “Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks, which one of them later explained is a no-fail option for women.
I chose Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”; a local aerobics instructor named Em grabbed me by the arm and told me with wide eyes how much she envied my confidence. As I walked out, a woman was singing “I Touch Myself” as the crowd went wild.
Brigett’s Last Laugh, 17222 North Cave Creek Road; 602-788-0507; brigetts.com.
I could have driven to Los Angeles from Phoenix but decided I had to stop at a 24-hour karaoke bar in Las Vegas called Dino’s. I arrived at midnight. A sign on its exterior read “The Last Neighborhood Bar in Vegas,” though once inside, a local named Ashley, who was with her husband and a friend, told me that tourists don’t really come to Dino’s. It was low-key and dark — a stark contrast to the blinking, blaring strip a mile away. Artsy soft-core French pornography played on a few screens, and the bar was inset with gambling consoles. People were just being people, not drinking anything by the yard or gambling away their savings.
In Vegas, you can appear and disappear as you wish, and you can slide into a bar full of locals and watch them sing on one of the city’s tiniest stages. First an older woman with a gravelly voice and long gray hair sang “House of the Rising Sun” to great applause, followed by a much older man in a bolo tie and leather jacket who sang Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and then went outside for a cigarette. While I was in the bathroom, a woman sang “New York State of Mind,” and I shed a few tears for my now-former home. Finally, I sang Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs,” the song I like to sing the most but sometimes hold back from in front of strangers because it’s the opposite of rousing.
As the opening bars twanged, I chuckled into the mike and asked, “Are you guys ready to be sad?” Apparently they were. It felt more correct than anything else I had sung since New York, cathartic and allowed. In Las Vegas, you can sing what you like. Ten hours later, I was back on the road, having shaken out all the feelings I could, Los Angeles just a few hundred miles away.
Dino’s, 1516 South Las Vegas Boulevard; 702-382-3894; dinoslv.com.
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