It’s a warm early summer evening, and the doors to The Playground Bar are open, letting in a cooling breeze and the sounds of the city. J.C. Scott steps toward the stage and, pausing for a brief moment to confer with the man behind the soundboard, takes up the microphone and begins to sing.
The song is the Billy Joel classic Piano Man, and while Scott’s rendition isn’t an exact duplicate of the original, he sings the standard with enthusiasm. As he sings, passers-by poke their heads in the open door, a few crossing the threshold for a drink and the opportunity to make a little music of their own.
Karaoke traces its roots to music machines marketed in Japan in the 1970s. The fad crossed the Pacific in the 1980s and took hold as a popular bar entertainment in the 1990s. Today, the advent of digital music means that complicated screens and machines are no longer required. Most karaoke rigs consist of a computer, a card table and a just enough amplification to allow the singer to be heard.
“When I first started, there were only a few places that did this,” said David Doane, the KJ, or karaoke host, at Laura’s Backyard Tavern in Evans. “It took a lot to do. Now they are everywhere and the requirements are different. It’s less about equipment and more about personality and knowledge. Everything is streamlined. Everything is accessible. I’ve found that I don’t even need to use a book anymore.”
In the Augusta area, karaoke fans can be found kicking out the jams every night. Whether bringing Madonna to a Mexican restaurant or Blue Cheer to a bar, karaoke succeeds, in part, because of its mix-tape mentality. Country crooning can segue seamlessly into a ’80s anthem and hard rock serves as an appropriate appetizer for a little AM gold.
“Bohemian Rhapsody, Rebel Yell – there are things you know you are going to hear every night,” said Big Troy Bradley, who has been the host of karaoke at Playground for nine years. “But I have 64,000 songs on here. That’s not everything. There are things that come up that I can’t provide. But most of the time, I can find it. There is an instant-request aspect to what I do.”
Dawn and Wade Tate attend two or three karaoke nights a week. Dawn is a trained professional and Wade an enthusiastic amateur. They said that while singing karaoke serves as training for Dawn and catharsis for Wade, the true appeal isn’t the audience or performance or even creating something akin to art. There’s pleasure, they said, in the simple act of singing a song for its own sake and even greater pleasure in singing in the company of friends.
“We’ve gotten to know so many people,” Wade said. “People we have become good friends with. People that are a part of our lives. That’s been a real gift.”
It’s a relationship that extends beyond the singers. People making their way to Malibu Jack’s for the Tuesday night karaoke stop by Denny Van Valkenburgh’s KJ station before cracking a menu or heading to the bar. They see him not as an anonymous server of songs, but a friend and collaborator and co-conspirator.
“I know all these people, but I know them as singers,” he said. “That’s what we all share.”
Dawn Tate said one of the interesting by-products of karaoke is that it changes the way participants listen to music. Every song becomes a potential performance.
“You do start to listen differently and there are times when you hear a song that you know it’s going to be big come karaoke night,” she said. “I remember when My Heart Will Go On was released, every soprano in the world would sing it – including me. That happens all the time.”
The appeal of karaoke, said Jasmine Litsey, a Playground regular, is that it’s perfectly populist. There’s no dismissing singers over choice of material, stage presence or even the ability to carry a tune.
“We’re all just car singers,” she said with a laugh. “This is really an extension of that. It’s the same sort of thing, only here, we have our own little audience.”
“Karaoke is art for the Everyman,” Bradley said. “All you need is a willingness to step on stage and sing.”
WHERE TO GO KARAOKE
ARMANDO’S: 5114 Wrightsboro Road; (706) 868-9088; Friday and Saturday
CLUB ARGOS: 1923 Walton Way, (706) 481-8829; Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday
GREEN STREETS: 402 11th St.; (706) 432-8870; Wednesday through Saturday
IRON HORSE: 2510 Storm Branch Road, Beech Island, (803) 867-2388, ironhorsebarandgrill.net; Friday
LAURA’S BACKYARD TAVERN: 218 S. Belair Road, Martinez, (706) 869-8695; Tuesday and Wednesday
MALIBU JACK’S: 231 Furys Ferry Station, (706) 364-9175, malibujacks.com; Sunday and Tuesday
MARGARITAZ: 461 Park West Dr., Grovetown; (706) 650-8100; Tuesday through Saturday
MI RANCHO: 2 Eighth St.; (706) 724-3366; nightly
MONTERREY: 4352 Washington Road, Evans; (706) 228-3645; Saturday
THE PLAYGROUND BAR: 978 Broad St., (706) 724-2232
SHANNON’S: 300 Shartom Drive, (706) 814-7760; Sunday
WILD WING CAFE: 3035 Washington Road, (706) 364-9453, wildwingcafe.com; Monday
WOODEN BARREL: 3317 Peach Orchard Road; (706) 798-4500; Thursday through Saturday