The Blogtown Karaoke-a-Thon rolls on, visiting seven different Portland karaoke hotspots and reviewing the best and worst places in town to sing your heart out. We also decided to ask the experts — the KJs who emcee the magic night after night — about what makes a karaoke performance a hit or a flop, how the hell they decide what song to put up next, and why it isn't yours. Next up is Dawn Panttaja, the co-founder of Karaoke From Hell, where you perform with a live band.

Dawn Panttaja
  • Dawn Panttaja
MERCURY: What do you think makes Karaoke from Hell it a good destination for karaoke fans (or non-fans)?

DAWN PANTTAJA: The fact that it's not a machine. It's like going to see your favorite local band, but you get to sing in it. Or if you're one of those people who doesn't do karaoke, you get to watch your best friend or your mother sing in a band... But most of all, it's not just karaoke, it's a four hour event (or a four hour train wreck). Each night can have a totally different vibe, for better or for worse. The personalities of the musicians and their own style make up a big part of the show. And it's more than just people singing, it's a night of entertainment.

The variety of singers, good or bad, really affects each night, but everyone doesn't have to be good. That could actually get rather boring. They just need to have fun. It's the whole package and all the variables that makes it a good destination for anyone who wants to take a chance on witnessing heaven or hell. There's hundreds of places to sing karaoke but only one Karaoke From Hell band.

How did Karaoke From Hell get started?
I had a solo act where I'd cover my favorite songs in ways that were very different from the original style, stuff like "Holiday in Cambodia" by the Dead Kennedys and "Fade Away and Radiate" by Blondie. Then I got the big idea to turn the Beatles "White Album" into a karaoke musical about Charles Manson with just myself playing the music and all my friends singing. It was totally fun. I realized I could take it one step further and form a band that never had played together before, with songs we didn't know, and let total strangers be our lead singers. The first show was at Satyricon in 1992. Tres Shannon and I put it together and the two of us have been doing it ever since. He mixed martinis on stage all night long and sang all the guitar solos. I played rhythm guitar and projected the song charts on an overhead projector and a movie screen. The rest of the band had no idea what songs were on the list until they showed up for the gig. It was from hell. It was wonderful... more of an art project than a Karaoke band.

In 2000 we landed a weekly gig at Dante's, found a relatively steady band, expanded the song list, fixed up a few of the crappy charts and actually tried to play some of the songs right. Three years ago The Tiger Bar hired us for a weekly gig which is going strong as well. We finally became a real band helping ten working musicians make a living, but we still never have band practice, thus bridging the gap between karaoke and hell.

What's your philosophy on song rotation? How do you determine the order of the songs that get played?
I'm always hoping everyone gets up, but that's not always the case. A lot depends on how early you get there. Sometimes it's crowded from the very beginning. Our hostess has to balance the birthday parties, the "regulars", the newcomers and the big tippers. It isn't easy and it's not always going to work out. If you've waited more than two hours, I'd recommend talking to the hostess and find out how your chances are looking. She helps keep track of the slips and can really help you out. A good attitude and a few bucks go a long way on a busy night. If songs are not chosen in the order they are submitted, it's usually to make it a good musical "flow" for the band and the overall performance.

What do you think makes for a good performance at Karaoke From Hell?
You can always look over the lyric sheet before you go up, just ask the hostess. It helps if it's a song you sing along to in the car. Don't worry too much and have a good time. I've never known anyone to get boos or heckled from the crowd. Don't worry, but pay attention to the band for cues. We'll work with you and help you through the song if you need it. The band messes up plenty on any given night, so we don't expect every singer to be a superstar. It's the wide range of performances from the singers that keeps it interesting for the band.

What hurts a performance at Karaoke From Hell? What should people avoid doing?
Don't assume you know the song and forget to look at the lyric sheet. It's usually got all the breaks and solos noted, though some of the charts suck, another reason to look over the lyrics before you go up.
Also, I would avoid being really drunk.

What do you wish more people knew before they got up to sing?
That they can ask us questions. I'm happy to talk to people before the show or at break. You can find out what key we play a song in, or if we do the "live" version or just the studio. I'll tell you what charts suck! Contact us on the website and we'll answer questions.