"I boast the best karaoke experience in Southeast. Maybe even in Portland."—Sean Bailey, KJ at the Hutch on Holgate, in an unsolicited email sent to the Mercury.
Could it be true? Was this boastful "Sean Bailey" person capable, as he so arrogantly claimed, of delivering the very best karaoke experience in all of Portland? Or were there humbler, more talented KJs slaving away on smoke-filled stages throughout our fair city? Obviously, a thorough scientific investigation was in order—one involving hypotheses, observations, and official-looking surveys. And singing. And margaritas. Yes, it would be a grueling, booze-soaked process... but I was determined to discover the best KJ in all of Portland.
DIRTY MINDS AND CLEAN-CUT KJS
Five minutes into handing out surveys at the Hutch on Holgate, I realized two things: One, people think I'm trying to sell them Jesus. Two, people can be total penises when it comes to filling out surveys.
For the KJ survey, I used the standard one to five scale (one being "sucks," five being "fantastic"), which rated the KJs in six important categories: Super Performance Ability, Favoritism, Momentum, Multitasking, Crowd Participation, and Good Hair (AKA, the same way they choose UN delegates).
At first glance, Sean Bailey seemed to be a sweet and earnest young man—but upon further investigation, I sensed a dark sexuality lurking beneath that clean-cut exterior. One survey comment, for example, proclaimed, "I'm doing him, damn it!" while a couple sitting near our table told me, "Everyone wants to suck Sean's dick." (Good information to know when planning a night out.)
So what does a rampant sex god like Sean consider to be the secret to good KJing?
"I hit 'em at every angle," he bragged. "I'm buying people beers, shaking hands, making sure everyone's having a good time—but I'm also behind the scenes, making sure everything goes smoothly. And of course, I love to sing." (He certainly does! I think he sang around 400 songs in the two hours I was there.)
He went on to tell me about how the mood of the Hutch had improved since its former incarnation as Grandma's. "I think we've got something really special happening here."
The crowd seemed to agree. Nearly everyone I spoke with had something positive to say about the Hutch, and especially about Sean's singing voice. (Which you'll get to hear about 400 times in the space of two hours. Did I mention that?)
However, one group of very unhappy drunken people sitting near the front didn't share this opinion. "I wish they didn't have karaoke here," groused Rusty from SE Portland, draining the last of his Bud Light. "It's too loud."
I asked them why they come to a karaoke bar when they don't like karaoke. "It's the closest bar to our house," he said.
I left without waiting to see if they would suck Sean's dick.
The Hutch on Holgate, 4515 SE 41st, 774-1822, karaoke Thurs-Sat
MATHLETES AT YEN HA
Next stop: Yen Ha. It was midnight when I arrived, and I handed a survey to a man who didn't respond for five full minutes. He just stared intently at the paper in his hands. I let him keep it... and slowly backed away.
Like Rusty and his pals from the Hutch, Yen Ha also included a group of drunken doucheholes who were bizarrely annoyed by karaoke going on inside a karaoke bar. They were even less thrilled with my surveys.
"These can be anonymous!" I said, weakly waving a paper in front of them. "All you have to do is circle the number."
"That's too bad," the baldest douchehole told me. "If you had said 'square the numbers,' I would've done it. But circle? No."
Ah. A math joke. Good one.
I took their surveys and handed another to a girl near the back. She had the sort of mad glint in her eyes that only seven raspberry vodka sodas can provide. Her name was Stacy. She was tan.
Warren, Yen Ha's KJ, had a philosophy similar to Sean's. He focused on "creating a whole experience" and putting the customers first, even going so far as to adjust the sound specifically for each customer (most good KJs do this, but it's harder than you'd think). In the middle of our conversation, a dude nearing his ninth or 10th beer shuffled up to complain loudly about the wait. Warren handled him with a firm efficiency, like a good nanny or dog trainer—I half expected him to pull treats out of his pocket. Mollifying the guy by putting his song in right away, Warren and Drunky soon bro-hugged, their tension a thing of the past.
I asked Warren if he sang much during the night.
"If there are less than eight slips in the space of an hour, then I'll probably sing in order to change the rotation or help motivate the crowd," he said. "But once it gets busy, it's their night."
Very different from Sean's all-night performances, I thought. But was Warren a better KJ because of it? My gut—and the seated, lethargic crowd in front of me—told me no.
Thanking Warren, I collected the surveys and left. Tan Stacy had written on hers, "Kiala is beautiful." She also wrote, "These questions are stupid."
Yen Ha, 6820 NE Sandy, 288-3773, karaoke Fri-Sat
DOWN WITH COMMIE KARAOKE
The next night I visited the Ambassador. It took me 45 minutes to even find the effing KJ. KJ Heather sits in a little box behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz, and once I did find her, she told me she liked her island of anonymity and wasn't into mingling with the crowd. I thought this seemed pretty antiseptic, a lot like the Ambassador itself—all well lit and plasticized. While Heather seemed to be very nice and adept at knob twiddling and button pushing, I couldn't help but feel like I was at the Olive Garden of karaoke joints. Then she told me, "We cannot accept bribes here."
Whahuh? Call me amoral (you wouldn't be the first), but I thought the capitalistic excitement of over tipping a KJ in order to get your song in faster was the American way! I scribbled "The Ambassador = Un-American" in my notebook, grabbed the surveys, and took off in search of a less North Korean atmosphere.
Ambassador Restaurant & Lounge, 4744 NE Sandy, 280-0330, karaoke every night
GREASING PALMS AT CHOPSTICKS
Next was Chopsticks II. This time, I was accompanied by two lady friends who handed out the surveys for maximum douchehole avoidance. Danny, the regular Saturday night KJ at Chopsticks, was in the booth, busier than all fuck with eight million slips in front of him. What did he think made for a great KJ?
"Your five senses must be keenly tuned," he said sagely. "And you must constantly adjust to shifting circumstances."
Uh huh, uh huh—and bribes?
"Oh, yes, of course," he nodded.
Thank God, I thought. America.
In fact, while I was standing there, a guy wearing what I think was a onesie asked if there were a way he could get up any faster.
"How much faster?" asked Danny.
"Five dollars faster."
Slips were rearranged, and 20 minutes later, Onesie was happily singing Smashmouth.
[NOTE TO CRYBABIES: This system of over tipping is how most karaoke bars operate. The crowd certainly seemed to understand the system and the people I talked to didn't appear to care so long as they were singing in a reasonable amount of time. For me, it's just the nature of the service industry: Don't tell me you've never over tipped a bartender in order to get a free beer or two. Accept it. Move on.]
Chopsticks Express II, 2651 E Burnside, 234-6171, karaoke every night
LAME COWBELL JOKES AT THE BOILER ROOM
On the last night of my investigation, I went to the Boiler Room. Rob—AKA "Dr. Love," a moniker given to him by his karaoke patrons—was running the show, and he had a box of percussion instruments underneath his chair, including a cowbell, shaker, and tambourine. I noticed he was only drinking water.
"No booze allowed," he told me.
I thought this might hamper his style, but after watching him sing the shit out of a Who song while banging the tambourine on his hip AND performing a couple of David Lee Roth-worthy high kicks, I realized he had no need for alcohol. (Sadly, the same will never be true for me. Sober karaoke is scary-okey.)
We also discussed the most popular karaoke songs ("This is the year of [Neil Diamond's] 'America,'" according to Dr. Love) and letting audience members use his instruments.
"It quickly became necessary to limit audience cowbell use," Rob said, pointing out the obvious.
The people at the Boiler Room brought the surveys back to me; at least seven of them had "more cowbell!" written in the margins.
Boiler Room, 228 NW Davis, 227-5441, karaoke every night
LOSE YOURSELF IN THE MUSIC
After three consecutive nights of endless margaritas and arduous karaoke research, I collapsed in a heap on my bed.
The next day I held my breath as I tallied up the scores. Out of a possible 30 points, the Ambassador received a 20.6 (ouch!), Yen Ha a more respectable 23, Chopsticks walked away with an even more respectable 24, the Boiler Room scored a 24.8, and the Hutch on Holgate received a stunning 28.6.
My God: Sean Bailey had been right all along. His fans and my official-looking surveys had vindicated this proud peacock of a man who had boldly declared himself capable of delivering the best karaoke experience in Portland! My scientific journey was at an end: Sean Bailey had been crowned the King of the KJs, and a tanned sorority girl named Stacy had called me beautiful. I think we all won a victory that day.