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June 7, 2012
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4 minutes of fame … or infamy

By Amber Williams

Johnny Rasmussen sings a Red Hot Chili Peppers song at Jeannie’s Bottle. Photo by Amber Williams

Learn why and where central Iowans mic up for karaoke

Karaoke night can get kind of hairy at times — at Jeannie’s Bottle that applies to the dudes’ faces, but at some bars in the metro, hairy means catty, salty and maybe a tad trailer park.

“Girl, you better get up off my stage,” said Cherese Schirck as she all but belly-bumped an intruding “used-to-be bestie,” Pammi Aldrich off the platform at Trophy’s. “Nobody sings ‘Shoop’ like I sing ‘Shoop.’ Nobody. I know all the words. I don’t even need the monitor.”

“Everybody knows all the words to that song. It’s been around forever,” Aldrich snapped back, rolling her eyes and resigning back to her bar stool. Squinting through her ultra-blue eye shadow and glitter, Alrich watched sharply as her once best friend busted out Salt-n-Pepa’s 1993 hit “Shoop” — her song, her “go-to song”… Well, one of them, anyway.

Karaoke divas

Pammi Aldrich says she loves letting karaoke “B its L on (her) Ts.” (If you don’t know what she means, nevermind.) Her partners in karaoke crime are Ninja-Mary Bonstetter and Chelea Gamble, (who claims she invented karaoke). As a trio, they are a force of karaoke cool — at least they think so, and they couldn’t care less if others disagree… although, they’re certain others don’t.

“I’m an attention whore — especially if I’m drunk,” Aldrich admitted. “I love to rock out and hang out with my friends, and people have to either leave or stay and watch me be awesome.”

People decided to stay last Wednesday as Aldrich performed Eminem’s “Real Slim Shady,” staying on cue with the lyrics like a pro despite a stage-hording Schirck who no longer needed the mic to be heard. It was an impressive rendition, though obviously well-rehearsed. Of the three, Aldrich admits Gamble and Bonstetter are very good singers while she’s only “OK, kind of.” That’s why she brings the hip-hop to the group, picking up the rapping portions of the songs the way Left Eye would contribute her “crazy” to the ’90s all-female R&B band TLC.

When the three get together, they fit into Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child or TLC’s “Crazy Sexy Cool” songs with ease: Aldrich certifiably brings the “Crazy,” Bonstetter undoubtedly the “Sexy” and Gamble most definitely the “Cool.” Aldrich said they get together and bless karaoke bars, such as Heroes, Catoor’s on Grand and Z’s Bar and Grill with their performances at least twice a week.

“Put the three of us together and that equals: best karaoke singers ever,” Aldrich bragged.

But, not if you ask Schirck. The west side bartender claims she is in the top rung of the karaoke ladder as well as many of her guests during karaoke night at Maddy’s Again. And last week, her surly, unsteady delivery of “Shoop” didn’t cause a stampede for the door by any means.

“When people come into Maddy’s on Friday night, they all want to know if I’ve sang ‘Shoop’ yet,” Schirck said. “I bring everyone from Des Moines out to West Des Moines, and I make Maddy’s Again party. Anybody who comes to Maddy’s has a great time.”

Karaoke clowns

Whether the singer is a dolled-up diva, a delusional drunk or a bored bartender, having a great time is the name of the game. One of the city’s hottest karaoke spots, tucked away in a hidden parking lot off Merle Hay Road, is Jeannie’s Bottle, where Gamble works as a karaoke DJ on Tuesday and Friday nights. While it’s known among girls-night-out crowds as a great place to raise your voice, it’s also known for having some of the best vocal talents in town in a laid back, no judgment karaoke oasis.

“I know it sounds weird, but karaoke is the only thing that really makes me happy,” Gamble said. “Most people like to karaoke because they’re good at it, but I like to karaoke because it’s fun, and I’m good at having fun. If you want to see pure entertainment, go to Jeannie’s Bottle when Johnny, Josh and I are working. It’s awesome.”

At Jeannie’s the bartenders are the karaoke DJs and often the singers, too. “It’s all part of the job,” according to DJ Squatcheezy (a.k.a. DJ Zasquatch, a.k.a. Zach Garwick) and DJ Whole Milk (a.k.a. Josh Hemann), who not only sang a song by The Darkness last Tuesday night but also “Prince Ali” from the Walt Disney “Aladdin” soundtrack before busting out a Red Hot Chili Peppers duet with Jeannie’s son, Johnny Rasmussen.

They were clowning around, no doubt, but at least they could carry a tune. Not the case for “the butcher,” Erik Johnson.

“I’m notoriously bad,” he admitted. “The songs that tend to suit me more are the ones where there’s not a lot of vocal skills required. Punk songs go pretty good. They’re not exactly the most talented vocally. I can be off key and scratchy or just yell into the mic, and it’s going to sound decent.”

However, decent isn’t really the word Johnson, his girlfriend or any of his friends would use to describe his attempts at Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson, or the song “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which is what he was attempting the night he earned his nickname. He realizes he’s probably so horrible because he doesn’t take it seriously… at all. He’s never sang a song more than once, which means often he finds himself singing songs to which he doesn’t even know the melody or the words.

“Lots of times, I have no idea of rhythm or tempo or anything like that, and it usually fails horribly,” he admitted. “I know I’m not good, but I kind of like seeing other people’s reactions — whether they’re cringing or laughing — the bigger reaction the better.”

But why does someone who sings so badly still enjoy doing it? Usually people enjoy doing things beause they’re good at them. For Johnson, neither skill nor talent is a requirement for fun.

“It’s one of those things. I’m a fun guy who likes to have fun. It doesn’t matter to me if people think it’s bad. I have fun doing it, and I like doing it,” he said. “I’m not out there looking for my big break. I just want to have a fun evening.”

Karaoke Idol

But some are looking for that big break — or at least living the pipe dream they’ve harbored since childhood of someday becoming a famous rock star. Those are often the folks found singing with karaoke live bands such as Party! Party! and Wilder Side Band… or at Billy Joe’s Lounge competing in Karaoke Idol, a local karaoke version of the hit reality show “American Idol,” where singers are eliminated by a panel of judges until only three top winners remain.

Karaoke Idol is held every Tuesday night from 7-10 p.m. Contestants are allowed a warm-up song at 7 p.m. before a judged performance at 8 p.m. Auditions started on May 15, drawing about 10 people every night and passing only an average of four to the semi-finals per week. Of the 13 winners that have been chosen so far, Billy Joe’s loyal Doug McGhee was one of them.

“My wife made me,” he laughed. “She always makes me do the contests. It’s not about the money with my wife. She knows I like to sing, so she always makes me do it. I auditioned a couple weeks ago. There was a lot of competition, about12 people, and five of us made it.”

McGhee won the judges’ favors with “Look What the Cat Dragged In,” by Poison.

“I work in IT (information technology) all week, so it’s a lot of numbers and stuff like that,” McGhee said. “It’s kind of nice to get the other side of the brain going.”

Bonstetter was also passed through by judges in hopes to win more than $2,000 in prizes at Billy Joe’s at the end of the summer. This is Billy Joe’s inaugural year for Karaoke Idol, and participation levels prove karaoke is here to stay in Des Moines.

A similar contest has established success in Altoona already, as Prairie Meadows Race Track and Casino enters into another year of the Big Country Showdown Karaoke Contest.

Prairie Meadows is offering more than $6,500 in total prizes to contestants. The second day of semifinals is coming up on Tuesday, June 12 at the Finish Line Lounge inside the casino, followed by the finals on June 19, where Des Moines’ biggest country voice will earn someone a $2,500 grand prize.

A not so ‘empty orchestra’

As it’s grown in popularity around the world, karaoke continues to appeal to participants of all ages, genders and backgrounds. Local karaoke DJs agree that an average of 30 different people get behind the mic each night, and when considering the number of bars that host karaoke every evening, that amounts to hundreds of people nightly in the metro, somewhat to the dismay of local musicians.

“If you mention karaoke to a musician, it makes him want to throw up,” admitted Wilder Side Band drummer Kurt Bowermaster. “Karaoke put a lot of bands out of work, because it’s cheaper for the bar owners. So, there are a lot of hard feelings.”

But rather than take it personally, acts like the Wilder Side Band and Party! Party! embraced it — even capitalized on it. About a year ago, members from each band came across live karaoke bands in other cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee. And, coincidentally, they returned to Des Moines with the same idea.

“The guys from Wilder Side came to our first gig at People’s and got up and sang with us,” said Party! Party! member Nick Borror. “Then they introduced themselves and told us they had the same idea,” but while Wilder Side Band moved to karaoke in order to keep playing shows. Borror said they did it as a way to “involve an audience more than just being a cover band.”

“Karaoke was a bull’s eye,” he said. “Live band karaoke is a bull’s eye more so than regular karaoke. Some people do it just to get drunk and have fun, but some people are serious about it. Those are the people who have dreams — aspiration of being an ‘American Idol’ or a front man in a band. And it’s a bull’s eye for us, as a live band, because we actually provide that experience for them.”

Karaoke entrepreneurs such as Sarah Nemitz, who owns The Voice Box, have taken that dream and that experience even further — beyond the temporary high of singing in front of friends with a band for one night. The Voice Box offers the opportunity to record karaoke stylings professionally.

“The Voice Box is a full-scale entertainment company, including a recording studio, karaoke, DJ and a live band (Time Well Wasted),” said Nemitz, who is the vocalist for the band. “We record anyone and everyone. They can use a karaoke track, or we’ve had people bring their guitars and record that and do the overlay of the vocals (for the serious musician). We’ve had a lot of people come in and make a five- or six-song demo CD or a one-time Valentine’s Day recording, for example.”

Despite the fact that she also fronts a band and has family roots in music that stretch all the way to Nashville, Tenn., Nemitz holds no anomisity for the karaoke varieties out there.

“I really love karaoke,” she said. “I’ve been doing it forever. It gives people the opportunity to feel like they’re following their dreams. If you’re a great singer, you’re a great singer, and you don’t have to be in a band. Sometimes singing is the talent, and this gives those people an outlet.”

In Japanese, the word karaoke is literally translated “empty orchestra.” But, here, perhaps it should be defined as “The American Dream.” With diversities such as live karaoke bands and recordings popping up right here in Des Moines, could it be possible that the dream has an avenue to become reality?

It’s a dream. It’s a game of pretend. It’s a nostalgic musical appreciation. Often, karaoke is an attitude. Other times, it’s an abomination. Adored by some, abhorred by others, both acknowledge it takes a lot of confidence (or a lot of alcohol) for the average person to do what others need no magic of intoxication to enjoy.

Divas or clowns, confidence is something most karaoke singers have in spades. And with the recent addition of live band karaoke alternatives and recording opportunities, who knows? Maybe someday a typical night of belting out “Bootylicious” at Heroes might lead to a big break for the Crazy, Sexy, Cool trio.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be Vanna White when I grew up, then Whitney Houston, and then just a rock star,” Aldrich laughed. “I pointlessly memorize a ridiculous amount of songs. My brain is full of useless knowledge, and most of them are song lyrics. So this is a chance for me to use it.” CV



A glossary of karaoke terminology

Accompanist: One who always has to play an instrument (i.e. harmonica), bang on the table or clap along during someone’s song.

Arhythmia Idiotica: The one guy who always claps out of rhythm.

Auditory Delusion: When someone actually thinks that cupping his hand over one ear makes him sound better.

Bathroom Break (a.k.a. Smoke Break): A song that makes a customer(s) head to the bathroom or outside — anywhere that is far from the stage — regardless of how well it’s performed.

Bohemia Nervosa: The irresistible urge to head bang like Wayne and Garth in the instrumental break of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Boogie Compulsion: A disorder that compels otherwise conservative people to stampede blindly to the dance floor when someone sings “Play That Funky Music.”

Cave Dweller: Someone who wraps her hand around the mic, thinking it looks cool, completely unaware that it makes her voice sound like she’s singing “Aqualung.”

Clappus Alonus: Only one person claps.

Clappus Falsalarmus: Accidentally clapping for the dance music. This is usually paired with Clappus Alonus and quickly followed by Clappus Interuptus.

Clappus Interuptus: Clapping, then suddenly stopping when you realize the song isn’t over.

Courtesy Clap: Applause that only happens because the audience is glad the song is over.

The Clap: A good reason to wear condoms after a night of drunken karaoke leads to sex with a stranger.

Dorkapella: Someone who continues to sing even after the song is over and refuses to stop until the next singer takes the mic away.

Double Take: A singer who always misses the first part of the song and the host has to start it over.

Draft Card: A request slip filled out for someone without his or her permission.

Fire Drill: Any song that causes a large group of people to head for the nearest exit and line up outside.

Germicrophobia: The fear of catching something from the last singer by using the same microphone, resulting in the singer trying any of a dozen discrete ways to wipe off the mic.

Ghost Singer: A person who puts in a song, promptly disappears until after his name is called, then mysteriously reappears.

Hit and Run: Someone who hangs around just long enough to sing, then vaporizes without a word.

Homicide: When a singer performs a song she’s never attempted before knowing it will be bad.

Karachokie: Attempting a song and blowing it badly.

Karadultery: Singing a duet with one person and leaving the bar with another.

Karaglyphics: Illegible scribblings on a song slip.

Karamnesia: A singer turns in a song choice, then five minutes later, returns to ask which song they picked.

Karamputee: Someone who’s been cut out of the rotation for one reason or another.

Karamuck: The unidentifiable substance between the pages in a songbook that causes them to stick together.

Karandrogynous: Singing the male and female parts to a song.

Karanoid: A condition which makes a singer go up every three minutes to ask when he’s up.

Karaoke: What pall bearers do at a funeral in Oklahoma.

Karaoke Terrorist: Drafting another person to sing without his or her knowledge.

Karaokephobia: When someone is so scared to sing, she pushes the book as if it were an odious thing that will metaphysically transport them onto stage if she opens it.

Karaophie: That annoying kid who bellows into the mic while adoring parents look on, and the rest of the place holds its ears.

Martinesque: Singing while drinking.

Milli Vanilli: A singer that goes up with another person, but won’t take the microphone and just stands there lip-syncing.

Overmodulator: A singer who screams into the mic for every song, so even a Mariah Carey song sounds like Megadeth.

Premature Evacuation: When the singer quits and goes and sits down during the song.

Special Request: The most common excuse a host uses to inject himself into a 50-person rotation to sing for an unidentified person.

Suicide: When a singer performs a song he has never sang before.

Tap Dancer: Someone who didn’t make it to the bathroom before her song came up.

Titleist: Someone who claims to be the king or queen of karaoke but ends up sounding like Roseanne Barr.

Typhoid Kary: Someone who sings with a communicable disease. CV

See more at www.austinsings/karonics.html

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